Alex Randall is a teacher and an entrepreneur. He sent me a link to an article he wrote for Computerworld in February 2006 about ENIAC co-inventor J. Presper Eckert. The article is inspiring and funny and debunks some of the more persistent urban legends about the ENIAC.
But there was one detail that kept me excited all day. Mr. Eckert tells about a mice problem they had at the laboratory. The mice were eating through the insulation of the wires. They needed to get rid of the problem. So what Better Mousetrap did these geniuses come up with? Did they come up with a solution at all? What if they would have asked a consultant to get rid of the problem? Or a lawyer?
Lets take a look at a few possibilities:
“I’m going to do research, for three months, into all the mousetrap solutions currently available and prepare a detailed report for you so you can make an informed decision on what Mousetraps to deploy. Then we will integrate the mousetrap into your company in an 8 week process, keep you up-to-date on our progress in 2 weekly meetings and written daily status reports. We will also train your people to set-up and use the Mousetrap in a few seminars.”
“The owner of this laboratory should have made the whole building mouse proof. I suggest we sue him for damages. Lets go for 10 million.”
“I know you want to work on that Mousetrap Issue but we don’t have any resources for that right now. But I’ll tell you what: give me a businesscase on monday and I promise I will show it to the board next quarter.”
(he ends up hiring the consultant, taking all credit if it works out, sacrificing you if it fails)
“I told you to clean up after yourself! Why did you eat those sandwiches at your desk? Get away from that computer and go play outside!!!”
“All current Mousetraps suck. Which is logical because they are built with the wrong tools. I’ll built you a new Mousetrap, in one day, from scratch.”
(This takes 3 months and the result is a Mousetrap that is extremely fast but doesn’t actually catch mice.)
“I need 1 million seed funding to start Mousetrapster.com (yes, still available), get a team of developers in place and quickly expand into the Chinese market. There are NO competitors and just imagine what would happen if we are able to sell our Mousetraps to only 1% of China!”
“Thank you for bringing the mice problem to our attention. I have given it some thought and decided that the Peromyscus maniculatus is an important and strategic enemy of this company. I have decided to set up a task force to investigate how we will deal with this new threat. Unfortunately we will also be forced to cut costs drastically because of these changes. Your manager will speak with you today to explain to you the consequences of this executive decision. This is George, our security guard, he will accompany you to your office. This is just a formality.”
And I’m sure we could come up with hundreds of these. Go knock yourself out in the comments or mail me your suggestions and I’ll add them. Don’t forget the obvious ‘iMouseTrap’ and ‘MS Mousetrap 1.0 server edition’ jokes.
But back to those geniuses who built the first computer. Who did they ask for advice? None of the above.
They asked the mice:
“…we got samples of all the wires that were available and put them in a cage with a bunch of mice to see which insulation they did not like. We only used wire that passed the mouse test…”
That is why they are geniuses.
They didn’t consider the mice the real problem. They found out that the fact that those mice ate their insulation was the real problem. And that problem turned out to be easy to fix.
The real challenge isn’t building a better mousetrap but finding out what the actual problem is.