Tech Life I'm optimistic

Build Anything

As an engineer, if you want to piss off someone who is asking you whether you can or can’t build a thing, just say, “Given enough time, I can build anything”.

They’ll believe you’re dodging the question, and they’ll think you’re arrogant.

As a means of negotiating a schedule or a feature, this answer is not helpful. You need to take the time to explain your thinking to this person. You need to walk them through your development process. It’s an opportunity to educate and not come off like a jerk.


Given enough time, an engineer can build anything.

I’m optimistic.

And I hire optimists.

Like any profession, software development is chock full of radically different personalities, but I want the optimists. I’m not looking for Yes-folk; I’m looking for those folks who, when backed into a corner with a gun to their heads, respond with, “Fuck it, we’re going to figure it out”.

This base optimism can be hidden in all types of personalities, but when the shit hits the fan it shows up and often creates the impossible.

In my two decades of working in Silicon Valley, I am happy to confirm that this valley is full of these insane optimists. These are people who:

  • Work hard
  • Over-commit and still deliver
  • Rampantly go out of their way to help each other
  • Have a track record of stunning success

This is not a population limited to the valley, it’s a population spread across the country and across the globe, but today I’m thinking about my country.

We’re nowhere near the bottom of this disaster we’ve voted onto ourselves. I don’t think the majority of Americans fully understand the severity of our financial crisis. We’re all fervently staring at Christmas, confusing the holiday spirit for hope.

Yet, I remain optimistic.

Regardless of who wins the election, the question remains, “Do we have it in us to re-invent ourselves? Can we rebuild our country into a place we respect?”

Yes, we can.

I live on the west coast of the United States, which is a region pioneers traveled to so they could choose how to define their home, but this whole country is built on that idea — we choose who we will be.

Where I sit, with the cranky engineers –the insane optimists — I hope we all share this optimism because, given enough time, we can build anything.

27 Responses

  1. Great post, Rands. I’m one of those insane optimists…and I’m married to someone who walks the fine line between being a realist and a pessimist. I tend to back us into corners but before I say “Fuck it, I’m going to figure it out”, I get her input. My wife would never let us get into that corner in the first place because she’s a scenario evaluator. Without her, I’d probably never make it out of that corner because, “I know can make it work, damnit!” That dichotomy is what makes life interesting. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that you should never underestimate the role of a scenario evaluator among insane optimists. Voted…optimistically.

  2. Change is going to happen no matter who wins the election, that much is true.

    I am thankful that my S.O. is one of the insane optimists. She tempers my occasional foray into “realism” and “pessimism”.

    Lucky for me, over the years I have become a lot less cynical about things and just go get things done.

    That’s what the United States is going to do in the upcoming years… get things done.

  3. Smitty 16 years ago

    Thank you for this. Too few in the tech community have any idea what we’re going to do next week if “my candidate” doesn’t win. What I love about this country is that we do, as you say, decide to work ourselves out of our corners.

    We have no one to blame but the folks we put into office for getting us into those corners, and no place but the ballot box to change the directions.

  4. Aaron Davies 16 years ago

    Well, subject to vetoes from Gödel and Turing. Surprisingly, managers don’t actually seem to demand automatic arbitrary correctness verification very often.

  5. Chris 16 years ago

    Nicely said. Hopefully there is enough time left.

  6. Michael Gaffney 16 years ago

    Nice post. I live on the east coast of the United States and I think we feel the same way as you guys.

    Change is in the air. We can build anything. We’ll just have to make the time to do it.

  7. lubos 16 years ago

    beautiful post.

  8. Bill Coleman 16 years ago

    There’s a quote I often use in my e-mail signature. It’s a statement made by Wilbur Wright to his brother Orville while they were on the train heading back to Dayton, OH after their failed 1901 experiments at Kitty Hawk:

    “Not in a thousand years will man ever fly.”

    This quote is most interesting because it came just before the most creative and innovative period in the Wright brothers’ flying careers. After this, they built wind-tunnels, re-wrote the theories of lift, invented a new theory for propeller function, designed and build their own gasoline engines.

    This was just before they mastered all fundamental aspects of flight. They definitely said, “We’re going to figure this out.” (The Wrights were too much of gentlemen to curse)

    It’s a fundamental story of the triumph of engineering. Had they had some manager insisting they stick to some defined timetable in 1901 — they would have given up.

  9. Amen.

    Ten years ago I set a simple rule that governs my behavior in meetings. When someone asks me if something is impossible, I never say no. I’m allowed to say “Let me think about it,” but never “No.”

    I found that every time I said no to some great but seemingly unworkable idea, the solution would come to me within hours, and I’d have to swallow my pride and admit that I was wrong. “Yes, we can do that if you really want to, and I’m sorry for raining on your parade.”

    It’s a heck of a lot easier to just say yes up front, and move on to a constructive discussion about what it might take to get it done. Often the idea will get killed for some other reason, but you come out looking extremely competent and professional.

    Be an enabler, not a barrier.

  10. You’re so right.

    In fact, this is what being an American is all about. In the face of literally millions of critics and naysayers, we’re going to do it. We’re going to be successful. I’m as cynical as anyone, but that doesn’t mean I can’t be optimistic and realistic. When you blend those three things together, I think we’ll see true progress.

    Good post.

  11. Well, I live in Israel and I’m a pessimist. It’s not only a question of time (which might not be enough), it’s also a matter of how many optimists who “over-commit… deliver… help…” etc. I’m not sure there are enough of those. Sorry for being the party pooper.

  12. Well put. A desire to find others of insane optimism was what drove me to move to the Valley. Keep it up, Rands.

  13. Robert Williams 16 years ago


  14. Nice post. Once a customer asked me something and I said it takes 30 minutes to do it. Someone in my company was doing the same thing so I was told I wasn’t supposed to lie to customers. Less than 30m later i presented the finished code. I was told it was no good cause it was impossible to deliver that fast. So it probably didn’t work.

    What’s the lesson here? Working in a company slows you down. You have to take 1 week to do something for it to be considered decent…

  15. PS. Label me as you want. But if I’m arrogant because I say what I think without adapting it to the person in my front than I wish to be a arrogant bastard all my life. 🙂

  16. Kieron Heath 16 years ago

    …whilst in the UK we all think we’re going to die, so might as well not bother fighting.

    I think that’s a major difference between the English and the Americans. Whilst we’re grumbling and moaning, the Americans are going: ‘yeah, come on… we can do this.’

  17. Thank you for this great article. I am so impressed by this article that I translated it into Japanese. If you mind it, please tell me and I will put my translation off the internet.

    Although I am a Japanese, I believe that the USA succeeds in rebuilding their country. I am surprised at how powerful the USA is. Facing this crisis, they choose optimistic and powerful Barack Obama as their president. I think this has a great historical significance.

    Anyway, thanks for this great article.

  18. Kazuhiro MUSASHI 16 years ago

    Sorry. Can’t specify the URL.

    The Japanese translation is here:

  19. There is still trash on my lawn. I picked it up yesterday. I expect to be picking it up tomorrow.

    That was a metaphor. Did you get it?

    As engineers, we understand that to actually fix a system, you have to find the parts that are broken and fix them. Sure, sometimes a hack will work, and maybe for a long time. But then what?

    So I remain skeptical.

  20. I could not agree more.

    I am an immigrant to the USA

    When people here complain and act negative about the future, I always ask them, do you know how long the line of people is to emigrate here? Do you know how many people wait years and years for a visa to come here?

    Now check the immigration departments of China, India and Russia. How long are their waiting lists?

    America will always win because here, I truly believe it is _what_ you know rather than _who_ you know.

    I personally have been many times more successful here than I was back in the UK, because the opportunities here are so much greater.

    And whether you agree with him politically or not, in what other country of the world could somebody like Barack Obama become president?

  21. Sue D. Nimh 16 years ago

    I listen to people grouse about how horrible we have it here in the US, and I have to agree with SLS, look at the lines of people wanting to get into the US. This is the source of our strength, immigration that gives people chances to own a gas station/convenience store/motel/restaurant, to get an education, to run for elected office, to work on the next great thing. I stopped in a Chinese restaurant 20 years ago for takeout and while I waited, the cook came out from the kitchen to practice his English and talk about what he was learning for his citizenship exam. He knew many things about the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence that most native-born Americans have never bothered to learn. It was a real eye opener to me-this guy comes thousands of miles, not knowing the language, and in several years, learns the language and what he needs to become a US citizen, a participant in the grand experiment of democracy, conducted by flawed humans, but surviving both because of, and in spite of, those flaws.

    The naysayers are depressed about the future because THEY WATCH TOO D*MN MUCH TV, where people live lives that are completely unrealistic, and the TV news shows get ratings by trying to scare the crap out of people with the latest “sky is falling”. Turn off the TV and get to work finding solutions. Go talk to people who are working now, today to find solutions. These are people who believe that, even though there are challenges, they can be surmounted to make life better. You will find these people volunteering to build houses, sort food in food pantries, provide meals for those whose lives are not yet stable, picking up trash on the roadside, sending a truck of clothes, shoes, and medical supplies to those whose lives have been altered by a hurricane. These are people who may have lost a home in a flood or tornado, yet are out with hands and shovels to help others who are affected by the same natural disaster. The strength of the US is not on Wall Street, or in our factories, but in our people, and in their willingness to create solutions that can be shared with others. I believe this is why so many people in the US are disappointed with our government, because they waited for politicians to lead us to do the right thing. If you are waiting for the government to save you, or save the planet, you are on the wrong path. Bureaucracy only stifles innovation, it can never create it. Only hands and hearts and courage can create the future. So lets get to it!

  22. Jason 16 years ago

    I agree with your response that as an engineer you could potential build something with enough time, but I think its important to note there is an important aspect in addition to that optimism. It is an engineers job to also be pessimistic, pointing out huge flaws and explaining that it might not be exactly what you want to do.

    Engineering is always a trade off and this issue is no different, when to be pessimistic, and when to be optimistic.

    Enjoy you blog and I am enjoying you book, keep it up

  23. Amen, brother.

  24. Didier Arango 16 years ago

    Well said Sue D. Nimh. I’m an immigrant myself. When I came to this country, at the age of ten, with my parents all we had were the clothes on our back. I attended NYC public schools and paid my own way through a NY state college. I’m 30, Sr. software developer at a small financial services company in NYC, I’m married have two beautiful girls and we have a house (well actually a town-house but cut me some slack I’m only 30 and I live in NY) in a neighborhood with really good schools. It sounds like I’m bragging but my point is only in the US of A you will see my story repeat it self over and over. And yes I also agree with Sue on the fact that we all need to do our part if we are going to make it.

    Great post, very inspiring

  25. soittoäänet 16 years ago