Knowing What To Make Vs Knowing How To Make It

Knowing how to make something

I’ve spent the majority of my professional life working out how to make certain things. Essentially, I took an engineering route. This is what engineering is: knowing how to make things. We can sub-categorise into frameworks of organising teams: systems engineering, lean manufacturing, agile methodologies; we can sub-categorise into the specific science studied: material engineering, chemical engineering, aeronautical engineer; we can sub-categorise into role: development engineering, verification engineering (essentially, are you doing the manufacturing, or are you verifying what’s been manufactured to check you have what you’re supposed to have made?), but at the end of the day, all engineering work is aimed at making things.


I’ve recently read The Lean Startup, which talks about using your product to test the market, essentially asking the question: how do you know that what you’ve made adds any value?

The Lean Startup was interesting to me because I always put the product at the centre of any company. Within a company, around the manufacture of the product, I would put HR (getting the right people to make the product), Finance/Accounting (measuring the money flow through the manufacturing line of the product), management. But The Lean Startup builds a company around the question: “how do we know what we’re making adds value” and just uses products to answer that question.

Another aspect of the book that made an impact on me was just how different the development process of a company was in my mind, vs in the mind of Eric Ries, the author. In my mind, when you know how to make something well and you start selling it, you’re close to being set-up. However, this is just the starting point for Ries. Knowing how to make something just buys you entry into the arena so you can start working on the real problem: knowing what to make.


Knowing What To Make

You can make the best product in the world, but if it doesn’t add real value in a preferential way relative to something else, it’ll die. This is the idea that has driven many engineering slogans over the years, for example, “focusing on customer pull rather than product push”, which is a core philosophy for Lean Manufacturing. Knowing what to make is just as important as how to make it, and I’ve realised that this is something I’m a lot weaker in.

In The Lean Startup, being able to make a good product is just the starting point. Having a product just means you finally have a tool with which you can ask the question: “what do customers want?”

The first thing you’ll need to do is to have some hypothesis. “I believe customers want a bed that’s filled with water.” Then you’ll make that product and see how it sells. This sets up a baseline.

From there, you can look at the assumptions you’re making and use them to iterate the product. “I was assuming that they wanted the bed only half-full.” You could start experimenting with how full the bed is with water and testing sales. Each product iteration should get you closer to what the market wants. And finally, after each iteration, the modern waterbed is made.


Arguments Against The Lean Startup Methodology

The first company that comes to mind which doesn’t really follow The Lean Startup methodology is Apple. Apple releases only a few products a year, and they tell the customer – rather than the other way round – what the customer wants. “You want a phone that doesn’t have keypads.” Maybe Apple is the exception that proves the rule. With new iPhone iterations, I know that they do a LOT of market research on the new features they hope to implement each year, but still, Jobs had always taken command of product direction rather than the customer. Ultimately, The Lean Startup is, like most things in life, just one way of many ways you can do something. You’ll need to work out what the best strategy is for your product and company.


Time Management

All this leaves us with the question: what should we apply our time to? Should we develop our skills in being able to make things: the classic university route in engineering? If so, what if we learn how to make things, but we have no idea what to make? On the other hand, should we spend our time looking for opportunities and working out what to make? In which case: what if we find a great opportunity – we find a problem that has a clearly defined solution – but we have no idea how to make that solution?

To me, it makes sense to learn how to make things first, even if this is just the start of our journey. At least then we can be employed by a company that already has a vision and a market hold. The company already knows that what they’re making something that should be made: now you can focus on helping to make it. The alternative route is the Steve Jobs route: knowing what to make but not knowing how to make it. From there he was able to amass the people around him who had the skills to make his vision a reality. But to me, this sounds way harder.

Clear, Persuasive Communication = An Equation

The trick to having persuasive communication is to have a message that is extremely clear. The elevator pitch. Summing up your product in a condensed way so that anyone listening to you for half a minute would understand what the core function of your product is. Summing up what you want to do so that the benefits are obvious and the choice between undertaking what you want to do or not is a no-brainer. With complex products, this becomes increasingly hard to do: there are nuances of functionality that need to be explained, and some of the functionality requires background knowledge to even understand why it’s useful to begin with. But the best salesmen find a way.

Take the introduction of the first smartphone. That’s a difficult sales pitch. How do you even start to describe all the different things it can do? All the apps it can utilize. What its core functionality would be. Yet Steve Jobs managed it – he even created a story around the sales pitch, incorporating twists in the story when he initially misled the audience into believing it was three products instead of one.

“A widscreen iPod with touch-screen controls. A revolutionary mobile phone. A breakthrough internet communication device.”

And then crystalizing his sales pitch out completely:

“An iPod. A phone. An internet communicator.”

There’s an art to this. But the area in life where I think this art is most advanced? My views might surprise you. I don’t think it’s sales or management. I think it’s science.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been attracted to science. I don’t have to spend any effort trying to see through the fluff. I don’t have to spend any time trying to get to the crux of the problem vs. working out which bits of the poor, unclear communication I need to ignore. Because science is naturally set up as the best sales pitch in the world. The equation.

F = m.a

You can’t condense it down any further than that. No fluff. No nonsense. Just telling you the relationship between specific properties.

Maybe that’s the formula to the perfect sales pitch. To put it into an equation.

iPhone = iPod + phone + internet

All you need to do then is describe it in a sentence that makes it sound like it’s not  an equation.

Entrepreneurial Vs. Corporate Mindset

Friends and I got talking about why saying “I’m ambitious” in a job interview may be a bad move. One of us retorted, “I think this is quite a common reason for not selecting people, by displaying ambition it could give the indication that you only see it as a stepping stone and will only stay a couple of years.”

This was an interesting insight to me. It wasn’t something I saw, and I realised this was because the model I use to view what success looks like in the workplace is fundamentally different to other people. Looking at the landscape through my lens made me blind to this.  With my mindset, ambition isn’t a problem. With others, it’s a warning sign. But what are the two mindsets? How could they change the way we view the world? These are the what I’ve called the entrepreneurial and the corporate mindsets.


Entrepreneurial mindset

I’d also like to call this the “ecosystem mindset.” “Entrepreneurial” refers to what kind of people view the world through this lens, and “ecosystem” describes the nature of the lens itself.

Those possessing this mindset views the commercial world as a series of ecosystems. We need to spot holes/opportunities in the ecosystem: maybe there’s an opportunity to automate a specific general process used in every company: a hole which is unfilled and ubiquitous across the industry? The entrepreneur then finds a way to solve that problem, add value, and realise that opportunity. She finds herself nestled in an ecosystem where she has symbiotic relationships with suppliers (animals she eats), stock-holders (a decentralised God – for lack of better objects for the analogy), employees (friendly gut bacteria) and customers (predators… which perhaps is where the analogy breaks down, because in real life you don’t want to be eaten, whereas in a business ecosystem you’d like to be as tasty as possible). If she’s first to market, it’s because she’s found an island where she’s the first of her kind there, and as long as there are the prey in place to live from and predators to eat her, she’ll grow. But soon there’ll be more of her species (her competitors) to fight over prey and predators.

Of course, the highest-level ecosystem is the global market, and here, an animal represents a company. But this model works within individual companies as well. Each company has their own micro-ecosystem: their own problems they need to solve, opportunities to find, niches to fill. Every individual in the company could be modelled as a unique animal: with their own unique skills and knowledge, who are well adapted to seeing holes that no-one else has seen and filling them.

In an entrepreneurial mindset, ambition is good. If you’re an employee within the company, you’re driven to be as vigilant as possible to spot opportunities and then to fill them. The company will grow as more problems are unearthed and fixed. As long as the company rewards the employees relative to the value they add, the employee is incentivised to stay within the company whose ecosystem is best suited to their own natural skills. Like a wolf staying on an island inhabited by sheep. Why would it ever move?

However, when a company is too restrictive in its role boundaries, the entrepreneur is unhappy. She wants to have the freedom to move around. If the company also doesn’t recognise the entrepreneur’s added value and give her proportional return, she will be unhappy as well. The open market and ownership of a company is alluring to her because there is no upper limit to the return on value added. When working for a company that offer only fixed income – an upper limit on return – regardless of value added, she gets twitchy.

A fixed income and strictly set role boundaries start to become properties of a different type of system, which requires a different model.


Corporate mindset

I’d also like to call this the “hierarchical mindset.” “Corporate”, again, refers to the type of people using this model, whereas “hierarchical” describes the lens itself.

This mindset is usually cultivated in people who are part of large companies. Over time, companies find their niche, more clearly defined processes are put into place, work packages are put into clear categories. Like water running down a mountain, over time the grooves will become more etched out and clearly defined. Each employee ends up have a very specific role to play, and if they play it well, they get to move up the hierarchy and be given a new role.

This mindset is less about being autonomous and looking for opportunity. Rather, that opportunity is known and given to you in the form of a work package by a higher power (your manager). By doing the allocated work well, you get to move up the ladder and are given larger work packages, which you can then delegate to others (your subordinates) and manage the work.

With the corporate mindset, ambition and twitchy-ness can be a bad thing. The aim of the game here isn’t to find opportunity, it’s to be the best at doing the work that is given to you by the higher powers. When you’ve proven your ability, you want to move up. Often, moving up means moving to a different company into a higher position. Ambition translates to only sticking around until you’ve proven your ability to do the work so you can get to the next level.


Ultimately, the line between the two models starts to blur when you get to higher levels of management. Management needs to be accountable for certain areas of the business, which means that they need to spot the problems/opportunities within the company and solve them. It’s only a matter of time between the ecosystem model becomes relevant in everyone’s life. For people new on the ladder, though, who have an ecosystem mentality while needing to be part of the hierarchical model, large corporate companies can be a tough place to operate, as the two modes conflict.

Sherlock Holmes: A Commentary

I had a harrowing decision to make the other day. I recently cancelled my Audible subscription, and I had one final token to buy any book with. But which book to buy? I wanted to get the best bang for my buck – this final one was going to have to last me a while. So naturally, I gravitated towards The Complete Works Of Sherlock Holmes… which was 77 hours long.  It’s also narrated by Steven Fry, which is always good.


After listening to A Study In Scarlet, the first book in the series, there were two aspects of Arthur Conan Doyle’s book that drew my attention. Both of them were grounded in the idea of knowledge, the perception of knowledge, skills, and the perception of skills. I.e. what we know, what we can do, and how we perceive these possessions and processes. Part of the magic of Holmes is how he describes what it’s like to see the world through his eyes. But what do his eyes see? If we split this up into skills and knowledge, we can compare how Sherlock – and by proxy, Doyle, perceived the world, and compare this to contemporary psychology.



“It was easier to know it than to explain why I knew it. If you were asked to prove that two and two made four, you might find some difficulty, and yet you are quite sure of the fact. Even across the street I could see a great blue anchor tattooed on the back of the fellow’s hand. That smacked of the sea. He had a military carriage, however, and regulation 12 side whiskers. There we have the marine. He was a man with some amount of self-importance and a certain air of command. You must have observed the way in which he held his head and swung his cane. A steady, respectable, middle-aged man, too, on the face of him—all facts which led me to believe that he had been a sergeant.”
“Wonderful!” I ejaculated.
“Commonplace,” said Holmes, though I thought from his expression that he was pleased at my evident surprise and admiration.

What’s interesting about this is that Holmes describes pretty accurately what happens when you’ve reached the fourth stage of skill competency, based on the model of the four stages of competence, which is “unconscious competence”. An example of unconscious competence is the skill of putting our clothes on in the morning – how often do we get up and start putting on clothes, thinking about the day ahead, only to look down and found we’ve now completed the action 30 seconds later. We’re so used to putting our clothes on in the morning that we do it completely on autopilot, and at this point, it would be slower to explain how we’re doing it than to actually do it.

What makes Holme’s remark even more interesting, though, is that Doyle wrote A Study In Scarlet in 1887. The psychological model of “the Four Stages Of Competence” was developed in 1970. Or at least, it was popularised and codified as a model in 1970. It clearly existed as a concept in Doyle’s head long before it was elucidated as a psychological theory.

So that’s how Holmes views skills… how does he perceive knowledge?



“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can
distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

The character of Sherlock becomes even more interesting when analysing how he perceives the acquisition of knowledge. What’s interesting is that he acknowledges that there are skills we have mastered to the point of unconscious competence, yet he doesn’t seem to acknowledge the equivalent in knowledge: the unknown known. The unknown known encompasses the things we know that we don’t realise we know: common sense falls under this category. Well, for some people. Common sense also falls under the category of ‘unknown unknown’ for others… moving on…

The thing is, a lot of that knowledge we need to traverse life only ever gets learnt tacitly, to be organised away somewhere in our brains as unrealised knowledge. We need unknown knowns to function and solve problems, and it’s important to understand that a lot of the knowledge we use to solve problems were never explicitly intended to be learnt in the first place. If we could travel into the future and know every aspect of the case, we could then go back in time to think about what we need to learn in order to solve it. But life isn’t like that: it throws you a problem, and if you’ve equipped yourself with the knowledge and skills prior to that point, you’re good, if not, you better learn fast. There might be a case for Sherlock in the future that hinges on the notion of a heliocentric solar system. Sure, it’d be convoluted, but it could still happen and because of that, Holmes isn’t correct in disregarding this new information.

There is one aspect of what Holmes says that I agree on, though. Now that he’s learnt of a different model of the Solar System, he’s spent his time listening to it so he might as well commit it to memory. But when planning what to learn, it’s important to be very careful what will be the most valuable skill/knowledge is for our situation in life, and then learn that first. If we’re not careful, we could spend an entire lifetime acquiring useless information and skills, where we have no chance to actually apply those skills in the environment that we are situated in. Take Biology class in secondary school, for example. How are we applying that knowledge? But hey, at least when the government ask me how it is that I still don’t know tax laws by the age of 27 after botching my Deliveroo self-assessment, I can tell them, “the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell”.

And I won’t even get into the other aspect of what Holmes said, regarding how we have finite space in our minds with which to hold information…


Image result for homer simpson when i learn something new

On Inaction

“The world is a dangerous place. Not because of those who do evil but because of those who look on & do nothing” – Mr. Robot S01E02 (even though this is a pretty common mentality echoed by thousands of others)


It was at this moment, watching Mr Robot, that I really thought about the consequences of those words. I’ve always agreed with the sentiment to a certain extent. When we see evil and allow it to happen, we implicitly condone it. We’re evil through association, based on our inaction against it. But what would happen if everyone took action based on their beliefs?

And what would happen if not everyone could agree on what to believe: what the best plan of action was for each situation?

We would have a scenario where whatever one side would do, the other side would tear down. If everyone had this mentality, we would experience the ultimate destruction of any progress that humanity tried to make. Especially as most of our high-level accumulated views are so divided. The Brexit vote: 48 – 52 %. Trump/Clinton presidential candidacy: about the same.

If we all held this view, humanity would tear itself apart. Because what we believe as a course of action may differ based on our individual values and every individual’s specific knowledge. The right course of action – the judgment of good and bad, evil and righteous – becomes subjective.

After all is said and done, is it better to allow what our subjective idea of evil is to exist, just so that we can facilitate human progress – whether we’re going in the right direction or not?


Just food for thought.


On Being A Failure

I was reminded yesterday of a friend who, a few years ago, who didn’t pass her grades. She was distraught.

“I’m a failure!” she cried. I’ve always had an adversity to calling someone a failure. It’s so absolute. Just as when some annoys you, you shouldn’t say, “you’re annoying,” you might say, “you’re annoying me right now”. The first is absolute, The second is temporary. You don’t get annoyed by their very presence (well, I hope no-one has that effect on you). The annoyance comes and goes.

“You’re not a failure, you’ve just failed this time around,” I replied. I was told that I was an optimist (dubious). I didn’t say anything back, but I wish that I had replied that, rather, I was just a rationalist.

We are born without any knowledge bestowed to us – other than the unconscious neural patterns and cognitive biases that allow us to survive as a baby (breathing, shitting, forming attachments with our mothers): which could arguably be said to processes rather than knowledge. As we get older, we accumulate more and more knowledge. After a time, we start testing our knowledge. Sometimes we pass, sometimes we fail. But should we blame ourselves for the knowledge we haven’t yet come across yet and acquired?

Yes, sometimes all of the knowledge is laid out in front of us, and the reason for why we fail is simply that the rate of knowledge acquisition wasn’t good enough. But even then, the skills of acquiring knowledge need to be taught. We need to learn how to learn. And some of us may learn in different preferential ways. Can we be blamed for not coming across a method that suits our style of learning?

I believe that all we can do is to try. Focus our attention at different levels: work at learning how to learn, then on learning. This is a balancing act; there’s no point planning our revision strategies if, by the time we’ve finished planning, we’ve given ourselves no time left to actually revise. Yet still, all we can do is try. When we fail, we highlight our absence of knowledge in certain areas. Failure is a useful learning experience that will help us succeed in the future. With each failure, our chances of being a winner in the future increase, as long as we learn from the failure.

Ultimately, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win. The only time we are ever an absolute failure is when we give up. Because every individual instance of when we fail is an opportunity to glean one more hint into how to succeed next time.

How Our Feelings Can Mislead Us

I’m all up for “following your heart” sometimes. But sometimes… we just shouldn’t. There have been a few instances recently were I’ve relied on my intuition – my feelings – to make decisions and after weighing up these decisions in hindsight, I’ve realised they weren’t the best option to choose. I’d like to share these instances with you to highlight how easy it is to make flawed decisions.

1.  I went to a conference recently to learn about Vacuum gauges, vacuum pumps, how to create a vacuum etc. The conference was given by one of the experts in the industry (who was high in the hierarchy of a vacuum company) so I thought it would be worth-while listening to the conference. I brushed up on my knowledge with a pdf I found on the internet by the company this guy worked for before the talk. It was pretty comprehensive – 134 pages (I didn’t read all of it), but it perfectly explained everything I needed to know. So I read this pdf for a few hours and then set off to the conference. When I sat down and the expert started talking, I realised he was using slides almost directly taken out of the pdf. However, this information now was coming from an expert: he would still fill in a few interesting bits here and there, right? And I didn’t know it inside out. At the end of the day, I felt like I had got a lot done: I had gone into Glasgow Uni, made it to a vacuum conference to listen to an expert talk. Productive day!

In hindsight, though, it took about an hour to get from my room to into the conference hall (so 2 hours travelling there and back). Commuting somewhere might feel like getting things done – “I’m moving forward!” – but actually it’s sunk cost that you accept because the value of the thing you’re travelling to is still greater than the cost. Parking cost £4.40. And I listened to this lecture for about 1.5 hours. So that’s 3 hours of time for 1.5 hours of learning. Compare this to the amount of time I could have spent learning the information at home – 3 hours for 3 hours, it starts looking like I should have stayed at home. The weird thing is, I don’t feel like I get a lot of stuff done if I’ve just sat at my computer all day. It doesn’t have the gravitas of telling yourself, “I went to a conference to listen to an expert.” The problem is that I’ve attached some inherent value to “listening to an expert,” where really there is none. The value is in the content that the expert can get into our heads. I somehow feel that because this guy is an expert, he can teach me more content than just a pdf. And the conference makes it seem important. I’m an important person with all these other important businessmen, gleaning some knowledge from an expert. You can’t feel that important sitting at your computer at home, reading a pdf.

2. My route home can take me either two ways: a longer route where I can move more quickly, or a shorter route that goes through a road with huge speed-bumps that I need to take at around 5 mph. I always go the fast route: it just feels like I’m getting home quicker: I’m going faster, after all!

I recently found out, though, that the speed-bump route is quicker. Even with this new information, I still sometimes don’t believe it and go the route where I can travel quicker – it just feels quicker.

I’ve even heard of some people, waiting for a late bus, who actually walk to the next bus station so that they can get the bus further down the line. So that that they can catch the same bus just from the next station… only the walk to the next bus station makes them feel like they’ll get to their destination quicker.


Our feelings/intuitions can be sneaky. And maybe the most sneaky thing about them is that because they’re decisions made on feelings, we don’t consciously realise we’ve made them. We don’t rationally study the decision making, because it’s a case that’s been opened and closed within the intuitive realm. It’s only when we either catch ourselves making them, or look back in hindsight, that we can see.