Commentary

How To Think Like An Engineer

Last week I wrote about why it’s important to know how engineers think. With the entire digital media infrastructure resting on their shoulders, it’s useful for even non-technical people in media to know what it’s like to be an engineer. This week I want to go a step further and say that its important for everyone in media to be able to think like an engineer. Here’s how:

Focus on the long term. Engineers love to solve big problems, ones where it can take years to develop a full solution. You have to have patience when developing new technology, especially if a client is screaming for a feature they absolutely must have. If you’re on the front lines with clients like this, the phrase, “It’s on our roadmap” can help. It’s also good to keep in mind that sometimes an urgent “must have” can become a “nice to have” over time

Be forgiving. A lot of software today is developed in a series of more frequent updates. This “agile” approach sometimes means that new versions will get launched with less testing and a few more bugs. But the upside to this approach is that you get customer feedback more quickly, which lessens the chance that you’ll spend a ton of money building a product that nobody wants.

Don’t try to solve every problem. As a former agency guy, I used to pride myself on going above and beyond with clients. I would try to solve every client problem, no matter how small. But in software development one sure way to ruin a product is to try to be everything to everyone. You must align client need with what is best for the product and the business.

Minimize interruptions. Client emails. Twitter. Conference calls. There are a million things that can disrupt you during your day. But whether you’re coding software, writing a business plan or working on a sales presentation, an environment of constant interruption can lead to shoddy work and bad products. It’s important to have large blocks of quiet time when you can think clearly and work productively. “I work by defining a problem, outlining a strategy for solving it and then developing a solution during periods of focused effort,”  Andrew Metcalf, an engineer at Cloud Nine Media, wrote in his comments on my post last week.

Focus on scale. One of the most important concepts I’ve learned from working with engineers is to think about things in terms of scale. If we offer a new feature, will it make just one client happy or a thousand? Once you get multiple requests for the same feature, then consider creating the solution.

Have a plan. Engineering teams require a roadmap -- a description of all of the features that a product will eventually need -- to build a great product. A roadmap’s timeline should extend out at least 12-18 months and be updated regularly. Roadmaps should be specific in the near term and broader the further out you go.

Stick to your vision. When people are excited about your product or company they will throw a million ideas at you, and that’s great. The tendency is to investigate every idea, especially if you’re still trying to find a market for your product. It’s essential, though, to stay focused and remind yourself of the problem you were trying to solve in the first place. Does the new idea build off the original idea, or is it a tangent? What will happen to the business if three months are devoted to developing a feature that nobody ends up using?

You need balance when thinking like an engineer, of course. “We have no shortage of engineering-driven solutions in desperate need of a problem in the industry,” Norm Page of Same Page Capital commented last week. And if all you do is tell clients “no” without some level of accommodation, they will eventually find another solution.  Skilled salespeople are just as important as talented engineers.

But if you can see the world through the eyes of an engineer at the same time you work with clients and manage your company, you will have a better chance at building a great product and business.

1 comment about "How To Think Like An Engineer".
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  1. Joseph Pych from NextMark, Inc., June 26, 2012 at 6:49 p.m.

    Great article, Matt. Building software is easy. Building software that people want is really hard. It takes a lot of discipline and perseverence. But you also have to be open to "pivot" when your customers want you to go in a different direction than the original vision. It's more art than science.

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