Closed-world expertise

Venkat Rao has an interesting take on the ideas of deliberate practice, flow, and the 10,000 hour rule. In The Deliberate Practice of Disruption he points out that these ideas of expertise are always presented in closed worlds.

The real problem is that research on expertise focuses on fields where “expertise” is a well-posed and objectively codified notion. This means mature fields that are closed and bounded, and can be easily observed, modeled and studied under laboratory conditions. So it is not surprising that the work … is based on fields like “medicine, music, chess and sports” … all sharply circumscribed and regulated domains.

Rao’s essay may be a bit too harsh on closed-world domains and a bit too romantic about open-world domains, but the distinction between the domains is important. You don’t become a successful entrepreneur, for example, the same way you become a successful violinist. Closed worlds place a much higher emphasis on error-elimination, at least initially, than do open worlds. In an open world, the concept of an error may not even make sense. Where there is no law there is no sin.

Consulting is a more open world than academia. As Rao notes, academia can close off an otherwise open world through “bureaucratic productivity measures like publications and citations.” Clients are happy if you solve their problems. They could not care less whether your solutions are publishable and all that implies. Original and thoroughly footnooted work that doesn’t solve their problems is not appreciated.

Clients are not going to give you an oral exam to see whether you’ve mastered some canon. And they don’t care if you cross academic boundary lines to use something “outside your field.” They do care about credentials sometimes, but in a pragmatic way: they may need someone with the right credentials to review something. In that case, your credentials are part of the solution.

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Sometimes definitions are enough

Sometimes you can apply math just by raiding it for vocabulary. You may not need to apply a single theorem.

This has been a surprise to me. I’m more used to creating a mathematical model so you can compute something or apply some theorem. But sometimes you can move a project along just by providing a name for a concept. A meandering discussion can snap into focus because someone has a name for an idea everyone vaguely understands.

Sometimes it may be clear that only part of a mathematical definition applies. In this case math can guide the discussion by asking whether the rest of the definition applies. “It sounds like we’ve got a widget here. A widget has to have these five properties and clearly we have the first three. Let’s think about whether the last two hold.” The answers don’t have to be positive to be useful. You might realize something important in the process of explaining why your thing is not a widget.

Sometimes a definition may not apply at all and still be useful! “This reminds me of a widget. It’s not a widget in any strict sense. But if it were, this is what we’d do next. I wonder whether we can do something like that.”

 

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Looking like you know what you’re doing

I’ve been in The Netherlands this week for a conference where I gave a talk on erasure coding. Last night after the conference, my host drove me and another speaker to Schiphol Airport. I’m staying in Amsterdam, but it was easier to drop us both at the airport because it’s a short train ride from there into the city.

After wandering around for a bit, I found where I believed I should wait for the train, though I wasn’t entirely sure. While I was standing there a group of half-drunk young men from Scotland walked to the platform and asked me questions about the train. One of the group thought they were on the wrong platform, but I heard their leader say “He’s got glasses and a beard. He’s obviously more intelligent than us.” Apparently they found this argument convincing and they stayed.

Neither my nearsightedness nor my facial hair made me an expert on Dutch trains. This was my first time catching a train in a new country where most of the signs were written in a language I do not know. I imagine they’ve ridden more trains than I have. The only advantage I had over them was my sobriety. Maybe my experience as a consultant has enabled me to give confidence-insprirng advice on subjects I know less about than I’d like.

Central Station in Amsterdam

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Time and Productivity

Contractors were working on my house all last week. I needed to be home to let them in, to answer questions, etc., but the noise and interruptions meant that home wasn’t a good place for me to work. In addition, my Internet connection was out for most of the week and I had a hard disk failure.

Looking back on the week, my first thought was that the week had been an almost total loss, neither productive nor relaxing. But that’s not right. The work I did do made a difference, reinforcing my belief that effort and results are only weakly correlated. (See Weinberg’s law of twins.)

Sometimes you have a burst of insight or creativity, accomplishing more in a few minutes than in an ordinary day. But that didn’t happen last week.

Sometimes your efforts are unusually successful, either because of the preparation of previous work or for unknown reasons. That did happen last week.

Sometimes you simply work on more important tasks out of necessity. Having less time to work gives focus and keeps work from expanding to fill the time allowed. That also happened last week.

***

I did get out of the house last Tuesday and wrote about it in my previous post on quality over quantity. This turned out to the theme of the week.

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A year of consulting

I’ve been out on my own for about a year now, and it’s been a blast. If you’ve read this blog for a while you won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been working in math, software development, and especially the overlap of the two.

As far as areas of math, I did more probability modeling than anything else. Also some work with time series, differential equations, networks, and to my surprise, a little category theory. As for software, I mostly worked in Python, R, and C++, writing code for data analysis and numerical algorithms.

People often ask what industry I work with, but my work cuts across industries. Last year I worked for a couple pharmaceuticals, a couple software companies, a search engine, etc. The most unexpected clients I had were a game developer and a wallet manufacturer.

I did a lot of small projects last year, especially when I was first getting started. It’s hard to live off small projects, but they’re fun. Micro-consulting on retainer is better. You get the variety and sense of accomplishment of small projects, but with more steady income. I have larger projects now, but I plan to keep squeezing in a few smaller projects as well as micro-consulting.

It looks like this year will be busier than last. I have a lot more lined up than I did this time last year. I expect to do the same kind of work I did last year. I expect to branch out a little as well, though it’s too early to say much about that.

I also expect to travel more this year as well. I’ll be in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles this week and Seattle later this month. In March I’m going to The Netherlands. If you’re in one of these areas and want to get together, please let me know.

 

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Whether to delegate

You shouldn’t necessarily do things that you’re good at. In economics, this idea is known as comparative advantage. Delegating may free up your time to do something more profitable. It might be to a country’s advantage to import something that they could produce cheaper domestically. Importing one thing might free up resources to export another thing that’s more valuable.

Comparative advantage is often illustrated by a hypothetical lawyer and an assistant. A lawyer who can type very quickly is still better off hiring someone else to do the typing because he can make much more per hour practicing law. If he could type twice as fast as an assistant, and he could earn more than twice as much practicing law as it costs to hire an assistant, he makes money by delegating.

This illustration makes sense at one level, but it also sounds a little quaint. In fact lawyers do quite a bit of typing. That’s explained by another economic idea: transaction costs. It costs time to recruit and hire an assistant. And once you have an assistant, it takes time to explain what you want done, time to wait for the work to come back, time to review the work, etc.

Highly paid executives type their own emails, at least some of the time, because it’s not worth the transaction costs to have someone else do it. But for a larger task, say typing up hundreds of handwritten pages, it’s worth paying the transaction costs to get someone else to do the typing.

Most advice on delegation is simplistic. It ignores transaction costs, and has a naive view of opportunity costs. It says that if you make $50 an hour, you should delegate anything you can hire done for $40 an hour since the opportunity cost of doing the $40 an hour task rather than delegating it is $10 an hour. But things are more subtle than that.

Opportunity costs only apply if you’re turning down an opportunity. If you stop doing $50 an hour work to do $40 an hour work, then you’re losing $10 an hour compared to what you could earn (ignoring the transaction costs of delegating). But if you don’t have $50 an hour work to do, if you’re otherwise idle, then delegating $40 an hour work is costing you $40 an hour, not saving you $10 per hour.

People are not machines. If you have an idle machine, give it work to do. And if two machines could do the same work, use the one that can do the work the cheapest. But people are more complicated. We like some kinds of work better than others, we learn, and we need time to rest.

Suppose you enjoy doing work that you could delegate for $40 an hour. You find it refreshing. There’s no opportunity cost in doing it yourself if the time to do it comes out of time you would have spent on a hobby.

Suppose you don’t enjoy doing work that you could delegate, but there’s something you could learn from doing it. In that case, there may be an opportunity benefit as well as an opportunity cost: learning something new may create opportunities in the future.

The previous two paragraphs account for enjoyment and learning, but not rest. If you don’t have $50 an hour work to do, doing $40 an hour work is only one alternative. Another alternative is to do nothing, which is very valuable in ways that are hard to quantify. And even work you enjoy may take energy away from other work.

Managing energy is more important than managing time. Energy is what gets things done, and time is only a crude surrogate for energy. Instead of only looking at what you could earn per hour versus what you could hire someone else for per hour, consider the energy it would take you to do something versus the energy it would free to delegate it.

If something saps your energy and puts you in a bad mood, delegate it even if you have to pay someone more to do it than it would cost you do to yourself. And if something gives you energy, maybe you should do it yourself even if someone else could do it cheaper.

Finally, note that energy isn’t the same as pleasure, though they often go hand in hand. Some activities are enjoyable but draining, and some are not enjoyable but invigorating. For example, I enjoy teaching, but it takes a lot out of me. And most people don’t enjoy exercise that much even though it gives them energy.

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Micro-consulting and mentoring

Sometimes a quick answer to a question is priceless. It can even be valuable to know that you could get a quick answer to a question, even if you never ask. For example, if your company is considering doing something new, knowing that there’s someone to help could make the difference in the decision to go forward.

Next year I’ll be offering this sort of micro-consulting and mentoring. For a monthly retainer, I will be available to answer questions and give advice. This would be for questions I could answer on the spot or with minimal research; anything more involved would have to be a separate consulting project. You would be guaranteed my availability for a certain amount of time per month and a quick turn-round on correspondence. (My response might be “I don’t know,” but I’d get back to you promptly.)

I’ve done some of this kind of consulting, and clients have found it very valuable. I’d like to do more of this next year as a way to fill some of the interstitial time between larger projects. I also expect it will lead to larger projects, e.g. “We like your idea of what we should do. Could you do it for us?”

If this sounds interesting to you, please contact me.

 

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Hard-working lazy people

“It was a favorite theme of C. S. Lewis that only lazy people work hard. By lazily abdicating the essential work of deciding and directing, establishing values and setting goals, other people do it for us; then we find ourselves frantically, at the last minute, trying to satisfy a half dozen demands on our time, none of which is essential to our vocation, to stave off the disaster of disappointing someone.” — Eugene Peterson

 

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How hospitals make decisions

From operations research professor Michael Carter on The Science of Better:

If I went into a company, a private company, and said  “I can save you a million dollars day,” the CEO would implement it tomorrow. If I went into a hospital and said “I can save you a million dollars a day,” they’d they have to think about it, because the CEO would have to convince people this was a good idea. It would have to be good for the doctors, good for the nurses, good for the bean counters, good for the patients, good for patient quality, good for media. … All problems become multi-criteria problems. The good new is that things are so bad in health care we can always do that.

That matches my experience from when I used to work for a hospital.

Carter’s last line may not be clear in the excerpt above. In context, he’s saying that health care is so inefficient that an operations research consultant can always find ways to improve things, even though decisions have to satisfy numerous constituencies.

Nicholas Carr said something similar in his book Does IT Matter? Carr argues for most of the book that although information technology is important, it has become a given, like electricity. Then near the end of his book, he says that because health care IT is so far behind, his remarks don’t apply there.

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Consulting update

Here’s a quick update for those who might be interested in what I’m up to.

These days I’m primarily working on two large projects, one that’s mathematical modeling and other that’s data exploration. I also have a couple smaller projects going on, one in software process improvement and another mathematical modeling project.

I really enjoy what I’m doing. I’ve worked on variety of interesting projects, and that’s important to me. And I’m spending less time now looking for work and more time doing work. (You can never stop looking for work, but for now I can afford to spend less time doing so than I did at first.)

 

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What have you been doing?

Several people have asked me what kind of work I’ve been doing since I went out on my own earlier this year. So far I’ve done a lot of fairly small projects, though I have one large project that’s just getting started. (The larger the project and client, the longer it takes to get rolling.)

Here are some particular things I’ve been doing.

  • Helped a company improve their statistical software development process
  • Modeled the efficiency and reliability of server configurations
  • Analyzed marketing and sales data
  • Coached someone in technical professional development
  • Wrote an article for an online magazine
  • Helped a company integrate R into their software product
  • Reviewed the mathematical code in a video game
  • Researched and coded up some numerical algorithms

If something on this list sounds like something you’d like for me to do with your company, please let me know.

 

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Singular Value Consulting, LLC

The name of my business is Singular Value Consulting, LLC.

Math people may catch the allusion to singular value decomposition (SVD). I hope that non-math folks will interpret “singular value” to mean something like “singularly valuable.”

One way to think of an SVD is a pair of coordinate systems that give a linear transformation the simplest representation. So metaphorically, SVD is getting to the core of a problem and producing a simple solution.

For some less serious mathematical company names, see this list.

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Looking for small projects

I’m looking for small consulting projects to fill the gaps between larger projects. I’m available for projects that would take up to a few days.

I can’t take on another large project right now. However, if your company takes several weeks to initiate a project, we could start the process now and I may be available by the time the paperwork is done.

If you have a project you’d like to discuss, please let me know.

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