Engineers and Power Users – A Meditation on two similar yet distinct types of productive knowledge worker.

It seems like many people who are interested in knowledge management tend to fall on a spectrum between two divergent workflow points-of-view. Either they adapt to the tools or they adapt the tools to their needs. The many topics of thoughtful conversation here got me in a thinking mood, and I tend to do my best thinking while writing. I hope someone else might find this a useful thought experiment.

I am envisioning a dichotomy between Engineers and Power Users. Like most dichotomies, it is an imperfect map, and like most bell curves, far more people fall in the center than in either extreme, but it can still be a useful distinction without division.

  1. Engineers “It’s worth taking the time to build the exact system I want with the file formats, syncing solution, and CSS look so I can operate at peak performance.”

At their best, Engineers can create plug-ins, automations, and workflows that revolutionize how we work. Most of the tools we use today come from Engineers, most of whom find walled gardens and arbitrary restrictions chafing and have the expertise to roll their own solutions. At their worst, Engineers have middling-at-best technical skills, know far less than they think they know, and have to spend a lot of time researching bug fixes and patches to repair broken IFTT applets, shell scripts, etc. and spend as much time repairing and sharpening their tools as using them. If you’ve ever built a NFS server out of a Raspberry Pi, or flashed a custom ROM on your Android tablet, you might be an Engineer—after all, etymologically, an engineer is one who builds engines.

  1. Power Users “I don’t care about micromanaging every aspect of my system. As long as a tool hits my big 2-4 requirements (whatever those may be), is updated regularly, and has a sustainable pricing model for the developers, I am happy to leave the minutia to the devs.

At their best, Power Users are perfectly capable of rolling their own solutions, and put plenty of thought into how their ideal system would work but realize there is an opportunity cost associated with maintaining homebrewed solutions they’re not willing to pay. Maybe they used to build gaming PCs earlier in their careers but now just want to buy a Macbook and a PS5 and not deal with driver issues anymore. At their worst, these people can be followers of whatever software/hardware is trendy at the time and gets a lot of mention on YouTube/Podcasts and spend little time actually using those tools before abandoning ship for the new hotness. If you’ve ever used tools like Alfred or Keyboard Maestro that allow custom automation without having to dig through lines of code and prefer to just use Backblaze for file backups, you might be more of a Power User.

This space needs both kinds of people. I am thankful for posts by smart people in this group who know a lot more than I do so I can benefit from their investment in finding optimal solutions. Indeed, most of us are a mixture of both types of people.

I started out as a very mediocre engineer but as I get older I find I’m happier being a slightly competent power user who can still get his hands dirty with code when necessary. I spent two hours last night installing Ruby and tweaking a script to export my preferred Bible translation, convert it to Markdown, and use RegEx queries to make it fit my preferred layout in Obsidian. Now that I’ve got it done (and automatically backed up), I probably won’t touch Ruby again for a year or two. Most of the time, though, I’m happy to use the tools as given and tweet feature requests and bug reports to the devs.

Is this is a useful distinction or does it create more confusion than clarification?

This is a post I originally wrote at the Linking Your Thinking forum.

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