November 16, 2016

Why do hard things?

Why it is increasingly important to target hard technological problems.

Why it is increasingly important to target hard technological problems.

Where we stand now

In late 1947, John Bardeen and Walter Brattain observed in their experiments that when two gold point contacts were applied to a crystal of germanium, a signal was produced with the output power greater than the input. This led to the invention of modern-day transistor and eventually made possible the existence of Silicon Valley as we know it.

Bardeen, Brattain and Shockley worked at AT&T’s Bell Labs. So did 13 other Nobel Laureates, 5 Turing Award winners, creators of Unix, C programming language and many other extraordinary inventors. Bell Labs was a magical place where the best new things on the West were born. And then it suddenly stopped to be such, and started looking like the picture below: empty and abandoned.

Why did this happen? There are many reasons, of course. The cold war ended and there was no need for such a capital-intensive research, semiconductor industry had developed to the degree that it could support many other businesses and opened up a great variety of new ways to create wealth - new and relatively inexpensive compared to inventing a transistor. Thus economic justification for doing hardcore research faded away, and so did Bell Labs.

Quantum leaps vs. steady walk

Indeed, if you compare our knowledge base to an onion, then each new shell has a larger surface area than the previous one. With each breakthrough invention, the amount of unknown (surface area) is also growing. Each such invention represents a quantum leap outside of the old onion shell and into the new one. The invention of transistor and further development of integrated circuits and microelectronics made it possible to build new, highly successful businesses by steadily walking within the shell without attempting new leaps. And software industry flourished.

What do you think bears more lines of code — a spaceship or your car? And by how much? The answer is obvious to anyone these days — your car has orders of magnitude more code, as it has to provide you with navigation, phone service, stability control, entertainment and dozens of other functions. This code needs to be written, compiled, maintained and extended, so a great number of jobs emerge to facilitate this, and software eats the world.

“Eventually things go south. When the hell did we forget that?”

One day, however, the semiconductor industry depletes the room available within the current “onion shell” of knowledge. Engineers struggle to yield better transistors using existing technologies, and there is no Bardeen or Bell Labs anymore to make the quantum leap. Moreover, much of the capital (and thus human capital) that went into hardcore technology development had migrated to more lightweight and profitable areas, like software and stock market (Silicon Valley and Wall street). What happens next?

Our history had multiple ways of re-distributing capital: from one industry to another, from one social class to another, from one country to another. Never did this re-distribution go easily. It usually involved things like world wars, revolutions, and financial crises.

What to do?

Do hard things. Why? The answer is simple: to make our world better, to prevent global economical disasters, to solve humanity’s most important problems. And to leave legacy. Now the timing is unique: continuous creation of wealth, and thus personal wealth too, requires us to attempt hard things. Those who are successful in building hard things in such an environment have all possible reasons to gain financial prosperity as well.

And next time when you think about whether to go work for a startup that builds another social network or join a couple of mad scientists making a new way to store solar energy, think twice. If the former one has a potential to make you rich, the latter one may also be the one to make a quantum leap and create a whole new layer of knowledge and wealth for humanity.

Live to leave legacy. Do you dare?

Author: Timur Bazhirov, founder and chief executive officer at is the fastest way to design and develop new materials from concept to product. It is an all-in-one highly scalable framework for atomistic design, high fidelity simulations and large-scale data analytics. More at