John Stokvis

February 14, 2024

Unique problems and generic solutions

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The tweet below from Shreyas struck a chord with me, because it's so true. It took me a while to figure this out (even though I was never able to articulate it this succinctly, even to myself).

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We tend to think that our problems are special but look for generic solutions.

We say "well we tried this before, you haven't considered this quirk of our business/team/product/customers" and then look for popular solutions that (by all outer appearances) seem like they worked at other "successful" companies. These solutions seem special (because some special company came up with them), but they're broadly known precisely because they've been whittled down, stripped of their context, and packaged into easily understood, bite-sized quips and acronyms. In other words, generic.

Putting aside that what made those companies successful was probably not the way they handled this particular problem, what's interesting is this thinking gets the situation exactly backwards.

As he points out, our problems are actually pretty generic. Lots of people have had them (or problems very similar to them). But because of our specific context, we need to figure out a solution that is unique to us and our team.

What's interesting is the method of doing this (finding a specific solution to a generic problem) is basically the core of doing good product work. Specifically uncovering customer problem, systems thinking, and an understanding of your goals and constraints.

However, instead of aiming it at customer/business problems, you aim it at process/team problems.

Use this to break into product

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This gets to 1 of my favorite pieces of advice for people stuck in the 🐓 & 🥚 problem of how to "get product experience (to get a title)/get a product title (to get experience)":

Every team has a process. Just treat that like your product.

Build product skills. And in interviews you've got something specific you worked on that you can refer to when you're asked about "a time when...".

What product skills should I build? 

Here's a random, mid-level job description from Stripe. A top-tier tech company in the payments space:
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Putting aside the 7 years of experience, these are all things you can do, right now, focusing on the problems with the way your team works.
  • Dig into the details of the process, understand how to improve, and improve
  • Talk to your customers (your teammates. They will love to tell you about their problems, especially if you're offering to fix them.)
  • Work with others to fix the underlying process problems
  • Measure how you fixed it. Could be a survey of your team. Could be improvements in how fast you ship.
  • Communicate with your boss and your team about the problem. They won't discover the work you did on their own, so talk about it.
  • What matters is fixing the problem with the process. The fact that you care will give you energy to push through when you get stuck (and you will get stuck).

That's it. That's the one weird trick that actually works.

Just start doing it.