Shallow vs. Deep Research

Jul 21 2017

Are you like me? Do you sometimes get stuck on the merry-go-round of googling for answers to technical questions?

Don’t get me wrong. I think sites like Google and StackOverflow are amazing tools and it’d be hard to be productive without them. I think they’re especially useful for trying to conjure up some obscure Linux commands or DDL syntax for one of the dozen databases I work with on a daily basis.

But sometimes, I notice that I rely on Google TOO much. Like when I have a problem to solve, I immediately go to Google to see how others have done it. It’s a tempting and albeit understandable trap to fall into. I’m a consultant, and so I’m constantly focused on delivering value to my clients in a quick and effective matter. So it can be difficult to justify reading documentation, digging around in source code, or reading papers on the CAP theorem when there’s a good chance I can find the answer to my question in under 60 seconds via search.

In the long run, though, who am I helping by doing this? I’m essentially outsourcing part of my job to someone else. And what’s worse, I’m tricking myself into believing I’ve mastered a certain subject or capability, when in reality I’ve just copied what others have worked hard to figure out.

In “How Will You Measure Your Life?”, Clayton Christensen tells the story of Dell and Asus. When Dell first started out, they used Asus to manufacture their chips. As Dell grew, Asus offered to manufacture more and more of the computer until they began manufacturing the entire computer for Dell. In short order, Asus struck out on their own as a low-cost competitor to Dell. Though each step in the outsourcing process looked good from a balance sheet perspective, in the long term this strategy posed a serious threat to Dell.

What’s the lesson here? Don’t sacrifice long-term growth and learning for the quick hit of an answer on Google. If you’re stuck in a really really time-sensitive situation where you need the quick answer, then leave a TODO for yourself to do a deep dive on the problem in your spare time. Once you have time, use the Feynman technique to deeply understand the problem, and try to question it from all angles. It’s ultimately up to you to decide how far down the rabbit hole to go.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the daily demands of your job. But it’s also important to keep a mind toward long-term investments in your career, and having a solid foundation of knowledge and the ability to think for yourself is one of the most important investments you can make.

P.S. It also helps to block social media and other non-essential distractions, at least during your working hours. The quick hits of social media and quick-answer seeking seem very similar to me, and I suspect one reinforces the other. I try to use a Chrome extension called BlockThisSite to that end (though I admit I’m not 100% there yet, new habits take time to form).

P.P.S. I think I wrote this more for myself than anyone else, I tend to have a monkey brain and need to get these thoughts down and persisted somewhere as a reminder to focus. Reading the work of Cal Newport has helped a lot though, would highly recommend it!

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