Why Building Stuff is Hard

If you work in a technology related field you may have encountered the situation where someone, be it a well-meaning relative or a new acquaintance at a party, will hear about what you do for a living and then say “Hey, I have this great idea! Why don’t I tell you about it and you can make it, then we can get rich!”.  Or, they might say (as my father was want to do) “You’re smart, why aren’t you working for yourself building clever things instead of working for someone else?”

The person saying this may even be well-educated and not someone who seemed to escape from a mental hospital (my father was a medical doctor). They might even have a really good idea. Sadly, however, what they don’t have is a clue. This is one of the main reasons I go out of my way to avoid telling people what I do for a living and the things I’ve worked on. I get weary of the typical stereotypes, so I just mumble something about working with computers and then try to wander off before they can press the issue.

But it isn’t just the clueless folks who think that building stuff is easy. People who should know better (in my opinion, anyway) also fall into the trap of thinking that things should be easy. The problem is that there is a very, very big step between putting some sketches and notes on a piece of paper, and actually making something that works. The notes and sketches are the easy part, and BS costs nothing.

It Looks Easy

Here’s a classic example of making something look easy: The notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. Yep, that’s right. Surely they are fascinating to look through, and the man was obviously a bright and creative individual. Many of his ideas could have (and some have been) built and made to work. Others, well, not really. He spent a lot of time transferring data from his fertile imagination onto paper, but in reality only built a small number of the things he actually imagined, and typically only as scale models. Why? Becuase getting them built to full size took time, effort, planning, organization and, most importantly, money. But writing them down was an enjoyable way to pass the time and probably provided a sense of immediate satisfaction. But even Leonardo recognized that there was a big gap between the drawings and an actual physical thing. The problems arise when someone with a bright idea doesn’t see the gap, or chasm, if you will, and blithely starts off on a grand quest to build a great and wonderful thing, only to find themselves falling into that chasm without a parachute. More often than not the result is an unpleasant financial splat.

We’ve Been Here Before

The dot.com bubble ten years was full of the sound of bright ideas going splat. Before that, in the late-1980’s it was little electronics start-ups falling to the pavement of reality like soggy, over-ripe grapes. I know, because I was one of those grapes, as were many of my peers in electronics engineering and manufacturing businesses. There were a lot of insanely great ideas floating around, and a lot of people eager to get out there and make their fortunes by converting those ideas into tangible products. It was glorious. But then reality set in and the great ideas started to look like 60 to 80 hour weeks, endless negotiations with bankers, suppliers and sub-contractors. It became a whole lot of really hard work and it wasn’t cheap. For many it resulted in financial ruin and divorces.

Banishing Wishful Thinking

So, let’s say you do happen to have a great idea. Maybe even an insanely great idea. Something no one has done before, and you might even be able to patent it (if you’re into the patent fad, of course). So, now what?

First off, you need to determine if your idea is even feasible. If you want to build something that has a part labled “to be determined” or “then a miracle occurs”, well, you may as well stop, because you’re not going to be able to get there from here. Sorry, but that’s just a fact. No amount of hand-waving or wishful thinking ever resulted in a working finished product. What you need is a feasibility study. It doesn’t have to be complex or take a lot of time, but it does need to be able to prove that your concept is sound.

If your idea is software, then you should be able to prove that it will work under expected conditions (if you haven’t considered where it will be used and how, then you really need to go back to square one and do some more thinking). A client-server application can be demonstrated with some simple code, it doesn’t need to have transaction verification or error checking. A new programming language can be prototyped by writing down all the keywords and the grammer, and analyzed using some of the techniques described in numerous texts on the subject (one of which I’ve reviewed on my books page). A new concept for a video game can be reviewed with some simple art, maybe a short flip-book or two illustrating some key concepts, and an outline of the game’s plot.

For hardware a feasibility study might involve creating a very simple prototype of what you want to build. If you have in mind some kind of electromagnetic doo-hickey, then build a prototype of the key part of it and see if it works like you think it should. This applies to optical gadgets as well: Buy some cheap lenses, get a free ray-tracing program and see if it really works. Is it mechanical? Then buy some prototype parts from a supplier such as Berg, or get some old Erector sets. Check the existing literature (including patents!) to see if someone else has already had your great idea. You might be surprised how often a good idea keeps popping up.

There is one other part of “feasible” that many starry-eyed techno-dreamers seem to overlook: Will anyone want this? If it’s open-source software (OSS), will anyone want to use it? If you’re trying to get rich from it, will anyone want to pay for it? For an OSS project this may not be a big deal, since it seems that many OSS projects are a labor of love (or whatever) anyway, but it’s still a good idea to see if it’s even feasible rather than waste some of precious seconds of your existence for nothing. If you want to break the shackles of financial servitude, then you’d damn sure better get it right and make certain there is a market for what you want to build, because otherwise you might be in for a very rude awakening.

Making It Happen

Now, assuming that you’ve convinced yourself that it will work, that no one else has done something exactly like it before, and that it’s something people will want, then the second thing to consider is how much effort will be needed to create a working prototype. Make no mistake about it, whatever it is the first complete version will be a prototype. It will be full of bugs, it will be glitchy, and there is a good chance that it won’t even work. But before even starting out you’ll need a plan, and that means some kind of design plan. If your idea is even somewhat complex then you will also need some basic design analysis and perhaps other supporting data.

If you are the only person who will be working on it, then unless you happen to have a pile of money to draw upon, you can rest assured that it will take a while. Perhaps a long, long while. All too often I’ve seen situations where people had unrealistic notions about how long things take to accomplish, and only a fool would think that building something complex can be accomplished quickly. Even if you are lucky enough to assemble a team of people for the project, it will still take time. People make mistakes, suppliers don’t come through, a day job gets in the way, family time must be respected, and so on.

Raking In The Cash

I’m not going to address the aims and intentions of OSS here, since I’ve never been approached to build some whiz-bang thing just to give it away. There are other works on the subject of open sourcing I would recommend, such as “The Cathedral and the Bizarre” by Eric S. Raymond. So, assuming that you’ve determined that you do have a great idea, and you’ve got some working prototype code or hardware (or both) to support it, and you know for a fact that there is a market for it, now what?

Well, this is the part can make all the preceding long hours and hard work look easy. It’s also the part that most people aren’t prepared to handle. If your new thing is something that you think would sell well at Target, Wal-Mart or Checker Auto Parts, you will have your work cut out for you. Unless you happen to already have contacts within a particular industry, know how to give presentations to corporate buyers, and are prepared to spend hours and hours on the telephone and at trade shows, or you’re lucky and have someone working with you who can do these things, you should probably do yourself a favor and don’t even start the project. Use the money you would have spent and buy yourself a nice vacation on a tropical island somewhere. Or, better yet, invest it wisely and let it earn interest.

If you have a product that can be marketed via the Internet, then you’ll need a nice web site (and the nicer the better) with an integrated online payment system (other than Paypal–not everyone uses Paypal). You’ll need to buy some advertising space, either in print journals or through a service like Google’s. Lastly, you’ll need to be patient. It can take a long time to develop market presence, and each month that goes by will be money going out without any real income flowing back in.

Facing Reality

I’m not trying to be excessively negative here, just realistic. Trying to develop and market a new product can be really, really tough. Even the most amazingly brilliant idea doesn’t just spring full-grown into existence. It takes time, effort and money (in one form or another) to make the great leap from good idea to reality.

So nowadays, when someone blithely informs me that I should be rich because of what I do for a living, or that they have some whiz-bang idea they think will make millions, I typically put a quick stop to it (if I can’t escape from them) by telling them that my engineering rate is over $100 per hour, I don’t accept contracts for less than 500 hours, and if they want to fund the feasibility study, design analysis, prototyping, production set-up and marketing, then sure, we’ll talk. In 99.99% of the cases I get a blank stare in response and then excuse myself to go an refill my glass of lemonade.

I’m still waiting for that 0.01% case, but I’m not holding my breath.

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Little Buddy

An awesome little friend

Jordi the Sheltie passed away in 2008 at the ripe old age of 14. He was the most awesome dog I've ever known.


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