Asking people what they do

July 08, 2021

During the long, dark winter of the COVID pandemic, I wanted to learn things. Specifically, I wanted to peer into organizations working on things that sounded interesting and write out some case studies of what tools they were using. Because what tools you use, or choose not to use, are an interesting measurement of what your needs are. And also because it was a lonely time and I wanted an excuse to pick the brains of people working on things that interested me.

My goals were simple to state. I wanted to write case studies. I wanted to peer into how things work from the inside of a variety of research organizations and learn from them. What are they doing that works, what are they doing that doesn’t work, what are they doing that they shouldn’t be? I ended up having about half a dozen conversations of one or two hours, with people in both academia and working in tech.

Here are a few things that worked for me.

I wanted the person to know what they were going to get out of it. I set the expectation that I didn’t need to take lots of their time, that I was interested in certain specific topics, and why I wanted to talk to them. I wrote a general-purpose email that laid this all out concisely (don’t want to bore them before even talking, after all).

Before even starting and before talking to someone, I would make lots of guesses about their work. One topic I was pursuing was how different teams of scientific researchers handled their data. So before I started talking with people, I wrote down a half-baked model of “data sophistication” which felt like a post from a subreddit for data scientists sharing trashy memes.

I got pretty far from surveying friends, parents of friends, and so on. But the single most helpful thing was getting other people to reach out to their networks, and I think being clear and specific about the quest you’re on—what you’re trying to learn—as well as being a friendly and interesting conversationalist really helps in getting people to want to do this for you. I thought about reaching out to people I didn’t have a personal connection to, but by the time that became relevant I’d gotten busy with other things in life and felt like I had gotten enough information.

I’ll write some more later about what I actually learned. I had a lot of fun and was surprised at how many people enjoyed having me ask lots of questions, and follow-up questions, about what they did. Sure, maybe it was the pandemic. But it’s also likely that if you ask someone technical about how they use their tools, they will have a lot to say about it.

a blog by Rowan Copley about fantasy data systems, unhelpful simulations, echoes from the future, and the strange ways that the digital world manifests in the real