raganwald
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
  You and Your Research
Richard Hamming on solving important problems:
In order to get at you individually, I must talk in the first person. I have to get you to drop modesty and say to yourself, ``Yes, I would like to do first-class work.'' Our society frowns on people who set out to do really good work. You're not supposed to; luck is supposed to descend on you and you do great things by chance. Well, that's a kind of dumb thing to say. I say, why shouldn't you set out to do something significant. You don't have to tell other people, but shouldn't you say to yourself, ``Yes, I would like to do something significant.''
This, in my experience, is the whole story. Everything else falls out of this personal commitment. It's a commitment to try. To strive. To sweat. To make the effort. To care.

Without this commitment, you have made a de facto decision to be on the receiving end of life. To float down the river like a leaf, now hither, now thither, carried by currents and wind.

Drop the modesty. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do something great, even insanely great.

But I'm forty-two going on forty-three...

Age is another factor which the physicists particularly worry about. They always are saying that you have got to do it when you are young or you will never do it. Einstein did things very early, and all the quantum mechanic fellows were disgustingly young when they did their best work. Most mathematicians, theoretical physicists, and astrophysicists do what we consider their best work when they are young. It is not that they don't do good work in their old age but what we value most is often what they did early. On the other hand, in music, politics and literature, often what we consider their best work was done late. I don't know how whatever field you are in fits this scale, but age has some effect.

But let me say why age seems to have the effect it does. In the first place if you do some good work you will find yourself on all kinds of committees and unable to do any more work... When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn't the way things go. So that is another reason why you find that when you get early recognition it seems to sterilize you.

In my own experience, having some modest success early opens doors. But do they lead in the right direction? Sometimes not. I am constantly getting offers to manage teams of programmers working on uninteresting applications. I have taken such jobs, and I can say with certainty that while I have been successful most of the time and unsuccessful some of the time, uninteresting projects have never magically transformed themselves into important work.

It's hard to plant acorns when you've grown an oak. But it's necessary, very necessary. You can't get buried in management meetings and UML diagrams and presentations to resellers (you especially can't even get buried in writing about software development).

Todd Proebsting

A few years ago I went to a conference at MIT called "Lightweight Languages 2." All sorts of very bright people were there. Joe Armstrong gave a talk on Erlang. Matz gave a talk on Ruby. And a charismatic speaker from Microsoft named Todd Proebsting gave a talk about Disruptive Language Technologies.

In his talk, he gave a story about Richard Hamming. And here's the same story, in Richard's own words:
Over on the other side of the dining hall was a chemistry table. I had worked with one of the fellows, Dave McCall; furthermore he was courting our secretary at the time. I went over and said, ``Do you mind if I join you?'' They can't say no, so I started eating with them for a while. And I started asking, ``What are the important problems of your field?'' And after a week or so, ``What important problems are you working on?'' And after some more time I came in one day and said, ``If what you are doing is not important, and if you don't think it is going to lead to something important, why are you at Bell Labs working on it?'' I wasn't welcomed after that; I had to find somebody else to eat with! That was in the spring.
So...

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Comments on “You and Your Research:
This doesn't just apply to research - or science or code.

The three questions you ask are also very important in business.

* What is the most important problem in your area of interest? OR What is THE benefit that clients are looking for that you can potentially offer?
* What are you working on? OR What is the core focus of your business? What needs do your products and services fill?
* Why aren't they the same?

In business the answer to the first question isn't always earth-shattering or NEW - and doesn't always lead to major advancements or paradigm shifts - BUT, if you can answer the question, and really focus on filling that need or providing that benefit, it shows that you care enough to understand your customers, care about what you do, and, in the end, shows you and your business are capable of making a valuable contribution.

All of these are rewards on their own, but surely come with some financial rewards as well.

andre
 
Regarding The Role of Age

The thing is, you can break occupations down into two groups:
1) Those in which innovation is of utmost importance (science, technology, marketing)
2) Those in which experience is of utmost importance (politics, music)

Only when you understand the world can you be a truly great politician - and this does not come quickly - so most great politicians are older.

Only when your mind is not trapped by preconceptions can you innovate in science. You have to be able to believe in something that everyone says is impossible - and that's much easier when you're younger and haven't yet become as jaded as some become. Also, youth and lack of knowledge afford the ability to approach a problem from a completely new angle - an angle so unique that it could only have been produced by that individual, in those circumstances, at that age, and in that age.
 
I recently re-read this Hamming piece as well (we may have seen it referenced in the same place) and I think it is good as inspiration.

And we can all use some inspiration now and again.

I have some concerns, however, with some of the pragmatics of the advice, and these center on what it means for something to be "important". Is "important" determined by one's own enthusiasms, by a reasoned analysis of the field, or by the opinions of the media, or of others in the field?

Which "important" you choose will take you in a different direction most of the time.

A second question, that Hamming touches on later in his piece, is the question of cost. What are you willing to give up to do something "important"?

For example, if we change the question slightly to ask "Where are important things in my field (software development) being done?", I would have to conclude that I'm not living in one of even the top 10. (I live in the same part of the world as you.) In fact, I've long felt that this is a very conservative "follower" city in IT.

But am I prepared to move away from all my friends and family to do "important" work? So far, no.

I think this factors into "important" as well: what other important values do you have, and how do they rank against your work?

My purpose in raising these objections is not to be a downer, but in fact to remove immediate impediments to living an "important" life right now, in spite of limitations.

One just has to find the right definition of "important" to work from, a process that Hamming glosses over a bit.
 
I recently re-read this Hamming piece as well (we may have seen it referenced in the same place) and I think it is good as inspiration.

And we can all use some inspiration now and again.

I have some concerns, however, with some of the pragmatics of the advice, and these center on what it means for something to be "important". Is "important" determined by one's own enthusiasms, by a reasoned analysis of the field, or by the opinions of the media, or of others in the field?

Which "important" you choose will take you in a different direction most of the time.

A second question, that Hamming touches on later in his piece, is the question of cost. What are you willing to give up to do something "important"?

For example, if we change the question slightly to ask "Where are important things in my field (software development) being done?", I would have to conclude that I'm not living in one of even the top 10. (I live in the same part of the world as you.) In fact, I've long felt that this is a very conservative "follower" city in IT.

But am I prepared to move away from all my friends and family to do "important" work? So far, no.

I think this factors into "important" as well: what other important values do you have, and how do they rank against your work?

My purpose in raising these objections is not to be a downer, but in fact to remove immediate impediments to living an "important" life right now, in spite of limitations.

One just has to find the right definition of "important" to work from, a process that Hamming glosses over a bit.

(I originally posted this weeks ago, but it never showed up, so I'm reposting.)
 




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