“Details create the big picture.” – Sanford I. Weill
Imagine you’re staring at a picture of a truck on a road. Maybe the road is located in a forest and there’s a cabin on the side with smoke coming out of a chimney. There’s some ruts through the snow on the road, where vehicles frequently (but not too frequently) drive.
What’s amazing about this activity is how quickly you are able to see all these things. In the first instant of looking at this picture your brain has identified a large number of elements (wheels, bumpers, lights, branches, tree trunks, a door, a chimney, a wall) and combined these elements into higher level concepts (a truck, a forest, a cabin), and then again combined these elements into an even higher level of abstraction ( a remote cabin in the woods).
Joel Spolsky talks about this concept in his article on hiring, where he discusses his friend Jared who’s a bond trader, and Jared’s attempts to explain complex deals to him. Even though Joel himself understands the low level concepts, he doesn’t understand them at an intuitive enough level to allow him to quickly combine the parts into higher levels of abstraction and understanding.
This structure where higher levels of abstraction are built upon lower levels is pervasive in the world. Our education systems attempt to structure their curriculum’s around this. This is why you don’t learn algebra until you’ve mastered addition, and multiplication, and you don’t learn calculus until you’ve mastered algebra.
Let’s go back to our cabin in the woods. If your brain wasn’t familiar with, and able to quickly identify each of the components of the picture, the process of understanding the picture as a whole would require significantly more work. The same argument applies to application architecture, or to business model analysis. If you are not familiar with the smaller concepts involved, your ability to be able to think about and understand the larger picture is going to be hampered.
If you have decided to work towards mastery of a given area (whether it’s in technology, business, design) take the time to think about what the structure of knowledge for that area is. If you can identify the small pictures involved in your space and master and understand how they fit together, the return on that investment in your ability to agilely navigate the concepts at higher levels will be well rewarded.