Problems and Products

13 Feb 2012

Through the non-profit Project:Possibility, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting many bright undergraduate and graduate computer science students at programming competitions. Occasionally a student will ask me if he or she should go work for company X or company Y after graduating. I find that the answer usually depends on which you want to do more:

By compelling problems, I mean technical problems that you find interesting and challenging. The satisfaction you feel from solving a problem is higher if it is difficult or you have studied it for a long time. The problems you solve may not contribute toward a product that you or your friends will ever use, but that’s not too important to you.

By compelling products, I mean products that you use or find helpful. If a complete stranger said that they used or owned whatever product you helped build, you’d beam with pride. The work to build the product may be “grunt work” at times and not very personally enriching, but that’s not too important to you.

I realize that choosing between only these two options is a gross oversimplification, and in your ideal job you’d work on both compelling problems and products. Nonetheless, there is probably one answer that resonates with you more. That answer is neither right nor wrong – different people find different aspects of their work compelling! But know that you’ll be happier working for an employer in the same camp. Usually you can tell if a company is focused on problems or products simply by reading the jobs page on their web site or listening to a recruiter’s spiel.

For example, the copy from the Apple Jobs page is very focused on compelling products. Some snippets:

“Every detail matters… It matters all of the time. That’s how we do things at Apple. The result is some of the best-loved products in the world.”

“Simplicity isn’t simple… It means rethinking every customer experience until the clutter has fallen away — until all that remains is what’s essential, useful, and beautiful. That might be a new product feature that delights even die-hard fans.”

When you go to the Google Jobs page, there isn’t much copy. Going down the left sidebar links, Joining Google and Life at Google don’t even say much, although the latter links to their Youtube page where in each video they ask Google employees what they love about Google. Here are some excerpts from the latest video, Working at Google Krakow, which focuses on working on compelling problems:

“… love to work on challenging projects”

“… love being faced with problems that were not ever solved before”

“… you hear people talking about algorithms and coding and programming languages”

“… it was just a pleasure being interviewed by smart people and being given a lot of puzzling questions”

If you’re not sure which camp you’re in, try and make an educated guess, or simply go with your gut. If you’ve found that you’ve chosen wrong and consequently you’re unhappy with your job, start searching for a new one – just as you’d do if you were unhappy with your job under any other circumstances.

You might even find yourself switching camps at some point. When I graduated with a Master’s in computer science, I wanted to work on compelling problems, perhaps as a way of trying to validate all my schooling. After three years or so, I picked up HTML/CSS and Javascript to complement my knowledge of Python, Java, and C++. It was at this point I realized that I was now a “full stack” sorta guy, and there was no reason why I couldn’t build some of the crazy ideas that I had in my head. This led me to being someone who wants to work on compelling products.

Regardless, know where you stand, and hopefully you’ll find a job that you love. Good luck!

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