Simon Harriyott

Learning definitions

Twice in my career, I have found that learning (but not actually understanding) a definition has got me a long way. The first was at university, when I was revising for my finals. I was working through some past papers, all of which asked for the definition of a monoid. None of the past papers had the typical next question along the lines of "Hence, or otherwise, use the following monoid to prove...". This was handy, as I didn't actually understand what a monoid was (and still don't), but, hey, I could learn the two-paragraph definition, so I did. Parrot fashion.

I made up a comic strip story to represent the words, which I could replay in my head when the time came. I can't remember it now, 10 years later, except for one bit: "which is invariant". For this, I drew a picture of some witches in a Volkswagen Variant. Anyway, in the exam, I replayed the story, and got the definition word perfect. I got a good grade in that exam, which bumped up my final result.

The second time started with an interview at company A. Steve, the guy interviewing me said that they did some work with OPC, which I had never heard of, so I asked him. "OLE for Process Control", he told me, and I was none the wiser. I wasn't offered the job, as it was for a VB programmer, and I wanted a C++ job, so I carried on looking.

My next interview (at company B), was also with a guy called Steve, who also said that they did some work with OPC. "Ah, OLE for Process Control" I said. "You've heard of it" said Steve. "Oh yes" I said. I was offered, and accepted the job (which didn't actually involve any OPC). It didn't work out as well as I hoped, so a year or so later, I was looking for another job. I ended up with another interview with company A, again with Steve, who had clearly forgotten some of the interview I had with him a year or so previously.

"We do some work with OPC" said Steve. "Ah, OLE for Process Control" I said. "You've heard of it" said Steve. "Oh yes" I said. I got the job this time, and after about five years of working there, actually got to play with OPC, and finally learned something more about it than simply how it's spelt.
25 August 2005