No Such Thing As a Stupid Question

In a conversation, people balance competing concerns. They want to gather information, and at the same time, they want to create a favorable impression. Impression management is an important social skill; you don’t want to look like someone who is always nosing around deeply personal secrets. And sometimes, you don’t want to look like you don’t know the answer.

“There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question.” —Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World

The idea that people should feel comfortable asking dumb questions has strong support. Economically speaking, a community wins if its members have all the information they need to make good decisions. By allowing people to ask stupid questions, a community strengthens its ability to share knowledge.

And our questions convey information. Listeners will learn about us from our questions. If nothing else, our questions will tell a listener what we’re interested in.

Questions are not just useful for gathering information; they are a brilliant conversation tool.

  1. Questions can be used to express interest in others. People like to talk about themselves, and they like when someone shows interest in them. Simply being curious about someone will build rapport and help you earn social credit.
  2. Questions create opportunities to share information. You can direct the conversation by asking someone about a particular topic, and they might respond by asking a complementary question.
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Enemy of my Enemy of my Enemy

When Apple launched its “Think Different” campaign in the ’90s, it was to drive a wedge between computer enthusiasts. “I’m a Mac, you’re a PC” was designed to make people pick a side. Apple’s enemy is the boring computer that only geeks use. 

Fighting against something is emotionally more powerful than fighting for a cause. Supporting a cause is a wish without a deadline. But an unpredictable enemy? That’s an imminent threat that someone needs to deal with, right now.

Harley Davidson said that their bikes were about freedom and adventure. This message was a declaration of war on Japanese bike makers and their customers, who saw motorcycles as being about speed and power.

The search engine DuckDuckGo has multiple layers of enemies, starting with every other search provider that’s tracking people. Google is their enemy and so is Microsoft’s Bing, and so is every advertiser and ad network preying on user data.

Do some people still prefer Google’s customized search results? Of course, they do. A good antagonist needs to polarize and cause debate. When you’re building a brand, it needs to evoke strong opinions; otherwise, it won’t have customers who care.

The enemy technique works exactly because the world is complex. People from all corners of the globe can form groups, based on only a few of their specific preferences.

Picking sides can often feel like choosing between right and wrong, but in reality, most of the divisions are arbitrary. To break the spell (to keep calm and carry on being responsible) it’s good to remind ourselves of what Niels Bohr wrote: “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

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Buying Product-Market Fit

Like many of you reading this, I run a bunch of pet projects on the side. Pretty much by definition, but it’s worth pointing out that all of these side projects are before reaching product-market fit.

A founder’s only job before reaching product-market fit is, to find product-market fit.

We don’t “focus on” building a great product, we don’t “focus on” getting customers, we don’t “focus on” changing the world.

We focus on building a business. A defensible business is the only way to survive in the long term.

All the other things are a side effect. Startups build great products, because that helps building a great business.

As someone who really enjoys looking for shortcuts, I often look for buying other’s side projects. This can help me getting to product-market fit cheaper. So before I build anything, I look at the free and open source projects out there. There’s always a chance to get lucky looking on Github first.

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Don’t Require Users to Sign Up

Isn’t the ultimate best signup experience, when you don’t need to sign up at all?

I use Doodle to schedule activities with my friends, because Doodle is super simple to use. You assemble a list of options and then share a secret link with your friends. That’s all you need to find out which time slots work for everyone.

Compare that to almost any other calendar scheduling service, where you’re greeted with a login wall. Some of the services don’t even tell us what they do before asking us to sign up.

These two options are the digital world equivalent of approaching a castle with either,

  • A massive moat and the drawbridge all the way up, or a
  • Red carpet nicely rolled out for the guests, and maybe even someone nice guiding them in.

This year we’ve seen people starting to use the verb “zooming” instead of “skypeing” when referring to video calling someone. “Let’s have a Skype call” has been replaced by “I’ll send you a Zoom link” and it’s for a good reason.

It’s still quite fiddly to send someone a working Skype link: you can only do it from within the Skype app, and the recipient too needs a Skype account with the application downloaded. But it’s two clicks to send someone a Zoom link, which allows anyone to join in and chat away in seconds — even in a browser tab if they must.

This is how Zoom went from an unknown company to the signature product of 2020, and did so on a market ruled by giants like Microsoft or Google. Zoom is greeting its users with a red carpet rather than a drawbridge.

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Queue as Rorschach Test

The longest line I ever stood in took six hours, and it was to watch the tennis tournament at Wimbledon. It’s a long queue, but not an uncomfortable one. There’s plenty of space and people are nice – the crowd’s energy only grew as we got closer to the gates.

Tickets for the three other Grand Slam tennis tournaments can get pretty expensive, but Wimbledon organizers decided that everyone should pay the same fair price. The downside: if you want a ticket, you need to wake up early. The upside: you don’t need money to watch the games the games in London; you just need to be a committed enough tennis fan to brave the queue.

The weirdest queue I know is at Berlin’s infamous nightclub, the Berghain. Potential guests can’t be sure whether their hour-long wait will pay off until the very last minute. That’s because the club tries to establish a “good mix of people” each night to provide the best possible experience. So the bouncers are hyper-selective about who they let in, and it will be a function of the other people in the queue. Sometimes you’ll get in, and other times you’ll be turned down.

Whether a queue is the best system to organize resources, and whether it’s fair or not – most of that is our own perception. But what we think of the system says as much about us as it does about the queue itself.

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The Third Wave

My issue with lockdowns is that they are solving the wrong problem. Yes, I understand that we need to keep the R number low to help hospitals fight the virus.

But we just wasted half a year doing nothing. Maybe nothing is an overstatement and we did a lot of hoping that there won’t be a second wave, I don’t know. From where I’m sitting it’s nothing.

From where I’m sitting, this is an optimization problem.

  1. We have X number of people who will catch this thing.
  2. Those people need the best chance to fight it off, for which they need hospitals, nurses, drugs and what not.
  3. Let’s get all of those things.

Closing shops, restaurants, schools, offices and what not, and then sending people on furlough is all fine — if we do it for a reason. If we do this to win time, and then waste all of that time? I’d really love to opt out please. Put your lockdown up yours.

Yes, close down an airport — but then build a makeshift hospital there. Yes, send hospitality workers home for half a year — and hire them to support nurses, hospitals or the elderly.

Governments, your job is not only to optimize.

Your job is to optimize for the right thing.

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Thinking Way Outside the Box

To push the limits of a computer system, you first need to gain deep knowledge about it. This is often hard for hackers, as administrators keep all documentation locked up. Security engineers therefore find themselves facing unknown systems.

The only way for them to learn more is the hard way: using creative thinking skills and imagining what the system can possibly be doing. Hackers might attack the problem from multiple directions:

  1. Look for other systems that might be similar to this one. To build mental models, a good first step is to find an example that can give insight about the current system. Leveraging previous knowledge is a professional’s best tool.
  2. Collaborate with others. No hacker works in a vacuum; there’s a dynamic community out there that includes journals, conferences and forums. A great way to evaluate a strategy or decision is through debating with other experts.
  3. Interact with the system in any way possible to build and improve their mental picture. Hackers want to find a “feedback machine” early on: change something in the inputs, and observe what happens afterwards.
  4. Visualize the architecture, and construct topological models. What components may be in there, how do they behave, and what are the relationships between them?
  5. Look for anomalies. Anything that looks odd or out of place can give a hint about the system. All those warrant further investigation.

Whatever the hacker’s goal is, their first step is building their knowledge base. Knowing more about the system helps engineers deduce potential consequences, even before touching a computer.

As Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions.”

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How old is the captain, really?

Do you remember the question about the captain’s age? In one study, 97 elementary students were asked a version of it that read: “There are 26 sheep and 10 goats on a ship. How old is the captain?”

You might be surprised to learn that 76 of them attempted to give an actual solution to the problem. 

In a classroom setting, pupils often learn word problems as merely arithmetic tasks. But we now know that many linguistic components impact a problem’s difficulty.

Standard word problems, the ones that have one clear solution, are the easiest ones to solve. Unfortunately for us, the problems we encounter in the real world aren’t usually standard word problems. Our world includes contradictions and often gives us problems with multiple solutions, or puzzles with no solution at all.

Approach them accordingly.

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Make Your Money And Get Out

Rapid changes in technology make programming one of the fastest-moving careers. Avoiding burnout is the only way to have a long and sustainable career in tech.

Veteran software developers often recommend to:

  1. Work at a place where you can grow. Constantly learning new things is a requirement in tech, but it’s only sustainable if you can do it as part of the job.
  2. Build transferable skills. Many developers find it interesting to invest in learning leadership skills and explore technical management roles — those don’t change as often as programming languages do.
  3. Have creative outlets and create a space to focus on yourself, to switch off and relax. Make sure you move enough, eat well, and spend quality time with friends and family.

Of course, there’s always the nuclear option: make your money and get out.

It’s often hard to take a step back and observe the situation when we’re in it, but the first step to recovery is always to recognize the problem. A good rule of thumb is that people need autonomy, competence and relatedness for happiness at the workplace. Programmers are no different.

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Building the Machine

We have a newborn at home, will be moving to a bigger apartment next week, and my projects are all going strong.

Moving places is a good reminder to automate and delegate everything we can, making time for the unpredictable.

Bridgewater founder Ray Dalio wrote that when you’re running a company, you’re essentially building a machine that creates a product.

The key for automation lies in this differentiation between machine and product. Whenever a problem comes up, it’s easy to remedy the immediate issue — the product –, but that doesn’t do anything for future-proofing the machine. You’d end up fixing the same problem over and over again.

Instead, improve the machine in a way it creates a better product, forever.

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