Seven Ways to Become a Better Problem Solver

by Software Engineer Laura Medalia

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But panicking, I learned, does not help you fix the problem. Instead, treat your challenges as learning opportunities and know that you’re not falling down the ladder— you’re “failing upwards” so you can grow. That change in perspective will help you stay calm, correct the issue, and learn from your mistakes. 


My first software engineering job was at Zocdoc. For those of you who are not familiar with the field, a lot of the work involves problem solving. You might have to track down a bug (broken code, aka a problem) or you might be given a really complex product and tasked with figuring out how to make it work in the current world (another problem you might say). When I started my job I was pretty inefficient and stressed. And then all of the sudden I realized I was becoming more efficient. Taking on bigger tasks, finishing them much more quickly. So what changed? What helped me become better at my job?

I learned how to become a better problem solver.

I wish I could tell you the exact moment that happened, but I do not think there was just one. Instead I learned a couple of techniques, attitudes, and skillsets that helped me tackle complex issues. And those skills have been useful beyond computer science—they’ve helped me grow my tee shirt company, create my website, and become more successful at sharing my story as a woman working in tech on my Instagram account.

Here’s what I learned about being a good problem solver:

Do not let failure get to you—it’s a learning opportunity! When I started my job some of the problems I faced were problems I had caused. I would introduce a bug and then all of the sudden the console was red, I broke the build, or worse, had to patch code. In the beginning these scenarios took me straight into panic mode: heart racing, tight chest, difficulty breathing, and I’d feel like a complete failure. But panicking, I learned, does not help you fix the problem. Instead, treat your challenges as learning opportunities and know that you’re not falling down the ladder— you’re “failing upwards” so you can grow. That change in perspective will help you stay calm, correct the issue, and learn from your mistakes.

Do not be afraid to ask for help. There are no stupid questions. I think people can get intimidated by asking for help because they do not want to look stupid. We all have to start somewhere though, and any good mentor knows that. It is not bad to ask for help—what is bad is not learning how to use that help to become better at your job.

Pay attention to how successful people solve problems. When I first started my job I was so focused on fixing the immediate problem I did not take the time to think about the bigger picture. But when I had someone more experienced come over to help me debug something, they were not only helping me find the answer, but also sharing with me the way that they figure out problems. It took me a while to realize that the latter part was most valuable. And with some creativity, I could apply those techniques to different types of problems. Once I started paying attention to how my mentors got the answers, I started improving exponentially faster as an engineer.

Instead of focusing on small, specific fixes, look for the bigger issue. Early on in my career I was really disorganized in my problem solving. I would change five super-specific things to eliminate a bug. That did not help me pinpoint the exact problem and things would usually only get more confusing. As I learned from those around me, I realized that the good problem solvers did not start with small, specific fixes. They would determine two distinct possible types of solutions and then try one. If it failed, they knew to look into the other type of solution; if it succeeded they would hone in on types of solutions in that area. That style of problem solving taught me to not dive in too deep when first facing a problem, and that has helped me a lot in my career.

Mentors are important. Try to find scenarios where you can get that mentorship—go to a hackathon and work with someone more experienced, or take some time to sit with your professor during their office hours and watch how they solve problems. Why have one mentor when you can have quorum? Think of your mentors as your personal “board of directors” and seek input and advice from all types of people you admire.

Never stop challenging yourself. Over the course of my career, learned the importance of embracing failure, being uncomfortable, and learning how to learn—constantly evolving my skillsets as I learn from my mistakes. Keep on iterating until you find your problem solving bag filled with a whole bunch more skillsets, then it is time for a new challenge!

There are so many great career resources out there—use them! I’m a big fan of the Forte Foundation, which helps grow the number of women business leaders out there, supports women throughout the MBA process, and has amazing resources for college students considering careers in business, even if they aren’t sure they’re the business type. I got totally engrossed in reading their blog the other night. My favorites: this article on Leadership Tips from the Top , which gives leader lessons tips from some of the top women in business (ello free mentors!), and this article , where businesswoman Gouri LeDonne shares great career advice. Check it out!

Take a second to look back every once in awhile and be proud of yourself. As you continue to challenge yourself to fail and learn, you will grow as a problem solver. And you might not even realized how much you have grown!

Source: Laura Medalia's amazing blog: https://www.lauramedalia.com/blog

Krista LangehennigComment