Learn the Problem, Then Innovate


As I’ve previously mentioned, one of the biggest takeaways from last year was my attempt to learn how to code. After going through Code Academy’s HTML/CSS/JS courses, Zed Shaw’s Learn Python the Hard Way, I felt marginally capable to experiment and build something with my newfound knowledge. I even set up a launch page for a web application on something that I love and wish I had the time to do more of – traveling. Although that project has been put on indefinite hold, and honestly it’s been months since I’ve sat in front of TextWrangler, this article in the New York Times got me thinking about the various motivations people have for learning to code.

Before going any further, to summarize, the article discusses the advent of a relatively new profession: the mobile application developer. Lured by multi-million dollar successes like Angry Birds and Instagram, hundreds (perhaps thousands) have delved into the world of mobile application development, many with the hopes of striking it rich. The article rightly points out that despite the boom, only few actually achieved the payout they envisioned.

Although Instagram and other blockbuster apps were certainly motivators to learn, for me coding initially was really just a challenge to learn something new. As a researcher, coding seemed like a great opportunity for me to develop the skills that could potentially enable me to create something that others could find useful. Although at times frustrating and difficult to understand, I soon realized that coding (if you could call what I was doing coding) was actually kind of fun. I liked the fact that at its core, coding is all about problem solving. I liked that there were multiple ways to write code to do the same thing.

I liked everything about coding, until I realized that most applications are ill received by the marketplace, and are rarely if ever used. The thought of spending hundreds of hours working on a product, if only to realize that there is little to no market for it, was kind of disappointing. Obviously, identifying a target market is a fundamental concept of the Lean Startup, but even then, with fierce competition in an already saturated market, the task of creating a well received product seems insurmountable and not worthwhile.

Being a creator of a meaningful product is still an aspiration of mine, and one day I hope to actually achieve this goal. For now though, rather than rushing into the market with the hopes of making it big, I’ll continue learning about the problems that matter most to me: urbanization, the environment and mental health. Perhaps by deeply understanding these problems, I can one day create something that will meaningfully positively impact the lives of others.