Coding Logic and the Magic of Threes

How do you get an engineer to think like an administrator? That was a huge challenge I ran into three years ago when I was thinking of the most optimal way to organize blueprints and technical documents for a multimillion dollar project. Engineers right out of school usually spew out the same jargon: “I’m good at math but I can’t spell.” That essentially translates to “I can solve differential equations but I cannot read more than four sentences before my brain turns to mush.” I found a solution – at least, I thought I did.

But what if I was able to apply the same antidote to other people with issues organizing themselves?

So I did what any engineer would do. I built something to solve a problem. I created, a web application – my first ever web application – that helps you organize pretty much anything sitting on your desktop. But what’s the best way to organize anything? Even if it meant organizing complex shop drawings or my homework from graduate school?

Human beings like the number three. It’s a number basically found everywhere. “In just three easy steps!” or “On the count of three” or “The Roman Triumvirate” or, my favorite, “Three dimensional”. We like to think in threes because it’s naturally easy for our brains to process as little information as possible, especially if these three “things” build off one another (think of a Fibonacci Sequence where your seed is N and N + 1 stops after hitting its third attempt).

Filebrink’s simple, yet somewhat buggy, platform (give me a break – it was my first time coding a large program) was built upon the premise that if you forced a person to organize their data in three tiers, it would be that much easier to find a document, a drawing, that contained little to no words. The GUI actually looked like a filing cabinet. The user logged in and began by labeling a drawer (Seed N). In that drawer, the user was able to add a green pendaflex hanging folder which was usually a document label (N + 1, or Tier #1)Inside the hanging folder, the user could create manila folders, usually labeled with a description of the document (N + 1, or Tier #2). And lastly, inside the manila contained all your uploads – the documents or drawings you wanted saved (N + 1, or Tier #3). Each tier in Filebrink was built off the previous tier. If a user wanted to find a rebar sketch for a bridge, he’d simply click on his “Shop Drawings” cabinet drawer, find his custom labeled drawing in the hanging folders, and see a description of the drawing with the attached file right in its manila folder. It was restraining, but effective.

The “Rule of Three” better explained in this link tells us,

the first instance of something occurring, always comes down to chance; the second instance is considered a coincidence; while the third instance is perceived as a pattern.

Patterns are the crux of all engineering. Now try this other experiment. Think of any object or piece of data in the world. You can quickly apply a label to it, right? Water – Liquid. Cell phone – annoying distraction. Computer – Electronic. That’s great but this data is meaningless. What if we applied a three-dimensional landscape to these things? Water now has a location (longitude and latitude), a time in space (a date that chunk of water was in that particular location), and a value (how much water?). Now water becomes dynamic and if we look at data this way, we can start to see patterns – patterns in movement, time, and value.

The logic worked in Filebrink but human error eventually prevailed – I got lazy and stopped programming it because, like any good engineer, I was off to bigger and better projects. Like ordering pizza on a Sunday night before The Walking Dead started.