Astronomers wanted a tool that would be able to quickly answer questions like: “find asteroid candidates” or “find other objects like this one”, which originally gave the motive to build the SQL-based backend. Indeed, right from the beginning Jim Gray asked Alex Szalay to define 20 typical queries astronomers might want to ask and then together they designed the SkyServer database to answer those queries. The anecdote is that the conversation went as follows:
Jim: What are the 20 questions you want to ask?
Alex: Astronomers want to ask anything! Not just 20 queries.
Jim: Ok, start with 5 queries.
[it took Alex 30 minutes to write them all down]
Jim: Ok, add another 5 queries.
[it took Alex 1 hour to write them all down]
Jim: Ok, now add another 5 queries.
[Alex gave up and went home to think about them]
Alex (said later): In 1.5 hours, Jim taught me a lot of humility!
Alex (said later): It also taught us the importance of long-tail distribution and how to prioritize.
This is my favorite part of the article.