Forests and treebuilders

The Philosopher Developer

January 28, 2014

You’re building a forest. You have big plans for this forest; it’s going to be big, and green, and beautiful. A swath of trees will sweep over the rolling hills here, there’ll be a tranquil little clearing there. It’s breathtaking in your head. It will be glorious.

Naturally for a forest, you need trees. And you want beautiful, elegant trees. So you recruit the top treebuilders from the best treebuilding academies. You’re going for the top talent.

These guys get to work, and right away you’re pleased. They know trees; that much is obvious. Left and right they’re constructing trees of every kind: from simple, lovely little cherry and birch trees up to towering, majestic redwoods. Every one is gorgeous, and you couldn’t be happier.

Months go by, and you survey your project from the top of a hill. Over time you begin to grow concerned. Whenever you visit the treebuilders below, you can see that they are busy doing very impressive work. But when you return to the hilltop, the developing forest doesn’t look like what you had imagined. It isn’t awe-inspiring. In fact, it seems a bit chaotic.

On one particular visit to the work sites, it suddenly clicks for you. The treebuilders are passionate about trees. They don’t really care about the forest.

They’re smart folks. They understand that you care about the forest. And they recognize that it’s their job to help you make it beautiful. But they don’t share your vision. They just love building these trees of all shapes and sizes. Whether or not the project is progressing the way you want it to is your problem, as far as they’re concerned.

This makes you a bit frustrated. How can you be solely responsible for ensuring the forest is a masterpiece, when your workers don’t ultimately care about it like you do? Worse, you start to feel that you’ve been squandering your resources. This “top talent” that you once prized so highly is looking less and less like a good investment.

Rather abruptly, you decide on a major change of direction. You let go of most of your skilled treebuilders and bring on a new team of less skilled (and less expensive) workers. These new guys clearly don’t care about trees as much as the original group, but who cares? You discovered firsthand that workers who only care about trees can’t magically make a beautiful forest. It’s up to you either way; in fact, you’re probably better off with this new less skilled group, as they won’t get caught up in arguments about tree design as you often saw happening with the first group.

At first, it seems you’ve made the right choice. The new workers get started adding more trees to the forest; and from your view on the hill, it looks about the same as before. Your eyes could be playing tricks on you, but it seems to even look a bit better. And now you’re saving quite a lot of resources each month, since these workers are cheaper than the old ones.

The celebration doesn’t last long, unfortunately. While initially, everything looked good, a few months later your forest is looking very unhealthy. Many of the new trees are undernourished, discolored, sickly. Some of them are even falling over. In the worst case they’re collapsing and causing damage even to healthy trees nearby.

You’re dismayed. The old treebuilders may have been expensive, and they may not have shared your vision; but at least their trees didn’t collapse. Clearly these new low-quality workers need to go.

What can you do? You start to hear rumors of a group of treebuilding consultants. They are experts, some of them from the same high-profile academies as the first group. But they also pride themselves on maintaining a higher-level perspective than other workers. They care about trees and forests.

They’re very expensive—even slightly more expensive than the first group—but that isn’t an issue to you. It will be worth it if you’re finally able to complete the grand forest you’ve been dreaming of this whole time. They also won’t commit to working on your forest forever. But that’s also OK. Once it’s completed, you figure you can hire a light staff of maintainers to keep it healthy, and that should be sufficient.

Right away, these new treebuilders come in and start clearing out much of the sickly areas that the cheap group had built so poorly. To your delight, they gradually replace all of these sick trees with much healthier ones. The forest is looking better every day.

What pleases you even more is that a few representatives regularly come up to visit you on the hill, to discuss your vision and to make sure everyone is on the same page. You can see that they understand you better than any of your previous workers ever did. They are restructuring the forest, clearing out trees here, planting more there. It’s starting to look much more cohesive, much more like the beautiful forest you imagined in the beginning.

It’s shaping up to be something truly wonderful.

Epilogue

You may think to yourself, I should have hired the consultants in the first place! But maybe it isn’t so simple.

The truth is that what you’ve called your “vision” this whole time was not very coherent in the beginning. You didn’t truly know what you wanted. It was only upon surveying the initial work of the first group, and seeing what you didn’t like about it, that you started to form a clear mental picture. And even then your ideas were still very formative.

Had you brought in the consultants initially, things might have gone very differently. Seeing that you lacked a clear vision, they would likely have floundered about just as aimlessly as the first group. Or worse: they might have visited you up on the hill too much, gotten too involved, and confused you, polluting your vision with their own ideas.

As for the second group, if it weren’t for them you would not have understood the importance of the trees themselves. They changed the way you perceived the first and third groups by giving you a greater appreciation for the trees making up the forest, even if in the end it’s the forest you really care about. More importantly, their shoddy work gave the consultants something to focus on in the beginning: cleaning up the mess.

You see, you don’t know this about the consultants; but without a mess to clean up, something to fix, they can be a bit lost sometimes. This is the nature of expertise: when you are faced with similar challenges over and over again, you develop a sort of dependence on the nature of the challenge. Problems that differ dramatically from the kind you’re familiar with actually become harder, because they take you out of your comfort zone, forcing you to abandon (sometimes with great pain) the assumptions you usually carry around.

The consultants are used to fixing up broken forests. They always follow the same routine: clear out the sick trees, replace them with healthy ones, restructure what’s left, fill in the rest. This routine is their rhythm, their formula for building great forests. So their success was actually dependent on you bringing them on after the first two groups.

But even that isn’t the end of story. When the treebuilding consultants leave, you have a fine forest. And they even helped you to design it in such a way that maintenance is easy. But then when you discover a problem, or something you want to change, and you try to get in touch with them, they aren’t available. And then you realize: they care about forests in general. They never cared about your forest in particular.

So none of the groups was really perfect. Months, years after you first had the idea, you’ve finally learned that only you truly care about your forest. No matter what kind of treebuilders you employ to help you build it, it’s up to you to make it beautiful. That’s your job.

And so you stand up on your hill one more time, admiring the work that’s been done. It really is a great forest. And a smile spreads across your face, as you think about how glad you are to be the one up here, with the great vision, instead of one of your underlings. They missed the forest for the trees, you think. They never saw the big picture, like I do.

Meanwhile, a few workers remain down below, cleaning up. They’re chatting about life, their families, the world. One of them points to a particularly beautiful tree and remarks how well-built it is. The boss never understood trees, he says. For some reason he was always obsessed with forests.