The System-Level Approach

Every time I read something like – “Asked what qualifies him as CEO, El-Khoury cited his strong background in a system-level approach to solutions…”, – I remember just how few professionals I’ve met in my life who truly understand how to solve problems.

There is a old Chinese saying, “You can eat anything if you cut it up in small enough pieces.” And the same is mostly true for problem solving except in solving technical problems there is the prerequisite to parse the problem up into relevant subsystems.

William Gibson once said, “Far more creativity these days goes into the marketing of products than the products themselves.” Which kind of at one level could be thought to speak to the political(ization) of solution seeking in many modern corporations. Namely the solution itself isn’t necessarily the primary desired commodity but sometimes rather is just the useless byproduct of meetings, competing agendas, and the egos of managers.

So what brought this on you might ask? My daughter is in her final year of her PhD in cellular biology. She got a master’s degree in systems engineering. And the scientist managing her lab approaches problems using what I call the brute force method. Beat on a problem long enough and hard enough and sooner or later you’ll arrive at some conclusion. So in my opinion a great deal of the output of her lab could be seen as wasted effort.

And from what I’ve seen, this particular scientist is not an exception. My 10 years at Intel taught me that the scientific method was mostly (90%?) unknown to the technical workforce that I liaised with. It was highly frustrating and ironically turned out to be career limiting not to my non-science trained colleagues but to me.

My daughter’s undergrad degree was in bio-chemistry so when she started thinking about grad school the thinking initially was understandably vertical, implying her initial thoughts trended towards an advanced degree in some aspect of biology.

During her senior year we spent hours  talking about grad school. Finally she acquiesced and applied to GW University’s Systems Engineering program. As engineering programs go, it turned out to be a rather tame engineering training experience but regardless my argument still maintains there was still some value add.

My uncle taught me by way of example that advanced education should be modular and not stovepiped. Meaning, if you were solely trained in biology then there forever you’d be. Uncle Glenn got his undergrad in civil engineering followed by a graduate degree in mechanical engineering before going on to med school and getting an MD.

That diverse education led him rather unpredictably into the field of tropical medicine which took him over the years to something like 110 different countries doing research and giving lectures. Quite a feat for a poor country boy.

I wanted that same sort of educational diversity for my daughter. And thankfully that was the direction she took.

And I believe no matter where we are on our path in life that we all need encouragement and to be recognized for our accomplishments. And so I told her in a recent email that “I remain convinced that the single most important attribute you possess that is overwhelmingly going to contribute to your future success is your ability to ask intelligent questions and in doing break any given problem down into their relevant pieces (systems, subsystems).”

And that “the evidence of system-level approaches leading to solutions is without question conclusive. It’s one of those things you either get or don’t get :)” And I concluded saying, “surprisingly most of the people, whom I’ve met working jobs as professionals in technical capacities, ‘don’t get it’. And I copied her to the article on Cypress Semiconductor’s new CEO.

Good problem solving is so fundamental to having a successful career (and life). And you know what was the single most important catalyst in my life? Believe it or not it was a high school class in Logic. The class was double taught (imagine a high school having that kind of money?, but mine did then) by two dynamic men. I can’t remember their names but I can still see their faces today.

That one class and those two teachers changed my life and changed the way I forever look at the world.


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