Clay Allsopp

It's Just X Through Y While Z

Aug 27, 2012

Every few days, I'll see an idea dismissed on Hacker News because of its simplicity. Typically, engineers see some new product and state that it's just some chain of obvious technical steps.

For example, Dropbox was just "an FTP account, [mounted] locally with curlftpfs, [using] SVN or CVS on the mounted filesystem." Heroku was just git hosted on AWS with a post-commit hook to boot a Rails server. Square was just a magnetic reader using the headphone jack. Easy stuff, right?

In fact, almost every successful product which can be reduced "basic" steps. Perhaps there are so few counter-examples because products with irreducible innovations are rarely executed as well as their seemingly straightforward counterparts. It's hard to simultaneously come up with raw, astounding technology and still ship a great customer experience. Usually it is only the next generation of companies that can take the technology and execute on a succcessful product.

The famous example is Xerox PARC: even though the Alto and the Star featured groundbreaking innovations, it would be years until Apple and others successfully brought PARC's research to the masses. This is why I'm skeptical of Google's ability to successfully commercialize its self-driving car; instead, I'd bet on a future entity that takes Google's work and makes incremental but key improvements. Of course, such an effort will inevitably be dismissed as, "just Google's tech but with x."

It's peculiar that we are so eager to dismiss ideas in this way, and yet it's apparently difficult to do the inverse. Out of habit or hubris, we miss the unconscious steps we take everyday to solve our technological pains. And when we do notice some minor repititions in our work, we resort to equally small engineering improvements like scripts and increased automation.

Such solutions are great and vital to building a product, but we fail to see the macro-problems that really hinder our progress: CRUD development sucks, real-time sucks, payments suck, the list of problems we've already realized goes on and on. They sound obvious now, but such problems exist for years before someone stumbles upon the Better Way. What else belongs on this list hiding right under our noses?

Just the other day, I read about how watching Netflix abroad isn't "terribly difficult." Next time you see that sort of list, it wouldn't be a bad idea to take note of the opportunity before you. And better yet, you should give pause and wonder if there's a greater problem afoot than just taking x and going through y while z.

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