Over the years, I have been in many meetings where someone will ask an engineer how difficult a particular technical problem is to solve. More likely than not–after a lengthy question and answer session–the answer will be something like “hard” or “trivial”. Most people in the room will respond to this question with a befuddled look. The silence in the room will eventually be broken by someone demanding to know preciously what date this problem will be solved by.

If you are one of the befuddled on a regular basis, you should read Understanding Engineers: Feasibility. It offers definitions for these common engineering answers. Knowing this information might prevent costly assumptions in the future. For example, you might get excited when you are told a problem is “trivial” to solve. You might think that you can have this trivial solution tomorrow or next week. Perhaps you should think again:

The only caveat is that triviality refers to how hard the problem is to solve, not how hard it is to implement the solution. So there is no necessary relation between a task being trivial, and how long it takes…

For those readers that are already familiar with these definitions, you might want to forward this link to people who need to understand them. This might be especially useful before a difficult status meeting. Even better, perhaps you can persuade your project manager to print a short summary on the back of all meeting agendas.

via Simon Willison’s Weblog

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