One of the stories I like to tell about working in the software industry is from the dot-com bubble. At the time, I was working for a company selling web content management software.
On one occasion, we had a day-long meeting with a dozen or so business people from a potential client. The salesperson and I started at around 10am, kicking off with a demonstration of the software to show how you could publish news articles and other content to your website and how you put that content through an approval process before it went live. All without having to have a webmaster handy to do it or for you to have any need to learn nasty ‘techie’ things like html.
As we were selling this software to many different types of businesses, the demonstration website we used to show how to publish stuff was an imaginary CD retailer. After all, people would understand what a CD was, wouldn’t they? And they’d realise we weren’t suggesting that they should be in the business of selling CDs?
At about 4pm we finished and asked the attendees if they had any questions.
One person, who’d been very quiet throughout the day, asked about the very first thing they’d seen at 10.02 that morning.
“Tim, you know when you published that press release, you typed in a paragraph about a CD. As you know, we don’t sell CDs, we sell widgets*. So, would your software still work if you typed in something about a widget instead?”
And the worst thing about that moment was that 2 or 3 other people sat around the table all said words to the effect “Good question – would it be able to do that?”
We didn’t make a sale that day.
We did, however, learn an important lesson. From then on, we dumped the lovingly crafted demonstration CD retailer website and instead used graphics and text from each potential customer’s website. I remember doing a splendid session to the OU on that basis a few weeks later … but we didn’t win their business, either! We did get other business, simply because we were able to put our software into a context they were familiar with.
So chapter 6, on language processing, has been a fascinating read when considering the role that context plays in how we recognise words and understand sentences, particularly when looking at the theories that abound when considering how we might resolve the ambiguities and vagaries in speech and writing. And it was good fun to see the opening sentence from Star Trek being used, along with colourless green ideas sleeping furiously and finding out that there are at least 50 grammatically valid interpretations of “time flies like an arrow”. Unless you’re read the chapter, you probably won’t understand what I’m writing about. Context is everything, you see …
(*) Obviously they didn’t sell widgets, but some details of this story have been changed to protect the innocent and guilty.