Axes and Imagination

Axes and Imagination

aybe you’ve heard the tale of two woodsmen. They both have the same job and job ethic. They begin their shifts at 8am and cut wood until 5pm every day. The first woodsman takes a break every hour for 10 minutes and a lunch break at high noon. The second woodsman takes only a lunch break. So which woodsman cuts more wood? Well?. its obvious? the woodsman that stops to sharpen his axe will cut more wood.

I am writing this editorial from the San Diego Comic-Con (see Figure 1). I took a couple of days off to spend four days with 100,000 of my closest friends, geeking on subjects like movies, comic books, games, and toys. I definitely needed time to sharpen my axe.

Figure 1. Rod and Friends at San Diego Comic-Con.

I often forget how important it is to take time out to look around, see some new sights, sleep in, and in general, spend time not working. In past editorials I have discussed how conferences are great sources of inspiration for me. It’s good to see other perspectives on the art of developing software. Conferences make good axe sharpening stones.

So why should you sharpen that axe?

You need a sharp axe because the main ingredient of your profession is imagination.

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to attend the induction of new members into the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame. This year’s inductees included Ann McCaffrey, Frank Kelly Freas, Frank Herbert and George Lucas. Neil Gaiman (author of the Sandman comic book series, the book Anasi Boys, as well as the movie MirrorMask) presided as the keynote speaker. Mr. Gaiman said something that that strikes me as really profound. “Take a look around. If it doesn’t exist in nature, it was imagined by someone.” It took imagination to invent the wheel, axe, long bow, radio, television, computer, and laser. What Mr. Gaiman said stuck in my head. This is what we do. I was never quite able to put into words what exactly it is that makes software development so much fun. Neil said it best:

“We imagine. Software is the embodiment of your imagination. You start with a text editor, compiler, mouse, and keyboard, and fabricate solutions from thin air.”

Sometimes I find myself in need of an imagination refill. Have you ever had one of those days where you find yourself getting no productive work done? You switch from email, to blog surfing, and back to email. Then, at the end of the day, you are surprised when you didn’t get any real work done. Those are the days where your imagination is low and your axe is dull. I try to recognize those days early and cut out for some R&R. Sometimes a simple walk to the local coffee shop will do. Other times you will need a bigger refill. Catching a matinee, browsing the used CD racks at the record store (yes I still call it that) or just working in the yard. All of these are great ways to sharpen your axe.

So if you find yourself low on imagination, remember the woodsman and go sharpen your axe.

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