By October 14, 2012

The Why is More Important Than the What

The goal of software development is to solve problems.

At its heart, software development is really about solving problems through automation.

Many times we have the tendency to make software development about creating solutions.  It may seem that these are the same thing, but there is a subtle difference.

The difference is the focus

When we are trying to solve problems, we are obsessed with the question of why.  It is only by understanding why that we can know what to build.


When we are trying to build a solution, we are obsessed with the question of what.  We want to know what to build so that we can build it.

This is fairly natural for software developers since the what is something we can control.  Any fairly skilled software developer can build any what you can describe to them.  Just like any skilled carpenter can build any type of wooden furniture you desire.

The difference is that software development is about more than just building things.  A carpenter doesn’t have to focus so much on the why, to build you a piece of furniture.  But a truly skilled carpenter will ask you why.  A skilled carpenter might make a house call to the project to custom build an entertainment center suited to your needs. 

A truly skilled craftsman of any craft, needs to know why.

It is odd that we constantly seem to neglect the why when building software (at least I do), primarily because we think we don’t have time for the why, when in the end solving the why is the only thing that really matters.

Do you really want a carpenter to build you a perfectly crafted entertainment center with plenty of custom shelves for all your music CDs when you don’t own any music CDs?

Why focusing on what doesn’t work

Consider for a moment what would happen if your GPS system stopped showing your route and the directions you were going to take ahead of time, but instead abruptly told you to turn right when you were supposed to turn.

One of the early GPS systems I used for navigation did exactly this.  It was very frustrating!  I would constantly shout at it that telling me what to do exactly when I am supposed to do it wasn’t any help.  I needed some forewarning so I could switch lanes and prepare to turn.

Also, have you ever asked your GPS the question “why are you taking me this way?”

Focusing only on the what results in split-second decisions and avoidable mistakes.  When you are focusing on the what you are not thinking, just doing.

Contrast this with a good GPS navigation system.

What makes a good navigation system good?

I’ve found that good systems will alert me far in advance to what my next move is.  This gives me time to switch lanes or to have a better understanding of the bigger picture of the trip.


Now this allegory won’t carry us very far in the software development world.  You don’t really need to know why your GPS system is taking you a particular route in order to get there, but it does demonstrate how focusing only on the immediate what can lead you astray.

Perhaps a more direct analogy related to software development is outsourcing.

If you’ve ever worked on a software development project that has had a portion of its work outsourced, you may have felt the pain of what happens when oftentimes perfectly competent programmers focus completely on the what and might not even have the slightest clue about the why.

I’m not trying to knock outsourcing, and I’m not even specifically talking about outsourcing to different countries.  (The same problems exist in outsourcing whatever the conditions are.)

Oftentimes outsourced projects are treated like a set of blueprints that need to be built.  The poor developers working on the outsourced project tend to get thrown under the bus when they build something based off just the what and can’t anticipate the why.

Why focusing on why is better

Focusing on the why is focusing on providing holistic cures to software development problems rather than treating each symptom individually.

Just like you’d like to have a doctor set a broken leg and put it in a cast so that it can be wholly cured, rather than give you some pain medicine to manage the pain, give you crutches to help you walk, and send you to therapy where you can learn to live without the use of your leg, your customers would probably rather you built something that actually is focused on solving their problem, not something that makes their symptoms easier to live with.

If we start building software from the what that is given to us, versus the why, we are at a distinct disadvantage because we only have the ability to treat the symptoms of a problem that we don’t even understand.

Focusing on the why is vitally important because it helps us to better think about and design the what.

Reuse is also much more likely to be present on why focused solutions than what focused ones.

Which software component is more likely to be adopted for reuse: a component that addresses a specific set of account balancing steps or a component that addresses the general problem your customer has of doing accounting?

Why focused solutions are much more likely to be shared across many customers, while what focused solutions are often very specific to a single customer.

Let’s not forget one of the most important reasons why it is important to focus on the why.

Missing the why is costly!

You can build the what someone is asking for, and you can do it perfectly, but at the end of the day if what you built doesn’t solve the problem (the why,) it’s going to have to be redone or thrown out completely.

You may think you are saving time by starting with the what, and you may actually build your solution faster by not taking time for everyone on the project to understand the why, but chances are you’ll build the wrong thing, and when you do, you’ll lose any time benefit you may have accrued.

It is very hard for a team to focus on the what.  Focusing on the what tends towards segregating the responsibility of the team.  The team members end up only having ownership for their own parts of the solution, rather than solving the problem at whole.  So, when a team that focuses on the what ends up with a problem, finger pointing a shirking of responsibility inevitably ensue.

By instead focusing the team on the why, every member of that team becomes responsible for solving the problem rather than solving their part of the problem.

The most compelling reason to focus on the why?

For many problems, just having a thorough understanding of the problem takes you 90% of the way to the answer.  I have spent countless hours trying to design and architect a clever solution to a problem without having a really good grasp of the problem that I’m trying to solve, only to find that 20 minutes spent actually fully understanding the why of the problem resulted in the answer becoming completely apparent.


How to know if your focusing on what

I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to know when I am focusing on what instead of why.  Not because of any special wisdom on my part.  No, it is because I fall down in this area quite a bit myself.

I’ve learned the hard way, and I am still learning how to identify when my focus needs to shift from what to why.

Here are some simple questions that you may find helpful to evaluate your own situation.  I’d be glad to hear any others that you can can think of or use routinely yourself.

  • Do you’re backlogs, stories or general work items state a solution instead of a problem?
  • Do you know how to actually use the thing you are building?  (Whoops, I am so guilty of this one so many times.)
  • Can you define in simple terms the problem you are trying to solve?  (Einstein said “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.”)
  • Can you clearly define why the what your are building is needed and what purpose it will solve?
  • Can you walk through the manual steps of the process you are automating, understanding each step and why it is necessary?

Taking the time to focus on the why instead of jumping into the what can be difficult to get accustomed to, but it is worth the effort.  You’ll find much more satisfaction in your work when you understand the purpose it is going to serve, the true problem you have solved.  In addition your customers will thank you!

About the author

John Sonmez

John Sonmez is the founder of Simple Programmer and a life coach for software developers. He is the best selling author of the book "Soft Skills: The Software Developer's Life Manual."