Learning on the Job

2012-01-24 by . 2 comments

Post to Twitter

It’s come up in the chat a few times, why are all these programmers and sysadmins avid DIYers?  I think it’s partly a natural extension of the tinkering we do on the job and partly our comfort of dealing with huge mistakes that cost a lot of money.  Nearly everyone in this field has war stories of downtime on systems that can not go down or impossible bugs that ruin deployments.  Big bucks are on the line and you have to come through.  In comparison, the prospect of a few holes in the wall and a small flood in the bathroom aren’t that scary.

So in that vein, I’m happy to pick up a hammer and drill and set to work destroying improving my home.  And things don’t go quite right.  This is another feeling I associate with programming for a living:  beating my head against the wall trying to figure out why this simple thing isn’t working as designed.  That feeling of learning on the job.  And while I’m outwardly cussing at myself or others, I’m secretly enjoying myself.

I’ve spent most of my life surrounded by marvelously handy people.  My dad designed a switch that cut the volume on the stereo and TV speakers when you picked up the phone.  Our sliding glass door was remote controlled to let the dog out (this is in the 80s, people).  My grandpa owned his own family woodmaking business.  My brother is a bathroom remodeler.  Despite all this, I managed to absorb perhaps 5% of what they know.

After I reached a certain age, I suppose I started asking the right questions.  I actually paid attention and started trying to learn how to do certain things.  I learned more about construction techniques, and lo and behold, this stuff wasn’t as easy as they made it look.  They had to learn on the job.  The only difference is when they screwed up they usually had someone nearby to tell them it was wrong, how to make it right, and if it was too far gone and they should just start over.  This is clearly where we DIYers can get in over our heads.  So I’m glad there’s a resource like Home Improvement Stack Exchange to help me out!

There are a lot of small details in construction and finishing that add up.  That’s a good chunk of the reason why a DIY project always seems to take so long.  I learned a great deal more about framing and drywall while building a closet above my garage.  There was one corner in particular where the wall was already framed in by the roof  supports for the garage.  Not knowing any better, I reused that “wall” when framing and threw some drywall on top.  The drywall wasn’t quite flush, but certainly “close enough”.  Then I went to mud.  And mud.  And mud.  Three corners on a piece that wasn’t quite right?  Oy vey.  So I learned the hard way, it’s easier to fix it in framing than it is before drywall.  It’s easier to cut the drywall again than fix it with mud.  It’s easier to get the mud smooth than cover it with paint.  Each shortcut taken early just makes the overall project take longer – at least until you figure out which shortcuts you can use effectively.  On the other hand, now that I have that kind of hard-earned experience, I can cover up many of my mistakes hanging drywall.  Now I can focus on figuring out when to apply which experience, much like I do on the job.

DIY usually forces you to improvise.  If you had unlimited time and budget, you might not even do the work yourself.  DIYers tend to put some pretty unreasonable constraints on a project, ones that a professional would never agree to.  Reusing roller covers, resuing old fasteners, barely having enough material to finish the job, using the wrong tool for the job because it’s handy – all things I’ve found myself doing that I would never agree to if I was being paid to do the job.  These improvisations are really at the heart of what makes DIY fun and frustrating, and most importantly, creates funny stories.

So while I was doing this closet, I did the carpet myself too.  I got the carpet for free (DIY alert!) which meant I couldn’t get those lovely cheap install prices.  First time doing a carpet job myself – I rented a stretcher and kicker and got to work.  And it went pretty well – until:

Pro tip:  Always make sure the stretcher is in the middle of the stud!

My experience led me to the easy fix: cut it square, toenail in a 2×4, and slap up a new piece of drywall. Look ma, I’m improvising!

Later I was doing the trim – and remember that funky corner?  Well my trim wasn’t going to fit as-is, so I traced the wall and whipped out the jig saw:

Whoa!  Step away from the jigsaw!


Turned out pretty well though


What sorts of “fun” things have you learned while doing DIY?  Share in the comments!


profile for Steve Jackson at Home Improvement, Q&A for contractors and serious DIYers

Filed under Uncategorized


Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  • Steven says:

    I learned never to assume anything about the previous state of something you are working on. You will ALWAYS be surprised. It’s not level, it doesn’t line up, the wires aren’t where you thought they’d be, that pipe doesn’t actually go anywhere, etc.

    Part of that means spending some time investigating before you start. You will save yourself time in the long-run.

  • Comments have been closed for this post