On being … hocus-pocus?

By Ingrid Sapona

One of the ways I describe my consulting services is that I translate complex, often technical, information into plain language. So, in my work, I deal with subject matter experts – “SMEs”, as they are often referred to – a lot. I talk with them about what they do, always trying to understand it enough to write intelligently about it. It’s a challenge on a variety of levels. Often, when experts write about what they do, they either provide no detail or way too much detail for non-expert audiences. As you can imagine, neither of those options is ideal, which is why I’m hired to do the writing.  

One of the biggest hurdles is gaining SMEs’ trust and confidence. I basically need to convince them that I’m intelligent enough to “get” what they do, even though I couldn’t do what they do. I find that the best way to win them over is by demonstrating my curiosity and interest, and not being afraid to ask basic questions.

The trickiest part of my job often involves figuring out how much detail to include for my audience, typically folks with little background on the topic. But, to get to the point where I can explain things in plain language, I need to have a pretty solid understanding of the stuff. Before I meet with an SME, I usually do a fair bit of background reading on the topic.

By the time I meet with the expert, I want to at least have the big picture. I think one of the reasons I’m good at working with SMEs is because I don’t mind displaying my ignorance. The way I see it, the expert is there to educate me and I’ve always been an eager student. Many of my questions are focused on understanding the jargon associated with the field. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking them to define terms and then explaining my understanding back to them in my own words to make sure I have it right.

Usually what I feel I need to understand is how they got from point A to point C. In other words, I want to understand what happens at point B. Sometimes the expert is openly unwilling to tell me. In those cases, I think of point B as the secret sauce, and I can understand that they don’t want to share all their secrets. When that’s the case, I don’t mind simply explaining to readers that something involves a trade secret or proprietary information.

Lately I’ve worked with experts that seem happy to tell me, but their ultimate explanation boils down to them saying “we apply an algorithm” – as though that says it all. The first few times I got that response, I wished I had taken more math. But, just because I may not be able to interpret a complex mathematical equation, it doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the factors that underpin the algorithm, so that’s what I try to get at.

Unfortunately, as often as not, the experts never seem to be able to explain much about the algorithm they’re relying on in their work. So, I’ve pretty much given up trying to get further insights. To be honest, that’s pretty freeing. Now, instead of feeling stupid when I can’t understand some outcome that relies on an algorithm, I just sit back and accept that the algorithm is like a magician’s hocus-pocus – no point in asking what it means – it’s enough to know that if all goes well, it’ll yield some magic result.

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


On being … suspicious

By Ingrid Sapona

I’ve been a member of my sail club for over 15 years. Though the bulk of the boats are over 30 feet long, as clubs go, we’re not a particularly fancy one. To keep fees down we’re a “self-help” club, which means we have to put in 30 volunteer hours per year. We don’t have a restaurant – but during sailing season, we have a bar run by hired staff.

During the summer I’m at the club pretty regularly, but I don’t spend nearly as much time there as others. Some members use their boat like a cottage, staying overnight most weekends. And, since I’m not a regular at the bar, I miss a lot of the gossip and politics that’s typical in a club our size.

A couple Saturdays ago, we launched the boats. The days immediately before launch are busy at the club. The boats spend the winter “on the hard”, which means up on their cradles on the club grounds. Fitting 350 boats and their unwieldy steel cradles means that there are boats everywhere.

There’s a lot to do to prepare a sailboat for launching. The two-or-so weeks before launch, the club is a beehive of activity. Pretty much everyone washes the winter grime off their hull and then they wax it. Many owners apply a special paint on the keel so that underwater things – like zebra mussels and algae – don’t cling. Folks with inboard motors winterize have to flush the anti-freeze out before launch. Folks with outboard motors – like me -- usually take them off for the winter, so they need to be reattached before launch.

On launch day we bring in two cranes – with professional crane operators – but all the other work is done by teams of club members. For safety reasons, members aren’t allowed to go to their boats that day until the boat is launched. Every member is assigned a check-in time, but there’s a lot of waiting. Members are usually excited and they understand the timing isn’t exact, so they patiently wait their turn.

I was working on one of the crews near a crane and I had the chance to chat with folks as they waited.  At one point, a member standing next to me pointed to a boat that had just been launched and he said, “Where’s his motor?” I didn’t recognize the boat but the place where the outboard should have been was empty. Then he said, “I helped him put a brand new motor on yesterday!”

A couple minutes later word came round that the guy’s brand new motor was gone. I really felt for him. What a pain in the you-know-what! Most likely his insurance will pay for it – but still, a hell of a way to start the season.

Over the years, we’ve had other things stolen off boats. It often happens in the fall, right after boats are hauled and before owners have a chance to take things – like electronics and outboards – home. But, theft happens at other times too. When my Dad owned the boat, one summer our outboard was stolen off the back of the boat while it was in our slip! The police said it’s likely the thieves motored into the yacht basin at night and took the motor right off the back.

A couple days after launch I was doing some work on my mast and a few long-time members were nearby. We got to talking about how smoothly launch went and I said yes, except for the member whose motor was stolen. These members hadn’t heard about it and so I told them the story. When I finished, one quickly chimed in, “Doesn’t surprise me … we’re as much a ‘help-yourself’ club as a self-help club!”

I was shocked when he said that, and even more surprised when the others agreed. I immediately offered up an alternative explanation. Professional thieves can surely figure out when launch is, given the sudden surge in activity at the club. And, with the boats sitting on their cradles, it’s easy to scope out the new engines. Though we have a fenced-in yard, there’s open access from the waterside. It’s not hard for thieves to get in and grab one. But beyond that, if a club member were to take someone’s brand new motor and put it on their boat, it would be pretty noticeable. The group mumbled their agreement with my theory and then everyone quietly went back to what they were doing.

All the way home I thought about the fact that members would suspect that a fellow club member would steal a motor. Is that indicative of morale at the club? I’ve been around long enough to know that there are cliques and factions who complain about this, that, and the other thing, but surely most members don’t harbour such suspicions. Maybe I’m naïve, but I prefer to think that club members are looking out for each other, rather than looking to steal others’ stuff. After all, would you be a member of a club where you suspected fellow members are thieves?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona