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The fine line between the big picture and the minor details

or "The parallels between academia and the industry". I chose the former and not the latter. I hope you understand why by the end of this post.

So, to start with, let me tell you what a friend of mine asked me in my final year of college. To give you a little introduction, a final year student at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras is expected to work on an year-long project. I majored in Physics and I worked with Dr. L. Sriramkumar of the Dept. of Physics at IIT Madras on a project modelling different ways the universe evolved. So, coming back to the point, I was trying to explain to a friend of mine what it is that I was working on and after sometime, he pointed out to me the fact that I was only talking about the minor details of the project but I wasn't talking about the big picture, that I wasn't talking about the big picture and why we were doing what we were doing. I agreed with him and replied to him that this project started much before I came long and will last much after I depart from IIT Madras and that I was just adding a small bit to the whole. We disagreed on how final year projects should be, him arguing that the student should be involved from conceptualisation to final product/results. I disagreed with him, arguing that sometimes a concrete result or a final product might not be achievable in an year. We agreed to disagree and that was that. Also, I want to add that this friend of mine is also a graduate from IIT Madras with a degree in Mechanical Engg. and he founded a startup out of college.

Now that I have laid the ground work, I think I can move forward with the rest of the argument, which is the fine line between the big picture and the minor details. Throughout most of my college life, I dreamt big but never bothered working through the small assignments that were mandatory as part of my course work. I tried to understand the bigger picture (say, in science) without spending too much time understanding the foundations of science i.e the minor details which are what I needed to be able to fulfil the big dreams I was dreaming. Meanwhile, I had classmates who diligently worked through each assignment as part of the course work, studied before the exams and aced them. I don't know if they tried creating and understanding a bigger picture, a bigger picture formed from all of the individual courses we were doing or going to do. I don't even know if they cared about such an overall view. Fast forward to when I was working on my final year project, I had an increasingly tough time, not because the project was exceptionally difficult but because I was getting the simplest of things wrong and it took me forever to workout the basics of the project to be able to build on top of.

I didn't care about the minor details most of my college life because I thought it was more important to understand how everything worked together, and to then start looking at the individual pieces of the machinery. Instead, what I realised towards the end of college is that it is almost never possible to get a complete overview of everything involved. Almost never. Stressing over not understanding the big picture and not moving forward without one is a stupid thing to do. This is probably very trivial to some of you reading this but well it wasn't for me. I hope someone had hammered this into my head at the time. People did try but I guess I'm too thick-skulled.

Now, to look at the other side, while it's (in my opinion) wrong to stress over understanding the bigger picture before working on the minor details, it's also wrong to only care about the minor details and ignoring the bigger picture. Not understanding an overview will start causing problems when you are trying to convey your work. Because you care about the minor details, you will be able to solve a specific equation, you will be able to build a specific part/device but when the time comes to explain why this equation/device was important or how they fit in the whole, you might falter. This is why I think that there is a fine line between worrying about the big picture and caring about the minor details. While one of them hinders progress, the other hinders effective communication of progress made.

Why, you ask, am I talking about all of this now? It's because only yesterday did I realise this parallel between academia and the industry. Well, sort of a parallel. In academia, you need to care about the minor details, especially as a student, because there are exams that test you regularly. If you are past writing exams, you will have faculty asking you questions. If you are past answering to faculty, there will be students badgering you with questions. Overall, staying in academia means staying on top of the minor details. Similarly, in the industry or specifically in the software industry, what matters are the issues that pop up with the software a company develops. Understanding the cause behind such issues and in general, understanding why a certain piece of code was written the way it was written will help you in the long term. And similar to what happens in academia, when you solve the issue and fix the code, you will have the explain to the manager or person-in-charge why the behaviour was broken in the first place and how your solution solves the problem. See, minor details matter both in the academia and the industry.

Now, let's look at the bigger picture. In academia, having a bigger picture as an undergrad lets you write a good statement of purpose when writing an application to grad school. If that's what you're looking for. It will help you ace interviews if you are looking to move to the industry. In this case, a bigger picture can be an overview of why you moulded your college life to be the way it is, why you did the things you did or why you studied the things you did. Further, as a grad student, a bigger picture will help you set meaningful goals to hit and as a faculty, it will help you guide students and establish an years, if not decades, long research outline. Similarly, in the industry, having a bigger picture as to where your product/software fits will help sell it better. It will help mould it based on your understanding of the big picture and the needs/wants of the industry/economy in general. A bigger picture will help you be a better manager, a better leader, who sets achievable goals and meaningful product targets.

And all of this starts at college. The way you're taught and the people who teach you, the people around you and the seniors you listen to start the process which will take you down either of these paths. While it's not impossible to switch over from one path to another, it is a good amount of work. I can't put my finger on exactly how a student can be moulded either way but I'll get back on that in a later post. Until then ...

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