Richard Feynman’s ‘Prepare a Freshman Lecture’ Test

David L. Goodstein, in his book Feynman’s Lost Lecture:

Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, “Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics.” Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, “I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it.” But he came back a few days later to say, “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don’t really understand it.”

I keep thinking about that in the context of Brett Bilbrey’s quote in the excerpt published yesterday from Brian Merchant’s The One Device:

Schiller didn’t have the same technological acumen as many of the other execs. “Phil is not a technology guy,” Brett Bilbrey, the former head of Apple’s Advanced Technology Group, says. “There were days when you had to explain things to him like a grade-school kid.” Jobs liked him, Bilbrey thinks, because he “looked at technology like middle America does, like Grandma and Grandpa did.”

A couple of Apple folks who’ve had meetings with Phil Schiller and other high-level Apple executives (in some cases, many meetings, regarding several products, across many years) contacted me yesterday to say that this is pretty much standard practice at Apple. Engineers are expected to be able to explain a complex technology or product in simple, easily-understood terms not because the executive needs it explained simply to understand it, but as proof that the engineer understands it completely.

Based on what I’m hearing, I now think Bilbrey was done profoundly wrong by Merchant’s handling of his quotes. Take a close look at the above excerpt, and note how the narrative of the paragraph, painting Phil Schiller as a technological rube, is from Merchant, and how he only uses brief snippets of Bilbrey’s own words, with no surrounding context.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017