Simplifying the difficult is itself difficult

“Vincent, you will lead the task force.”

The annual survey results were just delivered by the respective company directors to their respective departments. The directors would gather their department staff together, and deliver a PowerPoint presentation about the various survey results. Typically, they would also discuss what the company plans were (when relevant), or major/foreseeable changes, since everyone was gathered.

I would be slightly fearful. Because my department director knew me by name. Not that I’m singled out, since he knew many of his staff by name too. The reason was that I’m the only one with a maths background (I think he hired me because I had a maths background. He’s in charge of the billing support arm of the IT department).

The survey was conducted by an external company, and the results would contain a couple of mathematically phrased terms. The most prominent one was “statistically insignificant”. At which point, the director would say something like, “Probably only Vincent knows what ‘statistically insignificant’ means, since he’s the mathematician.”. At which point, I’d hope he didn’t ask me to explain it, because I suck at statistics…

I believe the company CEO wanted something done about the worst 2 “complaints” from the survey results. One of the survey questions was “Do you feel safe at work?” What do you mean “safe”? It’s not like the copier machine was going to eat my hand. Do paper cuts count? My office was situated beside 2 large hydrogen containers (I could see them through the window. Hey, Large Hydrogen Container = LHC. Lol…). Does that count? And no, “Do you feel safe at work?” wasn’t one of the issues.

The task force I’m to lead was to address the issue, “Do you feel safe to speak up?”. Apparently, the answer was a statistically significant “No”.

I can’t remember what the other issue was, but I was to co-run the entire task force with another person, who’d be in charge of that other issue. One of the reasons cited was “There’s no point speaking up, since no one’s listening.” (or some such). I think the more interesting point is why the word “safe” was used.

Anyway, I presented the findings in a PowerPoint presentation to the director and the high level managers. I was actually asked to create a PowerPoint that reads like a report, and submit it beforehand. I resisted, and said I could write up a proper report (in Word) if it’s required, but the PowerPoint presentation was to remain. I won. (yay!)

The presentation went off fine. I even managed to insert “Law of Large Numbers” as a point on one of the slides. Hey, I am a mathematician (a couple of the managers chuckled). I even managed to squeeze in a joke about vacuum cleaners and how something sucks.

Presentation over. Task force assembled to tackle issue. Do something about 2 worst complaints. Check.

I believe it was a difficult problem. Not the task itself, but the issue. So it’s easier to speak up to me, than it was to speak up to management? That spells a fundamental problem that a small task force wasn’t going to solve.

Yet the problem was hoisted onto my shoulders, expecting me to simplify that difficult problem into a series of simple tasks to solve that problem. Simplifying things is hard.

You simplify things very often. Ever write a function? That’s simplification. You thought about a problem, came up with some code that does something, and that could be reused. The bad programmers write functions that could be used only in certain conditions, even though they could be rephrased for a more general use. The great programmers write functions that you feel confident using, even if you don’t really know the innards of the function (and if you did look, the code will be elegant or easy to follow).

Mathematicians come up with mathematical models to describe and solve a problem as best as they could. Programmers come up with a bunch of code to describe and solve a problem as best as they could. No model is infallible, nor is any program infallible.

That’s because simplifying the difficult is itself difficult. But we can still come up with a suitably close enough approximation to a solution.

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