The Shape of Everything
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September 14, 2014

Caryn Vainio: Don’t Be Afraid of a Pencil:

"What I want them to understand — for everyone to understand — is that sketching is one of the most critical skills I think you could learn if you work in any environment that requires you to build something, whether that’s a physical product or a piece of software. And you should learn to stop being afraid of a pencil and a piece of blank paper, because sketching is fast, visible, collaborative communication, and it doesn’t matter how well you can draw."

A long while ago while working for Mizzou's IT department, I was attempting to write an SQL query for a perl script or java servlet, or something or another that was going out to the web probably. I don't remember exactly what the query was for, but it had something to do with dates. The reasons don't matter, but what did is that I was stuck because I didn't understand SQL. But I knew someone who did.

His name is Mike Hess, and he was our DBA. He knew SQL in ways that mere mortals didn't, and lucky for me he was sitting about 20 feet away. So I quickly walked on over to him and explained my problem. I'll never forget what he did next, as it literally changed the way I programmed for the rest of my life.

He pulled out a little yellow pad of paper and a pencil and looked up to the ceiling for a second, and started sketching out a little date line with some points on it.

I was immediately annoyed. I was young and stupid and I just wanted an answer.

He handed me the piece of paper and I went back to my desk. I stared at what he had drawn, and I didn't get it. I was slightly upset and super annoyed and I had to go back and ask him to explain (at least I wasn't so stupid that I was unwilling to ask for help when I didn't understand).

Mike smiled and explained what he had drawn with the date line and points, and then it hit me like a ton of bricks.

I understood exactly what the SQL query needed to look like. Programming could be visual. Solving problems could be visual. I love sketching. I love programming. Why had it taken me this long to realize this?

Ever since then, a pad of paper and a pencil has been my number one debugging tool.