09 Oct 2019

Don't Be an Engineer, Be a Producer

I’m currently reading Range by David Epstein [1].

I was deeply impressed by the section about Gunpei Yokoi, the guy at Nintendo who was the driving force behind the NES and Game Boy. I have fond memories of the Game Boy; everyone who was a kid in the nineties does. This awesome thing you could hold in our hands, that was some great technology.

Except that it wasn’t. Here’s how the technology of the Game Boy stacked up at the time:

From a technical standpoint, even in 1989, the Game Boy was laughable. Yokoi’s team cut every corner. The Game Boy’s processor had been cutting edge - in the 1970s. By the mid-1980s, home consoles were in fierce competition over graphics quality. The Game Boy was an eyesore. It featured a total of four grayscale shades, displayed on a tiny screen that was tinted a greenish hue somewhere between mucus and old alfalfa. Graphics in fast lateral motion smeared across the screen. To top it off, the Game Boy had to compete with handheld consoles from Sega and Atari that were technologically superior in every way. And it destroyed them.

Yokoi got it right. The best game console is not defined by its technology but by its user experience. Kids don’t care about CPUs. Grown-ups don’t, either. We never do. Neither in game consoles nor in smartphones. We care about whether something gets the job done.

Unless we’re developers. That’s where the problems start. When we focus on technology first, we lose sight of the user experience, or, as Yokoi says:

He advised young employees not just to play with technology for its own sake, but to play with ideas. Do not be an engineer, he said, be a producer. “The producer knows that there’s such a thing as a semiconductor, but doesn’t need to know its inner workings… That can be left to the experts.”

And that’s what we should be. Producers. Applying existing technology to unsolved problems.

Only a tiny fraction of all developers should be focusing on technology itself. Those are people working on algorithms, writing frameworks and developing languages. Their contributions are crucial and provide us with much-needed leverage for solving problems out there, in the real world.

Yes, that’s where the rest of us are: In the real world. Like a plumber [2] with his toolbox in a foreign bathroom, we’re out there, solving real problems with our limited resources. Using battle-proven, productive technology. Like Django, or Rails. Producing.

But what when we have competitors who are more technically advanced?

When the Game Boy was released, Yokoi’s colleague came to him “with a grim expression on his face,” Yokoi recalled, and reported that a competitor handheld had hit the market. Yokoi asked him if it had a color screen. The man said that it did. “Then we’re fine,” Yokoi replied.

So the next time you find a competitor and they’re building a Progressive Web Application which is Cloud Native, leveraging AI and the Blockchain, you can breathe a sigh of relief. You’re free to improve your user experience, ship features, or in Yokoi’s words, produce.

[1] Another great Spenser recommendation.

[2] Mario. “Depicted as a short, pudgy, Italian plumber who resides in the Mushroom Kingdom, his adventures generally center upon rescuing Princess Peach from the Koopa villain Bowser.”

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