Big problems aren’t better than small problems

11 February 2018
11 Feb 2018
West Lafayette, IN
4 mins

There’s a secretive department inside Alphabet (Google’s parent company) called “X”. X’s second name is the “moonshot factory,” because they work on big problems. Like beaming down internet with lasers from the sky to remote places in Africa; self-driving cars before there were self-driving cars on the street; and the Google Glass prototype. And these are just the ones Google has made public.

There’s an allure to these projects, especially when we call them “moonshots.” Who doesn’t want to look like superheroes, shooting stuff into space and making technology seem like they’re from 2050? I mean, would you rather work on the next update to Google Chrome, or on literally cheating death? Shoot sportscars into Mars orbit, or work on improving engine fuel efficiency in a Honda?

We make it sound like there’s a 100-foot concrete wall separating these two caregories of problems into a gold mine and a coal mine. But there really isn’t. I don’t like pretending there is, and I don’t think it’s productive at all.

The original “moonshot” didn’t look like what we think of as a “moonshot project” today. It was a long and patience-testing, hyper-multi-step process that took many more years than the moonshots of today are even willing to wait for. The Apollo 1, the first mission of the original moonshot project, didn’t even take off — the crew died a horrific death in a cabin fire during pre-launch checks. It took years after that (and incredibly courageous subsequent crews) to pull it off.

Some of the brightest founders and engineers I know spend years working on problems that aren’t shooting a sportscar to Mars orbit or bringing forth the advent of electric transport. Those latter problems are certainly very cool, and worth solving in the hundred-year scale, but they aren’t the only problems worth solving.

HTTPS, a nameless moonshot

I’ll take one of my favorite examples: HTTPS.

HTTPS is a secure variant of the HTTP protocol, which is a set of rules that computers and servers use to talk to each other securely, online. When you’re vising websites and you see that lock icon in the address bar, that generally implies the website is communicating with you according to the rules of HTTPS, ensuring nobody can listen in on, or modify, your data as it flies through the wire into your computer.

Without HTTPs, Comcast can inject ads directly into the websites you visit online, because your online activity is traveling completely naked through the wire. Get the picture?

HTTPS is one of the most ambitious projects in the history of the Internet. It’s the reason we can buy and sell stuff online, and why we can promise security when we log in to websites. Without it, there would be no guarantee of security online. None. Zero. Zilch.

HTTPS is nothing short of a complex marvel of network engineering and design. It relies on literally hundreds of systems trusting each other, with in the order of thousands of engineers continuing to make sure advances in technology can’t break the protocol. The technologies behind HTTPS make the Internet secure.

Oh, and it’s been working (and continually updated) without significant failures for over a decade. If this isn’t the poster child for a great moonshot project, I don’t know what is. It’s not your typical “big problem,” but it’s important, and it’s fundamental to the literal fabric of a 2018 world.

Tear Down That Wall

Here’s my point: problems can’t be separated into “big problems” and “small problems,” and it’s a frivolous exercise to claim that a problem is too small to be worth solving. Some problems may be more news-friendly than others, but that’s pretty far from a good measure of anything.

Are you trying to launch a sportscar into Mars orbit? Keep at it (Congrats Elon.)

Are you making something for, like, 10 people in the entire world? Fantastic. Make it the best thing you’ve ever made, because those ten people will thank you for it. And that’s great.

But beyond the headcounts and the ambition, it’s just really hard to tell how important solving a problem will be before the solution is found.

We love to echo the famous lines of Bezos: “the best way to predict the future is to build it,” but then turn around and talk about problems and their potential solutions as if we can see through the fabric of time and forecast how many lives are going to be improved by solving a problem. We like to say, “you never know what could happen,” but then accuse people working on important problems with unknown implications of working on projects that are too small or low-impact.

Big problems are not any better than small problems. If you’ve got an audience that needs their problem solved, and a way to make that happen, few other things matter.

A problem is a problem worth solving, no matter how small.

Okay, sorry.

But seriously. Stop worrying about whether you’re working on something “worth solving,” because with that time, you could have been making something someone else really needed.

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