Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
The Art of Maximizing The Amount of Work Not Done
On February 11, 2001, seventeen software developers met at The Lodge at Snowbird, a ski resort in Utah. As the world was shifting into an era of e-business, e-commerce, and the web, the Snowbird 17 meeting was organized to try to find common ground beneath the technological revolution. Many different software development methods—Extreme Programming, SCRUM, DSDM, Adaptive Software Development, Crystal, Feature-Driven Development, Pragmatic Programming, and others—were represented. “I personally didn’t expect this particular group,” as one of the Snowbird 17 put it, “to ever agree on anything substantive.” But after two days, this particular group agreed on something substantive: The Manifesto for Agile Software Development, a 68-word document that has been translated into some seventy languages and changed software development forever. After they signed The Manifesto, the Snowbird 17 put together the 12 Principles behind the Agile Manifesto. The contents of today’s SIX will hover in the vicinity of my favorite, the tenth principle: “Simplicity—the art of maximizing the amount of work not done—is essential.”
The Atomic Unit of a Product
In 1999, David Sacks quit his job at McKinsey & Company to work at a startup that was trying to make it possible to email money from one person to another. Or at least that’s what Sacks was told the company was trying to do. But when Sacks started working at PayPal, he quickly realized a problem. “Even though the leadership of the company had decided to focus on emailing money,” Sacks said, “that’s not what the team was focused on. There was this gap between the leadership’s insight and the team’s ability to execute it.” So one of the first things Sacks did at PayPal was walk up to a whiteboard and drew two boxes: one to put in an email address and one to put in a dollar amount. “Basically I surfaced the product hook and got everything else out of the way,” he said. He was then asked what he means by product hook. “It’s the atomic unit of the product,” he said. “It’s the single interaction that the user is going to want to engage with, hopefully again and again.” It’s the search box on Google. It’s the ‘where to?’ box on Uber. It’s the swipe up and the iPhone recognizes your face. “It’s that very simple initial interaction that brings users back,” Sacks said. It has to be very simple, Sacks emphasizes, “because consumers aren’t going to want to graduate from complexity up to more complexity.” Great products, he says, perfect the product hook. The atomic (”a single irreducible”) unit of the product. The maximum amount of work not done.
To Produce, Reduce
I wish I hadn’t used this because it is a great follow-up to the idea of reducing down to the atomic unit. Oh well—I’ll reduce it down. In a video of Jay-Z and Rick Rubin in the studio working on “99 Problems,” Rubin has and suggests the idea to open the song with a cappella. This—reducing down, moving towards simplicity—is characteristic of Rubin. On the very first album Rubin produced, the credit he took was, “reduced by Rick Rubin,” instead of, “produced by Rick Rubin.” “I like to get to the essential,” Rubin said. “There’s a sonic benefit…the less elements, the more space there is to hear the personality of the elements that are there.” For example, if you record ten people simultaneously playing the same guitar part, it sounds like guitar. But, if you record one person playing that guitar part, it sounds like a person playing the guitar. “And often in the studio,” Rubin says, “when you try to build upon things, when you add layers to try to make it sound bigger—often, the more things you add, the smaller it gets.” Listeners don’t want to graduate from big sounds to more big sounds, to put a spin on the insight from Sacks.
Easy To Learn and Difficult To Master
Users and listeners don’t like to graduate up from complexity. But we do like to graduate up from simplicity. The father of electronic gaming Nolan Bushnell’s favorite game is an analog game called “GO.” A game of GO is played with black and white stones on a 19×19 matrix. The matrix is empty at the start. Players take turns placing stones one at a time. The objective is to control more area or territory. The rules are simple, but it wasn’t until 2016 that an AI program, AlphaGO, defeated the human GO world champion. For comparison, IBM’s Deep Blue defeated the world chess champion in 1997. That’s what Bushnell loves about GO— “the rules are so damn simple you can learn them in a minute, [but nearly impossible to master],” he said. “That’s what I call ‘the money shot.’ That’s the formula of real excellence.” Today, it’s known as “Bushnell’s Law.” As Bushnell put it in 1971, “All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth.”
Write Like You Talk
I have two friends in mind when I write SIX at 6. I try to write in the way I would talk to them. I got the idea from Paul Graham, who talks about how something strange comes over people when they start writing: “they write in a different language than they’d use if they were talking to a friend.” They use “mercurial” instead of “moody” or “exclaimed” instead of “said.” They violate the tenth principle behind the Agile Manifesto—they give a reader more work to do. It’s strange because writing simply is easier. Dressing up your writing is more work. “It’s all evasion,” Graham writes. “When you can’t deliver ornament, you have to deliver substance.”
The Speaker Before Lincoln
One of my favorite Daily Stoic emails begins, “The guy that spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg went on for about 2 hours—his speech was 13,607 words long. Lincoln got up and spoke just 271 words.” No ornament. Just substance.