I’d like to retell an old story that has been around for a very long time. I honestly do not remember where I first heard it, I wish I did so that I could give some credit where credit is due.
The story begins in a village cut off from the rest of the world. There is a fresh water stream two miles from the village. Every day the villagers make multiple trips to the stream to get fresh water. The villagers have used the same buckets for as long as anyone can remember. The buckets are carved from stone therefore very heavy, and even heavier once they are full of water.
One day a band of travelers set up camp near the stream and some of the villagers saw them. They watched in awe as the traveler children played in the stream, splashing each other with buckets of water. The villagers were taken aback. They had never seen or even considered the possibility that something as difficult as carrying water in buckets could be done by children so easily for entertainment.
Initially the villagers were angry. It was insulting to them that one of their most important and most difficult jobs was literally child’s play to these travelers. One brave villager approached the travelers and explained their situation. The travelers explained that their buckets were made of wood, and therefore very light and easy to carry. As a friendly gesture, the travelers gave the brave villager a wooden bucket as a gift.
The brave villager returned home with the bucket and showed everyone how a wooden bucket would make everyone’s lives better. All of the villagers were very impressed. They disassembled the wooden bucket to see how it was made and began building their own buckets. The next day, they took their new wooden buckets to the stream and realized that their homemade wooden buckets were leaky. They went back to using the heavy stone buckets when they saw how the wooden buckets failed.
After re-examining the pieces of the wooden bucket that they had disassembled, they realized that their wooden buckets didn’t have anything to plug the gaps in the wood like the one from the travelers did. The villagers took their leaky wooden buckets and filled in all of the gaps with thick mud. The next day they filled their new, leak-proof buckets with water only to realize that the mud that was used to full the gaps aslo made the water dirty. So, the returned to using the stone buckets.
The brave villager returned to the travelers and explained why the wooden buckets would not work. The travelers offered to give the villagers all the wooden buckets they would need if they would promise to use them instead of disassembling them and trying to create their own. The brave villager agreed and returned home with the new wooden buckets.
From that day forward carrying water from the stream was a much more trivial chore than the colossal task that it had been in the past. Once the villagers had swallowed their pride and just used the free buckets that were built by professionals their lives were easier and they had more time and resources to spend on things that matter to them and not waste time on making buckets.
This story really resonates with me. It’s a perfect analogy to so many things in the software industry. It shows how dangerous silos can be, the real cost of technical debt and not keeping (at least relatively) current, why NIH and the ‘roll-your-own’ mindset is dangerous, and the value of taking advantage of free open source tools. Of course, there are always exceptions. Sometimes a bucket is not the right tool for the job, sometimes the right tool does not exist and must be invented, and other times buckets need to be slightly modified to be able to do the job at hand. So, to wrap it up I just want to say +1 to open source and +1 to forking.