April 26, 2016
From nczonline.net, with love.

The Least is the Most

Hi everyone,

Over the years, I've watched probably hundreds of software engineers at work, and as such, have come to identify certain patterns I see in the best of them. One of these patterns is solving a problem completely with the least amount of effort and the least amount of code. The best software engineers have a way of either figuring out the simplest way of solving a problem or reducing the problem into a state where the solution is easy.

On the other hand, I've seen struggling software engineers do the opposite: instead of doing the least amount of work necessary to get the job done, they go overboard. They believe that doing more works shows how smart and dedicated they are, even if their approach takes significantly longer than others. Some will even take relatively simple problems and complicate them or expand their scope to make the problem more interesting to solve.

At Yahoo, I once checked in on one of the front page teams to see why their work was taking longer than expected. What I found was that they had expanded the scope of the project far beyond the original charter. When I told them this, one of the engineers responded, "Well sure, but wouldn't it be cool if we solved this problem for all of Yahoo?" Yes, I told him, it would be cool -- but that wasn't the task. Solving the problem for the front page alone was a decent amount of work, but trying to take into account all of the needs of every team at Yahoo, gather case studies and stakeholders, was something the team wasn't staffed or scheduled to do. Once back on track, with the original, smaller scope, the project completed fairly rapidly.

I share this anecdote not to say that these engineers were dumb. In fact, quite the opposite: they were so smart that they wanted a more difficult problem to tackle. The willingness to take on difficult problems is a good trait, however, making simple problems more difficult in order to make it more interesting is not.

The software engineers that succeed tend to be the ones who narrowly define the scope of their work and deliver a solution with the least amount of work. That doesn't mean cutting corners, it means recognizing that whenever there's a simple way to solve a problem, that's the correct solution. This type of restraint allows you to finish work quickly and efficiently, meaning that your overall productivity improves. And generally speaking, when your productivity improves, so does your paycheck.

Be well.

-N
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