How small ideas can change your life.
Peter took a few quick glances at the sheet I handed over then went back to coding at his laptop. Around us, scribbled algorithms filled whiteboards. Papers and a half-eaten cup of cashews cluttered the desks. It looked like any other work day back in 2015, except it was 1 AM, and the office was deserted.
We raced to finish a submission for our company’s hackathon, a competitive sprint to develop software to solve any problem you chose. To give us more time to work, Peter’s girlfriend drove us 40 minutes north to our apartments in San Francisco later that night, and we caught the first train back to the office before dawn. For the first time, it felt like I was passionate about solving a real problem.
Later that day, with much surprise, we heard that many of the company’s employees had voted for our project — it’d won the hackathon’s top prize.
* * *
For most of my life, I didn’t have a passion.
In grade school, my friend Ben was passionate. He explained to me that the jets he drew in the margins on the first day of fifth grade were something he would later fly. Years later, Ben went on to aviation school and co-piloted his first commercial flight from O’Hare to LaGuardia last month.
In college, heroes who tackled big problems were passionate. Dartmouth's president Jim Kim stood in front of a large tree stump on my first day of college and demanded, “Make the world’s troubles your troubles.” He told a story about Kul Gautam, who immunized children against preventable diseases, even in the midst of civil wars and genocides.
Most of us want to make a positive difference. But the halo around the word passion or the scale of the problems associated with it can confuse us about how to start.
A small starting point
After college, I took a job as a business analyst at a Silicon Valley software company to explore a growing interest in technology.
Day-to-day at Delphix, I analyzed the company’s performance using sales data. It was a world away from the stories of vaccinating children or flying planes.
Yet the work started with curiosity. By looking into the data, I’d answer questions others asked to help them make better business decisions. A couple months into the job, we had views of Delphix’s financial performance that we hadn’t seen before. Not long afterwards, these findings were presented regularly to the board.
Because I didn’t have much programming experience, the analytical process required a lot of manual work. Yet thinking through it in a structured, repeatable way allowed collaboration with Peter, a developer, to build an automated software prototype for the company’s hackathon.
Analyzing company performance addressed a small, accessible problem, but it was something I could do now, with skills I had.
Two insights followed:
Starting with small problems may actually help you solve bigger problems hiding in plain sight.
Small problems can help you learn new skills that you can leverage to solve bigger problems.
A bigger problem
While analyzing company performance, we discovered another problem: bad data. Some data entries were incomplete, estimated incorrectly, or entered at the wrong time. Using this bad data could be more misleading than relying on personal experience.
As it turns out, bad data is a bigger problem that affects almost all companies. Solving this problem at scale required more time for personal learning. Inspired by Delphix’s founder, who’d gone from English major to software CEO when he was 24, I left Delphix to start a company called BadData.
Currently, BadData’s work suggests the extent of faulty data in companies and the misleading insights that can come from using it.
Beyond companies, bad data also affects us. We rely on algorithms and smart devices to do more every year. Ever more competent, algorithms involve more layers that obscure how they work and where bad data exists. The more we use algorithms, the more convenient it’ll be to trust that algorithms are fair, that underlying data is correct. Over time, they’ll feel like magic — like how search engines are today.
An agency moment
In a candid 1994 interview, Steve Jobs summarized, “Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it. You can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” But what Jobs said can’t be learned from reading a quote or hearing a speech — you have to do and feel it to understand.
Instead of building things growing up, I read stories by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. While these were inspiring stories about good people (and hobbits), they treated their fantastical worlds as a given. They were so complicated that the only possible way to understand it was magic. The world’s the way it is because it just is.
By extension, I thought about the complicated real world in a similar way and didn’t ask many questions about how anything worked.
Once I tackled an accessible problem and started to make things others could use, I gained agency. I realized that everything on a human level is made — nothing just is. With a new curiosity about how things worked, I started looking at inconsistencies in the world and asking a chain of whys — peeling the onion to get as close as possible to the root cause.
The world seems less magical, but it’s infinitely more interesting.
Not all of us figured out our passions early on, but we can all start addressing the small, accessible problems around us to find a starting point to develop our passions. Don’t be too surprised if your small idea leads to something bigger, or if the skills you pick up along the way are more powerful than they first appeared.