Finding excitement in boring problems

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In the past few weeks, I found myself being apologetic towards my team mates more than once, whenever we talked about a new service that we’re designing.

Thing is, the new service is an information security management system. And information security is, well, boring.

But the thought that struck me today was: if information security is so boring, why is it that I jump out of bed at 6am every day, and can’t wait to launch this service? To me, information security doesn’t seem boring at all!

It then occurred to me that many inspiring services out there solve apparently boring problems.

For instance, I enjoy using 1Password. What’s 1Password about? Password management. Storing, using and sharing passwords securely. Boring!

I also enjoy using Basecamp. What’s Basecamp about? Project management, for heaven’s sake. Milestones, tasks, team collaboration. Duh, boring!

Yet, I don’t think of those tools as boring at all. So what is it that makes them enjoyable?

One source of joy seems to be the elegant ways in which 1Password and Basecamp solve complex problems. No matter what hidden corners of these applications you get yourself in to, you will always find that the designers and developers have been there before, thinking about the job that you need to do.

In principle, a password management tool can be very simple. You just need a place to store passwords — let’s call it a vault — and you secure that with a master password. Done. Right?

Sure, you could build a product like that. But what if your users lose their master password? What if their computer with the vault on it got stolen? What if they need to share a password securely with a team mate? Think of the details and it all gets hairy very quickly. How would that all work?

1Password really nails all of these problems, in truly elegant and ground-breaking ways. For instance, two team members can restore the locked account of a third who lost their master password. When I saw that work for the first time, the heavens opened and angels started singing. (OK, it wasn’t like that. But I did smile.)

My religious moment with Basecamp was 12 years ago. Until then, I “managed” projects by exchanging hundreds of emails and keeping track of proceedings with Gantt charts in Excel. Then, on May 26, 2005, I created an account in Basecamp. It had milestones, to-dos, and messages. In the blink of an eye, I could see what was done, what was late, and what was next. Everything fell into place; I finally understood how project management should be done.

So perhaps excitement doesn’t just come from the fact that 1Password and Basecamp nail complex problems. They are also world-class tutors. They help you think clearly about the job to be done, and make you better at it.

Of course our new tool still has to prove itself, and we can only hope that it will become as good as 1Password or Basecamp. However, our work feels right. We feel we are nailing the hairy issues around information security step by step, and making it manageable for small companies like our own. And that’s where the excitement and impatience come from.

Sure, you could work on a more exciting topic. The developers of Ashley Maddison must have a blast figuring out how to get their customers laid while keeping their spouses in the dark. But I would assume that that excitement wears off pretty soon. They are still building web forms, like us, and doing one-click deployments, like us. The excitement of the topic alone just isn’t enough to keep a developer engaged.

In the end, developers like ourselves get excitement only from thinking deeply about interesting problems, one at a time. The excitement is as much about how we work as about what we do.