Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Professional Survival Is A Bargain

The most famous quote in the programming world is Donald Knuth’s, “Premature optimisation is the root of all evil.” Often working under short deadlines, the phrase urges software devs to prioritise their concerns and work on the big issues first.

After all, scaling your software for millions of users is pointless if not even a hundred users enjoy using your product.

As legendary as Knuth’s word of caution is, not many know Donald didn’t come up with the concept of premature optimisation. He borrowed it from biology, where it’s better known as hill climbing.

Biologists use hill climbing to help explain the evolution of life on earth. Specifically, to explain how a single celled organism could evolve into the millions of different species we see today.

Excluding fungi and plants, the reason the world has almost two million different species is because babies are never identical to mom and dad. A kid’s DNA is always a random combination of its parents genetics plus a mutation.

And if the little one is in luck, its genetic variation helps it overcome obstacles. Helps it climb hills. But the infant’s random mutation could also get in its way.

You see, the planet can’t support every youngster that’s born. Perhaps it’s birthplace is too dry or wet. Maybe all the food is up in the trees. Maybe there’s no food at all.

Whatever challenge an animal faces, by a process of natural selection only the genepool of the most fitting species will reach the top of the hill.

As this process of selection spans several generations, a species eventually conquers all the peaks of its environment and reaches maximum adaptation.

Think of the polar bear with its thick and white fur coat. No other place on earth can fulfill the ice bear’s needs more than the arctic.

But the environment doesn’t sit still. Skilled competitors and predators are also evolving and fighting for a permanent spot on the globe. And every species has to deal with parasites or changes in the habitat and climate.

In other words, new hills are always forming.

So a once optimised species may one day find itself staring at a mountain on the horizon.

And if there is no ridge connecting the two, the species has to first descend its own hill before the group can climb the new.

Put differently, if an animal can’t use its existing abilities to tackle a new problem, it must first devolve before it can evolve. An often lethal period.

Just like species, businesses and people are also climbing hills.

Consider aviation.

In the 80s, the decisive factor for a successful airline was speed. And for years the top air service was the one with the most supersonic Concordes.

But when frequent flyers began to prefer cheap to fast, the landscape changed.

Even though Concorde was still the fastest, it was no longer the best. And without a way to make their flights affordable, Concorde went the way of the Dodo.

If you want to prevent premature optimisation, you must always be studying the landscape for hills and looking to develop new skills.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach