Bob Lambert

Jazz on the harmonica

What Driving Dogs Tell Us About Learning


Recently the BBC posted this video. On first view it is just funny, but watching those dogs learn to drive really reminded me of personal experiences with IT teams making big learning transitions. To represent those real situations let’s consider a fictional team of SQL developers facing the daunting task of deploying a functional Hadoop-based analytics prototype in two months. The video parallels their critical learning success factors: (1) set audacious goals, (2) learn bit by bit, and (3) know your limits.

Set Audacious Goals

Driving dogs? Really? Yes, the Auckland NZ shelter involved wanted a dramatic way to show that adoptable dogs were in fact intelligent and trainable, and what better way than to have them do something difficult for most 16 year olds and potentially dangerous? They aimed high and had confidence that the dogs could do it, and invested resources accordingly. The audacity of a dog driving dwarfs a team’s efforts to learn Hadoop, but still this team is aiming high given that none of them have worked with Java and only have a smattering of Unix experience.

Learn Bit-By-Bit

Notice that the dogs don’t get into a car and attempt to drive on the first day. They learn over five weeks, starting with homemade boxes on the floor that mimic the gear shifter, pedals, and steering. They then move to rolling chairs that simulate car “look and feel”, and only after mastering that simulator move into the real thing, closely monitored by a trainer.  So the aspiring Hadoop learners wouldn’t just install and begin working on a distributed big data solution. The right steps might be to first learn Java and Linux prerequisites, then move on to a small single node example, and only then move to the full-scale example. Patience is key: the dogs presumably didn’t have any other responsibilities over those five weeks, while the IT professionals were pulled in different directions with administrative meetings and maintenance fixes to production applications.

Know Your Limits

By now you are thinking “Get real, dogs can’t drive”. Of course not, and likewise some IT professionals won’t have the tools to make some of the big transitions that might be asked of them. In general, IT professionals must be sufficiently self-aware to understand their limitations and make reasonable choices before investing scarce learning time seeking unattainable skills. Our example team should locate experts and know when to call on them, be willing to tear down and rebuild poor first attempts, know when to ask for more time, and know when to correct goals set early that overshoot, or for perhaps undershoot, the team’s capabilities. This team’s manager must provide cover for the team’s setbacks and put successes in a context that prevents “irrational exuberance” on the part of the organization. Note the upbeat but cautious stance of the dog trainers in their interviews with the press.

This humorous example is a great illustration of these three learning principles, and as such can help guide IT professionals in their learning aspirations and help managers set audacious but realistic training goals and provide a supportive learning environment for their teams.


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