Doing it alone

Originally posted on 8 Sep’ 2010 here

“If you’re that rare engineer who’s an inventor and also an artist, I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone.”

  • Steve Wozniak

As far as I remember I was never given such advice by anyone, be it my parents, my teachers, professors or mentors during my professional career. It’s hard to understand and harder to believe some such thing when no one talked about it in such a large span (I am past quarter of my life span). But when I, for last few weeks, started to devote some time to this idea of working alone I could clearly think the cases where it was a pure win. These are the cases of “diffused responsibility”, “too much dependence” and “plain pretence”.

I remember working with a group in my last company where each of us in the group felt that the given system of diagnosing the issues was substandard and needed an overhaul. “We” were asked to do that task of making the diagnosis tool better but since it was “We” and apart from this work, everyone had there own set of tasks in their plate - it never happened. It happened when one of us took the responsibility of doing so (after being pointed to sadly). Everyone knew someone has to do it but did not take the task because they assumed that if it is important then someone will take care of it otherwise it’s not that important. I should also point out that everyone was competent enough to do the task. This was the case of “Diffused Responsibility”.

In my current work, for quite some time I was having a task of automating a stuff which was causing pain to us - a very very repetitive stuff which should have been automated long back (I believe this, being part of an engineering company, other companies - I am quite sure - look up to). I promised that I’ll do the task but then came a phase of planning - how to do it? (On this question I imagine the face and style of a a very senior hardcore geek I worked with in a previous company yelling at me - “stupid, how do you write scripts?”). Well, trust me I was asked to plan it out, I was asked to meet so that we use the same automation system which a larger activity uses. So there comes the whole gimmick of breaking the tasks in such a way that there are multiple tasks available with multiple people and yes, there must be a dependency so that there is one more guy involved who will look at getting it done. Hmm. Too much work at hand. The tasks planned moved but very slowly. Thanks to a guy in my team who “broke” the rule and deployed the simple script. That was the power of doing it alone. All the friction was gone from the same set of guys talking about planning and “N” factors to be taken in account. This was the case of “too much dependence”. If you get into such case, do the same - break the rule.

I also remember another incident that happened to me recently. I was working on a killer feature (a killer feature is not a feature that kills but a feature which is most talked about in your product) of the software product I work on as part of my day job. It was a team of three and we decided on few things. Then all of a sudden scope of the work to be done due to some reasons was decreased. We still thought it would be good to decide on few investigations just for Intellectual Property reasons. Here the third case of “Plain Pretence” came in. I did not do, I am pretty sure, because I thought someday I would sit with other guys and work on it. That did not happen. I am also sure that had I started working on these investigations alone, someone in my team would have joined for sure - these are guys who are undoubtedly competent and have keen interest in software development. That initiation was the key.

I’ve written only about the work life experiences but I think this applies to many non work experiences. For me most of the things that I started without worrying about whether someone will join in or not were marked done at some point of time - either successfully or unsuccessfully. They were not lying in on my table under the was_not_able_to_even_try folder. So I have started believing in starting alone. That should not be interpreted as “don’t do in a group” but as - if it is possible to do it alone then don’t wait for the group to begin - just begin and the group may join.

Larger dreams in life like starting a company, I’ve been told should not be done alone. They are such goals which require some one to be there to take care of each other in adverse situations and more reasons. Imagining this, I agree but since I am yet to taste actually that sweet feeling of starting an enterprise I won’t be able to comment on this but I feel this small piece of gyan will be helpful in lot of smaller activities in day to day life. A random post on a random thought.