Ideas vs. Products

Do you remember the first novel you have read all by yourself a bit after you had learned how to read? Mine was, “20.000 Leagues Under the Sea” by Jules Verne, I have probably given this example many times, but it is such a happy memory for me. I am not sure, I think it was the summer after first grade, my father handed this book (with hardcover) to me for summer vacation homework. I was curious about what the author was describing, it sounded like a submarine but why was it portrayed like an alien technology? Did people not know what a submarine was, seriously? Later in elementary school I have conducted my first-ever research to answer the question: When was the first submarines built?

I had never learned the answer to that question. While trying to find submarines in the encyclopedia, I was distracted by interesting pictures and the vast amount of “other” information. It was like going shopping when you are hungry that you end up buying everything and never use half of it. Letting the mind wander, back then and even now, is how I came up with my ideas for paintings, research, side projects, etc. I guess that’s why I could be an artist and not an inventor. To me, it feels like inventions are born from the need (or by accident) and art pieces from wandering. Though, either way a finished product is put to display.

I should actually place the word finished in quotes. What is a “finished product”? Is a painting finished once there are no empty spaces left in the canvas? If the goal was to simply cover the canvas with colors, I suppose. But often, we look for something more sophisticated (or I do). The viewer should look at the painting and see, for example, the cat who is sitting behind her cat grass, and staring at its human with her sleepy eyes (strangely my cat has no interest in sitting on the computer). With no time limit, we could explore different type of colors, and choose what we can work with. We could try different techniques and lightning. But how long the cat will sit there?

It is a race against time. That is often the case in industry and also in academia. The rush sometimes make me feel like we should have published even before we had the idea. This rush is not easy to deal with if it is not incorporated into the project already. If there is a pressure for publication, there should be well defined mid-term goals that can be displayed as “finished” products. It is not a crime to come up with those as the project progresses, but it depends on the setting, depends on the project. The most important thing is to formulate the idea in a way that reflects the objectives. “Many publications” is the main goal, well maybe you should always have on the side “applied” projects with well-defined, -tested and up-to-date methods, if you have a main “development” project. I cannot stress enough the “up-to-date” part, if the expectation has risen so should the methods. But above all, be clear about the main goal.

Whether this is a job application, a PhD/postdoc position or a hobby project of yours, this clarity will help in taking better decisions. I had one project recently that I was struggling to finalize, until I realized a bigger scope and what I actually was looking for. This project was the subject of my previous blog post, “Oppa Bias”. With a long-time friend and colleague, Canan, we have started mOC Data. It stands for many things, all related to our journey in data science. I had this idea that maybe I could write about my self-reflection using my programming skills on what I have learned from the entertainment sources. The idea almost turned into a big disappointment when extracting the data that I needed was so difficult. The data got smaller and smaller, so as the project. It laid around for quite some time with me not knowing what to do with it. I wrote the codes, but I wasn’t willing to write a full tutorial for it or asking Canan to look further into it. What’s the purpose? It had no use.

It was an idea, but it couldn’t become a product for mOC Data. Then I remembered what we have been talking, the dataset recommendations that Canan had sent in the beginning and what excited me about those datasets. Reaching out to people. I was looking at my idea from the wrong perspective. While it was a fun little project and it could be a product for my personal blog, it does not live up to what I envision for mOC Data: a collection of packages that has been born to help others from our collaborative work with Canan. Yes, we will primarily share our journey (life got in the way, we haven’t published more yet), but somehow mOC Data became much more in my mind. I want to make my journey useful as well. With this in mind, I have reshaped the idea: a package for learning English words based on personal interests. When we read a book, we note down or look up the words we don’t know. So it is going to be something like that. Not giving further details, so that we have something to write on mOC Data as well.

You see I was wrong from the beginning. I should have toyed with this idea without losing sight of my vision to shape it. I should apply this to many aspects of my life in order to minimize disappointment. This is trivial when I am the sole contributor to a project, not so much when it involves other people’s expectations, especially when those are not clearly conveyed to me. The expectations, and the vision must align for true harmony or have no clashes, otherwise, all hell breaks loose in my own mind.