Shortcuts, from Tom Ryan

April 26, 2007 |

 Paul Buchheit , creator and lead developer of Gmail, writes in his blog:

The secret to making things easy is to avoid hard problems.

That may seem obvious, but in my experience most engineers prefer to focus on the hard problems. Working on hard problems is impressive to other engineers, but it's not a great way to build successful products. In fact, this is one of several reasons why YouTube beat Google Video: Google spent a lot of time solving technically challenging problems, while YouTube built a product that people actually used. For me, the most effective method of getting things done quickly is to cheat (technically), take a lot of shortcuts, and find an easier way around the problem.

Like most aphorisms of this sort there is a grain of truth and also some fallacy. We have found that there definitely is value to having a few slower-moving deep thinkers in the group as well as a few very detail-oriented stick-to-the-process types. Obviously you must have people who are results-oriented and who can get the job done and the work out the door and the profits in the door. But I can tell you from experience that organizations that are purely results-oriented, always taking the shortest path to the dollar and which are entirely focused on efficiency don't last long term.

For example, we have two particular people who have a knack for finding all of the bugs and minefields in the programs we write. It's just uncanny; if there is a path to a program blowup they will find it. I believe it has to do with an ability to think in terms of what-if. The purely results-oriented work-smarter types never find these problems because they can't be bothered with what-if. So we need the creative what-if people in order to improve things long term.

Art Cooper remarks:

Work smarter, not harder. Taking shortcuts whenever possible, doing what's practicable instead of more intellectually satisfying, is to work smarter, not lazier.

Russell Sears replies:

It occurs to me that often when people say work lazier, what they are really saying is work relaxed. Go for a run at the height of a frustrating math problem, and often you'll find the answer immediately on returning. Likewise when suffering from writer's block, or when debugging computer code. Perhaps this is why military training helps in trading. After you learn to relax as someone shoots at you, trading is a piece of cake. 


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