The Broken Light

A winter season is coming and it is getting dark sooner and sooner. Imagine a regular day in a regular office full of developers and managers. As the sun goes down the office gets darker and all employees have to stand up from their desks eventually and turn the light above their desks on. And they all do, without hesitation. All except for one guy. He toggles his switch and nothing happens. The light above his desk is broken.

It might seem like a typical everyday situation with a simple solution. Usually, it would be so why be so dramatic about it? Well, because this time it happened in the data science department… And the broken light affected the desk that belonged to the data science lead. It kept distracting his piece of mind every day. The broken light affected me!

I did not make up any crazy solution, as you may think. When the light was out for a few days, I simply came to our office runner and explained the situation. “No problem, we call a technician. Just show me which light it is.” She came with me, I pointed to the light and to the switch. Then, she tried to turn it on herself because nobody calls a technician without checking the actual problem. The light turned on immediately…

At that particular moment, I felt a bit embarrassed. To be honest I felt embarrassed a bit more. But I could not do anything other than to demonstrate my surprise and to go sit back in my place. I was happy my light was shining and at the same time unhappy with the fact that the only credible outcome was I was not able to toggle the switch the right way.

“OK, another thing to learn in this world,” I blamed myself. Everything went as usual until the late afternoon the very next day. As the office went darker I went to turn my light on again. I toggled the switch and… nothing happened! Just nothing! I tried it several times. I had no intention of becoming the stupid guy who cannot turn his light on again but even after several tries, the result stayed the same. I rather did not say anything to anyone because I did not want to get too much attention. But deep in my heart, I knew I faced an untypical and challenging problem. And the problem needed to be solved.

The next day, I toggled the switch again and the light was working! I started doing it every day for several weeks and I started to see a pattern. It was not working on Monday, working on Tuesday, not working on Wednesday, working on Thursday, et cetera. It seemed like the light was not working on odd days and it was working on even days. OK, I admit there were some exceptions when it was not working two or three days in a row and I knew absolutely nothing about weekend days. But still, it was usually following this pattern, and in fact, this was the best theory I had.

Then I remembered how I had assembled switches at home a few years back. It was a bit tricky to connect two switches to the same light. If I had done it wrong then the one switch would have turned off the other one. And it had been even more complicated in the case of three switches for a single light. In that case, it was necessary to buy a special type of switch to be able to connect three of them and it is very easy to connect them in the wrong way. To keep it simple: there had to be another switch for my light somewhere and I knew it! Someone had been pushing that switch almost every day and disabling me from turning my light on.

So,  when the light was not working the next day I went to toggle every single switch in the room I could find. I turned on and off every light in the open space, some of them even multiple times, and I successfully distracted every person from their concentration. And my light stayed dark the whole time. You know, every switch has two positions, two switches have four combinations… That means I had to change my switch to the other position and do it ALL once again. I think it was probably the hardest part of the whole problem. For a random observer, I just had to behave like a mad man. But it could not stop me. Not at that moment when I felt I was close to the solution. Even after the second round, my light kept staying dark. I lost once more.

There exist just a few problems in the world that make sense to solve indefinitely – like world peace or world hunger – but this was definitely not one of them! So I went to our office runner again… I told her my light was truly broken but only every other day. I persuaded her to call the technician because there is a mysterious second switch somewhere and the technician, as an expert, should know what to do about it. She looked quite suspicious at me but she knew there is no other way than to call him. She knew I would never go away otherwise.

The next day she called me immediately she saw me in the office and said I was right about the second switch and that the technician had fixed it already. Yes! Finally, some satisfaction! Finally, I knew which switch was the mysterious second one and the main issue was resolved! Although I was a bit disappointed I did not meet the technician personally to ask him for details. Nevertheless, my light was working and I could happily move forward.

In the end, I am pretty sure I had tried all combinations of those two switches before so there is still probably the third switch somewhere. And you know what? I honestly do not care anymore. Let’s someone else solve it once it becomes his problem. It is not an issue for me anymore. Despite the solution is not perfect and there exists a combination of switches when my light is on and one of those two switches doing nothing, I still feel like the winner. It works for me and I can build efficient follow-up work on top of that. The solution does not need to be perfect whilst fulfilling its purpose.

About author:

Karel Tesař

Data Science Lead