Category Archives: puzzles

Speeding Up Observation with Models

You just generated four possible ways to solve the problem in about thirty seconds!

One of my brilliant programmer friends had just posed one of those useless interviewing puzzles that Microsoft made famous. We were discussing that the only thing they test is a candidate’s ability to solve those sorts of problems, and really tell you nothing about their ability to do software development tasks. He was frustrated by a recent interviewer who had merely posed a puzzle, wrinkled up their nose at his attempt to solve it in the interview, and had then lectured him on the “right” answer. To illustrate, he had posed the question to me.

Fortunately, it was a type of puzzle that I could easily apply a model against. Also in my favor, I had spent a recent evening teaching a software testing student that very model. I smiled inwardly, and with nonchalance outlined four possible ways of attacking the problem. He stared at me almost dumb-founded for a moment, and then I had to let him off the hook. I laughed as he stared at me in wonder. “There’s a trick to this” I told him. I revealed the model, which is the software testing mnemonic HICCUPPS. I suddenly had a brilliant programmer with a much stronger intellect than mine very interested in software testing. “Teach it to me!” he chortled, with relief and delight.

We both agreed that the “right” answer the interviewer posed was a complete joke, and he was justified in concluding that this was not a company he wanted to work for. That company lost out on hiring one of the best problem-solvers I know.

“Teach me more about these testing mnemonics!” he admonished as we parted ways that day.

* * *

How did you generate so much thorough analysis so quickly? I’ve been here for three weeks, and you’ve been here for three days!

I was doing analysis work with a friend of mine, who like my friend above, is also a brilliant programmer. When I was still in short pants, he was creating artificial intelligence programs in Lisp.

“Part of the reason is that I have your three weeks of work to draw on.” I replied. “Of course, but you have touched on areas I hadn’t thought about at all. I would have thought of them eventually, but how did you think of them so quickly?” he said with a questioning grin. “I use models”, I replied, and brought out a testing problem to demonstrate my thinking. He grasped the object I use in that problem for a second, then looked at me, handed it back and said: “Oh, I see how you do it. Raw observation is very slow. Your models help frame your thinking and speed up observation.” He didn’t even try to solve the problem, and in his characteristic way, rapidly understood a lesson that had taken me much longer to learn.

“Good work” he said with a chuckle as he got up to leave for home. My speech on the wonders of James Bach’s San Francisco Depot (SFDPOT) mnemonic would have to wait for another day.

* * *
Models are useful for generating ideas when solving problems. They aren’t fool-proof though. I am careful to not ignore, but to absorb and test my first instinctive thoughts when solving a problem. Often, that intuition helps, but sometimes I discard it, as careful scrutiny denies the plausibility of the initial thought impulse. Intuition can be both powerful and perilous. There’s nothing wrong with intuition, as long as you can make your conclusions defensible.

It doesn’t hurt to complement intuitive thought with a model, and I find using both helps kick start my thinking processes. Sometimes, the most lucid and effective ideas sprout out of nowhere from a sea of wonder and half-baked thoughts. They frequently pop into my head as I am using a model, and they often turn out to be unrelated to my current train of thought, but incredibly useful. I don’t ignore them merely because I can’t explain them. Instead, I try to adapt my models to increase the chances of them occurring.

Models also add consistency when solving problems. Instead of a formulaic, step-by-step, “one size fits all” approach to solve a problem, they can be used to consistently remind our brains to look into diverse areas for clues and impulses. This is much more powerful than a rote process that may, or as in most cases, may not work. It greatly increases our chances of coming up with a unique solution for a unique problem. I find that after a considerable degree of rumination, I have an “aha” moment, but using a model to complement my natural thinking usually brings me to an “aha – why didn’t I think of that before?!!” thought much more quickly.

Models also help build confidence. If I am posed with a difficult problem, and I have no idea where to start, I can nervously waver and pause, or I can jump in with confidence and use a model. It doesn’t matter if it’s the wrong one, the thinking drives out the fear and uncertainty and leads me in a direction towards solving the problem. Fear steals energy, while models give me a place to start in the face of uncertainty. I constantly learn from experience, and develop new models when I learn a new lesson. Variety of models makes the problem-solving space much richer, and less intimidating.

A good friend of mine is a firefighter, and he also uses mnemonics in his work. His son had recently taken an emergency services technician course, and he was drilling his knowledge one evening. They both have been taught mnemonics to help frame their thinking in emergency situations. In fact, they and others have told me that attempts at scripting this kind of problem solving ends up in farcical situations, or worse, loss of life.

That sobering thought aside, it was a pleasant evening together, and I sat amazed as they rattled off one mnemonic after the other. They even had mnemonics within mnemonics. While one would set the scene for a new problem, the other would rattle off a mnemonic, and explain how they would use it to observe something different to help them get a fuller picture of the problem. They are terrified of having narrow observation within the small window of time they are usually faced with. “But now you notice this in your patient. What do you do now?” From within one letter of one mnemonic, the other would rattle off another mnemonic to use to help jog their observation and thinking to solve that problem, with speed, coherence, and confidence. They would also frequently throw the mnemonics aside altogether, and use other heuristic-based thinking techniques.

They were both in the heat of the discussion, each trying to trip the other up, and the father was attempting to pass on wisdom and experience to his son in a curious Socratic style. I chuckled to myself. I felt if at that instant I were to keel over with some health-related malady, I would be in very capable hands, and someone would learn a new thinking technique in the process.