Before You Move the Needle, You Need to Move the Scale

July 05, 2013 - by Rachel Balik

As Bryan Cantrill said in his DTrace blog post last week, the idea for Manta was simple, but not obvious. He notes that, “Sometimes simple ideas can seem obvious in hindsight — especially as the nuance of historical context is lost to time.”

That's actually a pretty reasonable description of innovation: the introduction of an incredibly simple solution that for whatever reason just wasn’t obvious before. For example, why wouldn’t you want your music library to live inside your phone, or to stay in someone’s awesome apartment instead of a hotel when you visit Paris? More importantly, why did no one think of these ideas sooner? Sometimes it’s a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Sometimes it’s a matter of having an outsider's perspective that allows you to recognize just how simple things can be. In fact, that’s why long-standing leaders often get into ruts and miss opportunities to create disruptive solutions.

We’ve got plenty of examples of this in the tech community, but in one of our internal conversations leading up to Manta, a very simple, even old-fashioned example popped into my head.

I was reminded of a story my friend once told me about his next door neighbor growing up in the midwest. The man owned some cattle recreationally (as I’m told people in the midwest sometimes do) but occasionally sold the meat. When he did, he’d drive up to his house with a truck full of it. Then he’d carry each piece of meat out of the truck and up the stairs to the bathroom, where he’d weigh it on the bathroom scale. Then he brought the meat back down to truck.

My friend used to watch this happen, with some confusion, until one day he suggested to neighbor, “Why don’t you bring the scale downstairs and put it next to the truck while you’re weighing the meat?”

His neighbor replied, “Well, because when my wife bought the scale, she said it was for the upstairs bathroom.”

So often, somebody tells us there’s a way to do something and we take them at face value. This man’s wife told him at some point that the scale was for the bathroom and he accepted that as an absolute truth. It never occurred that he could bring the scale to the truck while he was using it and then replace it. This might seem like an extreme example, but this happens to us all the time. More often than not, we tend to accept the offerings of leading vendors and companies and assume that we’ve got to do things the way they tell us.

As silly as that story about the cattle is, we really think it couldn’t be a better metaphor for Manta, an innovation that’s truly “moving the scale” when it comes to big data. For so long, we took it for granted that data was stored in one place and that we ran compute in another. Then, one day, a very-simple-but-not-obvious idea popped into Mark Cavage’s head.

While the idea may be simple, the implications are infinite. We’re only beginning to discover Manta’s potential to “move the scale” in many industries (although we’re not exactly sure whether it will help anyone weigh raw meat, there’s always a chance.) That’s why we’re encouraging as many people as possible to start exploring Manta, discovering new use cases and sharing them with us. If you’ve already got ideas, send a tweet to @joyent with the hashtag #joyentmanta. We’re excited to see what you come up with!