Commentary: Returning to Fundamentals in Tech

Commentary: Returning to Fundamentals in Tech

I once heard a great analogy about the difference between mathematicians and engineers in their problem-solving approaches. If an engineer and a mathematician are tasked with crossing a river, the engineer will create a set of stepping stones and get you across quickly, and safely in most cases. The mathematician will spend a month examining the problem, and more months or years carefully constructing a very sturdy stone bridge that will last for lifetimes. 

There are valid arguments on both sides as to which is best either in general or for business. The argument for the stepping stones is that the problem needs to be solved quickly and cheaply; further improvements can happen iteratively over time. The downside is that a stone may be unstable. Stepping on one the wrong way will drop you into the river. Building on an unstable stone may cause massive problems later when you put too much weight somewhere that was never meant to carry it. 

Most of tech operates this way. I’ve spent some time working (and interviewing these days) in Silicon Valley, and the fast-paced VC-pressured companies are incentivized to throw stones in the water quickly to solve a problem to get that next round of funding (or to satisfy shareholders in the case of extremely large companies).  It’s highly frustrating for a mathematician who works slower and methodically, wanting to understand a problem instead of throwing a quick machine learning algorithm at it and letting it make the decisions. 

Even when tech (or mathematics) is established, there are reasons to still question fundamentals. Security, for example, has been exposed as quite the problem in tech, with lots of attempts at bandaid solutions that pile on top of all the existing hardware. While with Tech Field Day as a delegate1, I got to visit Skyport Systems and listen to them give an in-depth presentation on their technology. I won’t really dive too deeply into it; I’m hardly qualified, and other delegates will do a far better job discussing the technical details. What I am interested in is their overall approach, that is, they chose to “go against the grain” and rebuild a product in their field from the ground up.

From Skyport System’s website, they are a combined hardware and software integrated platform that are cloud managed with new looks at security controls and disaster recovery. Like I said, the tech isn’t my expertise, so I won’t comment on the details. What struck me about their presentation is that they said they literally started from the ground up, as it were, rebuilding everything, including hardware. They were bold in their desire and reasons for doing so, particularly as they drilled into the IT security and disaster recovery issues. They saw an issue and decided to really drill down all the way until they decided that the entire architecture needed to be rethought. 

I really appreciate that bravery, in a sense. It’s hard to do your own thing, especially when people say that the current stuff works ok. We’re trying to do that here, with new formats of publishing research, our vertically dependent random variable research, and new ways of looking at server reliability. It’s nice to be able to comment on a company with some long term vision, and connect with them in a surprising philosophical way. We need more of this everywhere. More willingness to slow down and take a hard look at the supposed immutable things, the things that “have been there 50 years”. More willingness to reinvent the wheel if the wheel can be improved. 
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  1. How I stumbled into this remains a bit of a mystery even to me, since I’m a mathematician rather than a networking, storage, or general tech expert, but I appreciated the opportunity to step out of my comfort zone to learn new things.