The Joy of Good Tools

Or: How deciding to pay for GitHub made me think about delight.

January 09, 2015Filed under blog#design#joy#software developmentMarkdown source

Note: This started out as a series of posts on, but as I realized that it was growing a bit, I decided to take my own advice and turn it into a short blog post. (The first four paragraphs of this post are the same as the posts that spawned it.) And then, as so often happens with my writing, it rather took on a life of its own. So much for short.

After wrestling with Bitbucket issues again all day, I think I’ve finally hit the breaking point. Time to go ahead and drop the money on GitHub and migrate my private repos there. (Yes, GitLab is neat, but tool integrations matter, too.)

I think I’m also probably going to spring for a small subscription to Pivotal Tracker. It’s cheaper to do GitHub+PivotalTracker at my scale than to host GitLab and run YouTrack on a VPS. And that’s not counting my time.

The big thing with Pivotal is that I need the ability to estimate more effectively even than something like Trello affords (and I don’t want to spend time wrangling with Chrome plugins), and it gives me that. Totally worth the cost in saved pain.

And as for GitHub as compared to the free GitLab… well, honestly, the F/OSS-copycat model bothers me on a lot of levels. The fact that their strategy is “copy GitHub as closely as possible, and charge for it” is not my idea of “winning slowly”.

(“Winning slowly” is more than just the name of my podcast. In fact, it’s the opposite: we named the podcast that because it’s one of the core commitments in our lives.)

So I’m going to pay for Pivotal and GitHub. My time is worth something, and the quality of the tools I use matters, too. Ongoing irritation and frustration adds up over time. Good tools can make us happier. Bad tools can make work more frustrating than it needs to be. Given just how frustrating work can be anyway, the last thing in the world I want to do is unnecessarily spend my time being even more frustrated by my tools. And you know what? $7/month for each of those tools is absolutely worth more than the frustration of wrestling with tools that do the job less well.

I’m actually really excited by this. Pivotal Tracker will help me avoid making the painful mistake of underestimation in the future, by helping me see how long things actually take and giving me a way to plan out major projects with that data immediately available. GitHub will be simultaenously more functional and much lovelier than Bitbucket—no strategy tax holding it back!—and will be much nicer to use.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: I’m happy to pay for good tools that make my work more enjoyable.

To my surprise and amusement, this leads me to a closely related point I had been writing up in a separate blog post: the value of tools that delight. It is not merely that bad tools make work unpleasant. Good tools can make work a joy. Indeed, because my vocations is such a significant part of my life, few things bring me as much simple pleasure as a tool that does its job well, is pleasant to use, and is beautiful, all at once.

The latest example of this for me is Bee, a tool designed to make working with issue trackers like JIRA, GitHub Issues, and FogBugz easier and more pleasant. I use JIRA for one of my long-term contracts—I actually set it up for the company—and I have a love-hate relationship with it. JIRA’s power is great, but the web interface is slow and cluttered.1

I have used other desktop tools with JIRA before, and they were even worse than the web interface. I stumbled across Bee the other day (I cannot even remember how!), decided to try it out, and fell in love. It is simple, fast, and elegant. That is a killer combination. I have been using it daily for over a week, and strange though it might be to say of a desktop client for issue trackers, I get genuine pleasure out of using it. (Yes, I know: that is a bit strange.)

I have the same experience with a number of other tools I use—Tower, Byword, and IntelliJ IDEA to name just a few. This very post is written in Byword, and I’m happy about it. I wish I felt that way about every tool I use.

And this goes beyond software. I have had the same experience driving a car. The Mazda3 I drove in and after college was a delight. The MUV2 we drive right now is sufficient. The Chevy Malibu we rented for driving to and from Texas in December was irritating, with an inordinate number of small failures to consider how the thing would actually be used. I would buy another Mazda3 in a heartbeat; I would contentedly take another Lexus RX300-alike; I would avoid a Chevy Malibu like the plague.

Every category of tool is like this.

The difference between a poor or mediocre tool and a good tool can make the difference between frustration and satisfaction. The difference between a good tool and a great tool can make the difference between satisfaction and delight. That inspires me: it makes me want to make things so that they do more than suffice—so that they excel, so that they delight and energize their audience. Whether that is someone using a web application I write or someone listening to a piece of music I composed, I want them to experience more than good-enough. I want them to feel joy.

There is something profound here, I think, something that goes even deeper than just the experience of being happy enough with a good tool to pay money to use it. I think human beings are meant for that profound joy—meant for it in every breath. That these kinds of delights are rare, and so often marred even at their best by little failures, is a mark of the imperfection—and, in human terms at least, the imperfectibility—of the world in which we live. But the fact that such moments will be rare until the eschaton neither undoes nor diminishes the imperative to strive after them—especially for those of us who, as Christians, affirm the goodness and the telos of the created world. Quite the contrary. We have a responsibility and a charge as subcreators always to be able to say of the work we have done, “It is good.”

I am not there yet. I hope very much, though, that the work I do this year will be—for at least one person—a little sip from that deep well of delight. Whether I succeed or no, at least the bar is set where it ought to be.

  1. Atlassian’s designers seem to be shooting for the kind of “flat” minimalism that is in right now… and missing the mark entirely. All of their tools are a cluttered mess in the UI/X department.

  2. A “Mom Utility Vehicle”, my wry term for “SUV”-type vehicles sitting on standard car chasses.