What I really like doing, solving really tough problems

Some things in life are repeating patterns and it takes time to see these patterns and learn from them.  One of the GigaOm Research team asked me a a good question of how to engage a client.  Yesterday I spent hours chatting with GigaOm staff and I hit upon a method I think works.  We’ll see if the customer likes it.  When I had dinner and got into a technical discussion that was enlightening (which I will write about in another post).  The solving problems issue came up.

Here is definition of problem solving in psychology’s perspective from Wikipedia.


In psychology, problem solving refers to a state of desire for reaching a definite 'goal' from a present condition that either is not directly moving toward the goal, is far from it, or needs more complex logic for finding a missing description of conditions or steps toward the goal.[2] In psychology, problem solving is the concluding part of a larger process that also includes problem finding and problem shaping.

Considered the most complex of all intellectual functions, problem solving has been defined as a higher-order cognitive process that requires the modulation and control of more routine or fundamental skills.[3]Problem solving has two major domains: mathematical problem solving and personal problem solving where, in the second, some difficulty or barrier is encountered.[4] Further problem solving occurs when moving from a given state to a desired goal state is needed for either living organisms or an artificial intelligencesystem.

While problem solving accompanies the very beginning of human evolution and especially the history of mathematics,[4] the nature of human problem solving processes and methods has been studied bypsychologists over the past hundred years. Methods of studying problem solving include introspectionbehaviorismsimulationcomputer modeling, and experiment. Social psychologists have recently distinguished between independent and interdependent problem-solving (see more).[5]

In 1991, I took a sabbatical at Apple and had 13 weeks off work unengaged with plenty of time to think.  It took me 6 weeks to flush out the intensity of work.  When I left Microsoft in 2006 it took me 6 months to get to this same point of mind.  The remaining 7 weeks I had plenty of time to rest and relax.  When it got time to go back to work at the end of the sabbatical I asked the question what I enjoyed most doing at work. With plenty of time I was able to come up with “I like to solve really tough problems.”  Excited going back to work at Apple I told my boss what I had figured out.  Her response was “Well that is nice, but our group is about process.”  It was crystal clear to me to get out of the group which led to me leaving to go to Microsoft.

When I worked at HP, Apple, and Microsoft I changed jobs every year.  I would join a new group.  Understand what they did figure out the problems to solve, learn as much as I could, then got bored and looked for a new problem to solve.  This has led me through quality engineering, reliability engineering, process engineering, packaging engineering, distribution logistics (got really good at this which is why Apple hired me away from HP),  OEM purchasing, peripheral engineering, monitors, power supplies, keyboards and mice, scanners, printers, operating system project management, typography (got really good at this which is why Microsoft hired me away from Apple), client OS, program management, business development, vendor management, power management, modular plug and play architecture in OS, evangelism, platform marketing, web platforms, management systems (got good at this, then really frustrated at Microsoft and left), green data center, environmental technologies, media ecosystem, construction, analyst, and entrepreneur.

Even after all this the one consistent pattern which can frustrate those who aren’t used to hanging around engineers is a focus on where the problem is.


Problem solving is used in engineering when products or processes fail, so corrective action can be taken to prevent further failures. It can also be applied to a product or process prior to an actual fail event, i.e., when a potential problem can be predicted and analyzed, and mitigation applied so the problem never actually occurs. Techniques such as Failure Mode Effects Analysis can be used to proactively reduce the likelihood of problems occurring.

Forensic engineering is an important technique of failure analysis that involves tracing product defects and flaws. Corrective action can then be taken to prevent further failures.

Reverse engineering attempts to discover the original problem-solving logic used in developing a product by taking it apart.

Finding the problem can seem depressing to those who are powerless to do anything about the problem.  But, when you feel like you can fix things, you want to see the problem clearly so you can fix it.  Repeating the analysis to see if you really do see.

An example of a person who focuses on problem solving is Google’s Jeff Dean.

Google’s Jeff Dean talks about infrastructure, focus and recognizing cats


JUN. 19, 2013 - 12:46 PM PST



Jeff Dean, a Google Fellow who helped develop some of the web giant’s most innovative infrastructure projects, says focusing on one problem at a time is crucial for success

Jeffrey Dean, the man who developed or co-developed some of Google’s biggest infrastructure innovations — such as MapReduce and BigTable — told attendees atGigaOM’s Structure conference in San Francisco that the best approach to infrastructure is to focus on one problem at a time. Google was forced to come up with its own software and hardware solutions, Dean said, because it was growing so quickly and had such huge data needs, and this helped it to focus on the important problems that needed to be solved right away and to come up with some innovative answers.