The MurkyGrey blog


Talking to people about technology

Alright, maybe there ARE dumb questions

(but that’s completely beside the point)

It happens almost every time: I do a seminar, a panel or some other speaking engagement and it’s fun all the way down to the Q&A section. Then I see a hesitant hand raised from the back row and I already know that before asking their question, the person in the back would say something like “I have a bit of a dumb question”. And I answer, of course, but not before I add the automatic counter-preemption “there are no dumb questions” (usually stopping short of becoming the cliched grade-school teacher by omitting the “only dumb answers” part).

Recently, I took some flak from a co-presenter for this old habit. “Don’t say that” he said after the crowd has dispersed “you know damn well it’s not true, there are tons of dumb questions”. I did not think this was a fair comment, but it was kind of hard to argue with, and possibly true.

Let’s start with the “true” part. Are there really tons of dumb questions? What is a dumb question anyway? Perhaps if you ask a question that shows you completely failed to understand what I’ve been talking about for the past hour it could be considered dumb? I think not, more likely it shows that I failed to explain things properly or that I wasn’t targeting you (which means that it was a mistake to invite you, not your fault).

But forget all that. The actual dumbness of the question is completely beside the point! The person in the back row is not really saying “I think my question is dumb”. They are saying: “I’m not very comfortable speaking in front of all these people, so please don’t mock me or my question”. And what I’m trying to say to them is: “Don’t worry, I would never do that. Speak up, I am really interested in what you have to say”.

And so, my dear accidental critic, I fully intend to keep saying “there are no dumb questions.” I’m sorry it bothers you so much. And may I suggest you stop taking everything so literally? That might help too.


I’ve seen the future, brother

Twice before I was granted a crystal-clear glimpse into the future. I claim no credit for it, the circumstances just happened to align that way. Here’s how it went:

Summer 1999

The summer of 1999 was a time to relax and celebrate. The company I was working for was swimming in investors’ cash, we had just delivered version 2.0 of a very exciting and innovative product and we were getting ready to conquer new markets. I was just weeks away from marrying the woman of my dreams, life was good. One afternoon I was taking a break in the CEO’s office. I enjoyed telling him about the wonders of the new release and he was happy to share his adventures in the wonderful world of venture capital.

I was impressed, the numbers from the recent round of funding were excellent. A handsome sum was raised and the company’s valuation was head-spinning. And then there was one more number; apparently the monthly burn rate (in other words: the rate at which we were losing money) has also “risen nicely”. I was puzzled, “you say that as if it is a good thing” I said to my CEO. “But it is a good thing, a higher burn rate will lead to a higher valuation. If you want people to believe that you are worth five billion Dollars you should be spending millions every month” he said. “That does not make any sense” I thought, “losing millions does not make you more valuable, it’s completely backwards!”. And so, for a few seconds I saw the dot com bubble burst right in front of my eyes, months ahead of when it actually happened.

Spring 2001

By the spring of 2001 I was running technical operations for the same company out of Bethesda, Maryland. We were working on a deal with Yahoo and I was in the process of setting up some of our servers in a Yahoo hosting facilitiy in Dallas, Texas. One beautiful spring morning I was making my way to Dallas again from Reagan National airport on an American Airlines jet. It was a northbound takeoff from runway 1 and I was seated at a window seat on the port side of the aircraft. During takeoff, I could see the Virginia highways rushing past my window. Up in front, I could see a patch of blue sky through the open cockpit door.

Then the Pentagon drifted into view to my left and in an instant the air defense person in me (who had seen active reserve duty only two years earlier) was awake and screaming “this is bad, bad, bad!” I knew the drills, “airliner used as a weapon”, “airliner used as cover for hostiles” and I could see the scenario unfold before my eyes: a passenger gets up during takeoff, rushes the cockpit, knocks out the flight deck crew and grabs the yoke to bank hard left and crash us all into the Pentagon. This time it was the 9/11 attacks that I saw, months before they took place.

What you see is one thing, what you do with it is another

Those two amazing moments of clarity allowed me to foresee, almost in detail, the loss of thousands of lives on 9/11 and the loss of untold amounts of dot-bomb dollars. What’s not so impressive is what I did with those moments of clarity: I did absolutely nothing. I was alarmed for a minute, then I looked around; everyone else seemed happy enough with the situation, nobody was screaming that losing money to make yourself look big is stupid, or that cockpit doors should be secured, so I got with the program and kept quiet. I can only hope that if another moment of clarity presents itself I will have the wherewithal to recognize it and the courage to act on it.

When did you experience your moment of clarity? What did you see? What did you do or not do? Leave a comment.

[YouTube video of runway 1 takeoff from DCA, with the Pentagon at 1:00]