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5 Key Capabilities the Best Problem Solvers Have
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Throughout my career, I have heard people say things like “He has a knack for fixing difficult bugs,” or “She has a knack for getting Ruby to work with OpenSSH.” The definition of “knack” according to the Oxford English Dictionary is “an acquired or natural skill at performing a task.”
What we are really talking about here is the skill of “problem solving.” I tend to believe that in our industry it’s almost always an “acquired” skill. If you agree with this, then how and when was it acquired? Why are some of us exponentially better than others at problem solving? How can we become better problem solvers?
I believe what makes a great problem solver boils down to five key capabilities or skills.
- Unrelenting willpower : How hard are you willing to work to solve this problem; will you give up after five minutes, five hours, five days, five weeks, or five years? When will you stop trying? How strong is your “will” to solve this problem? I always think about Star Trek and the Kobayashi Maru , a training exercise in the fictional Star Trek universe designed to test the character of Starfleet Academy cadets in a no-win scenario . Captain Kirk took the test three times while at Starfleet Academy. Before his third attempt, Kirk surreptitiously reprogrammed the simulator so that it was possible to rescue the freighter. Despite having cheated, Kirk was awarded a commendation for “original thinking.” In this case, Captain Kirk’s willpower was unrelenting, and he refused to give up, knowing that there must be a way to solve this problem. In my career, I can think of a handful of technical issues that took weeks to solve. I feel that my willpower to never give up got me through the frustrations of not being able to find the problem and fix it.
- Breaking big problems into chunks : Sometimes problems are way too big to solve all at once. Great problem solvers take a big problem and break it down into small chunks that are solvable. In software, most complex problems traverse multiple levels of the stack. It could be a hardware problem, or a network problem, or an operating system level issue, or a framework issue, or an issue with your code. Being able to isolate an issue, by breaking it down, is key. One time in the early 2000s I was working on a WebLogic cluster problem, where the session replication was not working in some cases. When we would fire up the servers, it would work fine, but then after a few minutes, replication would stop working. This was a very tough problem that we spent weeks trying to solve. We finally solved it by creating a cluster of two servers on a simple switch (networking device); there the clustering worked fine, so we just started adding pieces until it stopped. By this elimination/addition approach we figured out that our load balancer had a security setting that was blocking the multicast protocol (which the cluster session replication was using) after an initial period of time. Once we disabled this, the problem went away and all was well. See my Networking 101 for Developers video for some good tips on network troubleshooting.
“ Being able to isolate an issue, by breaking it down, is key. ”
- Big picture : Being a great problem-solving software engineer requires being a great software engineer, but also requires the skills of a passable system administrator (in Linux, Windows or Mac depending on your target), network administrator, security administrator, requirements analyst, data scientist and tester. Often in software, many of the toughest problems are caused by leaky abstractions, and having some basic experience in other parts of the stack can help you troubleshoot the problems and make you better at your core role. Being able to see the big picture helps you view your problem with perspective and come up with a good long-term solution.
- Methodical : Often in interviews when someone is coding for us, and they encounter a problem, we see them flounder with some trial and error fixes. They keep trying new things at random hoping one of them will work. This approach is one many people take to fixing a problem. A better way is to take a step back and look at the big picture, figure out what things you should try that might fix the problem, and then order them by which is most likely to work. Once you have the list, you need to track each solution and combination of solutions you try and review the result. Additionally, part of being methodical is knowing when to bring in another “expert” to help; usually after you have broken down the problem and pinpointed a specific area where the problem is occurring. Once you’ve done the heavy lifting, and have perhaps spent some time investigating the issue, bringing in someone else who has domain knowledge can really be helpful and often speeds up the problem-solving process even if it’s just to have a second pair of eyes. If I only had a nickel for every time a developer asked for help and when I suggested the “obvious solution,” they said, “I already tried that,” then I responded with “Humor me,” and when they tried it and it worked they were shocked! The reason for this is they didn’t keep careful track of what they had tried.
- Finding keywords that really match your problem and exclude other problems
- Using double quotes to link keywords together: “Java developer” vs. Java developer yield very different results
- Excluding sites using the “-”: Ruby help – stackoverflow.com
- Searching within a specific site using “:”: Ruby help site:stackoverflow.com
- Using OR to link two or more words together: ruby OR programming
Becoming a great problem solver is a life’s work for me – I am always looking for ways to improve my problem-solving skills! I hope my ideas here have helped you on your journey to becoming a better problem solver. If you have other ideas of ways to improve, please drop me a comment!
Published at DZone with permission of Joel Nylund . See the original article here.
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a special skill, talent, or aptitude: He had a knack for saying the right thing.
a clever or adroit way of doing something.
a trick or ruse.
a sharp, cracking sound.
Archaic . a knickknack; trinket.
Origin of knack
Other words for knack, words nearby knack.
- knacker's yard
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2023
How to use knack in a sentence
Rivera has a knack for social media, which he uses to create content for events, speak out about problems in the restaurant industry, or just post pictures of delicious food and cute dogs.
Beautiful table decor isn’t always reliant on candles, flower arrangements, or other knick knacks.
Along the way, it developed a knack for edgy destinations, among them Pakistan’s Karakoram Range, where the highlight was the literally breathtaking ascent to K2’s 16,500-foot base camp.
I feel like I have a knack for speaking up for what I feel, not only the silent majority, but the forgotten Americans who come from places like where I come from.
The robots are not only some of the most advanced in the world, their makers just seem to have a knack for dynamite demos.
Brinsley was trying to produce tracks—hip-hop, mostly—and he apparently had a knack as a techie.
In the film, Foxx is able to showcase his singing, knack for comedy and all-around versatility.
Puck artists, like their predecessors, combined picture-making skills with a caricatural precision and a knack for lethal symbols.
Nigel Lythgoe has a knack for resuscitating pop culture tenets that seem on their death bed.
How did you develop this knack for inventing, and surrealism?
There is quite a little knack in letting the hand fall so, but when you have once got it, the chord sounds much richer and fuller.
Hope-Jones' enthusiasm knew no bounds and he had the knack of imparting it to those who worked under him.
They possessed the knack of composition and were what Bobby Hargrew called fluid writers.
After several failures, the boys acquired the knack of making up and binding a pack.
It requires a good deal of knack to keep your balance while some one is pounding you with a large pillow.
British Dictionary definitions for knack
/ ( næk ) /
a skilful, ingenious, or resourceful way of doing something
a particular talent or aptitude, esp an intuitive one
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition © William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 © HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
Randy Stuart Coaching
Fortune friday: “you are a deep thinker with a knack for problem solving.”.
It often feels like society—or at least western culture—is becoming increasingly shallow. Our news and media are delivered in sound bites and 15-second clips. Our social interactions reduced to likes, emoticons, and 140-character blurbs. Personal appearance and getting our 15 minutes of fame seem more important that character, integrity, and good old fashioned hard work.
I know this is not a completely accurate picture. I am sure there are thousands, if not millions, of grounded folks out there. I’m just saying the trend seems to be swinging to the shallow end of the spectrum.
And the problem with a shallow society is that it breeds individuals with a shallow mentality. Me, me, me. Now, now, now. It breeds impatience, intolerance, and a lack of foresight—the kind of vision needed for fixing what ails humanity.
The solution is to go deep. Dive deep. Be deep.
Going deeper is a learnable skill. We all have the capacity to go deep. How often have you heard yourself say, “I’m just not creative,” or “I don’t have great ideas”? But how hard have you tried? Really. How many hours have you dedicated to solving your problems or to getting crystal clear on what you want from life? Be honest. Actual hours and minutes. 20 hours? 10, 5, 1? If you were a consultant and were billing time for deep thinking, how much could you honestly bill?
My guess is you’re not going deep enough.
Most of us deal with our circumstances on a superficial level. We put Band-Aids on top of Band-Aids. Quick fixes that last just long enough until the problem resurfaces.
Go deep. Go medieval on your problems. Think long and hard. Give those problems the attention they deserve.
Persons of renown and respect are often described as having a depth of knowledge, or experience or character. They’re deep. They have layers. Are you developing adequate depth in your life, relationships, or career?
To your good fortune!
A knack for problem-solving?
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Definition of knack
gift , faculty , aptitude , bent , talent , genius , knack mean a special ability for doing something.
gift often implies special favor by God or nature.
faculty applies to an innate or less often acquired ability for a particular accomplishment or function.
aptitude implies a natural liking for some activity and the likelihood of success in it.
bent is nearly equal to aptitude but it stresses inclination perhaps more than specific ability.
talent suggests a marked natural ability that needs to be developed.
genius suggests impressive inborn creative ability.
knack implies a comparatively minor but special ability making for ease and dexterity in performance.
Examples of knack in a Sentence
These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'knack.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.
Middle English knak
14th century, in the meaning defined at sense 2a
Dictionary Entries Near knack
Cite this entry.
“Knack.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/knack. Accessed 4 Dec. 2023.
Kids definition of knack, more from merriam-webster on knack.
Nglish: Translation of knack for Spanish Speakers
Britannica English: Translation of knack for Arabic Speakers
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