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Boil The Ocean

Lately, I've had the opportunity to intervene in a number of attempts to "boil the ocean"…

This phrase has been attributed to Will Rogers:

American humorist Will Rogers was reputedly once asked how the Allies should deal with the German U-boat threat during World War I. He suggested that the solution was simple. "You just boil the oceans. The U-boats will turn pink and pop to the surface. Then, you just pick them off." When asked how he would boil the oceans, he responded, "I never worry about details." [1]

The exact quote varies depending on the reporter. The quote has also been attributed to Mark Twain, but it's unlikely to be his since he died in 1910, well before U-boats became a problem.

The phrase is now heavily used in technology circles to denote trying to solve a much larger and harder problem than would be needed to achieve a desired effect. Much has been written about the dangers of small technology startups trying to boil the ocean, and I won't repeat that here—suffice it to say that I still see it.

It's also common for graduate students and their advisors to try to boil the ocean in their thesis and dissertation proposals. It's easy to believe that, since the thesis is the most important publication of one's career up to that point, it should contain all of the student's work ever, including all that they will produce in the future. Several times in the last couple of years, I've been on a thesis committee that had to stage an intervention at that point.

I am almost constitutionally unable to just drop a quick, easy post onto this blog. This post, for example, started out with the intention of being one free-form paragraph. As the result of my tendency to boil the ocean, I actually produce much less content than if I produced it in incremental, lightweight chunks.

Engineers have a natural tendency to try to "solve the general case". One of the lessons I learned the hard way in industry, and struggle to teach my students, is that this is almost always overengineering. It's hard enough to solve the problems we actually have. We mustn't try to boil the ocean. Fob


[1] On Boiling the Ocean: an alternative approach to technology investment, Mike Smith, Simbient Pty Ltd


Like you comments regarding engineering. Better is the enemy of Good Enough. Best is the enemy of Better.

I've no clue what follows Best.

Personally I've always liked Good Enough. I think Better and Best should be reserved for quiet reflection on just what one is trying to do.

Have a good day.

Xenon Vega.