A few good questions > many cool answers

Some time ago, I read this Forbes article, Big Data: Too Many Answers, Not Enough Questions. First of all the title is wrong, since this is really about data science, but ignoring that the article doesn’t really talk much about how to get more good questions.

As I said in my bio, my motto is “I Question Therefore I Am”. So I know how I do it. Though I’m less optimistic I can help others that can’t, improve. But I will try.

The cartoon points out the need for questions by asking a simple Why. So I guess the best way to ask good questions is do that “annoying” πŸ˜‰ thing that so many little kids do. Ask why. A lot.

The reason why this is so imporant is that with the land rush to hire/train data scientists and very few hiring managers having any experience in data science, the industry has relied way too much on more easily trained/learned subjects. There are plenty of courses on and products for machine learning, python, R, data visualization, deep learning, etc. But ask a veteran data scientist what are the most important qualities of a product data scientist:

Creativity, Curiosity, Perseverence and Skepticism.

Taken any classes on those topics lately? Can you even find any? Ditto for technology products.

The first three topics (and in some ways the last one) are signature strengths – an important concept well worth many blog posts, but maybe start with this musician’s post. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the psychology researchers who created the concept of signature strengths and its larger area, positive psychology have a whole series of online courses here.

Creativity: Here’s what John Cleese said about how people can be more creative. A fun video, but if you need the 5 second version he said it’s not possible. Sir Ken Robinson goes further and gives evidence that almost everyone is born gifted, but school drills their creativity out of most of them.

So you either survived that process and are creative, or you’re not going to ever become creative again. Fortunately I’m in the first group, but I feel for the second.

Curiosity: the lack of this seems to be related to the creativity loss (adults and teachers gradually beating it out of kids, though insecure managers can continue the beating on adult employees). Because curiosity is also one of my signature strengths, I have little to say, but it seems that teaching curiosity is an area of interest by another leader of the positive psychology movement and he says:

If one has failed to develop curiosity and interest in the early years, it is a good idea to acquire them now, before it is too late to improve the quality of life. To do so is fairly easy in principle, but more difficult in practice. Yet it is sure worth trying. The first step is to develop the habit of doing whatever needs to be done with concentrated attention, with skill rather than inertia. Even the most routine tasks, like washing dishes, dressing, or mowing the lawn become more rewarding if we approach them with the care it would take to make a work of art. The next step is to transfer some psychic energy each day from tasks that we don’t like doing, or from passive leisure, into something we never did before, or something we enjoy doing but don’t do often enough because it seems too much trouble. There are literally millions of potentially interesting things in the world to see, to do, to learn about. But they don’t become actually interesting until we devote attention to them. β€• Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life

Perseverance: This has never been my forte, but I have learned that I can do this when I twice faced challenges that really mattered to me and were going to take a very long time to overcome. If you need to improve your perseverance I don’t recommend waiting for such situations. Some of the leaders of positive psychology have focused their research on related areas of grit and resilence. This course is entirely on that.

Skepticism: Another way to ask good questions is to be skeptical. Even if you aren’t at first, you will probably eventually learn skepticism in the school of hard knocks after you’ve made many mistakes doing activities you should have looked at more skeptically. This is another reason why only hiring young data scientists has burned many high tech companies – simply because these data scientists haven’t had enough years of failing to know when they should be more skeptical, unless they’ve always been naturally skeptical. In the list of signature strengths, skepticism may be considered focusing too much on the strength, judgment. I’m just not sure if that is a problem for data scientists.

Lastly, I can recommend 1 good book, that apart from probably it’s sequel, is the only good book on how to figure out the requirements for any given program or product. You can find both of them here. While I’m at it, if you are a consultant, these two also by the same author are a must.

If your work isn’t fundamentally changed by even one of those 4 books, you are either a consulting/requirements god already, or you should never do that kind of work.


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