Christopher Ambler is a Principal Architect at GoDaddy who writes sleek, performant, low-overhead Java and Scala code. In his copious spare time he can be found playing poker or listening to progressive music not in 4/4 time. He recently relocated to sunny California from Seattle.
Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages,” is a well-known tome on five ways that humans tend to express and experience love for one another. Of the five, one is “Acts of Service.” That is, doing things for other people. As it is in life and relationships, so it is in business. Often, helping others through actions can provide benefits not only for the recipient, but also for the helper.
I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
One challenge, however, is in knowing what one can do for someone. Sure, it’s possible to just come out and ask. “What can I do for you?” is probably one of the most used phrases in the English language, after all. “How can I help you?” is the opening salvo in almost all customer service conversations (don't get me started on the grammatically frightening, "Can I help who's next?"). But what about the business partner or colleague? Would you just ask, unbidden, what they need? And if they told you, would you be ready to lend help then and there? My suggestion is that there are better ways to build a knowledge set of what your friends and associates might need such that you’re prepared to lend help if and when the ability or circumstances dictate. And you can do this in a way that doesn't create an immediate expectation or obligation that you may not be able to easily fulfill.
Here’s how I do it – ask open but probing questions, often on social media where the time to think and answer doesn’t prohibit a good, candid response. One of my favorites is to simply ask, “What are you working on right now that’s got you really engaged?” Of course nobody is going to spill the beans on their secret project, but even just a hobby activity will give me insight into what I might be able to aid.
Another go-to question: "What is your current achievable goal, and what is your current blue-sky goal (whether you think you can achieve it or not – aim high)?" You’d be surprised how many people have goals that they feel are unachievable that, with your easy help, might be within reach. And often, your help is no sweat for you, but you would have never known if you didn’t ask. And your friends and associates would never think to ask you most of the time.
Yes, sometimes you run the risk of “butting in,” but I would counter that if they liked your question and put the time into giving you an answer, no matter how short, you run very little risk in offering help.
And in helping others, you often help yourself. Remember, I’m selfish that way.
So what is your current achievable goal, and what’s your blue-sky goal? Seriously, use the comments here and spill! Someone else might be able to help.
I’m going to start off with a story, which, I promise, is relevant. I am a proponent of marriage equality. I can be flippant about it and note that I feel that everyone should get to experience the pain of marriage, but that’s not fair to my wife, who is one of the greatest people I know. I actually have my reasons for being in favor, which I will get to shortly. But first the story.
A few years ago an organization that goes by the name of The National Organization for Marriage launched a campaign against marriage equality that they called “Two Million for Marriage.” Their goal was to get two million people to march in Washington and declare their support for marriage being reserved as a one-man-one-woman institution. They branded this campaign, “2M4M.”
The problem was, of course, that they failed to get the obvious domain name for this campaign, 2m4m.org. Being in the domain name business, it was the first thing I checked, and I got it first, before they realized their error. The next move was obvious: I created, in about 48 hours, a fully formed campaign web site for my own campaign, 2M4M: Two Men For Marriage. Yeah, that was me.
It was a spoof site, to be sure, but also made the point for marriage equality. I was pretty proud of the site and was thrilled when it went viral. Did it change anyone’s mind? Of course not. But it was just one milestone in a larger movement, and I’m glad I got to play my part.
Which brings me to the issue of women in computing and the current situation around this issue. Just as my close personal friend Ferris once said about Europeans, why should I care about this issue? I’m not a woman.
The reason I care is the same reason I care about marriage equality, even though I’ll never really need the rights that the equality movement is securing: I’m selfish.
There is No Such Thing as a Selfless Act
Researchers Lara Aknin, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton concluded, "Happiness runs in a circular motion". In their research, they found that by spending a financial windfall on someone else, participants in their study felt happier, and when they felt happier, they were more inclined to spend money on others. This applies to all aspects of life, be it giving money or giving help. Ultimately, people “do the right thing” because it makes them feel good to be doing the right thing. This is subjective, of course – not everyone agrees on what the “right thing” is. Like Potter Stewart, you know it when you see it.
In the same way that being generous can be seen as selfish because it makes the giver feel good, doing the right thing, socially, can be seen as selfish because it can also promote the needs and desires of the person helping. The fact that “doing the right thing” makes one feel good is simply a bonus, if you will. In this way, I (and others) would argue that selfishness is a good thing.
This, in and of itself, might be enough. But wait, there’s more.
So What Are the Selfish Goals Here?
Call me naïve and perhaps call me simplistic, but, at least for me, it all boils down to one, simple truth: everyone deserves to be able to play by the same rules. We can debate what those rules are, and we can even tweak them now and again to make things better, but once we decide to play, everyone should be playing the same game. I realize there are a myriad of other issues, and I’m not dismissing any of them. But without the acknowledgement that there should be a fundamental base of fairness, we’re building on a very shaky foundation.
It’s All About Me
So how does being selfish play into the issues of social fairness? Simple: taken as a whole, it applies to me as well. There are areas in which I could make an argument that the issue affects me, personally - aspects of life where those entrenched in power are actively working to maintain that position and prevent participation. Some are trivial. Some are very serious. To be fair, most don’t rise to the level of the issue at hand, and I am genuinely grateful for the luck I’ve had in life. But some do apply to me, and even those few are enough to demonstrate the point.
The position, then, is that if I want any credibility when I call out things that I find unjust to me, personally, I’d best be prepared to call out those things that are just as unjust, even if they don’t apply to me directly. If I’m going to be selfish, I’m going to be consistent about it.
Is That It?
No, of course not. As I said, there are reasons for days why the issue is as important as it is complex. My engagement barely scratches the surface. But in the realm of selfishness, I could make the argument that a diverse workplace is a good one for me, and that it’s to my direct benefit to live in a world where this problem doesn’t exist. I, and my company benefit from all viewpoints and skill sets. I want to hire lots of talent and not have to worry about silly things that, at least to me, should not matter. I’m selfish in that I want my life to be easier in this respect. I’d like to work with people based on their skills and talents. Plus, let’s be honest, I can be a pretty myopic guy sometimes. One thing I’ve learned is to always run my stupid ideas past my wife, who gives me viewpoints and insights I simply never would consider on my own. It’s naïve to think that the fact that she’s a woman doesn’t play into this. She has angles that I, as a man, would never have (and the opposite is also true). It’s an advantage to me to have this resource. I’ll take that advantage any day of the week.
The Electric Third Rail
I debated for a while before writing this. Is this position just too simplistic? Is anyone going to think I’m trivializing the issue by trying to boil it down? Worse, am I setting myself up for someone to say, “So, Chris, you only care about the rights of others because if you don’t, you don’t get yours?” While none of those are true (indeed, my point is somewhat the opposite of the last possible response), they’re valid presumptions. So I dance around the electric third rail, but I felt that my position was worthy of calling out. If this is somehow misinterpreted, the fault is mine for not being as clear as I could be.
Unfortunately, I have no great ideas on how to solve the current problem, but I’m thinking about it. I’m listening and learning. And if I have ideas, I’m throwing them out there. Often, they get laughed-at, but I’ll keep it up and see if maybe I get lucky at some point. It happens now and again, like finding the missed domain name registration that lets me strike a point in favor of doing the right thing. Seriously, that felt really good. At the end of the day, it’s a basic way of saying, “this should be obvious, now let’s work on the problem.”
Because if it’s not right for you, then it’s not right for me. And I’d like it right for me.
Donald Rumsfeld was the United States Secretary of Defense from 2001 to 2006 under President Bush. He is known for many things, but will always be remembered for his statement of an old truism, as quoted -
… as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.
In any field of human endeavor, there is a range of knowledge and competence that runs from the absolute beginner to the acknowledged expert. When starting, everyone is new, with a compliment of “known knowns” that is, generally, empty. For example, when I decided I wanted to learn about investing, my “known knowns” consisted of knowing what money was and that something called “stock” existed.
Given time, I started to develop a set of “known unknowns.” What was stock, really? How did one acquire it? How did one choose which to buy, and then how much? The questions started accumulating and my to-do list for learning grew at an alarming pace. As I learned more, I started shifting items from the second category (the “known unknowns”) into the first category (the “known knowns, “ or my knowledgebase). My second category grew at a slower pace as I learned more, but it still grew. Eventually, my first category was larger than my second, and I felt that I had a decent grounding in the field of investing.
I was wrong.
The Dunning–Kruger Effect
There is a fascinating study from 1999 by David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. In a nutshell, the Dunning-Kruger effect happens when someone thinks their competence in a skill or knowledge set is high simply because they don’t have the knowledge to know just how much they don’t know. As a result, incompetent (or simply poorly-skilled) individuals tend to overestimate their skill level, whereas skilled individuals are aware of their limitations.
These limitations are Mr. Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns.”
At the point where I thought I was starting to really get my brain around investing, I had a set of unknown unknowns that was much larger than I could have ever imagined, all of them hidden to me. I thought I was doing pretty well until one day someone asked me if I traded options. I had no idea what options were. One, huge, “unknown unknown” just made a thunderous noise as it revealed itself and immediately made the move into the second set. I now had a huge “known-unknown” and months of learning ahead of me.
Was I a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect? Likely so. If someone had asked me if I knew about investing, I probably would have replied yes and been proud of the knowledge I had acquired, having no idea just how much I didn’t know.
The Taxonomy of Breadth
Your depth of knowledge. Everything you know that makes up your primary skill set.
Your breadth of knowledge. Everything that you know exists and some basic information about those things, but nothing more.
Based on this realization, I’ve come to classify people and behaviors based on which set is their primary focus (whether they realize it or not).
Those who typically live in the third category, often without realizing it, have a huge compliment of unknown unknowns. I should be clear, these are people who have this huge compliment and don't realize it. They may think that their focus is on the first category, but the third is actually the focus. These people are living the Dunning-Kruger effect. They believe they know the sum and total of a subject and often find that things simply don’t work out the way they expect they should. These people are surprised when events don’t unfold in the most obvious way. They often find that their plans are foiled not by others but by simple chance. “I had no idea that could happen!” is a common phrase heard from such people.
Those who typically focus on the first category are the second-tier experts in any field. They have a large set of knowledge and can usually accomplish any reasonable task that requires that skill set, but they’re rarely innovators. They may realize that the third category exists, but they don’t put much thought towards that fact. They have their skill set and they’re comfortable with it. They will learn new things only as needs arise. These people make excellent engineers as you can give them a task and they can immediately apply their skill and knowledge to complete the task. You can rely on these people to almost always demonstrate competence, but not always insight.
The true experts, however, are the people who typically focus on the second category. They have, by necessity, a huge first set of “known knowns” as a result of consistently replenishing their second category from the third. This person is the senior architect who can not only bang-out the engineering task from her skills, but also knows the “lay of the land” from her breadth of knowledge. She may not know how to use all of the technologies available to solve a particular problem, but in having the breadth of all technologies in her "known unknowns," she knows what’s available. She can evaluate a problem against possible solutions, even those in which she isn’t currently conversant, and select the best or most likely one. Then, if need be, she can put in the time to move that skill from the second category to the first. If the decision doesn’t work, she has the breadth to realize this fact and make a course correction from other available options.
People who focus on the second category are constantly trying to find items in their "unknown unknowns" and get them into their "known unknowns" as quickly as possible. And in doing so, they acknowledge that their third category will never be empty, and they will never never presume it is. They avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect by simply realizing it exists. These are the people you see reading industry trade magazines and web sites, picking up an introductory book on the latest technology just to get a quick grounding, and always asking, “What’s new? What are you working on? What’s cool that I’ve not heard of yet?” You meet these people at industry conferences.
And when they mention that they’d heard of the cool technology years ago, you mutter under your breath that they’re a hipster and just showing off. But that’s a different article entirely.
By now you're aware that there's yet another security bug, this time in "bash," a "shell" used on many servers. For the non-geeks, the gist of the issue is that a very common and absolutely necessary part of the operating system could, in some reasonable circumstances, allow a malicious user to run any code they want on a server to which they should not have access. This is, of course, a bad thing. The bug, now identified, has been fixed and system operators are rushing to patch their systems with newer versions that don't exhibit the flaw.
It's been over 25 years, so I think I can come clean. I knew of such a bug when I was in college that gave me 100% read access to any file on any system. I couldn't modify them, and this bug didn't let me execute arbitrary code, but if I noticed that you had a file in your home directory called "ChrisIsADoodyHead.txt," I could read it. Even if it was in a closed-off directory and locked down, itself. While I never had a need to, I could have looked at all of your code for the computer science class we shared and cheat on my homework. And I mean every file on the file system.
I could read all of your email.
After about a year, the bug was discovered, and I was actually beta testing a version of UNIX (SCO - remember SCO?) that had it and I reported it. It took about another year to move through production and be deployed. Remember, these were the days before automatic patching. Most installs were done from a stack of floppy disks and new versions came out yearly. Maybe quarterly, at best.
The point I'm making is twofold. First, these bugs are everywhere and will always be around. Don't be shocked when they're reported. They happen, they get fixed, and the next one comes along. You're going to get burned by them. And yes, evil douchebags are going to exploit them to, say, illegally download nude pictures of celebrities. There's no victim-blaming when I say that you should acknowledge this reality and do what you can to protect yourself.
And my second point, which is the takeaway here, and the reason I've "come clean" after 25 years to make the point: These bugs are in the wild and known right now. Please stop and think about that. Someone, somewhere, is almost surely reading or copying your stuff if it's online. These bugs don't live in obscurity until someone discovers them and immediately fixes them. Someone finds them and uses them for years until someone else discovers them in a more public way. Remember the speculation and then confirmation that the NSA was exploiting a bug for years before it was ever discovered in public? You don't need to take my word for this.
And please don't shoot the messenger.
Full disclosure: I never shared this bug with anyone else in college as far as I remember. I never found anything illegal, and only once found something that, if disclosed, could have caused problems (someone was cheating something seriously in a number of classes). I never said anything. I honestly can't remember ever seeing anything on anyone that was even remotely bad. Email, back then, also was only something shared among geeks, for the most part. There was pretty-much no private social online usage. I mostly poked around administrative stuff. This being a time before digital photography, I never even saw any nude selfies :-) Some people may not believe this disclosure, and I'm okay with that.