I had the utmost privilege of working for (and living with) inventor and computer science pioneer, Dr. Danny Hillis, for a summer internship at his company Applied Minds in 2003. Danny is a fascinating person and you may have seen a couple of his TED talks. Because of my time with him, I ended up spending a couple of days with Bill Joy (co-founder of Sun Microsystems and author of the vi text editor), having dinner with Jeff Bezos, dinner with Peter Gabriel, and watching Danny (and his fellow geniuses) solve really, really complex problems.
Applied Minds was a company out of the future. It’s been described as “Willy Wonka-esque” by Boing Boing. They used multi-camera, auto-switching, high-definition, cross-country videoconferencing before it was available on the internet. They had prototype parts for Danny’s 10,000-year clock all over the office. My desk sat between Alan Kay (inventor of the graphical user interface, object-oriented programming, and the laptop computer) and Story Musgrave (a space shuttle astronaut with six academic degrees who fixed the Hubble telescope with his own hands). Working at Applied Minds taught me three things:
- I was not smart enough to work there.
- There is significant demand for advanced, rapid prototyping.
- “Impossible” problems are solvable if you know how to think about them.
Let’s ignore items 1 and 2 (I literally wrote a book about #1) and skip to 3.
The hard part about “impossible” problems is not that they’re “impossible,” but people don’t know how to approach them. Applied Minds was hired by companies who knew their problems were solvable, just not by their own internal teams. Most products and projects we can dream up today are feasible because we can’t really imagine what does not yet exist. The only limitation we face is the actual solution. So, what made Danny’s team so special that companies around the globe would seek out his help?
First, Danny’s engineers were multidisciplinary. Half the people I met had PhDs from CalTech by the age of 28. They studied in every field: microbiology, chemistry, mathematics, biology, industrial engineering, farming. To get hired by Applied Minds at that time required an interview featuring a silver briefcase full of miscellaneous hardware and electronics. You had to offer intelligent guesses as to the function of the devices in the briefcase. Here’s one of those mysterious items:
Can you guess what it is?
It’s called a Mogen clamp and is a surgical instrument used for male circumcision. That’s just one of the many esoteric pieces you’ll find in the briefcase.
The job candidate would have no idea whether the items inside were related. The briefcase was plopped in front of them and they were told, “Tell us about what you find in here.” It was just a random collection of “stuff” for the candidate to investigate and think out loud about. And you didn’t have to guess correctly to get hired, you just had to guess intelligently.
The Applied Minds office was lined with bookshelves full of technical materials. The bookshelves were stacked 10–15 feet high against the walls. Full of books, weird gizmos, doo-dads, materials, and tools. When Danny was home, he was with his family or he was reading. I’d never seen anyone read so much. Reading was an important skill for all Applied Minds employees.
Second, Danny’s engineers were hands-on. Everyone knew how to solder. Everyone could draw circuit diagrams and get circuit boards printed. Everyone knew how to use plasma cutters and CAD software. Everyone knew how to program. Everyone had scars on their hands from solder burns or accidental cuts working on machinery. At the time, there were very few soft-handed engineers who’d never used a table saw.
There was very little armchair expertise across the staff. When they were passing time, they were arguing about things like eigenvectors, or carbon nanotubes, or space elevators. They’d get in front of the whiteboard, write and draw the equations and graphs, and passionately debate the merits of ideas. I’d hear things like, “No, that’s not how nanotubes work. Let me show you.” I’d shake my head in disbelief. Everyone there was a genius well beyond my capabilities.
Third, and most importantly, Danny’s engineers knew how to think. There’s the famous adage: “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” Well, in the engineering world, there’s the Turing machine. The idea behind a Turing machine is there’s a theoretical strip of tape with finite and discrete “cells” that a theoretical machine can read and apply rules one step at a time. For anyone who’s ever looked at software code, it’s kind of like going step-by-step through a block of code.
The Turing machine is a great tool to determine the feasibility of an idea, an algorithm, a process, etc. It allows you to think through a problem one small, finite step at a time, walk through your own logic, and see if there are any gaps. Though I never refer to my thinking process as being similar in any way to a Turing machine, I have benefited from this analytical approach since I learned about it in my computer science program 20 years ago. Thinking through a problem one tiny bit at a time does much more than test your thinking.
Piecemeal problem solving allows you to break a problem down into bite-sized “chunks” of concepts you can understand and manipulate. If you asked me to build something well beyond my depth, like an electric car, I wouldn’t say, “That’s crazy! I can’t do that!” I’d say, “Okay, what are the fundamental concepts required to build an electric car?” At the smallest and simplest level, an electric car requires:
- A battery
- A motor
- A controller to throttle electricity to the motor
- A chassis
- A suspension, and
- A steering wheel
Note there’s nothing about brakes, the car body, a windshield, a CarPlay-enabled stereo, a speedometer, etc. I’m going to start with the basics, take what I know, and build on each of those concepts to make a very simple prototype.
Once the prototype is done, I can start building incrementally on that… A better suspension, a better chassis, a bigger motor, a bigger battery, a driver’s seat, a steering wheel, steering column, steering rack, etc. When that prototype is done, I go deeper. Iterate and repeat.
Applied Minds hired people who already had experiences building and working on cars. They had people who could program fancy, interactive dashboards. They had people who could fabricate vehicle interiors, solder electronics throughout a chassis, add microcontrollers, and continue to incrementally build until they met the client’s need. There’s tons of new car technology we see on the market today that I saw almost 20 years ago at Applied Minds. Why the delay? Getting new tech to the market requires lots and lots of testing and validation. Prototyping and building is the “easy” part. Getting through government testing and approval is the “hard” part.
There are companies all over the world with ideas that exceed their internal capabilities. Prototyping and engineering agencies like Applied Minds, or Danny’s new company Applied Invention, are great options. They know how to solve hard problems. As Danny once told me, “We need to live on the edge of possible.” What is “possible” is really an amalgamation of incremental improvements to well-understood systems over time.
This way of thinking is what makes “impossible” problems solvable. If you know how to think methodically, incrementally, and you can relate unrelated domains/systems, then you can solve nearly any problem.
Seeing Danny and his incredibly bright teams work is what inspires me to never slow down, never stop learning, and not confine myself to one problem domain. While there are advantages to deep knowledge in a domain, I’d much rather be a “T” or an “X” personality with knowledge across several domains. It’s more enjoyable to me, reduces my risk of going bust in my career, and keeps me fresh.
Over time, I have developed semi-professional-to-expert-level capabilities in: web development, audio production, video production, music composition, music performance, software development, people management, business management, public speaking, writing (I’m finishing my 2nd book and ready for my third), simple construction (I built my own work studio in my backyard), simple electrical work, computer hardware, guitar maintenance and repair, cloud technologies, coaching, consulting… the list goes on. I don’t say this to brag, but to show that one domain can connect to another. When I look at that list, I think, “Oh yeah, that makes perfect sense.” To someone else, they might think, “Wow, that dude is random.”
Solving hard problems benefits from knowledge and experience across various domains. With sufficient experience, one can easily decompose a problem into small, constituent parts and assemble them into a connected solution. Incremental improvements through experience in knowledge domains over time matters. It gives me the confidence to confront hard problems.
You should check out my book, Clueless at The Work: Advice From a Corporate Tyrant, published by Stairway Press. It has fifteen 5-star reviews on Amazon and they’re selling it at a price cheaper than I can get from my publisher. Feel free to reach out on LinkedIn to say hi.