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Books & Articles I wrote.

Thursday, February 23, 2006


Training to be an entrepreneur ...

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Can Hackers Blink better?

I am more than half way through Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, increasingly one of my favourite authors.

"It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good."

Throughout it, I have read about experts who are able to make instant decisions that are almost always more successful than a longer evaluated solutions. Now, before i start i do believe there are times when some scientific evaluation works better, but lets say as more of a way of confirming, expanding or understanding more about a situation or task. But at the guts, I think there IS are instant decisions that can be made by people who have anough experience and background in the root features of some task - quick decision making as an example, be able to comprehend and "fit in" an object and see what it may look like at the end being another. This last point is much like architects and even software developers. In fact, it may be argused that these aren't even decisions - you just "get it".

Those of us who have been around the block a few times have probably noticed that through experience they can almost instantaneaously understand any new area of software without having to know the details. I often get the "that's weird" feeling (as in fact i did last week!) without even having to ask a question and (against as happened last week) hearing only the first 30 seconds of an explanation of the issue.

But i want to talk about software just now - mainly because it is what i am doing as we speak (pause for writing this of course!). I have spent time in numerous consulting projects analyzing, documenting, modelling, developing, testing and deploying software and i can't yet remember a project where anything went to plan. In fact as soon as i get involved in most projects i can just tell that things are not going to go as expected (it's another task convincing the employer to act on it). However, i DO appreciate that in certain cicumstances, all of these things have to be done (things are sure getting better). Examples, such as a Government customer asking for a specific application or a department requiring a specific piece of functionality to fit into an existing environment.

But what about those of us who like to do things a little more freely at times. Innovators, contributers to open source projects and those of us who just like coding something useful every once in a while?! Something I would really like to get into the guts of, as an entrepreneur, if whether soemtimes instinct and gut feel is actually more powerful and a better fit for your project.

As an example, over the years i have created numerous projects in an attempt to created my own software empire :) None have yet taken off. Two years ago i decided to try and go down the right road and spec and model everything as i always do for my consultancy projects. The result? Well, the same really. Sure, there was better doco and background, but the net product result wasn't a lot different. Frustrating, yes, but with my recent work i have started to noticed something. I feel as though i am feeling around in the dark, but i kind of KNOW where i am going. Sure, we have had brain dump meetings, some documentation and so on, but in general i am just writing things as i "feel" people will want to use them. I no longer spend weeks planning, i stay up to date, read articles, books, listen to audio talks and so on and just feel around where things are going. My coding capabilities are good enough that sometimes i learn some new things, but those new things are often the detail. I understand the picture now (akin to trying to write down what you want the software to do rather than just seeing it) - I am programming towards my picture and guess what - it's pretty chaotic. And guess what else - it's actually starting to do and be all the things i was hoping. In short - it seems to be working.

I read Paul Graham's "Hackers and Painters" - i'd like to know how he wrote his LISP shopping application that he sold to Yahoo. How did he see what he was wanting to do? Picture or text? I have also read Steven Johnson's Emergence - do we have some emergent qualities about us that starts to see the bigger picture once we understand we shouldn't analyze things to death? Can the Wisdom of Crowds work in some way that when you are your peers are "seeing" the same picture (say, of software) that the net result is a better understanding individually and the creation of ideas that never occurred to any individual? Can the chaos organize itself without us having to? Of course, as i said above, sometimes we need to know what the chaos is, but when it is our thoughts and ideas, even as a group of entrepreneurs, can that chaos just combine and emerge into a picture we just GET? I read "Science at the Edge" by John Brockman and was fascinated by Stephen Kosslyn's "What shape are a German Shepherd’s ears?" where he is doing research at Harvard on exactly HOW people answer and visualize what they have seen from memory. It's not exactly the same as Blink, but i do a pattern in that somehow, it really is possible to just form an image (heck, VRML is needed i'd say) of a who set of abstract concepts - i say abstract as it is hard to say exactly WHAT you are looking at if you ignore the actual physical user interface (only one part of the many things used when you are hacking software).

I'm not an expert in any of the areas mentioned in this post- the closest i come is software - but then if i got too dragged into the detail then i may not be able to Blink properly anymore and so will miss the effective combination of some of these things I am beginning to experience.

I'd like to hear others experiences/opinions and i'll no doubt blog more on this.

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