Still a “tool” by any other name

A marketing manager I know stopped me in mid sentence. He didn’t want me to call his business intelligence product a “tool.”

Why? “It sounds small,” he said. But it is small, I pointed out. It’s smaller than many others in its space. It’s downloaded in under a minute and unpacks itself on a desktop in a few minutes.

But he waved that rationale away as if it were a fly, and I should have known. Marketing people, like the parents of gladiators, prefer their progeny to be perceived as big. Bigness casts dark shadows over competitors and conceals weakness. Industry insiders give big competitors good odds.

Users, though, have more immediate, personal concerns. They want something that feels good, works consistently, and adapts easily. This describes a “tool,” a label that should be taken as a compliment, not an insult.

To understand the value of good tools, read what farmer and essayist Wendell Berry writes about them. Over the years, he’s thought about them often, such as in his 1970s essay on the Marugg grass scythe.

It is the most satisfying hand tool that I have ever used. In tough grass it cuts a little less uniformly than the power scythe. In all other ways, in my opinion, it is a better tool because, it is light, it handles gracefully and comfortably even on steep ground, it is far less dangerous, it is quiet and makes no fumes, it is much more adaptable. In rank growth one narrows the cut and shortens the stroke. It always starts — provided the user will start. Aside from reasonable skill and care in use, there are no maintenance problems. It requires no fuel or oil. It runs on breakfast. Its cheaper to buy than most weed eaters and is cheaper to use than any other power mower. And best of all its good exercise.

I’d bet that everyone dreams, at least secretly, of software that matches the Marugg. Sadly, though, people with other agendas usually make the final decision — people whose careers depend on buying not tools but “solutions.” My friend the marketing manager has to appeal to those who write the checks. But I don’t care. I’ll keep saying “tool.”

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