Context is King
Bob is a cog-maker in a widget manufacturer. He wants to make the best cog possible. He focuses on the intricacies of how best to machine the cog teeth, the best steel to create a durable cog, and the best material to use for a highly-polished attractive cog. Indeed, his cogs are a piece of work.
Six months later Bob is out of work. Turns out that the widget doesn't actually need cogs, and bearings are a better solution. Since Bob only knows how to make cogs, he isn't much use creating bearings, since all the knowledge was so focused on technical details and not actual functionality in the larger widget.
Don't be Bob. Understand what you're making and how it fits in with the larger whole.
The Scope of Context
At WidgetCorp, we've been creating the world's most advanced widgets for 130 years. As technology has developed, so have our widgets, which
is why we are such a titan of the widget industry. Of course, that
means our widgets have gotten a lot more complicated, so we have to
break down the process in to more easily understandable parts. Each
widget is composed of four main sprockets, and each sprocket contains
a lot of parts of its own.
Nobody (and I mean nobody) can understand how to make a 787 when they join Boeing. Modern technology (be it hardware or software) is too complex to understand each portion of from the start. Each portion of the process is broken down to a point where an individual can contribute, and then those portions are pieced together in to parts, which are put together in to components, which are put together in to an airplane (or program).
The Context Learning Curve
I recommend a two-pronged approach to getting context.
The first is to understand the most macro level -- how does your customer use the product, what is the purpose? This will allow you to see things from the perspective of the person paying money, and give you a good low-level understanding of what the goals of the company are.
The second is to understand the most micro level -- how your part works, and the immediate things it ties in to. At the end of the day you have to be able to get your job done, and you will become much better at that if you understand how your part fits in with the surrounding components.
Let's say you work for DeLorean making carburetors.
The macro is understanding that people want a sporty car that can go 88 miles per hour so it can travel through time.
On your end you are making a device that mixes fuel and air so that the engine can run more efficiently. You need to understand how the air gets in, how the fuel gets in, and where the mixture of fuel and air goes. This will let you make a better carburetor, and allow your company to meet its goals of producing a sporty car that can go 88 miles per hour.
Context Brings Better Understanding
Once you understand the carburetor and where things go, you will get a better concept of how the engine works. You will get great knowledge of the carburetor itself, but also a passing amount of knowledge on the requirements and challenges of the processes that come before and after. This will make you an expert in the fuel system. Once you understand the fuel system on a very specific level, you can extend that knowledge to understanding how fuel affects engine efficiency, and ways to improve surrounding systems by looking one step higher.
Eventually you will understand all the components on a macro level, and many components on a micro level. This will make you be able to manage the production of a DeLorean even if you can't build each part by hand, because you know how each system interacts, and the major things to focus on for each. The people doing the specifics and work out the smaller interactions within each system just like you did when working on the carburetor.
- Focus on your cog Your job is to make the cog. Make sure you can do that. That should be your first priority
- Ask questions When making your cog, you will be given specifications for how it connects to other cogs. Talk to the people who design the cogs before and after. Listen to them talk about their work (almost everyone loves talking about what they do).
- Be patient You won't understand everything at once, but as you slowly gain more information on a variety of systems, you will surprise yourself at how much you actually know, and how much more you start to pick up on. Your work on your own cog will improve, as will your understanding.