Shipbuilders, Sailors, and Passengers

I sometimes trot out a boat analogy when I am asked about a career in data science, which is tenuous since I grew up in Iowa.

Cutty Sark

Building solvers is like shipbuilding. Shipbuilding is an ancient discipline which in more recent times has grown into a sophisticated engineering task. Building ships takes time to do right, and it takes a lot of practice to learn – it helps if you’re an apprentice first. It’s not an art, but it’s not quite a science either. For all of the technology, for all of the engineering, as a shipbuilder there are certain things you just don’t do, because that’s just the way the that you were taught. People long before you have tried it a different way and it just didn’t work. You don’t need to be young to be a shipbuilder – in fact in some ways it might be a little bit better if you are a bit older and wiser. Some people think the very idea of building a boat is a terrible bore (or just too damn hard), but for others it’s captivating. That’s pretty much all they want to do.

Using a solver – modeling – is like sailing. Sailors care very deeply about boats, of course, but that’s not all they care about. If you have ever taken a sailing lesson, one of the first things you will hear about is the weather. Your instructor will tell you to pay attention to the way the wind plays off the water, the trees near the shore, flags on buildings, and so on. A sailor needs to understand how their boat interacts with the wind and the water. When the forces of nature and the sailboat are in harmony, the experience is almost magical. If you’re sailing anywhere interesting then you will also need to know about any hazards along the way, like rocks, mermaids or whatever. Even experienced sailors can’t figure this stuff without some help – navigational aids, or the advice of locals is often helpful. Some people sail for fun, and others sail because it’s their job, but either way there’s a goal in mind. What matters is not the general characteristics of boats, or wind, or water, but the specific conditions that come into play on their voyages. Shipbuilders and sailors evaluate boats differently. Shipbuilders have no idea how their boat is going to be used, so they have to think about the entire range of conditions they may face. They may even design for the worst possible storm. Sailors only care about the voyages that they themselves are on. But since people sail for a reason, the destination and the conditions are often out of the ordinary, and may stress the boat in ways that shipbuilders, or even Hans Mittelmann, may not have anticipated.

Just because you can sail doesn’t mean that you can build a boat. Sailors want boats, not shipbuilders, but you can’t have a boat without a shipbuilder. Good shipbuilders are hard to find. That all seems obvious. The funny thing is that it’s hard for many of us to think of it the other way round. Just because you can build a boat doesn’t mean that you know how to sail. Some can, it’s true…but you can’t bank on it. I certainly wouldn’t try to turn a bunch of shipbuilders into sailors without some sort of training or evaluation. Maybe because we’re so in awe of the few that know how to build ships that we think that they simply must know how to sail. I think things are starting to change, but it seems to me that most operations research graduate students are trained to be shipbuilders. This is not a bad thing. The thing is that once they’re trained to be shipbuilders, they are often hired to be sailors. For my part, I was trained to be a shipbuilder as a CS grad at the University of Iowa. When I joined Solver Foundation at Microsoft several years ago, I was (thankfully) hired on to be a shipbuilder, writing our interior point solvers. The more I got familiar with Solver Foundation and its customers, and especially after I took over leadership of the team, I began to realize that many of our customers were asking us to teach them to sail, or just to sail the damn boat for them. My head was filled with the alphas, mus, and sigmas of the shipyard but they are not always all that useful out on the water. I needed to learn to sail. Now I find that I like sailing more than I do shipbuilding. Go figure. Management is sometimes not as familiar with nautical terminology so these distinctions are sometimes lost. Management often seems more interested in cars than boats.

I’ve neglected to mention the most important group. People who ride on boats – passengers (or voyagers if you are more romantic) – are like people who use models. Some people take trips for fun, like a trip around Puget Sound, or a cruise to Alaska. Other people take trips to get from one place to another, like from Seattle to Victoria. Some voyages don’t involve passengers at all – we’re moving freight.  The important difference is that in each of the cases, the fact that sailors and shipbuilders are involved at all is incidental – a passenger is paying for an experience, or for a service. While you and I are boat enthusiasts – can’t get enough! – most passengers couldn’t give a crap about the type of fabric used to build the sail, or the horsepower on the engines, or how narrow the strait is. The experience is what matters. Sometimes there is only a dim awareness that a boat is involved at all – all they know is that when they go down the ramp, they are in a new place. Solvers help determine how an Amazon package gets to your door. That’s amazing.

There are only so many shipbuilders in the world. There are many more sailors, but even sailors are overwhelmingly outnumbered by passengers. It’s not even close. But I don’t think that means that any one of these groups is any more important, or any more noble or intelligent. Everyone is coming at this from their own perspective, and you have to respect that. Shipbuilders have mastered a craft, and that requires a lot of dedication. Modelers are able to adjust to conditions and get people where they need to go. Passengers have their own lives, and often a particular trip is only a line or two in the larger narrative that is their lives. The sailor shouldn’t mock the guy playing shuffleboard – he’s probably earned the right to kick back a little. The passenger shouldn’t look down on the sailor, either. They will keep you from drowning.

I wonder – which would you rather do? Build boats, sail, or go on a voyage? Where is the most money? Does it matter? Will we ever be able to eliminate the need for boats, voyages, or trips? Beats me.


Author: natebrix

Follow me on twitter at @natebrix.

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