Thinking Inside the Box


When I was 19, I attended a leadership school where one of the sessions focused on trying to sell an otherwise undesirable product. In the workshop, we were given the opportunity to try and come up with reasons to purchase a bucket of excrement. Many of the people concentrated on the practical uses for poop. You could use it as part of a practical joke (the old bag on fire trick), or it could make a good fertilizer, and so forth. I went a different way – I sold the bucket, and talked about price point and the bucket’s inherent quality, offering to let you keep the excrement inside for all of the various uses my classmates had already laid out. I was resoundingly praised for “thinking outside the box”. This phrase has been in the public lexicon long enough to almost become rote, and is at the very least one of the most recognizable cliches in the English language. For me, the praise I received was essentially the human equivalent upon which machine based reinforcement learning is based. By receiving praise, I was more likely to think outside the box again in the future.

Here’s the problem with that. Thinking “outside” the box has become so commonplace, that to be a divergent thinker, you may actually need to think inside the box. What do I mean by this, you may ask. It’s actually pretty straightforward. We’ve become so focused on the brilliantly creative problem solving technique, that we often forget the core fundamentals of our industry. To be clear, I’m not saying that there is no room for creative solutions within a data warehouse. Indeed, there is quite a bit of art within the architecture of a data warehouse. However, the essence of SQL is that it is a modified form of set theory, and set theory is math. In school, math was one of my favorite subjects simply because no teacher’s opinion of my work made a difference on my grade. It was a tale of absolute values (pun intended) – my answers were either right or they were wrong. Most of the architectural design work we do is precisely the same. It is important to ensure the math of the design works as efficiently as possible prior to tackling any of the creative solutions every warehouse design opportunity offers. Don’t over complicate the foundation of your solutions with a design Rube Goldberg would be proud of – think inside the box, work the math, and do the obvious first. I guarantee that you and your clients will be much happier with the end results.

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