The trouble with wizards

It’s usually a compliment to call someone a “wizard.” For example, the stereotypical Unix wizard is a man with a long gray beard who can solve any problem in minutes by typing furiously at a command prompt.

Here’s a different take on wizards. Think about wizards, say, in the Harry Potter novels. Wizards learn to say certain spells in certain situations. There’s never any explanation of why these spells work. They just do. Unless, of course, they don’t. Wizards are powerful, but they can be incompetent.

You might use wizard to describe someone who lacks curiosity about what they’re doing. They don’t know why their actions work, or sometimes even whether they work. They’ve learned a Pavlovian response to problems: when you see this, do this.

Wizards can be valuable. Sometimes you just need a problem solved and you don’t care why the solution works. Someone who doesn’t understand what they’re doing but can fix your problem quickly may be better than someone who knows what they’re doing but works too slowly. But if your problem doesn’t quite fit the intended situation for a spell, the wizard is either powerless or harmful.

Wizards can’t learn a better way of doing anything because “better” makes no sense. When you see problem A, carry out procedure B. That’s just what you do. How can you address problem A better when “solving A” means “do B“? Professional development for a wizard consists of learning more spells for more situations, not learning a better spell or learning why spells work.

Wizards may be able to solve your problem for you, but they can’t teach you how to solve your own problems.

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19 thoughts on “The trouble with wizards

  1. I can think of another type of wizard, called a doctor, that doesn’t explain in minute detail what’s wrong with you. Nor does a patient typically care, as long as they get better. At most, many people want to know enough about the problem and solution to avoid it in the future. The same goes for Unix wizards.

    As for Harry Potter wizards, I do agree that the average wizard has no clue why things work. Do you know, really know, how your car works? Or your current graphics card? Granted, you might know that last one. How about your TV? Your own body? Not everyone needs all of that specialized knowledge. We just need enough to make competent decisions in our everyday lives, and know when to call in the wizards.

  2. I don’t really know how my car works, but I’m not an automotive engineer. But if an automotive engineer doesn’t know how cars work, that’s bad.

    I’m not saying we should all understand everything around us in detail. That’s impossible. I’m saying that people should understand their professions. Many people don’t, and they’re not even curious.

    In the Harry Potter books, the antagonist is an evil wizard. I’m more afraid of incompetent wizards.

  3. that’s why you need sorcerers, someone that might work slower than a wizard, but naturally learns the solutions to almost anything

    (actually that fits the d&d implementation of sorcerers and wizards almost perfectly XD)

  4. The analogy is stretched a bit tight I feel. There are references to the theory of magic in the Harry Potter series, so it’s not all just “recite and run”.

    There are always practictioners who introspect and examine their craft, and those who just execute pre-canned recipes. I think that the introspection is what marks someone as professional in their approach to their craft.

    ~Matt

  5. Ok, John. I can easily agree that everyone should know their professions. Personally, though, I would say that the Unix wizards know their profession VERY well.

    And I would agree that the incompetence outweighs evil any day, as those incompetents make evil viable, the same way incompetent computer/internet users make malware viable.

  6. Wizards in the classical tradition take Gandalf as their inspiration; I think you’d have trouble arguing that what you’re saying applies to him – he certainly didn’t make a habit of telling everything he knew, but it’s clear that he knew the underlying details and not just the cookbook responses.
    So what you’re doing here is basically trying to redefine “wizard”; you’d be better off coming up with a new term for the concept you’re describing, instead of confusing people with two completely opposite meanings for one word. (“Script kiddies” comes to mind as having most of the connotations of cookbook magic, but is unsuitable as a description because of the additional connotations of malicious intent.)

  7. There is actually a metaphor I use with this as well, “Magical Thinking”, where things “just work” or “dont”, depending on some kind of magic, then you reboot.

    Ive never heard anyone but secretaries and managers call these people wizards, technical people hide their keyboards when they enter. Real computer “wizards” (this is an antiquated word, not currently in use in the industry), know all the details as well, and COULD explain it to you, if you wanted to hear the several hour explanation that all the details take to explain.

    Almost no one cares to hear this, so they remain “wizards”. I think you are confusing them with fakers, who just bang on the keyboard though. If were going to use old terminology, we should link them to the old people who they were created to describe, who were not keyboard pounders.

  8. I’m not playing on the traditional use of “wizard.” I don’t mean to disparage technical wizards, Unix or otherwise. I’m suggesting an entirely different, almost opposite, usage. Not that I expect anyone to use “wizard” in this new way. It’s just amusing to think about.

    Long ago someone used “wizard” as a metaphor for technical experts. I’m suggesting that one could use “wizard” in a very different way to describe someone who does not understand what they’re doing, someone who follows procedures as if they were magical spells. As dave suggests above, “script kiddie” is a good name for that when referring to programmers. But wizardry in the pejorative sense isn’t limited to programming.

  9. “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
    There’s a little bit of Humpty Dumpty in all of us, but when you want to communicate it’s a good idea to choose meanings that are at least recognizable approximations to what everybody else expects that word to mean. We’re talking about something that definitely NEEDS a name (given how common it is), but “wizard” is not a good name to use, since it has an established meaning that’s completely opposite what we’re talking about here.

    Now that it’s had some time to percolate, I think “cookbook magician” is an excellent name for what you’re trying to redefine “wizard” to mean – it captures the way people apply the incantation they’ve learned for the situation without understanding what’s going on underneath nicely, including the magical thinking that this mindset is usually based on. “Cookbook wizard” could work (the modifier being required to distinguish it from real wizardry), but the connection to the traditional meaning of “wizard” isn’t really relevant to the underlying concept, so the connection in the terminology detracts from the idea it’s intended to describe.

    (As I noted above, “script kiddie” carries too many connotations, only some of which are relevant even if the discussion is restricted to programming – it’s properly used to describe only those cookbook magicians that use their cookbook magic to exploit security holes.)

  10. I’ve also encountered more than one real-life situations where the so-called wizard is the guy who took time to read the doc and do some minimal experimentation on common use cases.
    They’re wizards because of the ignorance of the others, and not because of their lack of willingness to share knowledge.

  11. Did my aside about Gandalf’s reluctance to tell all turn into part of the working definition of wizardry? Let me set the record straight, then…

    The kind of person who values understanding enough to collect enough of it to become a wizard is likely to value it too much to keep it to themselves. The silence of wizards on the theory underlying their actions, then, isn’t inherent to the wizard nature; instead, it comes out of recognition that most people don’t care, awareness of the dangers of partial knowledge, and reluctance to spoon-feed.
    Once somebody (often a proto-wizard themselves) demonstrates real interest and starts asking good questions, wizards usually become one of the most talkative types of expert. I think this is closer to the natural behavior of wizards than the silence that they bring to on-demand problem solving (and I’m pretty sure Gandalf would approve).

    Pulling this slightly back toward the original topic, that’s one of the differences between a wizard and a cookbook magician: If you’re working from a cookbook, you’ll have less to say about how you know what to do, and you’ll need to be more careful talking about it with people who might start asking questions that expose something that’s not in your cookbook.

  12. The Unix wizard is as much a cookbook wizard as anything else. His commands are arcane and memorized. In fact, most programmers (of the best ones at least) learn from “cookbooks” too.

    To misinvoke an author from another genre, Arthur C. Clarke, the difference between a cookbook wizard and a real wizard is only recognizable to the significantly advanced. And in fact, the lesson is that rote memorization (and experimental application) is the key to understanding.

    The real difference is that between the learners and the learned.

    http://www.johndcook.com/blog/2010/09/02/learners-versus-the-learned/

  13. I’m a programmer and I really hate wizards, it does a great job, but it doesn’t teach you how to accomplish this job. People with wizards can accomplish nothing without them.

    Unfortunately, latest technologies delivered by Microsoft and few other companies tend to make everything trivial by using wizards and tools so that a small kid can build a big application without writing just a line of code. This helps spreading the technology everywhere, but we can see now lots of people who don’t know anything except how to use the mouse to click on screen items in a wizard. 🙁

    Thanks for the very useful post. 🙂

  14. If you like to think about wizards in a different way, add the ‘recite and run’ comment further up and the ‘redefining’, than I can’t help but suggest a new spelling as well: ‘wizzard’. Quite a few people will certainly appreciate the double meaning in that one.

    For those not in the know: Wikipedia:wizards (Discworld) and ‘Rincewind’. I quote: […] often described by scholars as “the magical equivalent to the number zero”.

    Pratchett’s books are filled with wizards who suppose ‘grokking’ means doing something unutterable to your last meal, let alone realize what they are doing, but they just happen to have the knack, and when properly agitated, they /use/ it.
    Though they rather spend their energy on enjoying their regular meals and cutting down the competition a notch or two.

    I know the ‘old’ meaning of the word, but given Mr. P’s sales numbers I postulate that his work will ‘redefine’ the understanding of what a wizard makes pretty quickly towards something more conforming to your idea, maybe even bleaker. A real shame. 😉

    On a more serious note: where does ‘cookbook’ memorization stop and understanding start? I believe it happens when you recognize the concepts (models) underlying the memorized bits and achieve the ability to formulate those models, at least to yourself, and construct new items, which have not been seen before (cookbook for the next one around?).
    But how many observations would it take to make sure you’ve encountered the genuine article? Hard to tell. I don’t expect a ‘cookbook’ answer is suitable here.

    Indeed, recognizing the difference there takes a really skilled observer.
    Which are a rare find themselves, so ‘wizard’ will, over time, end up being a word for both types as we don’t have the ability to differentiate between them. And ‘wizard’ will end up being graded towards the low end. So we invent… yes. Sorcerers, maybe, but I may have a rather black perspective here.

  15. The trouble with wizards — The Endeavour is a remarkable share. Thanks for this writing.

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