What problem(s) do you want to solve?

Eevee, blogger and previously an engineer at Yelp, wrote a post-mortem post that struck a nerve in the tech scene titled “I quit the tech industry”:

It’s nothing to do with Yelp specifically. I just don’t care about Yelp’s problems, any more than I care about Uber’s problems or Yo’s problems or anyone else’s problems. They’re interesting for a while, but they’re also the same self-inflicted wounds everyone seems to deal with — why is this slow? why is this broken? how can we keep this old code limping along indefinitely without having to rewrite it? how does this thing a former employee wrote even work? They’re cute puzzles, and I can get into solving them for a while, but I don’t care about them. Because they aren’t my problems; they were just dumped in my lap, along with a canvas sack with a dollar sign on it. ?

To others, this may seem like an entitled position, but I completely understand and empathize with the notion. Human beings, outside of survival needs, are driven by purpose. While the tech industry is floating on a high of excitement at the moment, and for good reason as many are indeed changing the status quo in different ways and creating value in return, it’s not all fine and dandy all the time. 

First, it’s ridiculously hard. Even established companies have to be at the mercy of their stakeholders, find ways to continuously deliver value, and stay in a mode of constant adaptation or face the innovator’s dilemma. For startups, they have to find product/market fit, figure out customer acquisition and retention, constantly improve on the product, while time and money are running out. In short, every company has its own problems. Where tech differs from other industries is its degree of unpredictability, its need for scale to reach its addressable market, and for a lot of companies, dependence on outside capital. That’s a lot of things to juggle, and that’s only at a company level. 

For individuals inside a company, it’s the incentives that must align: that they are helping solve a problem the company needs. Take note that I didn’t say it’s (all) about the problem the company is solving—though that may indeed play a huge part and can be used as a great selling point for sure—but perhaps what’s more important is that the problem you are personally trying to solve inside a company is important enough to you to the point you feel you are making a significant contribution, and thus your personal growth and sense of fulfillment is growing at the same time. There is mutual value exchanged between the organization and the individual. The company aims to achieve its mission while capturing value in the process (i.e. revenue, market share, brand image, etc.) and they need people inside a company to make those things happen; subsequently, individuals seek to improve their skills, viability in the market, and personal missions while capturing value in the process (i.e. compensation, network, experience, etc.). Their incentives, though can be fundamentally different, can still be aligned.

This is tough to find, and rightfully so. Eevee was vulnerable enough to share these feelings, despite working for a successful tech giant and being compensated appropriately for her work. But she has reached a point when incentives didn’t align despite the pros of her job. She no longer cared about the problem she was solving, and the upsides no longer balanced that for her. The lesson, at least from what I extract, is that incentives are what matter, not just in our professional lives, but practically in everything that we do. When incentives align, meaning who we are, what we do, why we do it, and how we do it coexist in harmony, we get in a state of flow. We are met by the right challenges, possess a feeling of control over our lives and our actions, improve as the people we want to be and as valuable members of society, and thus our self-esteem, motivation, and idea of purpose become more defined and amplify one another.

Incentives are important and dictate much of the joy and meaning we derive from our lives. So some good questions to ask next to “Where can my talents contribute?” may just be “What problem(s) do I want to solve?” and “How do I align my incentives?” This is a healthy thought experiment to ask ourselves once in a while. It gives us reign over our affairs and where we our in our lives. It’s not about self-judgment, but more about self-awareness which all of us can gain a lot from.


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