How to always have an opinion

I’m a Brit who moved to the US. When I arrived here some years ago, the culture shock wasn’t all that bad. But I had one big problem: choice.

Try and buy a sandwich in England, and the choices you have to face are “chicken or ham?” Try it in the US and you’re there forever with choosing types of bread, whether you want mayo, pickles, toasted or not. It was bewildering to me. Thanks to Starbucks, there are about five degrees of freedom you need to navigate just to buy coffee! You get the idea. You quickly come up with preferences on these things, or every single choice becomes exhausting.

In my career I’ve faced a similar problem. There’s so much that changes all the time. As somebody who builds things with digital technology — which is pretty much everyone — how do you interpret what’s going on, and how do you get to a point of view on new stuff?

Mostly, we don’t. Folks go with the crowd, and we get a succession of rockstar technologies that people jump on. In web development it was PHP, then Rails, then Node.js. For corporations it was social, then big data, and now it’s AI.

These techs become important for sound reasons, but it’s easy to grab the wrong end of the stick. The high profile adopters use the tech because it’s the right thing (at the right time) for their needs, and they happen to succeed. If you try to copy the results, but without the original motivation, you’re going to be disappointed. You can put on a cool pair of shades, but it’s not going to make the sun come out.

How do you figure out what’s right for you? There’s just not time to do a detailed evaluation of everything that comes along: you need a way to triage.

The answer is to have a core idea, a driving force, a north star. Whatever you want to call it, it’s a point of view that is grounded in what you care about, and doesn’t change. It doesn’t have to be profound, or grand, but it needs to be something you believe in. Then use this as a lens to look through: whatever you encounter, how does it support, illuminate or go against your core idea?

Here’s how I learned this.

I spent some years working for Tim O’Reilly. If you don’t know him, he’s considered somewhat of a prophetic voice in Silicon Valley. You can find his name entwined with big ideas like open source software, web services, Web 2.0, and open government. He always has something to say that both captures the zeitgeist of the moment, and inspires people to be better. How does he do that?

In a cab ride in D.C., Tim told me that he really thinks he’s been saying the same thing for 20 years. His core idea is about the power of open networks to do better than any single entity. You can see how that runs through open source, the social web, the changing economy. Tim interprets that core idea through the lens of current events. The result isn’t just a clear perspective, whatever the topic, but an accumulation of internally consistent work over many years.

This notion struck home. Every time I had to look at anything new, I’d been starting from the ground up, trying to figure things from a blank sheet. So I thought long and hard about what my core idea was about technology, and I found it: computers exist to help people.

That’s so simple it almost seems useless. But, by applying it repeatedly, it helped me interpret and prioritize everything. Let me give you an example or two.

Why do apps on today’s phones work better than menus we used to have? Because the colorful images of their icons work well with the fast, associative parts of our brains. We expend less energy recalling where to find the functionality.

Or another: computer programming as we know it is going to disappear. To program a computer today is to have to be the computer yourself, and learn how it works in order to control it. We’re near the point where you can give a machine a goal, rather than instructions. When we get that, we don’t need to program any more.

Think about your business or career: what’s your core idea? How do you make choices from tech’s sandwich menu? If you have one and are willing to share, I’d love to hear about it.