Friday, December 9, 2011

Where Do You Go for Questions?

Pablo: Computers are useless. They can only give you answers.

Sree: As of this morning, Wikipedia had 3.8 million entries. But where do you go for questions?

Faith: The questions are inside us, but we have done inordinate amounts of practice with answering someone else's questions (exams, school, interviews); we have forgotten where to go to get our own questions.

Teflon: Faith, I couldn't disagree more. Hmm... OK, I could, but still I disagree a lot. I mean, uh, what you said sounds great and all; it's just that it in no way reflects reality.

A Great Researcher
When I first started working in the research group at Bell Labs, my boss, Tom London, pulled me aside and told me, "Look Mark, I know you've got a lot of skill and you've developed a great base of knowledge, but that's not going to be enough here in research. What you've got is the ability to answer questions and to prove hypotheses. However, the thing that distinguishes the great researchers from the rest of the pack is not the ability to answer questions; it's the ability to ask."

I thanked him for his guidance and went back to my office wondering what the heck he was talking about. Over the following weeks, it became clear.

Up to that point, my experience as a technologist had been team-oriented. I worked on projects that involved people from multiple disciplines: electrical engineers, physical designers, software developers, product managers, etc. The goals of the project were set by others. Our job was to implement them.

In research, although we referred to one-another as colleagues and collaborators, we worked for the most part, independently. More significantly, each researcher determined her own "what" on which she worked. There were no predetermined projects, no goals, no plans. You got a basic budget and the opportunity to get a bigger budget if you had a really great idea and could sell it.

During the first few weeks I spent a lot of time talking to other researchers in order to get my bearings. As I did, the meaning in Tom's message became clear. For example, I might ask...

Can you tell me a bit about your project?

Sure, I'm working on a new ways to represent the relationships among data using 3-D matrices. Using a mouse, you can pan, tilt and zoom. It's as though you're flying through the data.

OK, I think I've got a picture of what they might look like. So what do you hope to demonstrate through your work?

I want to show that you can represent data in this fashion, that the relationships among information can be represented using proximity, size and even color.

Umm... Haven't people been doing that for years? Have you seen Tufte's book on the Visual Representation of Quantitative Information?

Tufte shows what one can accomplish with static physical media. I want to show that you can do similar things virtually.

Uh huh.

I would leave thinking, "Well of course you can represent the relationships among data geometrically; the rest is just a simple matter of programming. Even the challenging parts that are limited by processor performance will disappear over the next couple of years as processors get faster and memory gets bigger. What exactly is there to prove?"

Two Things
The more I talked with people, the more interested I became in what makes a great question. I realized that learning to question is a skill that can be developed like any other skill. I came to recognize two basic tacts that seem always to yield great questions.
  1. Always ask the obvious question, specially when it's being avoided.
    Faith, I think this resonates with your statement of the questions being inside us. We learn not to ask the most obvious questions. We do so in order to avoid embarrassment, to be polite, to not touch on a sore subject. Yet, it's usually not asking the obvious questions that lead to speculation and rumors. We end uo asking them of everyone but the one who might provide an answer.

    Further, it's the simple, obvious questions that serve as stepping stones to the the deeper, more meaningful and insightful questions.

  2. Always be asking yourself, "So what?"
    Answering So what? is the greatest filter I've found for weak questions. It's also a way to dig deeper and find the rich, meaty questions.

    What if I did know the answer to that? How would knowing that change things? What would I do differently if I knew that? Who would be interested? Why did I ask that?

OK, that was way more longwinded than I intended. I must think that learning to ask questions well is really important. In fact, it may be the most important thing to learn, a skill to be practiced and honed.

How about a fun learning-to-ask-questions exercise that you can do with your family.
  1. Pick someone in your life that everyone in the family knows. It could be a grandparent or a neighbor or a teacher or a friend.
  2. Have each family member independently interview that person for twenty-minutes recording the interview on audio or video if possible or by writing down questions and answers.
  3. Have each family member write up their interviews.
  4. Using the interview notes, have each family member write a story about the person interviewed.
  5. Spend an evening or afternoon together, sharing your interviews and stories. Talk about what you asked and why. Talk about what you would other questions you would ask if you were to do the interview again.

Hmm... why exactly would you want to do that?

Happy Friday,

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