Justin Duke

Small tools

Technological gravitas is at an all time high. So many new startups and apps try to be revolutionary, promising dramatic lifestyle changes or mindblowing productivity gains. This is mostly marketing — but products exist as a reflection of their marketing.

This kind of positioning is offputting. I’m not in a place where I particularly want my workflow or day-to-day interactions to be upheaved. I’ve settled into a comfortable and productive relationship with the technology I use, albeit one with a couple unsmooth edges.

The problems I face tend to be less existential (how do I create software at an entirely different order of magnitude?) and more minutial (how do I save a couple seconds remembering which of the eight open iTerm tabs I need to go to?)

As such, I’ve found myself more recently drawn to solutions to the latter class of problem — small tools that capably handle small tasks, software equivalents of hex keys.

Here are some of the small tools that I enjoy using:

  • Captio, which is an app that makes it incredibly easy to email yourself notes and snippets
  • Briefmetrics, which emails me Google Analytics reports every week
  • iA Writer, a pleasant and minimal Markdown editor

Smal tools like these are not particularly ambitious or flashy. However, they’re well designed and fulfill the promises they make to users (both of which tend to get easier as feature scope decreases). They also have simple and respectable business models: they provide value to a user at a cost.

I’ve also been making small tools for myself, to make working and living more frictionless, like:

  • A menu bar app that lets me grab my most recent screenshot.
  • A daemon that watches my git repositories and pesters me when I’ve gone too long without a commit (both via time and via lines of code)
  • an iPhone app that sends me push notifications reminding me to catch up with friends and family

These are not revolutionary things. These are not interesting ideas. Most of them are hardly releasable. In GitHub parlance, they are gists, not repositories — snippets of lifestyle improvements.

However, they still give me joy. They were simple to write and pay high dividends. This feels like a more classical version of software, where polish and commerce is secondary to personal fulfillment. It reminds me that the ability to conjure duct tape from thin air is powerful and, sometimes, nigh-magical.

As I mature as a developer and as a person, I understand more and more that ambition and usefulness are orthogonal. There is a humility and pragmatism in creating things that are small fixes to small problems. As the scope of my work at Amazon (and elsewhere) increases, I am finding an increasing amount of comfort in finding ways to save myself from paper cuts. It brings a feeling of individuality and clarity that I am finding to be increasingly elusive.

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© 2017 Justin Duke • All rights reserved • I hope you have a nice day.