Symptom Solving

There are many things to dislike about American politics, but possibly my least favorite is the degree to which we’ve completely given up on solving problems, and spend time debating solutions to the symptoms. Even during an election year, when there’s no scarcity of big talk, our politicians are largely still unwilling to talk about problems – only symptoms.

Some recent examples:

Health Insurance

There is no shortage of debate about paying for healthcare. There is a very serious shortage of debate around why healthcare is so expensive. There is considerable work that could be done to lower the cost of providing health care and all we’re doing in this election year is assuming the cost is fixed, and fighting about how to pay for it.

Paying for Higher Education

Similar to heath care, this is another case where we assume costs are fixed. However what upsets me the most about this discussion, which also made it’s way into the State of the Union Address, is that we continue to frame it as a conversation about Federal Student Loans. It is absolutely mind-boggling, in the wake of the housing crisis, that someone can make the logical argument that inexpensive, low-interest rate loans keeps costs down. Some (non-politicians) are calling it a Higher Education Bubble. Even if you disagree that the ROI on a college degree is decreasing (that is, what students get out of it is not increasing proportionate to the cost) it is undeniable that making money cheaper drives prices up. Giving students access to cheap money makes it easier for institutions to raise prices. This fact also got a nod in the State of the Union, but it’s been happening for decades and it would be blasphemous for a politician to suggest that the government should subsidize less. No one is talking about the cause of high tuition. They’re only trying to solve the symptom.

Income Inequality

The president called this “the defining issue of our time” and history will regard it as the central argument of the Occupy Wall Street movement. On this issue I’ve heard some discussion on the causes, but by and large even this argument degrades into one about taxation. That is, after the income is already unequal, how do we re-equalize it? Unfortunately this problem is actually really hard, and an across-the-board AMT-style tax like was mentioned in the speech is completely unrelated to the root cause. I don’t believe most Americans #1 issue is income inequality, it’s mobility – their ability to advance (we’re all “temporarily embarrassed millionaires“) which would mean that the conversation has almost no connection to the problem.

These are just a few of the most recent hot topics for which there’s no solution in sight… because the problem is not part of the conversation.

"Easy" Problems

In software, you wind up spending most of your time solving easy problems. Problems that have been solved before and, thanks to Google, have solutions available in an instant. Thousands of well-defined, no-risk, completely solvable problems.

Virtually everything having to do with a user interface, if you’ve seen it done before, is “easy.” Gmail has a drag-and-drop attachment feature, so clearly that problem has been solved. Facebook has a live-scrolling ticker of events – piece of cake, just do what they did. Also, anything that has an open source solution is easy. Thank you Solr/Lucene, search is easy. Thank you Hadoop, doing computations on huge datasets is easy. Thank you Ruby on Rails, building complete websites can be done in 15 minutes.

I actually do think all of these things are easy, to the extent that “easy” means you’re going to be able to solve them without needing to hire an expert and you won’t need to dust off your old Algorithms textbook at any point in the process. But there are a few things “easy” doesn’t mean:

Easy != Fast

Just because you know how to do it, that doesn’t mean it can be done quickly. We all know how to mow a lawn. Can you do 10 acres in 5 minutes?

Depending on the problem you’re solving, usually one of two reasons explains why Easy != Fast

1. The problem is clear, but tedious to solve

Building a sign-up form is simple – some text boxes, and a submit button. Of course, what sign-up form would be complete without validation, autocompletion/correction, tooltips, markers for optional/required, anti-bot/spam protection… and each of those things is easy too, but you’ve just got a lot of lawn to mow. (photo from: smashing magazine)

2. The problem is solved by a 3rd party tool, and it’s got it’s own… problems

Solr does, in fact, make it very easy to build a search engine that produces fast, relevant results. Now, bone up on schema.xml, db-data-config.xml, the various query parsers and their associated syntaxes, then review what the best/current libraries are for whatever language you’re using. It’s true, you don’t have to write any algorithms. You’ve also saved yourself time over building this thing from scratch – no question. But, you’re still about to spend a considerable amount of time on this.

Easy != Well Defined

There are still the fundamentals of software engineering at play. The example of the registration form above was also partially an tale of vague requirements.

“We want a sign up form just like has” is the easiest way to spec a feature – you just point to something else and say “do it like that.” Even though that may seem less vague than “we want a sign up form”, unless you truly understand the thing you’re referring to you may have accidentally added more requirements than you meant to. Did you notice the has a live, password strength calculation and doesn’t let you sign up unless the password is strong enough? Did your developer just lose a few hours researching the best plugins/schemes for that, then implementing them, all to build something you didn’t actually need?

Easy == Solved, but what does Solved mean?

Google makes billions of dollars on CPC ads. Paypal makes billions of dollars in processing payments. They each have plenty of competitors doing the same things, so the technologies behind processing CPC ads and sending payments are surely mature, and these are cases of solved problems.

But how much time and effort do these companies spend fighting fraud every day? Google has an Ad Traffic Quality team. Paypal has a Fraud Investigation Team.

Sometimes a solved problem only looks that way because there is a metric ton of ongoing work making it appear that way.

Want to know why Nordstrom has beautiful, consistent photography of all of their products on their shopping pages, with the ability to zoom in on, and see a product at multiple angles? Solved problem: simply unbox every single thing you sell and photograph it the exact same way from the exact same angles. After that little exercise, adding a zoom feature is pretty straightforward.

Piece of Cake

I don’t object to using the word “easy” in software. It’s useful to acknowledge that something has minimal technical risk. But, be careful when it creeps into discussions about scheduling or operations. Time is not measured in units of difficulty.

How to Enjoy American Football

I love football, but I know it’s hard for a lot of people to get into. More than once I’ve heard it described as “just people hitting each other.” The scoring is also a bit strange, and there are a lot of odd rules, so if you want to enjoy football that’s not where you should start.

Think of Football as War

Not in the hyperbolic sense, but in the strategic, battleplan-scheming, territory-grabbing sense. If you watch it with this in mind, the sport is a lot clearer.

Each team has 11 players on the field. One team has the ball. The team with the ball is trying to move into the opponent’s territory, and the opponent is trying to stop them.

The field is 100 yards long. You get 4 tries to move the ball 10 yards forward. If you succeed, you get another 4 tries. If you fail, you give the ball to the other team.

On television, they draw a blue line on the screen to indicate where the play starts (the line of scrimmage). The yellow line is where they have to get to in order to earn another set of 4 tries (tries = ‘downs’). On the screen above “3rd and 5” means “this is my third try, and I have 5 yards to go.”

So, what would you do?

If your job is to move down the field, how would you do it? If you were commanding an army, how would you draw up a scheme to advance on your enemy?

In football, you have two basic options:

  1. Throw the ball.
  2. Run with the ball.

Pretty simple.

If you throw the ball, you can move a lot of yards in a hurry. But, it’s risky. The ball’s in the air. If the defense grabs it, it’s theirs.

If you run the ball it’s comparatively safe, but you may not move very far. If the defense is expecting that, they will tackle you right away.

One thing about football that differs from other sports: those 11 guys on the field are specialists in what they’re doing for each scenario. When a team is playing offense, they have 11 completely different players on the field than they do when they’re on defense.

Wide Receiver #81, Cornerback #24

For every strategy you have on offense, the defense has a counter strategy. For all of your talented, specialized players, the defense has players that specialize in stopping them. You have a few wide receivers – tall, fast guys with great hands, who’s #1 job is to catch passes. They have cornerbacks and safeties – guys who are often even faster than wide receivers, who specialize in sticking on them.

You have to mix it up

It’s not uncommon to think running = boring and passing = exciting. But, strategically, one doesn’t work without the other. If a team just did one or the other, the defense could easily shut them down. If you mix it up, you keep the defense on their toes. A great example was last week, in overtime, when the Steelers defense was sure the Broncos were going to run the ball… and they were wrong:

Though running usually only lets you move forward a few yards, there’s always a chance that something amazing can happen: Marshawn Lynch vs. Saints.

Ok, but Kicking is still Boring

When you don’t move the ball ten yards after your first 3 tries, you have a decision to make. You can try again, but if you fail the other team will get the ball right at the spot. This is key, because if you’re close to your own endzone (the area your opponent is trying to get to) they won’t have very far to go in order to score.

So you have the option to punt. You put a guy out there who will kick the ball to your opponent, but he’s going to do his best to make sure they have to start as far back as possible. A punt can routinely push your opponent back 45 yards.

During a punt, the play on the field is rarely exciting. Punts are interesting strategically – they move the line of scrimmage dramatically, so the other team will have to spend more time and effort to advance the ball back towards you. As with offense and defense, when the punter comes on the field this is yet another set of 11 guys (called ‘special teams’) who specialize in this aspect of the game. As such, there are players who are exceptional punt-blockers or punt-returners who can make a punt exciting.

The game is too slow

The game’s cadence is driven by the fact that the offense is given 4 tries to do anything. They get 40 seconds to meet, decide what they want to do, then run a play. Whether or not they succeed, they stop and get 40 seconds to plan the next one. This is the time when the strategy is formed. Pass or run? Who’s running where? While the offense is deciding what to do, the defense also mulls over how they’re going to line up and stop them. This time itself is also strategic – if the offense can figure out what they want to do very quickly, the defense doesn’t have any time to think. If the offense takes a long time, they are giving that same amount of time to their opponent.

As a viewer that cadence conveniently meshes well with drinking. But, if you’re thinking like the offense and defense, you can also use that time to think about what kind of play the offense is going to run, and see how the defense organizes itself to try and stop it – since they’re guessing just like you are. I think this mindset makes the entire game much more interesting.