The Unnecessary Tool

My wife bought a Steel Grip 36in Lightweight Aluminum Pick Up Tool.

I saw it on our combination dining room/craft/office table and asked her what it was for.

“My eye pillow fell behind the bed and I can’t reach it.” she told me. (This led to some confusion for me at first because I thought she was referring to an iPillow, presumably an Apple product I had never heard of.)

“I can easily get that for you.” I eventually replied while reaching behind the bed and retrieving her iPillow.

That seemed to end the conversation. But I was still surprised that she bought an entire new gadget to accomplish something that is pretty easy to solve with ordinary human effort– such as asking her husband. I couldn’t resist teasing her about it as I discovered that the squeaky gripper was also a good tool for annoying my dogs. Lenore is usually the epitome of sensible practicality. She’s usually the one restraining me from buying unnecessary things. So, it felt good to see her have a little lapse, for once.

In testing, I see a lot of that: introducing tools that aren’t needed and mostly just clutter up the place. All over the industry, technocrats seem to turn to tools at the slightest excuse. Tools will save us! More tools. Never mind the maintenance costs. Never mind what we lose by distancing ourselves from our problems. Automation!

(Please don’t bother commenting about your useful tool kit. I’m not talking about useful tools, here. I’m talking about a tool that was purchased specifically to solve a problem that was already easily solved without it. I am talking about an unnecessary tool.)

So then what happens…?

A few weeks later, I am getting bored with my walks. Well, let me back up: I am at the age where physical fitness is no longer about looking sharp, or even feeling good. It’s becoming a matter of do I want to keep living or what? The answer is yes I want to live, Clarence. That means I must exercise. This year I have been walking intensively.

But it’s boring. I can’t get anything done when I’m walking. I don’t like listening to music, and anyway I feel uncomfortable being cut off from the sounds of my surroundings. Therefore, I trudge along: bored.

One day I realized I can have more fun walking if I picked up garbage along my way. That way I would be making the world better as I walked. At first I carried a little trash sack at my waist, but my ambitions soon grew, and within days I decided it was time to walk the main road into town with a 50-gallon industrial trash bag and a high viz vest.

As I was leaving on my first mission, Lenore handed me the gripper.

It was the perfect tool.

It was exactly what I needed.

It would save my back and knees.

My gripper gets a lot of use, now. I’m wondering if I need to upgrade to a titanium and carbon fiber version. I’m thinking of crafting a holster for it.

Is There a Moral Here? Yes.

One of the paradoxes of Context-Driven testing is that on the one hand, you must use the right solution for the situation; while, on the other hand, you can only know what the right solution can be if you have already learned about it, and therefore used it, BEFORE you needed it. In other words, to be good problem solvers, we also need to dabble with and be curious about potential solutions even in the absence of a problem.

The gripper spent a few weeks lying around our home until suddenly it became my indispensable friend.

I guess what that means is that it’s good to have some tolerance and playfulness about experimenting with tools. Even useless ones.


7 thoughts on “The Unnecessary Tool

  1. “In other words, to be good problem solvers, we also need to dabble with and be curious about potential solutions even in the absence of a problem.”

    Great point!

    That said, I wouldn’t want you to leave the impression that folks should purchase all sorts of tools without any thought about their usefulness. Trying and purchasing are two different things.

    And in your specific case, I’m betting that had you gone on a few missions and bent down for trash enough, you would have become motivated to find a tool. I’m also betting that you would have landed on either the more traditional “nail on a wooden rod” solution, or the higher-tech “gripper” eventually.

    [James’ Reply: You caused me to realize a funny thing about this. When Lenore bought the tool, I was the only one who used it, albeit as a sort of “fidget spinner” time wasting dog annoyance device. Lenore never touched it, and the way it squeaked annoyed her. But when it came time to walk out the door, it did not occur to ME to bring the gripper– that was all Lenore’s idea. This again suggests that diversity in a team enhances innovation.]

  2. Nicely said sir. When I was younger I used that same tool to grab my sisters M&M’s from her while keeping myself safely out of her retaliatory reach.
    I worked with my dad doing construction at the age of 13, during that time I that the perfect tool was the “Sawzall reciprocating saw” I mean the name clearly states what it is, and that is clearly capable at sawing all things on the planet, so I carried that tool around everywhere, yet there was the moment when I was asked to tighten the loose screw sticking out of the duct work, I was tempted to use my wonder tool to simply cut the head of the loose screw, but I knew that wasn’t the right way to do the job. sure it would solve the problem of the screw sticking out, but it would not fix the underlying problem. So, I had to lovingly place down the sawzall and grab a screw driver. The lesson I learned that day was twofold, first the sawzall is an amazing tool at cutting yet it stunk on ice at anything else. Second I needed to be flexible to see what the right tool for the job is, and sometimes the one that is powered isn’t it.

  3. Just 2 days ago I was in a store with my 5-yr old son, who’s very curious by nature. He was enamored with this same tool you’re speaking of, the $4 version made of plastic. Initially I was resistant to adding yet another toy to his already messy playroom, but I gave in. It quickly became his favorite toy and he walked around with it for the entire day, picking up everything he could, ‘learning’ how the tool worked. I came home from work the next day to find his ‘messy’ playroom completely cleaned up. My wife said he used that tool to accomplish this! The moral here is the tool may not need be expensive to be useful for some task.

    [James’ Reply: So, it seems the tool was a medium that created engagement. Interesting!]

    • I think that the “technocrats” as you call them (I’d go for “semi-skilled machine operators”, but that’s another discussion) just find it fun to introduce anarchy into an established system sometimes and push for use of automation without fully understanding the implication of their request. This stems from a deeper underlying problem: lack of competence. People with insufficient competence in a certain field, will have deficient metacognitive skills in that field (see Prediction 2) so they will be less likely to recognize competence when they see it. What this most likely leads to is the inability to correctly estimate the impact that a tool will make on the efficiency of actions performed by skilled workers in that field.

      In your case, your competencies in picking up garbage from the side of the road were missing or incomplete, therefor rendering you incompetent in assessing the utility of the tool your wife purchased. With experience in the field of garbage picking, came the realization that the tool can be useful and effective.

      [James’ Reply: At the time she bought the tool, neither of us picked up trash. So, it’s not like I looked at the tool and had any reason to say “well you can pick up trash with this, if you were going to walk down the road collecting trash for some reason.”

      Of course I can think of lots of potential uses for the grabber tool, but not any that were relevant to my life at the time.

      Otherwise I think you’ve made a good point.]

  4. Hi James,

    I’m a Manual Tester, can you guide me how to transform myself to a Automation Tester. I really donno where to begin. I have learn the basics of Programming during my college years (ten years back). Now I don’t have any clue. I need to start somewhere. Kindly do help me.


    [James’ Reply: I suggest you read my article about automation in testing.]

  5. I like the way you used the grabber/gripper/reacher/plucker tool. Very creative and so so eco-conscious of you! But here’s the thing, Dude (note the capitalization as a sign of respect), I’m five foot one. My mom (97!) is 4 foot 10. We can’t reach anything and we don’t have a husband who will gladly leap in to reach those shelves and bring down the objet d’amour. Should we hire a husband? I mean one for each of us? The old ones didn’t work out, and weren’t so willing to reach up and get stuff. Actually, not willing to reach anywhere and do anything – so hats off to you! The grabber/gripper/reacher/plucker thingy does serve a purpose. If I remembered to bring it, I’d bring it to the supermarket so I didn’t have to go find an employee to reach up to the top shelf and get down the electric lemon fondler.

    [James’ Reply: Well, I guess her reasoning in this case was that I am often not at home. But now that I have used it to pick up trash it is tainted and she won’t use it for anything.]

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