When talking to other engineering leaders (new and even experienced ones – since every situation is different) it’s not uncommon to hear “this is great, your team/processes sound amazing but where do I really start?”.
“Where do I start?” is indeed a difficult question. A few clarifications and examples would help. We could identify a starting point and take it from there. There are also a lot of existing “how to do X or Y” everywhere online/offline so I am not going to talk about that here either.
I was thinking though, if I find myself asking the same question, what do I actually (or I think I) do.
So…. I believe I go through this process:
1- first principles (why)
2- framework thinking (how)
3- guiding principles (what ifs)
These are not my terms. The first one you can easily search (might even be in the dictionary) and Elon Musk (and others) has articles/interviews online that can explain it (or similar) better than me. The second one I did not find much except this article from Sean Johnson (http://www.sean-johnson.com/framework-thinking/) which captures a lot of what I had in mind. The 3rd one I’m sure we’ve heard everywhere.
To the best of my knowledge though even before I found out what they are called I have applied them in one way or another. Most of the time, if faced with a challenge; it is reasonable (maybe even best) to solve that problem specifically. In some cases, however, especially problems that keep coming back it helps to step back and look/think about it differently. What is the core of the issue, the root cause, the fundamental beliefs (or even facts) that my ad hoc solution did not address? And that to me is “first principles” – simple, fundamentals, facts (or as close as you can get).
Now that we have a better understanding of the “question/problem” there are frameworks that others have already used to address that. Or at least frameworks that I can try to explore more to address the problem. Frameworks are more generic than just how-to’s and usually can be applied to a variety of problems. Should I read books, do I listen to audio books, do I talk to someone and based on those are there further frameworks/techniques I can apply?
Using some (or combination) of the framework(s) we will hopefully find the solution to the problem and then we start building guiding principles. On top of making sure that it really does address your original question/problem, these also make sure that should you encounter similar questions in the future you might have some default response/actions or if it’s completely new then the response might just be back to square one (first principles -> framework thinking -> guiding principles).
Over time you build guiding principles that you keep on improving (or completely discard after giving it enough chance – i.e. it just doesn’t work).
First principles are fundamental and likely universal (or at least to a majority of our species). Frameworks may or may not work for some though the ones we find are likely those considered best practices already but take them with a grain of salt. Finally, you could use existing knowledge for guiding principles but do not forget that guiding principles is your own. Make it known to your circle to whoever you feel safe sharing it with. Refine them, share them and others might question them but it’s yours.
And if you lead a team, you share a part of your own guiding principles (its part of what we do is to sell that to our team) but help your team build it’s own as well. What you agree on, how to do things, what to do when things get tough and as important, what to do when things are great.
An analogy for software debugging/development might actually exist now that I think about it.
1- investigate the problem (why)
2- design and implement a solution (how)
3- create unit tests/automated tests and monitoring to help make sure it doesn’t happen again (what ifs)
So when faced with “where to start” this is what I do. Or at least what I think I do. At the very least this blog post is part of this process too.
1- I have a question which I think could benefit others and I’d love to share my thoughts on (why)
2- write and share on my blog (how)
3- I may not get feedback (I don’t expect anyone to read unless I point them here) or I get feedback (great – whether that’s good or bad) and I see if I could improve as I learn more – is my “what ifs”.
There will be guiding principles that will not be easy (e.g. do not lie – sounds simple but I don’t know if you can imagine how difficult that is with all the quirkiness/sensitivities of our modern world) but the good news is other than making it easy to make decisions at work, the side effect of these guiding principles maybe some peaceful goodnight’s sleep.
Keep learning, building and take it easy!