Are You Fluent in the Language of Information Systems?

If you traveled to a foreign country where you don’t speak the local language, you would find yourself in a situation where there are questions you would want to ask people and things you’ll need to know, and nearly everyone you run into would be able to help you – but because you can’t articulate in a manner that the locals understand, they can’t assist you and provide you with what you need.

Most people would be rightfully frustrated in this kind of scenario – knowing that nearly everyone you run into can help you with the answers or the information you need, but you just can’t express yourself in a way anyone can understand.

Some people respond to this by speaking more slowly or more loudly (or both!) – but of course this does not help one bit.  In fact, it may simply annoy the locals and make them less likely to want to try and help you.

Others might try and get a phrase or translation book to try and communicate.  Have you ever had to try and communicate with someone who does this?  It’s painful, but it’s a step better than gesticulating wildly and speaking in a different language slowly and loudly.

If you were fluent in the local language – none of this would be an issue. You’d be able to communicate quickly and effectively with nearly anyone you come into contact with and get the answers you seek or the information you need.

Working with computerized systems is no different.

Every day, most people interface with information systems of some kind – computers (tablets, laptops, smart phones, etc.), the Internet (search engines, web sites/apps, social media), and databases.

Yet most people don’t speak the “native language” of computerized systems. If you don’t speak the local language, why would you assume that the locals automatically “know” what you’re looking for and that you should be able to get you precisely the information you need?

So – what’s the “local language” of computerized systems?


Boolean is the Basic Language of Information Systems

Pretty much any information system from which you need to retrieve information from speaks Boolean, whether you realize it or not.

Let’s take Internet search engines for example. Most people don’t realize that they are indirectly using Boolean logic when they type words into Google’s search bar. Google simply “dummied-down” the search interface so that every space between words or phrases are implied ANDs.

Google’s “advanced search” is less dummied-down, but it’s still in a format where most people don’t realize they are simply translating their queries into Boolean ANDs, ORs, and NOTs. However, most people who are fluent in Boolean skip the “advanced search” interface and directly write their own queries as opposed to using a query compiler/translator.

Ever hear of the concept of “lost in translation?” If you can speak the native language – you don’t need a translator and you don’t risk losing anything in translation.

If you’re looking to get information from any computerized system (cloud-based or otherwise) – it’s no different than going to another country where you don’t speak the language.  To get what you want, and especially exactly what you want quickly, you will have to learn the language of the locals.

The more fluent you are in the local language, the more precisely you are able to articulate and quickly get exactly what you’re looking for. In the case of any electronically stored information – you have to learn how to speak with computerized systems. The more fluently you can communicate in Boolean, the quicker you can get exactly what you’re looking for.

Boolean isn’t Complex – it’s as Simple as AND/OR/NOT!

Boolean is actually a ridiculously simple “language” – it only has three main “words:” AND, OR, NOT.

We’re not talking about trying to learn a “natural language” such as Italian, German, Japanese, etc.

As easy as it is to learn to use Boolean logic to construct queries for information retrieval, I don’t see many people enthusiastically attempting to master Boolean even though they seek information from computerized systems on a daily basis!

Am I the only person that sees how backward and just plain wrong this is?

That’s literally like going to a foreign country where you do not speak the local language, and not even TRYING to learn the native language, yet being frustrated when you can’t get what you want.

When a person tries to search a site, system, or database and does not find what they’re looking for, in many cases it does not mean that the information doesn’t exist.

It’s much more likely that the person is incapable of properly and effectively “asking” for the information – which is no different than trying to ask for directions from someone who speaks a different language.

Become Fluent in the Language of Information Systems

The developers of some sites and applications are moving to faceted search in an attempt to simplify information retrieval so you don’t actually have to write queries. LinkedIn is an excellent example – although to their credit, they haven’t implemented faceted search at the expense of Boolean search capability (thankfully for those of us who can actually write a query!).

While faceted search can make information retrieval easier, certainly for commercial applications (Amazon, eBay, CNET, etc.), there are many serious limitations associated with the faceted search of human capital data.

And when it comes to human capital data – every day, more information about more people is available somewhere electronically, whether it in an internal database or ATS, or in the “cloud” on the Internet, on a job board, a social network, a (micro)blog, a press release, a group discussion…the list goes on. And the number of places you can find electronically stored information on people will only continue to increase.

So we have all this great information about all of these people, and the amount of information and the number of people we can find information on continues to grow – so how do we get it? Well, if it’s stored somewhere electronically, it’s on some sort of computerized system, it’s certainly helpful to be able to speak fluently with these systems.

Ultimately, it’s not about Boolean search strings – it’s about leveraging information systems to identify and acquire talent/human capital.

And you can’t do that very effectively without learning to be fluent in the language of the locals that hold the information you seek.

  • Henning Seip

    The reason people don’t “enthusiastically attempting to master Boolean” is because they don’t want to become programmers. I don’t blame them. After all any keyword search is a game of guessing words that one hopes to be in the documents (i.e. job postings, resumes) searched. Boolean search makes the guessing even more complex plus you have to adhere to syntax you have to learn first.

  • Glen Cathey

    With all due respect, Boolean logic isn’t complex and is certainly not only for programmers. My daughter learned Bookean logic, including Venn diagrams, at the age of 6 in her first grade class in public school.

    The reality is, if sourcers and recruiters want to fully exploit human capital data on the Internet, in resume databases, applicant tracking systems, and social networks, those who master querying through Boolean logic will have a competitive advantage over those who don’t.

    Having access to information is worthless without the ability to actually retrieve what you need and want when you need and want it.

  • Henning Seip

    Glen, your point “most people don’t speak the “native language” of computerized systems”.

    My opinion: Computers should speak human language and not vice versa. You make Boolean logic sound like the latest achievement which every normal computer user should adopt. Reality is that Boolean Logic is the most primitive way to communicate with a computer. The native (primitive) language of the computer is Zeros and Ones which are processed with AND, OR and NOT. It’s pretty pathetic that after 60 years of digital computer development humans still have to learn the most primitive computer language before we get information from a database.

    Besides, you may be an expert in your field. For this reason Boolean Logic “isn’t complex” for you. It is always easy for an expert to say that about his/her field.

  • g4st

    be quiet henning and stop being antagonistic she is very wright, your argument is horrible at best

  • Henning Seip

    I am just realistic. Any search with keywords is a guessing game of words. Combine this with Boolean Logic and you have a complex guessing game of words. When you do a Google search for a book title this may be fine. If you search for the skill set of a person you get a lot of mismatches because you try to pinpoint something very specific via guessing that may not be in the database. Any person has hundreds of skills and an education. How do you want to guess the words for that? If you deny this than you are just closing your eyes from the problem. We need a better solution than keywords and Boolean Logic. Semantic search takes it a step further but is still not satisfactory.

    I guess what got me going on this blog is that Glen feels that everyone should master Boolean Logic as if it is the latest and the greatest. I believe it’s not. That’s why I am commenting. It’s a crutch that we use and so are the results.

  • Glen Cathey

    Querying for information with Boolean logic is certainly not the latest and greatest – I sincerely hope I have never come across as pushing that concept. In fact, I try to emphasize that no one should be intimidated by Boolean search *because* of how establish, basic, and simple Boolean logic is. It really doesn’t get any simpler than AND, OR, and NOT.

    While I agree on some levels that it is definitely pathetic that information retrieval methods and technology have not advanced far in the past few decades, developing skill in querying with Boolean logic means that regardless of the system, engine, or database, you will always have the ability to retrieve precisely what you want and need.

    Semantic search solutions, IMHO, are in many ways worse that manual, user-controlled querying due to the fact that they use black-box methods forcing you to simply trust that they are really delivering on their promise, because without basic Boolean query capability, you can’t actually try to go in and find the results that the semantic search engine either erroneously buries in results or actually eliminates from the results.

    There are many issues with computers trying to learn to ‘speak’ natural languages – far too many for me to address in a comment here…

    One important point not to overlook with my skills and ability is that they are 100% self taught, which, if anything, should be encouraging for those who do not currently have a high level of expertise with information retrieval via Boolean queries. It doesn’t require any special training or degree – just a desire and need to be able to get the information that you suspect and know is there in databases, online, and in social networks.

    I do have to say that information retrieval via Boolean queries is definitely NOT a random guessing game…FAR from it.

  • Henning Seip

    Glen, I am not saying that Boolean Logic a guessing game. What I am saying is that picking keywords is a guessing game. You do not know whether the keywords you pick actually exist in any of the documents you are searching. The simple fact is that keyword search is a lottery. If you don’t get lucky with your first set of keywords, roll the dice and try another set. It’s just a game of luck. There is a cottage industry out there advising people on lucky keywords.

    Boolean Logic is a tool to combine the guessed keywords in an effort to cover more ground (when you use OR) or less ground (when you use AND / NOT) in the documents you are searching. Applying Boolean Logic does not change the fact that the contained keywords are a guess.

    Any search that involves the picking (therefore guessing) of keywords is a lottery. Every time somebody uses Monster, Careerbuilder, Indeed, etc. to find jobs or resumes, they are gambling, with or without Boolean Logic.

  • Henning,
    I can certainly see the things from your perspective, although I must respectfully state that I feel that searching is far less a guessing game and more so an application of the scientific method.

    An educated guess as to a possible outcome is essentially a hypothesis, the basis of the scientific method. Undeniably, a significant amount of breakthroughs and achievements have been, and will continue to be made via the humble scientific method.

    It is critical to point out that the issue here, I believe, has more to do with the information that people are attempting to retrieve that the information retrieval methods (Boolean queries or otherwise). Human capital data, in the form of resumes, social media profiles, etc., is typically user-generated and free-form, which leads to an unpredictable variety and prescence (or lack thereof) of the titles, words and phrases that people consciously choose to use (and/or consciously or unconsciously NOT use!) to describe their skills, experience, and qualifications.

    Ultimately, a person who makes a conscious effort to become more adept at querying human capital data, despite all of the limitations and challenges of the data and information itself as well as the querying methods (Boolean or otherwise), will have a competitive advantage over those who do not. With the amount of human capital data available already at a massive amount, and growing by the minute, it would be folly to not attempt to harness all of the value that can be had from being able to tap into the veritable diamond mine of human capital information available.

  • g4st

    well she’s 16th on HRs top 25 i’m sure she’s knows what she’s talking about. besides to me it doesn’t seem like she’s entirely glorifying Boolean or acting as if its the latest from greatest but rather stating it’s uses in regards to talent searching and the benefits of learning such a skill. it may not be the lastest and greatest to you but alot of people have no clue what it is and to them may feel like the newest thing. This is just one article about one method out of many others methods she discusses to use as a tool. she doesn’t stress as to JUST rely on boolean alone, but that fact that it is simple and it does work regardless. It works for her, it works for others and it works fine for me. even tho you may feel that she wants everyone to master boolen. well the truth is if you want to be good at anything you must know everything about it like methods strategies etc…regardless of how useless it may seem to you. The fact is it’s a skill in the talent finding business and some use it more with more success then others. doesn’t really matter your opinion cause this article has probably helped alot of people and probably hasn’t either way you can’t win all the time. I like the article and I agree with gleen.

  • Henning Seip

    Following people without questioning them may be your approach. Not mine. Even if Glen would be 1st on HR’s 25: I don’t follow people just because they are on some list. I do my own thinking.

    1) I would not promote a status quo. Boolean logic is status quo. One that is 60 years old.

    2) I question the status quo. I suggest that to everyone because that’s the way that leads to new / better solutions.

    Here a quote from Glen’s latest blog entry:

    “The hard part of creating queries is intelligently selecting a combination of words and phrases, and in some cases strategically excluding some words and phrases, that will return highly relevant results – people who are not only likely to be qualified for the position being sourced for, but also highly likely to be interested in the opportunity (i.e., “recruitable”).”

    This what I call overselling. Keyword search and Boolean Logic will result in qualified people who are also interested in the position. This is plain nonsense!

    You can have the greatest candidate paper who turns out to be the greatest jerk when you interview him/her. The candidate can greatly exaggerate on the resume. NO search algorithm can figure that out.

    Also, as I keep pointing out here, there is no guarantee that any keyword you “select” ( I call it guessing), is in any of the searched documents. Hence, it’s a process of luck.

    What the HR industry needs is a search for candidates with structured data because, as Glen writes:

    “Structured data is an order of magnitude (it could easily be argued many orders of magnitude) more valuable and searchable than unstructured data, if for no other reason than it’s intrinsically high predictive value.”

    This is correct. We need to convert the unstructured data of job posting and resumes into structured data because “structured data is an order of magnitude …more valuable and searchable than unstructured data.

    This is where we need to go, not Boolean Logic.

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