The Economics of Optimization

This summer I started working at a startup called Meed. It’s a great company and I’ve been really learning a lot there. While I’m an iOS developer, I talked to my CEO about the backend infrastructure of the app itself to better understand the full stack engineering behind it. He told me they were running Ruby on Rails, a rather clunky framework that made it easier to prototype. He then told me that he was planning to migrate to a more lightweight framework to handle more network traffic and more efficiently. For those of you who couldn’t understand a fucking word of what I just wrote, simply put, my boss wanted to optimize the servers.

What is optimization? Optimization is knowing to not eat a burrito platter before Prom so you get nervous and throw up all over you date. Don’t worry, it didn’t happen to me; I didn’t even have a date to Prom. In theory, optimization is taking a system that already exists and making it more efficient. In Physics terms, efficiency is comparing the work input to work output. So increasing the work output for the same work input or decreasing work input for the same work output increases efficiency and makes the system more optimized. In my example above, my boss wanted to change from a clunkier framework to a more streamlined, lightweight framework that would allow for more efficient use of his servers.


So now that we’ve defined optimization, how do people take steps to optimize things in their lives. When I get ready to go to work, I attempt to optimize my “getting ready” routine. That means not putting on my left sock then my right shoe and trying to flip an egg on the skillet while texting my boss that I’m going to be late. We optimize our lives to help make them better, but we often see a hidden side to the cost behind the optimization. Take an iPhone for example. It’s a rather expensive phone compared to the Nexus 5x. While the two have comparable specifications, the iPhone runs much smoother than the Nexus 5x. This is due to the fact that Apple optimizes iOS for its phones. It knows the specific architecture that the iPhones run and through optimization, make a better user experience. On the other hand, Android is Google’s open source operating system. It runs on several different devices, so Google can’t optimize Android for a specific architecture, and simply put, has to make it generic. This genericness causes the operating system to run slower, and a worse user experience. So while an iPhone costs $300 more due to more extensive R&D done by Apple, the user experience in your hands is so much better.

Unfortunately most of the world does not share my opinion on optimization and attention to detail. They believe this fast paced world is just too fast to take a step back and make the product slightly better. Take my fellow editor, Andrew Vincent, for example. He showed me a rough draft for one of his posts on this publication and it was rife with grammar mistakes. Misplaced commas, misspelled words, bad verb tense, you name it. Call me insane, but I dismantled the whole thing to the point where Andrew ended up calling me a “Grammar Hitler” as opposed to the traditional “Grammar Nazi”. Now criticizing this grammar has nothing to do with me. It won’t help me in my life, yet I spent about 5 minutes reading through this draft and fixing all his mistakes. Well, this is one of the basic concepts of economics: quality of a product.

When you read an article, a grammar mistake makes it harder for you to actually read. You’ll look back, once or twice, attempting to find the real meaning of the convoluted string of words that appear on the page and finally you understand. Sure, you may have wasted 30 seconds, but you used up some brain power (something I heard people are not fond of) and you could have listened to the Friends theme song in that time. Why not spend that 30 seconds watching episodes of Silicon Valley or LastWeekTonight like I do? But this optimization of grammar is in hopes that you, the reader, will come back to this publication and read all the bullshit we write. It is in hopes that you will share this publication with your friends (please do). And most importantly it is so that I could write this article about optimization and hopefully teach you all that spending just a bit of time in the beginning has great effects in the future.

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