Stanford Professor, John Ousterhout’s Thought for the Weekend

Answer by Eric Conner: These are from the Winter 2012 offering of CS140.  I do not know if he used different thoughts in other lectures.

Number 1:

A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of y-intercept

CS140, 01/13/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

Here’s today’s thought for the weekend.  A little bit of slope makes up for a lot of Y-intercept.

[Laughter]

So at a mathematical level this is an obvious truism.  You know if you have two lines, the red line and the blue line and the red line has a lower Y-intercept but a greater slope then eventually the red line will cross the blue line.

And if the Y-axis is something good, depending on your definition of something good, then I think most people would pick the red trajectory over the blue trajectory (..unless you think you’re going to die before you get to the crossing point).

[Laughter]

So in a mathematical sense it’s kind of obvious.  But I didn’t really mean in a mathematical sense, I think this is a pretty good guideline for life also.  What I mean is that how fast you learn is a lot more important than how much you know to begin with.  So in general I say that people emphasize too much how much they know and not how fast they’re learning.

That’s good news for all of you people because you’re in Stanford and that means you learn really, really fast.  This is a great advantage for you.  Now let me give you some examples.  The first example is: you shouldn’t be afraid to try new things even if you’re completely clueless about the area you’re going into.  No need to be afraid about that.  As long as you learn fast you’ll catch up and you’ll be fine.

For example I often hear conversations the first week of class where somebody will be bemoaning, “Oh so-and-so knows blah-blah-blah, how am I ever going to catch up to them?”  Well, if you’re one of the people who knows blah-blah-blah it’s bad news for you because honestly everyone is going to catch up really quickly.  Before you know it that advantage is going to be gone and if you aren’t learning too you’re going to be behind.

Another example is that a lot of people get stuck in ruts in their lives.  They realize they’re in the wrong job for them.  I have the wrong job or the wrong spouse or whatever…
[Laughter]
And they’re afraid to go off and try something new.  Often they’re worried, I’m going to really look bad if I go..
[Laughter]
I’m kidding about the spouse.  But, seriously people will be afraid to try some new thing because they’re worried they’ll look bad or will make a lot of rookie mistakes.  But, I say, just go do it and focus on learning.
[Laughter]
Let me take the spouse out of the equation for now.
[Laughter]
Focus on the job.

Another example is hiring.  Before I came back to academia a couple of years ago I was out doing startups.  What I noticed is that when people hire they are almost always hire based on experience.  They’re looking for somebody’s resume trying to find the person who has already done the job they want them to do three times over.  That’s basically hiring based on Y-intercept.

Personally I don’t think that’s a very good way to hire.  The people who are doing the same thing over and over again often get burnt out and typically the reason they’re doing the same thing over and over again is they’ve maxed out.  They can’t do anything more than that.  And, in fact, typically what happens when you level off is you level off slightly above your level of competence.  So in fact you’re not actually doing the current job all that well.

So what I would always hire on is based on aptitude, not on experience.  You know, is this person ready to do the job?  They may never have done it before and have no experience in this area, but are they a smart person who can figure things out?  Are they a quick learner?  And I’ve found that’s a much better way to get really effective people.

So I think this is a really interesting concept you can apply in a lot of different ways.  And the key thing here I think is that slow and steady is great.  You don’t have to do anything heroic.  You know the difference in slopes doesn’t have to be that great if you just every day think about learning a little bit more and getting a little bit better, lots of small steps, its amazing how quickly you can catch up and become a real expert in the field.

I often ask myself: have I learned one new thing today?  Now you guys are younger and, you know, your slope is a little bit higher than mine and so you can learn 2 or 3 or 4 new things a day.  But if you just think about your slope and don’t worry about where you start out you’ll end up some place nice.

Ok, that’s my weekend thought.

[Applause]

You’ll have a series of them over the next 10 weeks and go have a great weekend.

Number 2:

The Most Important Component of Evolution is Death

CS140, 01/20/2012
From a lecture by Professor John Ousterhout.

Today’s thought for the weekend is: the most important component of evolution is death.  So I want to address that first at a biological level and then let’s pop up and talk about it at a societal level, Silicon Valley, and computer software.  So, first, from an underlying biological standpoint, it’s sort of fundamental that for some reason it’s really hard for an existing organism to change in fundamental ways.  How many of you have been able to grow a third leg?  Most people can’t even change their mind let alone change something fundamental about themselves.

People try.  You make your hair look a different color, but it’s really the same color underneath.  In fact you have this whole thing called your autoimmune system whose goal is basically to prevent change.  You’ve got these white blood cells running around looking for anything that looks different or the slightest bit unfamiliar and as soon as they find it they kill it.  So it’s very hard for any organism to change itself, but when we make new organisms it’s actually fairly easy to make them different from the old ones.  So for example gene mutations seem to happen pretty commonly.  They can be good or bad, but they do change the system.  Or, with sexual reproduction, it’s even easier because you take genes from two parents and you mix and match them and who knows you’re going to end up with as a result.

So the bottom line is it’s a lot easier to build a new organism than it is to change an existing one.  And, in order for that to work, you have to get rid of all the existing ones.  So death is really fundamental.  If it wasn’t for death there’d be no way to bring in new organisms and create change.

I would argue this same concept applies at a societal level.  In fact, if you look at social structures, any structure that’s been around a really long time, it’s almost certainly out of date.  Because, they just can’t change.  Human organizations, companies, political systems, religions, they all have tremendous difficulty changing.

So, let me talk about companies in particular.  We’re hearing these days about various companies in trouble.  Is Yahoo going to make it?  And Kodak filing for Chapter 11.  People seem to think: those guys must have been bozos.  They blew it.  How could you fumble the internet when you’re Yahoo?

My opinion is this is just the circle of life.  That’s all.  That fundamentally companies can’t change.  You come in with a particular technology, something you do very well, but if the underlying technology changes, companies can’t adapt.  So they actually need to die.

I view this as a good thing.  This is the way we clear out the old and make room for the new.  And in Silicon Valley everyone kind of accepts that.  The death of a company is not a big deal.  In fact, what’s interesting is that the death of the company isn’t necessarily bad for the people at all.  They just go on to the next company.

And I was talking to a venture capitalist once and she told me she actually liked funding entrepreneurs who had been in failed startups because they were really hungry yet still had experience. People in successful startups weren’t as hungry and didn’t succeed as often when they got funded.  So death is actually a good thing in Silicon Valley.

Now let’s talk about computer software.  This is kind of ironic because software is a very malleable medium, very easy to change.  Much easier to change than most things.  And I actually consider that to be a problem because, in fact, people don’t have to throw it away and start again.

Software lives on and on and on.  You know we’re still working on versions of Windows 20 years old right now.  And as a result the software gets messier and kludgier and harder and harder to change.  And yet people keep struggling.  They won’t throw it away and start again.

And so what’s funny is that this incredibly malleable medium gets to a point where we can’t make fundamental changes in it because people aren’t willing to throw it away and start again.  I sometimes think the world would be a better place if somehow there could be a time limit on software where it expired.  You had to throw it away and start again.

So this is actually one of the things I like about California and Silicon Valley.  It’s that we have a culture where people like change and aren’t afraid of that.  And we’re not afraid of the death of an idea or a company because it means that something even new and better is coming along next.

So that’s my thought for the weekend…

 

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