Written by: Amy Dworsky, Instructor
Problem-solving is the beating heart of software development. Think of it this way: every developer’s journey, whether new to code or a seasoned veteran, is a series of problem-solving adventures. Whereas many other professions avoid what can appear to be “problems,” software developers embrace them as the journey to products that their users will love.
Problem-solving is about rolling up your sleeves, diving into the thick of business problems, and emerging with solutions that were not just unknown to you but may have seemed impossible. That journey is littered with joy and frustration but, ultimately, growth.
Problem-solving is about nurturing a mindset that embraces challenges, innovates solutions, and pushes the boundaries of what is possible.
But what actually is problem-solving?
Problem-solving in software development is a systematic process used to identify, understand, and overcome challenges and obstacles that arise during the creation and maintenance of software. It involves a series of steps, each requiring a blend of technical knowledge, analytical thinking, and creative insight.
The problem-solving process goes beyond fixing a bug or writing code. It is about transforming abstract ideas into functional, user-friendly software. This transformation requires a blend of critical thinking, analytical skills, and creativity. This multifaceted process begins with a goal in mind but is often only a vague path to achieve that goal. This path will include speed bumps and bugs along the way.
For example, take a construction company that only dug ditches using a crew of laborers with shovels. The problem they’ve identified is that it takes too long to dig the ditches and costs a lot of money and labor for all the ditch diggers. A good solution would reduce the time it takes to dig ditches and require fewer workers.
Understanding the benefits of a good solution gives us the “goal” we aim for in problem-solving. We know the start and the hoped-for end. We fill the middle by ideating, experimenting, testing, adapting, and creating concrete steps and tools to achieve our desired solution.
When approaching a complex goal, I like mentally mapping out the steps from start to finish. Inevitably, there is a step I don’t already know how to handle. I either note it or start researching to understand how to take that step when I come to it. I’ve had times where I struggled to see the steps and couldn’t use this approach, but in general, I’ve found this to be extremely helpful in most projects I have worked on.
This is not the only type of problem-solving you’ll encounter while developing software. You will uncover errors and unexpected behaviors that do not crash or end your program. These bugs are another problem that will need solving.
Sometimes, these bugs come with errors telling you exactly where to look, and other times they don’t. It takes time and a process of elimination to locate your bug before you can even begin trying to find the solution. Remember, that is part of the problem-solving process, too!
The best part of problem-solving is the joy of finding that solution and the growth you experience from overcoming that challenge! As developers, we solve problems constantly. As a result, I have found the best problem I have solved to be the most recent one I solved!
How do I problem-solve?
- Identify the Problem: Problem-solving begins with identifying a problem. Just like we don’t often get in a car and start driving before we have a destination in mind, we don’t want to start trying to “solve a problem” before identifying what that problem actually is. In software development, this could be realizing that a web application’s load time is excessively long, impacting user experience.
- Analyze the Problem: From there, problem-solving goes to the analysis step, which involves analyzing where we are, where we want to be, and the steps or information we need to take to move from here to there. For the web application example, this means understanding the factors contributing to the slow load time, like server response time, image sizes, or inefficient code.
- Brainstorm Solutions: This step is followed by what is often referred to as the brainstorming step, where we come up with possible solutions. It has been found that brainstorming as many potential solutions as possible, no matter how unlikely they might be, leads to the best solutions. The web application example could include possible solutions like optimizing images, caching, using a contact delivery network, or refactoring code for efficiency.
- Decide on Potential Solutions: One of the most crucial steps in the problem-solving process, especially in software development, because the solutions are often not found on the first attempt. For instance, we want to rank the brainstormed ideas based on their impact and feasibility in the web application example. An initial focus might be optimizing images and implementing a content delivery network. In the past, my approach involved repeating several steps until a solution emerged. However, since then, I have refined this method. Now, I prioritize potential solutions, ordering them by their likelihood of success or other factors like feasibility, and tackle them sequentially. Transitioning seamlessly from decision-making to implementation is where the real action begins. Each solution from my list is not a guess. It is a hypothesis that needs testing in the real world.
- Implement a Potential Solution: The implementation phase is about implementing those decisions. This is the testing ground to see if your hypothesis is correct. As you are implementing, remember that new information can come into play, changing the picture for your problem, which may mean revisiting previous steps. Otherwise, work down your ordered list, implementing and testing these potential solutions.
- Test and Evaluate: We have the evaluation phase after each implementation. Each problem-solving cycle is concluded once the potential solution has been tested and evaluated. In this industry, problems rarely have apparent solutions, and it is a recipe for frustration, expecting your first implementation to be the silver bullet. Through careful testing and evaluation, we can truly determine the effectiveness of our solutions. For the web application example, this means measuring the load time after implementing the image optimization, then measuring the load time again after implementing the contact delivery network, and so on.
Another fundamental aspect of problem-solving, and something that weaves through the entire software development process, is anticipating potential problems. By recognizing patterns in issues like slow load times, developers can proactively implement best practices in coding and design to prevent similar problems in future projects.
Problem-solving is a skill that all software developers refine throughout their careers. Tackling issues like optimizing a web application’s load time is a common challenge that enhances your problem-solving skills, making you a more capable and resilient developer.
What is the broader impact of problem-solving?
We live in an age where technology is rapidly evolving, and there is a fear of AI replacing human roles. The unique value humankind brings, however, is its problem-solving skills and creativity. Problem-solving nurtures a mindset that looks at problems from all angles, questioning assumptions and considering multiple solutions. This mindset is invaluable, especially in software development, where new challenges and technologies are constant.
Creativity is sparked in the face of challenges. As developers, we don’t just write code; we create innovative solutions to complex problems. This makes us more than coders; we are innovators and inventors.
The creative aspect of problem-solving – the ability to imagine, conceptualize, and execute unique solutions – is something that AI cannot currently replicate. This creative edge keeps us indispensable and marketable, even in the most advanced technological landscapes.
Harnessing strong problem-solving skills signals to employers that you are not just a programmer; you are a thinker, a strategist, and a visionary. You can handle complex projects, find solutions where others see only obstacles, and adapt to new challenges swiftly.
These highly valued skills can accelerate career growth, opening doors to advanced roles and leadership opportunities.
Moreover, problem-solving is a universally applicable skill. It goes beyond the boundaries of software development and is relevant in virtually every field. From project management to product design, from research to entrepreneurship, you will find problem solving. The ability to solve problems creatively and effectively is a crucial success factor. This versatility enhances your professional value and ensures your skills remain in demand, even when specific technologies or programming languages evolve or become obsolete.
While AI is a powerful tool, it primarily excels in handling tasks with set patterns and rules. The unpredictable and chaotic nature of problem-solving in the real world, especially in developing new products or services, requires intuition, empathy, and creative thinking. These are things AI cannot provide; these are the human elements that will make you irreplaceable across industries.
Problem-solving is a foundational career asset ensuring marketability and longevity in the industry.
Problem-solving is the backbone of software development and the foundation the industry is built on. This valuable skill will help you in both the big-picture creation and development of software and your day-to-day code writing. It is the most essential tool you can foster in your skillset. It is about seeing problems not as obstacles but as opportunities to grow, improve, and push the boundaries of what we can achieve with technology.
As my mentor wisely said, “Problem-solving is the goal; programming is the tool we use to achieve it.” This statement beautifully captures the essence of what it means to be a software developer. It is not just about knowing how to code; it is about using those coding skills to solve problems, bring ideas to life, and make a tangible impact.
Problem-solving is a skill that elevates your coding from a task to an art. It will shape you into a developer who can tackle complex technical challenges and contribute creatively and strategically to any project to create value for your team’s clients. It takes you beyond just a coder to a creator, an innovator, and a valuable asset in this ever-evolving field.