In school, most questions have only one right answer. But elsewhere, decisions often come down to a difficult choice among imperfect options. I’d like to share with you some approaches that have helped me make such decisions.
When I was deciding where to set up a satellite office outside the U.S., there were many options. My team and I started by listing important criteria such as supply of talent, availability of local partners, safety and rule of law, availability of visas, and cost. Then we evaluated different options against these criteria and built a matrix with cities along one axis and our criteria along the other. That clarified which country would make a great choice.
When I feel stuck, I find it helpful to write out my thoughts:
- What options am I choosing among?
- What criteria are driving the choice?
- How does each option rate with respect to the criteria?
- If I need more information, how can I get it?
Documenting decisions in this way also builds a foundation for further choices. For example, over the years, I’ve collected training data for many different kinds of problems. When I need to select among tactics for acquiring data, having been through the process many times, I know that some of the most important criteria are (i) the time needed, (ii) the number of examples, (iii) accuracy of the labels, (iv) how representative the input distribution is, and (v) cost.
If I’m making a decision as part of a team, I check with teammates at each step to make sure we’re accurately capturing the top options, criteria, and so on. (The comments feature in Google Docs is a great way to facilitate open debate within a team.) This helps me avoid losing track of some criteria and acting based on an incomplete set; for example, picking the satellite office’s location based only on the availability of talent. It also helps align everyone on the final decision.
As you may know, I wound up setting up a satellite office in Colombia because of the availability of talent and a supportive ecosystem of partners. The team there has become a key part of many projects. Lately I’ve worried about their wellbeing amid Covid-19 and widespread unrest. But in hindsight, setting up in Colombia was one of my best decisions, and I remain as committed as ever to supporting my friends there.