Silver and lead bullets

Silver Bullet by Ed Schipul

There’s a great passage in Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things in which he’s chided by a veteran at his company for trying to find a simple solution to a particular problem.

Ben, those silver bullets that you and Mike are looking for are fine and good, but our Web Server is five times slower. There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that. No, we’re going to have to use a lot of lead bullets.

Of course we want the simple solution. We want the answer that allows us to tighten one nut and fix the entire machine. But a lot of the time, those solutions either don’t exist or they distract us from focusing on the bigger problem.

Is it possible that the machine we’re trying to fix just sucks? Is that the big problem we’re trying to avoid?

It’s great to have silver bullets. They can sometimes, genuinely be an elegant solution. But a lot of the time, we’re better off just facing into the hard problem.

And you can’t always kill hard problems with silver bullets. Sometimes it just takes a lot of regular, lead ones.

What kind of fire is this?

A close-up of wild, orange flame on a black background

Sometimes, a fire needs dousing – no matter what anyone else thinks.

It’s in the curtains, spreading quickly and some decisive action is required to stop the house burning down.

Sometimes, the fire looks like it needs dousing, but on closer inspection: it’s in a grate, behind a screen and it just flared up because someone put some kindling on it.

It might have made the room too warm temporarily, but your dousing technique will be unwelcome overkill and won’t add anything to the situation.

Sometimes, the fire might be throwing off a lot of smoke and making you cough, but as soon as you investigate, you see that someone is using the fire to cook everyone dinner.

Sure, you’re coughing right now, but if you dump water on that bad boy, everyone will go hungry – and it will be on you.

This is the nature of troubleshooting in groups of people. There are different types of fires, not all of which benefit from the generous attention of your water bucket.

In some rare cases, seconds really count – and you can save lives by dousing first and asking questions later. But in the vast majority of situations, the best thing you can do is to put your bucket down, take ten deep breaths and ask yourself “what kind of fire is this?”