The Problem With The Duct Tape Metaphor

In: marketing

24 Sep 2009

duct_tapeWho doesn’t love duct tape? This miracle material seems to (temporarily) fix just about anything, and has gotten MacGyver out of his fair share of problems. The seemingly endless usefulness of duct tape has also made it a common metaphor.

One of the more popular examples among entrepreneurs would be Duct Tape Marketing. Small business expert John Jantsch launched and manages this blog and marketing system, which has helped many businesses build a marketing program on a small budget. While the name is gimmicky enough to attract attention, as a metaphor, it cheapens the straight-forward and practical advice John has to share.

Yesterday brought us another example that developers might be more familiar with. Respected blogger and programmer Joel Spolsky posted an article titled The Duct Tape Programmer that has generated quite a bit of debate online. In the article, he discusses a specific mindset certain developers have towards projects.

He is the kind of programmer who is hard at work building the future, and making useful things so that people can do stuff. He is the guy you want on your team building go-carts, because he has two favorite tools: duct tape and WD-40. And he will wield them elegantly even as your go-cart is careening down the hill at a mile a minute. This will happen while other programmers are still at the starting line arguing over whether to use titanium or some kind of space-age composite material that Boeing is using in the 787 Dreamliner.

When you are done, you might have a messy go-cart, but it’ll sure as hell fly.

My problem with the duct tape metaphor is it usually ignores the middle ground. You’re either an impractical perfectionist or you produce messy work.

But the most value comes from people who sit between the two extremes.

To build on Joel’s description, how about a programmer who approaches a project in the following way:

He is the kind of programmer who knows you want to get down the hill, and agrees a simple go-cart is the best way to start. Four wheels and some steering. He knows you aren’t the first person to build a go-cart, so he isn’t going to reinvent the wheel. As long as a standard set of limited features are agreed to in the beginning, he can quickly launch a great, well-built go-cart that goes fast.

Once the go-cart works, then he is ready to focus on adding a horn and some racing stripes.

What They Really Mean
Using “duct tape” implies a certain sloppiness and that something is temporary until it can be addressed and fixed or done correctly. But those aren’t the principles that John or Joel ultimately value.

They both appreciate the ability to get things done, in a practical way, with the resources available.

Duct tape isn’t the solution to every problem and certainly shouldn’t be an overall philosophy. Overusing the duct tape metaphor lessens what is an extremely valuable talent, and leaves the door open for people to excuse their own poor work and messiness.

Knowing how to wield duct tape when the situation calls for it is important, but doing things well is much more valuable.

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Mark Webster

About Mark Webster

One of the Co-Founders of SideTour, former TechStar (NYC Summer 2011), ex-NBA'er, and past TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon Winner.