How to come up with ideas as an engineer

I'm an engineer. I'm good at math and science and I like playing with computers. I've always assumed that I would be the guy that creative problem solvers go to when they need a technical solution. I'm the paintbrush that the 21st century Da Vinci's and Michelangelo's wield when they need something solved. After spending four years of classes with other engineers, I've realized this mindset isn't unique. Often times when a professor gives us free reign to create, many of my technically inclined peers are stymied. I can solve problems when the parameters and requirements are clearly defined, but struggle when I have to create and define those parameters. For example, at the beginning of a startup fundamentals class I'm taking at Pitt, we had to come up with ideas to pitch as potential startups. I assumed that in a class about starting start-ups someone would pitch their idea for the next Facebook and I'd join their team and iterate on the idea. This wasn't the case. I was shocked when most of us shrugged our shoulders when asked if we had any ideas, so I decided to try to come up with my own.

Getting started

According to Paul Graham the first thing you should do is not try to think of startup ideas.

Why do so many founders build things no one wants? Because they begin by trying to think of startup ideas. That m.o. is doubly dangerous: it doesn't merely yield few good ideas; it yields bad ideas that sound plausible enough to fool you into working on them.

I've spent hours trying to come up with side projects to program and show off on a portfolio, as well as open ended design projects for school. These include a command line interface for printing files via command line at Pitt, a gesture controlled quadcopter, and a cycling power meter. None of these came from Google searches for "app ideas" or "project ideas." More often than not, I asked myself the question:

What do you spend most of your time doing?

For example most of my time is spent doing the following:

  • Coding
  • Running/Cycling
  • Cooking
  • School work
  • Playing guitar
  • Playing video games

I find that enumerating topics of interest allows me to think about problems I will be more determined to stick to because I am already committed to them in my day to day life. This also guarantees the problems are real and not what Paul Graham would call "sitcom" startup ideas.

Finding pain points

Now that you have a list of topics you are interested in, try to determine any pain points you have when doing these activities. A pain point could be anything that's repetitive, inefficient, or burdernsome. Can these tasks be automated? Can one of your workflows be streamlined? This is where Pili came from. Pili is a fake running app idea I came up with for the class I mentioned earlier. I realized that I had been spending a significant amount of time training for a marathon, mostly by myself. It's difficult to put in long, hard miles by yourself, and I would benefit greatly from having a few training partners. I spent hours searching for Meetup and Facebook groups for like minded runners, but ultimately turned up nothing. I needed a simple way to connect with local runners who shared similar goals and schedules as myself.

Minimize scope

Mark Zuckerberg's original goal wasn't to build the world's largest social network. He started by making online profiles for him and his classmates at Harvard, which he later refined into what Facebook is today. Likewise, Amazon didn't start out as the world's largest online retailer. Obviously there are a myriad of factors that determine whether a startup is successful or not. That being said, having a clearly defined and attainable, solvable problem is critical. Both the problem and solution should be obvious to potential end users and stakeholders.


Coming up with ideas is nearly impossible if you start with the goal of finding the next big idea. It is much easier to start looking for problems in your daily life. Look at Leonardo Da Vinci's journals and note taking.

  • Find a master of hydraulics and get him to tell you how to repair a lock, canal and mill in the Lombard manner
  • [Examine] the Crossbow of Mastro Giannetto
  • Get the master of arithmetic to show you how to square a triangle.

These lists ooze curiosity and observence. Da Vinci constantly takes stock of himself and his surroundings. It's no surprise he's often considered the greatest inventor of all time. I believe is an invaluable technique that can enable anyone to discover creative solutions to problems. It takes far more than an idea to be a successful entrepreneur, but I believe these techniques can help beginners take that first step towards entrepreneurship.