What would Elon Musk and Aristotle do if they were Shopify developers?
The question is nonsensical. I know. What do Aristotle and Elon even have in common?
They used the same approach for problem-solving: first-principles thinking. This powerful mental model allows them to do 02 things:
Break down complex problems into their fundamental components of truth (first principles).
Reassemble the best solutions using these first principles.
But let's talk about Elon Musk. Hate him or love him, he is the embodiment of first-principle thinking.
For example, when faced with the problem of expensive building materials for rockets, Musk examined the core materials and discovered that their commodity value was just 2% of the typical rocket price. This realization led him to question conventional rocket production methods and establish SpaceX, where he could build cost-effective rockets from the ground up, applying first principles to redefine the space industry's limitations.
In Tim Urban’s The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce series, Musk put it brilliantly: “It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first-principles basis.”
They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.” But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—from the first principles.
So what would he do if he were a Shopify developer?
Start with a simple example. Let’s say you’re an in-house Shopify developer and the stakeholders want you to optimize the store performance for better load time.
To apply first-principles thinking, we would begin by breaking down the problem into its fundamental components to get a better understanding of problem space:
Why is it a problem?
- i.e: Because there were fewer visitors going to the checkout page.
Is there any evidence/data point for that? Is there any issue that might be contributing to this drop-off? (Changes in marketing copy, discount campaigns ended, or change in design of the product pages, etc)
Is web speed optimization the best solution to the core problem?
You don’t want to waste your engineering effort on the wrong solution.
Let’s say you’re aligned on the problem space. You start to dismantle the problem and you find several key issues contributing to the site's performance, such as server response time, image optimization, code efficiency, and third-party app integrations.
Then you would want to examine each factor individually to understand its impact on the site's performance.
Server response time: Investigate the hosting environment, server configuration, and content delivery network (CDN) setup.
Image optimization: Evaluate image sizes, formats, and compression techniques.
Third-party app integrations: Assess the performance impact of each app and explore alternatives or optimizations.
Now you reassemble the problem with new insights.
With a deeper understanding of each component's role in the site's performance, the developer can devise more laser-focused solutions:
Server response time: Upgrade to a better hosting environment, optimize server configurations, or utilize a more efficient CDN.
Image optimization: Implement responsive images, use next-gen formats, and apply lossless compression techniques.
Code efficiency: Refactor the codebase to remove redundancies, minify assets, and implement best practices for faster rendering.
Third-party app integrations: Replace poorly performing apps with more efficient alternatives or work with the app developers to improve their performance impact.
By approaching a problem with first-principle thinking, you no longer sound like a IT service provider — you actively participate in the business conversation and converse like one. You became an equal business partner.
And if you operate at this level long enough, people start to see you as a decision scientist, a thought partner, or an internal tech expert — one that helps them improve decision quality, and they’ll seek you out where the codes speak.
And I think that’s where every good Shopify Developer should strive to become.