How Do We Define a Problem?


What’s the problem we’re trying to solve?

The very first thing that must be understood before embarking on any stage of investigation or solution is to clearly define the problem.

ApplyBoard’s mission is to #EducateTheWorld. But…how exactly do we do that?

This mission statement isn’t a narrow enough definition and doesn’t state an actual problem in and of itself. This means we’re going to have to dig at least one layer deeper. What does ApplyBoard’s mission really mean and what are the obstacles to achieving it? Why is it even meaningful, anyway?

Coming to Canada

Speaking for myself, while I was not born in Canada, I was fortunate enough to have parents who chose to risk everything by relocating from Vietnam in 1979. That journey is a story for another time but suffice it to say, we were lucky enough to arrive in Canada and in the years that followed, become Canadian citizens. I’m extremely proud today to first and foremost call myself Canadian. I feel lucky to have become a Canadian, and am thankful to my parents and to the country that took us in.

Thanks to my parents’ decision, my future became primarily dependent on my ambitions, my drive, my perseverance, my execution, my planning…in short, my hard work. Luck and happenstance were no longer my primary drivers of opportunity. In essence, this is the heart of what makes both the American and Canadian dream possible. I could achieve whatever I wanted so long as I was willing to work hard enough for it.

But what if this wasn’t the case? What if my parents had never left Vietnam? What if I worked just as hard but because I was in Vietnam, I simply didn’t have access to the same schools and education? In all honesty, I don’t think I would have had the opportunities that I have enjoyed. I don’t think I would have known about the University of Waterloo’s Engineering program or even how to apply. I have a feeling the university would not have taken my application seriously even if I figured out the myriad of barriers standing between me and applying.

In short, if I had grown up in Vietnam, I probably wouldn’t have graduated from a first-rate university in the field of engineering.

The First Problem We Need to Solve

I think the first problem we need to solve in our mission to #EducateTheWorld is to make that education accessible. To make it accessible, we first need to make the existence of the programs, qualifications, and requirements known.

This breaks the problem down into two (2) primary problem areas:

  1. How do we get updated information about the various programs we offer through our partner schools?
  2. Assuming we can solve for problem 1, how do we disseminate/provide the information in a relevant and consumable form?

Now, this is starting to look more like a clearly defined problem. But do we still have enough clarity? I don’t think so. I’d argue we need to go even deeper to answer questions like:

  • What kind of programs or schools?
  • How many?
  • What countries and languages?

The overly ambitious (and naïve) responder would likely say, “We want to be able to handle all the schools and programs in the world, for all the countries, and all possible languages! Oh…and can you complete if for next week?” If only it were so easy …

Thank you for reading! Stay tuned for my next post, in which I’ll cover our move to Agile and the tools we’ll need to facilitate it. If you’re interested in reading the first post in our Educate the Engineer blog series, check it out here.

Hiep Vuong
Vice President of Engineering