Developing new technology is, as Edison once said, “one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” It makes sense when you consider what technology really is: technique. It is, at root, a new way of doing something; presumably a way that never existed before someone painstakingly established it. Since developing new technology is hard work, it stands to reason that only a relatively few people devote their lives to doing it. But let’s say you are one of them. Where do you start? How do you begin? And what principles should you keep in mind?
As is so often the case, Viaweb founder and venture capitalist Paul Graham offers an eloquent answer in his latest essay “Six Principles for Making New Things.”
“I like to find (a) simple solutions (b) to overlooked problems (c) that actually need to be solved, and (d) deliver them as informally as possible, (e) starting with a very crude version 1, then (f) iterating rapidly.”
Graham elaborates on each step of his formula, but we will limit our discussion to how they relate to new technology development. The first is the well-known but often-overlooked advice of opting for simple solutions.
This first step is so important that engineers have a saying for it: “Keep it Simple, Stupid!” Unfortunately, inventors of new technology often reject this advice because, as Graham says, simple solutions don’t seem as impressive as complex ones. However, this is a dangerous mistake. With consumer attention spans shorter than ever, technology that gets the job done in the simplest way tend to win out. For this reason, you should deliberately and on principle strive to make your technology function in a simple way. Often, this means putting in more effort. It might seem easier, for example, to make the customer fiddle around with settings to get your invention working right. Instead, take the extra time and effort to configure it so it will perform optimally out of the box, with as little fiddling as necessary. Decisions like this can make all the difference in new technology development.
We will assume that you have chosen an overlooked problem that actually needs to be solved. Even if you picked an irrelevant problem, the technology development steps to solve it would not change. Therefore, we move to delivering your technology as informally as possible. What this means in practice is to keep moving at all times. One of the biggest sinkholes of wasted time is to endlessly plan, speculate, and wonder about your technology instead of actually developing it. Going hand in hand with this is the fear that “maybe my customers won’t like the way I developed this.” However, at root, these attitudes are nothing but roadblocks to your success. If customers don’t like the way you developed something, it will be readily apparent to you and it will get you back to the drawing board faster.
Naturally, this leads to starting off with a very crude prototype of what your technology will ultimately be. This frightens some new technology developers who are so blinded by their “ultimate vision” that they refuse to roll out anything less. This is a mistake, because their vision may not be what customers actually want. Therefore, developers should pay less attention to whether their prototype is glamorous and more attention to whether it solves a thorny problem.
This moves us right along to the last step of Graham’s formula – iterate rapidly. Once you have developed something that may not be pretty but works, you can gauge people’s response to it. Are they impressed by it? Do they wish it worked in a slightly different way? A totally different way? Is it actually fine as-is and ready to be sold? No matter what the answers are, you will not know them unless you kick Inventor Baby Syndrome to the curb and develop a quick-and-dirty version of your technology to roll out with.
If you have noticed a common theme among all of these steps, you are one step ahead of the game. The common theme is to always be moving and pressing on toward that next step. Technology development can be made into an endless labyrinth of analysis-paralysis and second guessing, but this does not need to be the case. If you are always pressing yourself to complete something – anything – that solves the problem you’re after, you will finish developing your technology far sooner than the average inventor does.
In that sense, new technology development is more about attitude than about any specific methodology. If you resolve to keep moving and let nothing stand in your path, you will most likely take a course similar to the one Graham laid out anyway. As a practical matter, re-read these steps at the end of each day you spend developing something. If you can honestly say that you are following along, success should soon follow.