Anything 'for Dummies' — not dumb at all

Everyone’s life is better when people understand how things work so they can make better decisions.

artificial intelligence
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Occasionally I will be at a professional event that has a dinner or reception to which spouses and significant others are invited. These are, for the most part, lovely moments. But, amid the white wine and excessive fried foods, sometimes an awkward moment ensues in which a colleague is asked by a spouse, “What do you do?” While it is often the case that the answer is easy, more often than not it begins with the sentence: “It’s hard to explain.”

Every time I hear, “It’s hard to explain,” I cringe.  

I cringe because the speaker is implying that what he does is so cryptic and so difficult to understand that the listener is going to have trouble understanding it and will certainly never fully grasp the true complexity of the idea. It is a statement that makes the listener feel that even if he does understand what is being said, he will be unsure as to whether that understanding is right or complete.

If this phrase only showed up at dinner receptions, it would not be a problem. It would just be people showing off in public. Unfortunately, it tends to show up in other venues as well. In particular, it is often the opening sentence used by technologists to explain their work to colleagues, clients and their own management. It, and its brethren — “It’s very complicated,” “It’s somewhat technical,” and “It is an absolutely unique approach” — are often used to lay the groundwork for a conversation aimed at obscuring rather than illuminating.

This problem is not unique to either academia or business.  I have seen this on both sides of the aisle.  And it always shows up when one can gain leverage by being both the smartest person in the room and having secret knowledge of how something works.  You have probably experienced these phrases showing up when someone is selling you something and doesn’t want you to understand what it is or does. Sometimes it is because the seller himself doesn’t even know.

I have a personal issue with this problem in that my ego lives on the other side of the equation. For me, success is defined by being able to explain what I do and how it works to pretty much anyone. This tenet is the result of a conversation I had with one of my early mentors following my very first professional presentation. During the conversation, he expressed confusion about a technical point in the talk. After some obvious frustration on my side, he commented, “You seem to think that my inability to understand this issue is somehow my problem. It’s not. It’s yours. I didn’t fail to understand it. You failed to explain it.” Oh. I was the idiot, not him.

Needless to say, I have been diligent about explaining things to people ever since.

All of this leads to an article I ran into recently called “Top 10 data mining algorithms in plain English.”   As you might guess, it is a fairly colloquial overview of 10 algorithms, ranging from Support Vector Machines to one of my favorite algorithms of all time, Naïve Bayes.  No one would be able to implement any of the techniques on the basis of this article, but the article provides a straightforward explanation of what they are and when they are useful.

It is easy to dismiss such articles and see them as simplifications of complex ideas.  I tend to see this attitude as the product of people trying to protect their turf of expertise. It’s easier to be smart about something when the people you work with have no idea what you are talking about.

I actually love articles like this. The reason is simple. Everyone’s life is better when people understand how things work so they can make better decisions. And knowing what an algorithm does, how it works and when it should be applied brings clarity to almost every conversation.

For the people making choices about what technologies should be applied to a problem, this information is critical to clarifying their decisions. For technologists who are trying to innovate, it makes explaining the differences between what is, and what could be, that much easier. And for salespeople who are pitching solutions, it means that they are talking with people who can make informed decisions rather than decisions based on the latest press release or headline.

So I love to see books and articles like Big Data 101, Machine Learning for Dummies, and Data Warehousing Made Simple.  They make it possible for people to understand enough to make more informed decisions about evolving technologies and, in some cases, generate enough interest for people to become engaged with those technologies. And, in the end, it reminds us that many things that seem complex are often very simple when someone takes the time to explain them to us.

So the next time someone says, “It’s hard to explain,” it’s OK to reply with, “Could you please give it a try?” It will make everyone’s lives that much better.

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