Alex Payne is a writer based in Portland, Oregon.

since 2001, has served as his online home.

On Problem Solving

If you see someone solving a difficult problem with relative ease there are two likely explanations:

  1. The problem-solver in question is a genius.
  2. The problem isn’t actually that hard.

It’s safe to say that the latter explanation is usually correct, bona fide geniuses being a scarce resource. More often than not, problems appear insurmountable because of a lack of information, a lack of resources, or a lack of confidence on the part of the problem-solver.

I’ve found this observation to be highly applicable in the tech industry, where the credulous buy into solutions for problems they perceive as too difficult to solve on their own. Our culture of valuing highly specialized expertise means that having enough information to make confident decisions about a variety of problem domains is unlikely for a given individual. Best, then, to leave that hard problem up to the experts.

One could write this choice off to opportunity cost: spending the time to understand a hard problem could mean fewer easier problems solved in the short term. But it’s my opinion that the choice to never solve hard problems or master challenging problem domains is, in the long run, far more costly, if only because people who solve hard problems are usually highly compensated and vice versa.

My suggestion, for those in the tech industry and otherwise: be incredulous. Don’t assume that when you see someone breeze through a challenging problem you’ve witnessed a feat of unattainable genius. With time and research you can understand the problem, and maybe even come up with a better, faster solution.

It’s not genius, it’s just information, and there’s an internet full of it.

Scaling the Scaling Debate

Attending: Google Developer Day 2007