Known Unknowns

Socrates is credited with the quote, “I know one thing; that I know nothing”.

What is an engineer exactly? According to the all-mighty Google, an engineer is “a skillful contriver or originator of something,” but that doesn’t really capture the essence of the job. To me, an engineer is a converter of ideas into reality, one who takes a blueprint and turns it into a building, hears a pitch and builds an app, takes a problem and solves it. There have always been engineers because there have always been problems and there will always be engineers because there will always be problems.

When approaching a new problem like transitioning to freelance, it’s natural to preliminarily look at the issue from a one thousand foot view. While it’s important to grasp the whole of the problem, in zooming out, you miss the “unknown unknowns” in the way. These are the problems that eventually need solving, but can’t be planned for since they aren’t technically problems yet.

Let’s say for example you want to bake a cake for my birthday (I also accept Venmo: @Sam-Feder-1), you’ll immediately start building steps in your mind to solve our cake-less problem.

1) Gather ingredients on table.
2) Combine ingredients in correct proportions in correct order.
3) Place cake in oven.
4) Give cake to Sam.
5) Enjoy delicious dessert.

An unknown unknown can be something as simple as not realizing that you’re out of vanilla extract, or be as complex as my lactose-intolerance, forcing you to reconsider the scope of your problem (i.e. — is my problem really that I need to build a cake? Or more that I need to provide Sam’s party with a general dessert? Should I build a cake without dairy? Or find a better solution to this problem?)

Regardless of engineering discipline, an important first step to the solution of any big problem-set (often referred to as ‘epics’ in software) is breaking that problem down into smaller, achievable tasks and uncovering actionable, straightforward problems. In our cake example, since the first ticket of our cake-building epic is to gather ingredients on the table, the previously unknown issue of missing vanilla extract makes itself known as you begin to work, thus adding a new task (go to store and purchase missing ingredients) to the requirements of ticket 1. When you first started dreaming about that delicious red velvet cake coated in a chocolate ganache with a decadent cream cheese frosting, you envisioned a 5 step problem, but now it’s 6 and we’ve only started looking at the first step. In truth, your cake mission has always been a 38-step problem, you just weren’t an experienced enough cake builder to foresee it.

Such is the problem of switching from employed to self-employed. It isn’t just “have an idea, build it, profit” and it isn’t simply “find a client, write code, get paid”. There are a lot of hidden commas in there and I want to help dig them up. I want to highlight some newly known unknowns; the problems I didn’t know that I had that you may not know you need to solve.

Often advice is best sought from an entity that has accomplished your mission on several occasions, and while that makes sense for baking a cake or building a house (please don’t take my advice on either of those subjects) transitions like going independent only occur once per career if they’re done well. Instead, I’d argue you’re best off glossing over the problems that I’ve uncovered, bookmarking my solutions and resources, and figuring out what’s best for your ideal lifestyle along the way. By my count, if you’re an American software engineer going independent, you have four missions to accomplish, each consisting of three distinct problems:

Epic 1: Break Free

Ticket 1: Quit your job
Ticket 2: Bail on commitments
Ticket 3: Minimize

Epic 2: Protect Yourself

Ticket 1: Get Health Insurance
Ticket 2: Lawyer Up
Ticket 3: Prepare for taxes

Epic 3: Make a Living

Ticket 1: Find Work
Ticket 2: Get Paid
Ticket 3: Track Expenses

Epic 4: Make a Name For Yourself

Ticket 1: Form an LLC
Ticket 2: Craft a Brand
Ticket 3: Establish an Online Presence

Note: Details and resources for all of these epics to follow in future stories. Stay tuned.

Most people would be intimidated by this list, but most people don’t enjoy solving problems. The engineers I know would see a list like this and be emboldened. Be an engineer. Be an engineer, embrace your inner founder and shoot your shot. There’ll always be another job out there for you, isn’t it time to take advantage of that security and attempt to craft your ideal lifestyle and income on your own?

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