Friday, March 30, 2012

Psychology of Baby Steps Principle

I have borrowed the term "Baby Steps Principle" (BSP) from a colleague, a senior software engineer, at work. Full credit for the terminology goes to him, but the general perspective presented in the blog entry is my way of trying to organize some thoughts on it. Apologies for the length of this ramble.

We all, at some point or another, apply the "Baby Steps Principle" (BSP). BSP is the concept of developing or building things in an incremental fashion -- work on simple, constrained versions of a problem, and use the insights obtained to build up a solution to the complex, harder problem. This approach to solving problems is ingrained in our minds generally from school, irrespective of whether we come from an engineering or science discipline.

Even though we are quite intimate with this idea, often times we forget to use it. The following situation might seem quite familiar: you are trying to solve a problem, somewhat overwhelmed trying to aggressively apply many ideas; but your subconscious is telling you maybe BSP will work, which you completely ignore wasting hours, but ultimately resort to BSP and find that insight that helps land the perfect solution. A look at BSP psyche might help us get a better understanding on how to use BSP to our advantage.

The dogma of BSP, or incremental development, centers around this cardinal concept: get simpler versions working first, and build on that to get to the complex version. The simpler version of the problem is essentially a highly constrained version of the original problem. Once a solution to the simpler version is found, it can provide an insight into how to relax the constraints and approach a solution to the complex problem. Iterating on simplified versions of a problem is the key to solving the original problem.

We apply BSP in software development very frequently. For example, if you are developing a web MVC (Model View Controller) framework, why not build a bare or minimum version first, get it working, and then start building in your features to transform it into the end product. In scaling a system to 1 million users, we usually build a version for 100 or 1000 users first, and try to grow that number based on insights from building that relatively small scale version.

The above examples work because of a multitude of factors. But from among these factors, the key might be the motivation one obtains from small successful milestones. Successful increments give a sense of achievement, which motivates one to move on to the next step. The sense of achievement removes frustration of not getting anywhere as one struggles with the original problem.

In software, this greatly helps in debugging as well. It becomes less difficult to understand where the bug might lie after having reached a successful milestone. From the psychological perspective of the engineer, this translates to less stress since the process to identify bugs becomes easier, which in turn leads to better workplace motivation and increased productivity.

The examples are not just limited to software. If you have heard of dual decomposition, then you will see BSP also playing a role here. The basic tenet of dual decomposition is to decompose a complex, intractable problem into smaller tractable ones. The idea is to solve these smaller problems efficiently, and approximate the solution to the complex, intractable problem by building up from the solutions to these smaller problems. Figuring out how to decompose the original problem is itself a great milestone, being able to solve each of the decomposed problems is another milestone, followed by combining them cleverly to approximate the solution to the original problem and iterating.

From the cursory advantages outlined above, being able to apply BSP should be quite useful. How can we ensure we are using BSP when needed? The answer is quite simple -- listen to that subconscious or gut feeling. If you are feeling uncomfortable or overwhelmed while approaching a particular problem, it might be a good time to take a breather. Take a step back and think about constraining and simplifying the problem. Start working on the simplified version of the problem. Try to get some insight and incrementally remove constraints to reflect more of the original problem, and you are likely going to hit on an elegant solution to the original problem. Take advantage of the smaller milestones, and enjoy these successes as you work your way towards solving the larger, complex problem.

The concept of minimal viable product (MVP) from the Lean Principle also reflects the ideas inherent in BSP. Build up to a full, successful product by working on smaller milestones, evaluating them, and using the insights obtained to incrementally work on the next steps. I think we can all benefit from BSP, and it is just a matter of listening to that subconscious or gut feeling -- trust me, I am an engineer!

1 comment:

  1. Psychology
    Psychology” is the scientific study of mind and of consciousness. Psychology attempts to explain, predict, modify and ultimately improve the lives of people and the world in which they live. Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science, which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of physics and chemistry.