Thursday, August 13, 2015

How to go for 10X

I think the 10X term originated from this book. (Correct me if I am wrong. I didn't check this.)

It seems like Larry and Sergey are a fan of this concept (so should you!). Actually reading this January 2013 piece, you can sense that the Alphabet transition was in the works by then.

10X doesn't just mean go fast, get quick results, and get 10X more done in the same time. If you think about it, that is actually a pretty incremental mode of operation. And that is how you incur technical debt. That means it was just a matter of time for others to do the same thing, and probably much better and more complete. Trading off quality for time is often not a good deal (at least in the academic research domain).

10X means transformative rather than incremental improvement. Peter Thiel explains this well in his book Zero to One, 2014. The main theme in the book is: Don't do incremental business, invent a new transformational product/approach. Technology is 0-1, globalization is 1-n. Most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the book argues that technology matters more. The book says: Globalization (copying  and incrementalism as China has been doing) doesn't scale, it is unsustainable. Another way to put that argument is technology creates more value than globalization.

Below I propose some strategies for achieving 10X and also approach 10X from the perspective of how it applies for the academic research.

Aim big: Don't go for the incremental, pursue the transformative

10X is a mentality, frame of mind. The idea is if you go for a moonshot, and fail, you land among the stars. If you go for incremental improvements, you may be obselete by the time you get there because the world also moved on. Silicon Valley motto, "fail big, fail fast!" embodies this thinking.

For the research part, Dijkstra captured this thinking well in his advice to a promising researcher, who asked how to select a topic for research: "Do only what only you can do!" Anybody can pick the low hanging fruit.

Use the Pareto principle effectively and you are halfway there

The Pareto principle (also known as the 80–20 rule, the law of the vital few, and the principle of factor sparsity) states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

On a related point, if you have to eat two frogs, eat the big frog first. Have the courage to confront the big and ugly head-first. That's where the biggest results/benefits/outcomes will come. There is an entire book on eating the big frog. And this is how the term eating frog originated if you are curious.

From the academic research perspective, the lesson is: attack the inherent complexity of the problem, not the incidental complexities, which time and improvement in technology will take care of.

Adopt/Invent better tools 

"Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe." -- Abraham Lincoln

Here is a more modern perspective from an XKCD cartoon.

I mean, not just better but a transformative tools of course --remember the first point. Most often, you may need to invent that transformative tool yourself. When you are faced with an inherent worthy problem, don't just go for a point solution, generalize your solution, and ultimately make it in to a tool to benefit for the future. Generalizing and constructing the tool/system pays that technical debt and gets you to have truly 10X benefit. MapReduce as a tool comes to my mind as a good example for this. By generalizing on the kind of big data processing tasks/programs written at Google, Jeff Dean was able to see an underlying pattern, write a good tool to solve the problem once and for all.

Scientists spend decades to invent transformative tools (Hadron Collider, Hubble telescope) and then they get breakthrough results. As researchers in computer science, we should try to adopt/cultivate this mentality more.

Be agile and use rapid prototyping

Here is a brief informative video about the rapid prototyping idea. 

The point of prototypes is to fail fast, learn, and move on to the next attack. If you have a plan of attack for a worthy problem, sketch it, model it, pursue it to see if it holds water. As the first/easiest step, write down your idea to explain it.
"If you think without writing, you only think you're thinking." -- Leslie Lamport

"Writing is nature's way of letting you know how sloppy your thinking is." -- Guindon.

The next step for prototyping is mathematical modeling (or writing a specification-level program).

"Math is nature's way of letting you know how sloppy your writing is." -- Leslie Lamport

Collaborate

This advice is along the same vein as using better/transformative tools. Collaborate with the best minds on the topic that you can access to. Academics are pretty open to collaboration, especially when compared to the industry where there are many challenges to collaboration. If you have an interesting question, and if you demonstrate that you did your homework, you can recruit experts on the topic as collaborators.

Employ meta thinking

Focus on results, but also on processes. If you can't solve a hard problem, spin the problem attack that version instead.  Or, maybe go for proving an impossibility result.  Wouldn't that be transformative? (Here is a very recent example.)

Practice deliberately, and see what works

We tend to get more conservative as we get older. So deliberately practice being open-minded. Experiment! We are researchers after all. Collect good practices, and form useful habits. This is a process. Good luck.

Disclaimer: I don't claim to be a 10X engineer or researcher.

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