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...: Marsh Chatter

Pondering Tools ..: Craftsmen Do!

As I approach my 22nd year in the technology arena, I'm pondering the tools we use in business. My first "job" setting up/using computer technology was early 1987. I am not counting the 2 semesters of college programming in 1981, nor 10 years of Selectric Typewriter or dedicated word processor devices, although, they were "techie" for their time (hush now, all you main-framers).

Anyway - back on topic!

Since I've been involved in technology, it is common and expected that your employer provides your computer hardware and software. In the office environment, computers are considered a tool (albeit more expensive) - just like a stapler or 10-key adding machine. Having it, is essential to doing business.

Contrast that with the life of a consultant, who is essentially "the business owner". During the years I was actively consulting, I provided my own tools. Software or hardware, I made the purchasing decisions, the replacement rules, etc. Many of you out there fit this role - past or present.

Owning the average computer (hardware & software) used in business has been out of range for the normal employee. In fact, even now, if there is specialized software, the price is still out of range for many employees. But...

In today's common business environment, especially in the developing environment - the cost of a quality system is not that high. Many developers I know actually have multiple computers of their own, on top of the system(s) their employer provides.

Now the Pondering Part...

The types of hardware the average company provides is usually middle of the road, occasionally upper-middle of the road, with very few providing high end or bleeding edge systems. Some companies have very long turn-over periods - commonly 3 years, but some have gone to 4 or 5 years (especially for those economically challenged companies).

For a developer - 3, 4, or 5 years is way "past due".

Let's think about that statement: Over the last 3 years...

  • Wide-screen monitors have dropped significantly in price. So much in fact, that I replaced a 19" CRT with a 24" LCD widescreen - for $100 less than my first 14" VGA monitor. The cost of the change was paid off in the first week of ownership by the productivity gains alone.
  • Quad processor systems, are actually "reasonably priced". Many are less than $1000. Three years ago, these same systems were non-existent or north of $4000-5000 (my educated guess). Completely out of range of your average developer.
  • Wireless keyboards, mice, speakers are also prevalent.
  • Hard drive space has dramatically increased - it is not uncommon to find a Terabyte - THAT's Right! a Terabyte in the mid-$100's. Three years ago? Maybe a hundred gigabytes for that much.
  • For me, in 3-4 years, I have gone from Visual Studio 2003, to Visual Studio 2005, to Visual Studio 2008, and over the next year a move to Visual Studio 2010 is likely. My productivity has increased dramatically with each shift.

The point is... the demands on developers are always increasing - yet companies insist on sticking to 3 or more year turn-over cycles for the tools we use. I would like to ask the developer community... should we really be "held back" by these business rules?

A long time ago, I worked on cars, trucks, and boat engines (e.g. gas and diesels). I owned my own tools, some I still have. The mechanics (aka Automotive Technicians) at most car dealers and many auto-care providers MUST own/provide their own tools. Now the computerized testing devices and of course the basic lifts and structural equipment is owned by the facility. But, those big red, gray, or black tool chests on wheels are not provided by the repair facility - they are owned by the mechanic. They are locked when the technician is not there and it is VERY BAD MANNERS to take a tool without asking the owner first. These tool sets are not cheap! Some can cost $10,000... many are more, especially for the electrically fluent technicians.

Where I work now, for various reasons (most pointed out above), a few people have brought their own equipment to use. For me, being "cube-based", I would be concerned with some equipment getting "legs"... but I have considered supplying my own equipment because of situations where you have so many sessions going that you are down to 100k or less of RAM, or the monitor dimensions on work system are eye-straining (and I am aware now with the larger monitor at home), or the inability to consider using local VM's because of lack of memory or horsepower, or the process to get something authorized to purchase is just too much of a headache (e.g. reminds me too much of my time in the Navy when I had to go to purchasing for petty cash to buy less than $10 worth of light bulbs at a civilian store, because the base supply was out. I spent 4.5 hours seeing 4-5 people and waiting. I nearly just paid for it myself because of the hassle!).

So I ask you...

As developers, authors, programmers... are we not craftsmen? (FYI no slight intended to the feminine members of our community - I just wanted to do a slight word play on a Devo tune)?

Should we provide our own tools, even as an employee?

A decent system - say portable with widescreen is in the range of $800-2000 depending on flavors. You could replace that every year or two and still remain fairly current. The basic cost of developing tools say an MSDN package from Microsoft is not out of reach and would provide access to much more than just the editing environment. Other vendors are available.

Your employer could provide a common source storage tool, along with common network space, and business e-mail service. But the basic hardware (e.g. computer, monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc) would be up to you to buy, maintain, and update as you see fit.

  • Is this blasphemy?
  • Would a company even consider this?
  • What are the tax implications?
  • Would we be considered "on-site consultants vs. employees".
  • Would a company provide an equipment allowance, like some in business receive a clothing allowance?
  • Who's insurance covers losses?
  • What happens when your system is out of commission - what do you or your employer do, then?

What say you?