Sunday, June 21, 2015

On Pixar, creativity and advising

I'm in Bertinoro for the Algorithms and Data Structures workshop organized by Camil Demetrescu, Andrew Goldberg and Valerie King. I will try to post updates from the event, but with the density of talks, no promises :). I'm still waiting to hear more about the STOC theoryfest deliberations from the conference: come on, bloggers !

In the meantime, I wanted to point to an excerpt from Ed Catmull's book on the Pixar process.

I don't generally enjoy "behind the scenes" books about "genius companies" or "genius" individuals. I feel that the word "genius" gets bandied around far too often to be useful, and there's too much 'gee whiz smart people do smart things' that perpetuates the 'Great Man' (and yes, Man) theory of intellectual discovery.

But I enjoyed the excerpt, and am now interested in reading the book (Disclaimer: Ed Catmull is ONE OF US). Catmull doesn't appear to trot out trite recipes for success. If the excerpt is any indication, it's an extremely thoughtful and nuanced take on what worked at Pixar and why, and brings in many voices of the actual people doing the hard work to make movies. Here's a paragraph on leading a team as a director:
Andrew likens the director’s job to that of a ship captain, out in the middle of the ocean, with a crew that’s depending on him to make land. The director’s job is to say, “Land is that way.” Maybe land actually is that way and maybe it isn’t, but Andrew says that if you don’t have somebody choosing a course—pointing their finger toward that spot there, on the horizon—then the ship goes nowhere. It’s not a tragedy if the leader changes her mind later and says, “Okay, it’s actually not that way, it’s this way. I was wrong.” As long as you commit to a destination and drive toward it with all your might, people will accept when you correct course.
This reminds me very much of things I say to my students as an advisor. To whit, "It's important to have some direction you're heading towards with a problem, even if that direction turns out to be a bad one". First of all, it keeps you moving forward instead of around in circles. Second, (and this is particularly true in research), even a failed exploration of a direction teaches you more about a problem than going in circles without a plan. This manifests itself in a few different ways:

  • If you go this way, are you getting somewhere interesting (an interesting problem, an interesting structural insight, something that is novel regardless of success or failure)
  • Do you have some sense that this approach might work ? In other words, a fishing trip with a new tool is fine, but a fishing trip with a new tool that you have some good feelings about is even better. This reminds of of a comment that I've heard before but took me a while to understand: "I don't try to solve a problem till I think I know how to solve it". 
  • Can you test the direction quickly ? This is a corollary of the 'hurry up and fail' concept that startups like to preach, without the valorization of failure. That is, since we accept that a direction might not pan out, it would be best to find ways to test this quickly so we can move on. This doesn't mean that repeated failure is good, or as Gavin Belson would say, "FAILURE = PRE-SUCCESS".  

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