Why Fast?

Sep 4, 2023

Patrick Collison, the CEO and co-founder of Stripe, maintains a list of people quickly accomplishing ambitious things together titled Fast. On the page, he talks about The Eiffel Tower (739 days), Boeing 747 (930 days), JavaScript (10 days), Git (17 days), The Empire State Building (410 days), and more.

Why do ambitious things sometimes come together so fast?

  • Right time, right place. Sometimes, groundwork from many disparate threads comes together, making the previously impossible possible. See the Annus Mirabilis (“miracle year”) of great scientists — Einstein’s 1905 papers and Newton’s inventions of calculus, motion, options, and gravitation in 1666. When Richard Hamming asked, "Why do so few scientists make significant contributions and so many are forgotten in the long run?" one answer he posited was, "When an opportunity opens up, great scientists get after it and pursue it. They drop all other things." (Working on the Right Problems)
  • A sense of urgency is one of the best motivators. Git was borne when Linux’s previous VCS, BitKeeper, changed its license and necessitated a change. The first batch of COVID-19 vaccines was manufactured on February 7th, 2020. Work expands to fill the space.
  • Constraints foster creativity. Apollo 8 launched in 134 days. The United States announced its intention to put a man on the moon before the decade's end in 1961. Creative solutions often have to make do with what's available. That naturally helps steer us towards standing on the shoulders of giants (another Hamming aphorism). Linux was originally only written for the 386. MS-DOS for the 8088. In those cases, CPU scale beat CPU diversity (not always true at every junction, but when it is, it's a powerful strategy).
  • Fast favors prototypes. If it doesn’t ship, it doesn’t exist. Constraints prune the search space. They are a powerful focusing mechanism for pruning unnecessary details. The result is often simple (hopefully correct) when there's only time for the necessary.