Big Data

Memorize this rule for solving difficult data science problems

A frustrating experience setting up a new treadmill desk for his home office reminded John Weathington of a lesson he lives by when solving stubborn problems. See if the rule might help you, too.

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Anyone interested in engineering, technology, or math knows the frustration of staring at a problem for hours or sometimes even days with no solution. The catch for data scientists is that solving problems is more than just fun and games — their solutions are the linchpins of corporate strategies. This kind of pressure takes problem solving to a whole new stress level.

A lesson I've learned that helps me through such situations is: To solve difficult problems, you need to know your objective and stay flexible and creative in your approach.

Ergo, we have ergo

True to my Californian roots, I always look for ways to innovate and improve. And like most innovators, I face challenges on a regular basis.

If you're like me, you've struggled to make a new gadget work, even though the marketing materials and the instruction manual clearly demonstrate how easy it is to install. I'm all too familiar with this setup; however, I didn't expect it with my new desk in my home office.

Eager to move my home office into the 21st century, I ordered a custom desk that has a treadmill and a control for lifting and lowering the desk to precisely where I need it. When it finally arrived, I promptly hoisted it up to my home office and proceeded with the easy assembly. I wouldn't classify my start as easy, though, within a few hours I had my base desk built and working properly. I set three height adjustments — sitting, standing, and walking on the treadmill — and then it was time to install the monitor arms and mounts. That's when things took a turn for the worse.

I have a 27" iMac (late 2013) and a matching 27" Apple Thunderbolt Display. The two displays look very similar, down to the stands that support them. To use the monitor arms that attach to my desk, each support stand is removed and replaced by a VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) mounting bracket. I started with my Thunderbolt. Getting the stand off was a little tricky, but after reading the instructions and watching a video, I was able to figure it out. I pulled the stand off, and I successfully installed the VESA mounting bracket. Now, wouldn't it be great if I could do the same thing with my iMac? No such luck.

Mounting problems

Riding on my experience and success with the Thunderbolt, I thought the iMac would be a breeze, but that was not the case — I struggled for hours trying to get the stand off. I carefully twisted, turned, poked, and prodded, but the stand was not coming off. Finally, after searching the web, I found out why: The stands on the late 2013 model iMacs don't come off! I guess this is a feature of the newer iMacs. To get a VESA mounting bracket on a new iMac, you must order it from Apple that way. Really?! Now what?

I went back to my objective: to position my monitors at eye level. When I'm standing up and my iMac/Thunderbolt is perched on its stand (which is not adjustable), I'm looking down to view the screen. This is not good — your head and eyes should be straight ahead when working. I could adjust my desk to the appropriate viewing height, but then my keyboard would be in the wrong position. After a few minutes of contemplation, the solution hit me.

Quite ironically, the boxes that the mounting arms came in provide just enough height to raise my monitors (with the stand attached) to the appropriate height. So, I packaged everything back up, and set both my iMac and Thunderbolt displays on their respective mounting arm boxes. Problem solved.

Summary

The types of problems we solve are not for the weak at heart. Sure, setting up a desk is not as difficult as configuring a hybrid neural network with expert system guidance. That said, you never know when a tricky problem will present itself, and if you're serious about your job, you'll never shy away from these challenges.

When you're stuck on a problem, get clear about what you're trying to accomplish, and then challenge everything you know about how to get there. The solution is rarely clear and conspicuous.

It's silly to spend several hundred dollars on a glorified monitor pedestal, but at the end of the day, I'm looking straight ahead.

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About John Weathington

John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps executives turn chaotic information into profitable wisdom.

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