Engineering types like software developers are inspired by a sense of the possibilities inherent in building things. This inspiration is forever leading them into a classic blunder that offers up hardship and regret\u2014and an opportunity to learn a powerful lesson.\n\nInterestingly, this problem is not a technical one, but rather a mindset. \n\nThe blunder\n\nThis blunder may be the single greatest source of failure and disappointment in the work of software engineers and other technical types. Not long ago I rewatched the classic movie, The Bridge on the River Kwai and was amazed to see the mental error enacted by none other than Obi Wan Kenobi actor Alec Guinness. In honor of this, I\u2019ve taken to thinking of it as the Bridge on the River Kwai problem.\n\nThe error in question is the tendency to undertake technological efforts without their proper context, allowing them to become ends in themselves.\n\nThis seemingly innocuous proclivity is frightfully pernicious. As you\u2019ll see in a moment, it is harped on relentlessly by successful founders, who have learned the lesson through painful experience. \n\nIf you can learn to spot this happening in yourself or others, you can head it off and spare yourself a lot of suffering. Perhaps. Maybe if you\u2019re a dyed-in-the-wool coding type, it\u2019s a thing you really just have to go through to learn. \n\nIf you do find yourself at the tail end of this experience, bemoaning the lost time and effort, be heartened: You are in really good company. You learned a lot of skills. You have mastered the core lesson: pay attention to the end user, always.\n\nEven if you already know the problem, it always helps to remember.\n\nSteve Jobs fell for it\n\nJust in case you think I\u2019m exaggerating the kinds of people who fall prey to this blunder, here is Steve Jobs talking about doing so himself. He says, \u201cyou\u2019ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology\u2026. You can\u2019t start with the technology and try to figure out where you\u2019re going to try to sell it. And I made this mistake probably more than anybody else in this room. And I got the scar tissue to prove it."\n\nScar tissue. That\u2019s pretty graphic. \n\nI can readily empathize with the wounds. I\u2019ve fallen prey to the River Kwai blunder in ways small and large. I\u2019ve walked off as a coder too far from the business needs on some projects, attaining technological excellence that did little to validate its cost. \n\nI\u2019ve wandered far off into the wilderness as an entrepreneur with an idea, only to finally stop, look around and wonder: Where am I? How can doing so much good technical work lead to such disappointing results?\n\nOnce you are enraptured with the possibilities inherent in an idea, and you start feeling the gap close on the ability to actually pull it off, it\u2019s easy to just sit down and start making it happen. \n\nThere\u2019s nothing inherently wrong there \u2026 yet. It\u2019s good and right to take action immediately on inspiration. One of the greatest success thinkers of all time, Napoleon Hill, points at the importance of taking action: have an idea, take action, keep trying based on what happens. That\u2019s the core formula.\n\nBut as a builder of software, you must find a way to incorporate the feedback from users, living human customers, into the third phase of the cycle. You should hold it in your head, and you probably need a partner who can do it better than you. You must validate that you are building something people really need.\n\nIf you don\u2019t, you\u2019ll start building elaborations that aren\u2019t warranted. You\u2019ll fix bugs that are unimportant. You won\u2019t really know if your original idea was a good one. Maybe it was. Probably it was, if you\u2019d fine tune it with some feedback. \n\nAn archetypal journey\n\nSteve Sewell, founder of Builder.io, in a recent talk we had made this point in offering tips to startup leaders: \u201cThe primary one from my learnings is: Be religiously obsessed with customers.\u201d\n\nHe went on to mention the entrepreneurial classic Lean Startup, whose core premise is formalizing the customer feedback loop into the essence of the business. \n\nIt\u2019s worth looking further at Steve\u2019s story. It\u2019s illustrative, archetypal really. \n\n\u201cI left my job and started working on [the project].... I put a whole year into it and I had built various versions.... I picked my head up in December and I started showing it to potential customers ... I realized within about 10 minutes that I had missed the mark in a couple of huge ways ... foundational decisions that I made so early on were not going to work ... this was going to be a non-starter ... they\u2019re not going to adopt the product. It\u2019s not what they need.\u201d\n\nI heard what Steve was saying and I thought: yeah. A subdued, knowing yeah. \n\n\u201cI was so disappointed and I only had another year of runway ... only one more shot at not making that mistake \u2026 I decided I\u2019m doing this fundamentally differently. I\u2019m going to do the tiniest thing to get it in somebody\u2019s hands, and I\u2019m not going to do a single thing until they tell me they need it.\u201d\n\nAnd I thought, \u201cYES!\u201d There\u2019s the founder\u2019s rebirth and redemption. \n\nYou can see the outline of the whole process unfold right there: got idea, got excited, got to work, forgot to validate, got burned. \n\nWhy do engineers DO this?\n\nThe reality is, if you are a coder, you probably just plain enjoy coding. You have an association of pleasure with confronting imposing technical challenges and overcoming them. It\u2019s a bit of an addiction, really. (This addiction is the source of other issues: I\u2019m looking at you, work\/life balance).\n\nThis isn\u2019t to deny that the ability to focus, and focus intensely, with a kind of exclusionary attention isn\u2019t useful at times. It is. Especially in working through thorny technical brambles, we sometimes need that superpower, it really is the only way through. But we have to keep that work harnessed to the greater context and purpose. We must repeatedly assure ourselves that we are bushwhacking towards the peak, not the precipice.\n\nGoing off-piste can deliver some valuable skills and experience, including, prominently, how to avoid it in the future.\n\nBuild backward from the experience\n\nGuillermo Rauch, Vercel\u2019s founder, echoes the importance of staying on target when he says \u201cwe have always been very focused on the customer experience. We built backward from the ideal experience that we knew developers wanted.\u201d\n\nAs a serial founder, we can imagine that Guillermo has had this lesson worked deep into his entrepreneurial DNA. He highlights the customer experience as a key component, and I\u2019m going to say with confidence that this focus is a chief driver in Vercel\u2019s rapid success. \n\nAs an engineer, now hear this: it can be just as much fun to build something that people really are using as a purely engineering project. And, it\u2019ll keep the VM\u2019s online while you do it!\n\nReally, you want people to use what you\u2019re building. Users are not just a frustrating distraction. You must find a way to incorporate them into your bubble of technical fascination. Don\u2019t be Hendrix in a basement never playing out. Set your guitar on fire at Monterey.\n\nBack to the bridge\n\nSpoiler alert: In the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai, a group of British soldiers is captured by the Japanese during the WWII occupation of China. The prisoners are tasked with building a bridge to aid in supplying the invaders. One of these prisoners is an officer named Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness.\n\nNaturally, the British soldier\u2019s main objective is to survive and resist the occupiers. They are prisoners of war in a gruesome conflict; building the bridge is a project counter to these efforts.\n\nIn spite of this, the purpose and meaning bestowed by the bridge exert a power over Nicholson. It gets to the point where some of his fellow prisoners are in a position to sabotage the bridge, and he acts to prevent them.\n\nOf course, our typical software founder or engineer isn\u2019t faced with quite such stark and perilous circumstances. In the case of the movie, maybe the ideal bridge is one that is built just slowly enough to prevent reprisal, until help arrives. The bridge isn\u2019t the point; its requirements are. It is a means to an end, like all technology.\n\nIn the last moment of the film, Nicholson kills his fellow British officer and suddenly comes to his senses. He utters in disbelief, \u201cWhat have I done?\u201d\n\nHe fell prey to the most classic engineering blunder of all time: putting the engineering ahead of all else.