2019 Year-In-Review

Another year, another review! This is the third year (past reviews: 2018, 2017) that I’ve done this review and I think it’s an extremely useful exercise. The past year has gone by in a flash (although at times, it didn’t seem that way) and it’s always a good idea to take stock of things and reflect on the year.

If I had to give a theme for the year it would be perspective. While there have been many ups and downs this year, I’m starting to be able to “see the forest for the trees”. This is particularly true for my work at Rubikloud. Things that I would’ve in the past seen as “crises” are just another one of the regular challenges of a fast growing startup. Perhaps it’s because I’m clearly in my mid-30s or the fact that I’ve seen my fair share of “crises” at this point, but most problems aren’t as big as they initially seem in the moment. This is perhaps one of the most important realizations I’ve had this year that has been extremely beneficial to my sanity and lower stress levels.

With this new found perspective, I’m really optimistic about next year. There are so many great opportunities on the horizon, and I’m so grateful for all the amazing people — across all the areas of my life — that I get to work with. Here’s to 2020 with hopes of becoming a little bit wiser and a little less ignorant!

Reflections

Instead of doing an “Accomplishments” section, I decided to just reflect on my major areas of focus for 2019 — good and bad. I’ll still include the “Failures” section below to call out specific issues that deserve special attention or that don’t quite fit here.

Rubikloud

Colleagues: As with most years at a fast growing startup, Rubikloud has been quite the rollercoaster ride in 2019. It’s been one of our best years to date but it’s also been a bit of an emotional one too. Several long-time team members with whom I was very close with have left the business. It was definitely the right decision given their circumstances and career trajectory but it’s always hard to see close friends or colleagues leave. This is probably one of the most important lessons: business’ needs change, people’s needs change, and people enter and exit a business — I shouldn’t take it personally, this is the normal course of things. Obviously, just because someone isn’t working with you anymore doesn’t mean they are gone forever (you can and should keep in touch) but practically, it means you will see less of them.

The obvious flip side to this is that new people enter the business too! And I’m actually quite excited to work with many of the new team members who have joined recently. They bring fresh new perspectives and ideas which I’m excited to learn about. And, of course, it also brings a chance to deepen my working relationships with many of the existing team members who are also given new opportunities to shine.

Building Data Science Teams: On a separate organizational note, I think we’re really starting to hit our groove in building a good cross-functional data science practice. In last year’s review, I mentioned that I had some ideas about how to improve the data science work with cross-functional teams. It turns out most of these ideas didn’t quite work out exactly as planned. I think I correctly identified many of the challenges (such as cross-functional teams require a lot of work and specifying requirements for data science projects) but found out several other ones that I didn’t expect. Two big ideas that we’ve implemented:

  • Data science lead role: This is essential especially for cross functional projects. The lead’s main purpose is to align the project goals with the data science work. A larger portion of their time is spent doing non-technical work such as meeting with other stakeholders and translating that into work that individual contributors can do. I don’t think this is specifically a data science problem, but a problem with any function that is deeply technical. Others who are not specialists in the field will not be able to understand the technical subject matter and, more importantly, translate the overall project requirements into technical work. The opposite problem also happens too: a technical specialist builds something that doesn’t solve the underlying problem because they don’t get the right feedback. Sometimes you may get a “unicorn” data scientist who can do all of this but it’s more rare than you would think.
  • Data science research meetings: This second idea that is extremely important is to make sure your data scientists have an avenue to discuss and review their technical work. This is harder than it sounds. Code reviews that are common in software don’t accomplish the same thing. It requires deep discussion, often including white boarding to clarify the often abstract ideas of the solution. My best attempt at this is to mimic the research meetings that you find in graduate school: a senior researcher holds the meeting where team members are given time to present their results to date. The senior researcher’s job is not to tell the other members what to do but to facilitate the meeting by asking probing questions, clarifying the explanation of other team members, and occasionally suggesting new ideas. The big benefit besides helping the particular project along is that it also serves as a place for other team members to learn. Finding ways to grow the research ability of our team has also been something on my mind lately, and this is definitely a good passive way to do it.

Work-life Balance: And on a final note, I want to talk about work-life balance. I was able to maintain some decent balance throughout most of the year except for a period in the fall. During that time I was working evenings and weekends for about a month or so in order to try to get a project delivered. This was a pretty stressful time for me causing me to approach burning out. There were also a few knock-on effects on other parts of the company that I won’t get into. Luckily, I had pretty good support from my manager, the people team and my wife. We also have an unlimited vacation policy at Rubikloud, which has helped me decompress after the fact.

I will say that burnout is a pretty real phenomenon, and when you’re in a fast growing startup for five years, you’re going to brush up against it at one point or another. Reflecting back on my time at Rubikloud so far, I think many (but not all) of the times where I was pushing myself to meet a deadline were, in fact, necessary (given the situation). That is, I think we would have a dramatically worse outcome if we had not pushed through. Many will say that it if you planned properly then that would not have happened — I whole heartedly agree! But hindsight is 20/20. If I had my current experience, I probably could avoided some (but not all) of these cases. I suspect part of the reason why burnout is so common at startups is because of inexperience planning for the unknown situations that lay ahead (the other big reason is that you have terrible managers who just want to exploit their employees). I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my career but I’m learning from each one of them so I hope that there will be fewer and fewer of these situations.

However, the important point about these types of situations is that they need to be managed carefully. You can’t do it all the time and you need to give the affected team members time to recover. With a bit more experience under my belt, I’m a bit more aware of when I myself am starting to get burnt out. I’m also much more careful with my team to ensure that they don’t get put into that situation. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that we’re all just humans.

Adjunct Professor at Rotman School of Management

This past (calendar) year at Rotman my main accomplishments were around teaching, helping organize a couple small events and providing advice and guidance to a bunch of people. One thing that I’ve forgotten is how much fun teaching can be. The position I have of teaching AI at a business school (but to analytics professionals) is quite unique. Business school is much more focused on practical applications of things and less on theory. I really enjoyed trying to distill some of the fundamental concepts in deep learning down to their most intuitive points and eschewing most of the cruft that is usually taught in those types of courses (similar to my technical blog). Since it was a bit of a greenfield course, I was able to design it how I saw fit. In the coming year, I’ll be teaching a longer AI course with applications in marketing. I very much enjoy putting together the material and teaching but I must say that it’s a lot of work! Distilling complex ideas into its core components and then putting together informative material is hard! I’m enjoying my time at Rotman and a couple of potential opportunities are opening up for me to potentially teach in the other professional programs. It’s definitely an exciting opportunity with the only downside being that it does put a lot of additional strain on my free time. No rest for the wicked I guess.

Hobbies (Reading, Music and Learning Chinese)

Reading: On the reading front, I’ve definitely got into a good habit of reading a few books each quarter and blogging about them (Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4). I’ve finally got over my bad habit of reading everything the same way, and instead just (a) read what interests me at that point in time, and (b) read it in the way that I feel like reading it. When I write it out like that it seems obvious but for me it wasn’t so easy.

The first point is really about putting books down that I’m not in the mood for (a couple of which I mention in the blog posts above). Sometimes I feel “obligated” to read a book because it’s an important subject or because I bought it already. That’s a pretty big fallacy. You won’t get much out of a book that you are “forcing” yourself to read. You should especially follow this rule if you’re part-way through a book. My important takeaway was that I should stop as soon as possible so I don’t “lose momentum” reading, getting to that point where it becomes a chore. Reading is really about getting what you want to get out of the book.

On that note, the second point is really about reading it in a way that allows you to get what you want out of the book. For me that means two things (i) marking up the book with a pencil or pen to highlight and take notes on things that I want to remember and (ii) to skim or skip over parts that I don’t find interesting or necessary. Ever since elementary school, I’ve had an aversion to marking up books because the teacher said not to, but in fact it’s probably one of the most important things you can do to retain knowledge! The other bad idea I had was that all the words in the book are created equal — they’re not! I now freely skim over paragraphs, or even whole chapters which I don’t think are very important. It’s really helped me “keep momentum” and my interest up in the books that I’m reading. It also allows me to focus in and read more carefully the parts that I’m actually interested in. Sounds simple but it took me a while to get here and I’m loving it!

Music: I’ve been doing a pretty good job of having regular lessons with my guitar/vocal teacher (every other week or so) but I haven’t been doing a great job of diligently practicing between lessons. My progress has been slower than ideal but I think that’s okay since there are a bunch of other higher priority things that I’ve been focusing on. The aspect that I am the most proud of now is that, through my music lessons, I’ve really started appreciating music much more (because I understand a lot more of the fundamentals) and it’s become a regular part of my life. I regularly pick up the guitar to sing and play for fun and enjoyment. It really feels like my life is somehow richer because of it and isn’t that the best measure of a good hobby?

Learning Chinese: Learning fluent Chinese has been one of my on-and-off long term goals for a while now. This year (especially in the last quarter), I’ve skipped a lot of Chinese classes. My excuse (as always) is that there were higher priority things going on, which is true to some extent. However, I’ve made some incremental progress. I’m a bit more comfortable speaking now, a combination of being a bit more confident and having a slightly larger vocabulary. One realization that I came to is that I was doing too much indirect practice for my ultimate goal: conversing in Chinese. Examples of indirect practice were primarily around reading and writing. Next year, I’m going to try to get more practice speaking to family members, but also potentially experimenting with native speakers online to get some more convenient directed practice. Hopefully in next year’s update I can tell you all about the success I’ve had using this method.

Health and Fitness

I’ve been keeping up with weekly sessions with my personal trainer. Strength wise, I’m progressing at a slow pace but I’m fine with it. I’m at around 5 pull-ups which is a personal best. However, I’ve really dropped off in the back half of the year for my goal of going to the gym at least twice a week (including my training session). My excuse again here has been how busy I’ve been with my other jobs. However, in this case, it’s a pretty poor excuse because my health is way more important than any job that I have. The other side effect that I’ve been experiencing is dramatic tightness of my muscles. I’ve gathered that this is a combination of (a) working my muscles hard with my trainer, (b) ignoring rolling out or stretching before/after workout sessions and during the week, and (c) little or no dynamic physical activity during the week. This is really new territory for me where in the last five years or so, I’m the least active I’ve ever been. Of course, I’m trying to change that but making new habits takes time.

Recently, I’ve started to try to do at least a bit of stretching, rolling out or yoga every day. This is really to prevent the extremely unpleasant feeling of tight muscles. The other thing that I’m trying to do is engage my core all the time. My realization is that a lot of lower back pain is caused by a weak core. So it’s not so much as having good posture, but rather engaging your core so you don’t hurt your back. The side effect is good posture. At first, your core gets tired easily but the more you do it, the easier it should get. So far so good.

Failures

This section is going to be reserved for specific failures that I hope to learn from. It’s a natural tendency to hide your own failures but if you do you’re missing a great opportunity to learn from them. Worse yet, you may keep making the same mistake! Hopefully this section will help me with the ignorance removal process.

Goal Setting: This year I attempted to actually do a bit of goal setting for my personal goals (such as learning, health, and social relationships), using the OKR (objectives and key results) framework. It’s something we’ve been doing at the company since last year and I think it’s a very reasonable goal setting tool. For a couple of quarters, I was actually doing okay with it. However, when things got really busy in the fall, it basically dropped off the map and I stopped using it all together.

My big takeaway from it is that you really need to get into the habit of using it (like most things). It’s a useful tool, as long as you’re using it right. When I was using it, I checked it every week to update it, which was a good frequency. It didn’t magically make me do things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise, but rather reminded me to do things that I often forget about (like hanging out with friends) when things get busy. The other nice thing about it is that the act of creating goals makes you think hard about your priorities, which is always a useful thing. I might experiment with it again in the new year if things don’t get too crazy.

Health, Stress and Sleep: This is one area where I would rate myself poorly this year. Thankfully, I didn’t have any major problems or injuries this year but I definitely did a poor job staying healthy (at least for the back half of the year). As mentioned above, I haven’t been keeping up with my non-trainer workout sessions, and combined with the stress from the busy times at work, it has definitely put my body in worse shape.

The biggest fail in my mind though is really around sleep. At times, I’ve been having trouble sleeping through the entire night. I can usually fall asleep very fast but wake up after 4 or 5 hours in the middle of the night and have trouble going back to sleep. I’ve been experimenting with a lot of hypotheses as to why I’m waking up. They’re the usual things make the list: work, sedentary lifestyle, screens and caffeine. It’s clear that the main cause is work, however, it’s usually not just stress from crises (although at times that happens), it’s more the fact that I’m thinking about issues all the time (as you do when you’re at a startup). This is definitely one of the reasons why I find it hard to go back to sleep at night: my mind is still thinking through and trying to solve problems at 4 am. Part of the problem is that I actually enjoy thinking about these problems! Obviously, I do not enjoy getting very little sleep and feeling tired the next day though.

The thing that I did notice was that this sleep issue was a relatively new phenomenon in the past year or so, and I think it’s directly related to my lower fitness levels (and perhaps my age). So I’ve been telling myself to try to exercise more, which has been pretty unsuccessful. It’s a bit of a negative feedback loop because the most stressed you are, the more you want to relax on the couch, not run 5 km, but counter-intuitively, that’s the opposite of what you should be doing! Additionally, I’ve been cutting back my caffeine intake a bit, which I think is probably a bit of a secondary benefit. The mind and body are very much connected, and I’m pretty convinced that more exercise will really make a big difference to solving this sleep issue (I almost never have trouble sleeping through the night after a session with my trainer). I just have to find ways to make it stick.

Keeping in good health is very much about experimenting with techniques that work for you in the sense that you can get into the habit of doing it (most common techniques work pretty well if you can keep it up). The hard part is that often once you have something that sort of works, life throws a few wrenches your way like a new job, an injury, or just plain getting old. You just got to keep trying to find ways to stay healthy and stick to it.

Blogging: I’ve done a pretty poor job at blogging this year. On the personal side, I’ve been mainly writing about books I’ve read, which keeps this site up to date with at least quarterly posts. I’ve been satisfied with this frequency; I have less to write about nowadays on my personal blog. However, on my technical blog, I only put up 3 posts this past year. This is well below my goal of 2-3 a quarter (quite ambitious actually). I actually really enjoy learning and writing about things on my technical blog but my free time has mainly been filled up with an increased load at Rubikloud combined with preparation for teaching the AI marketing course at Rotman. The latter actually is in a similar vein to my technical blog: learning about AI and putting together material (slides instead of a post). However, the material isn’t state of the art techniques, but more common-place fundamentals. In retrospect, I’m not too disappointed with my lack of work on the technical blog, my prioritization of things this year has been about right. However, I do want to call it out because I sure don’t want to make it a habit of brushing it off.

The Coming Year

Looking forward to 2020, I’m quite optimistic. There are several exciting things going on in my personal life, my professional work at Rubikloud and Rotman look very promising, and my friends, my family and myself are in (relatively) good health. It’s hard to ask for more than this. I hope you have an amazing 2020 filled with laughing, learning, and good fortune!

Book Impressions — 2019-Q4

Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

A re-read of this classic book that my friend gave me a while ago. I was looking for something lighter to read on my bookshelf (which is made up of a mix of many non-fiction books that I have and haven’t read but very few fictions books), and I came across this one. It’s a short, light and easy read, kind of nice from the heavier biography (the one below) that I was reading at the time.

It’s a story about a young man in college with a very special professor, Morrie, who teaches him about life. After college, he drifts apart from that professor and goes on to face the world and all its challenges. Many years later, by happenstance, he reunites with his old professor, who is dying, to take the most important “class” of his life. Through their Tuesday meetings, they talk about the human experience: family, money, love, marriage, forgiveness and, of course, death.

It’s a nice little read to remind us of the important things in life and to not get too focused on the things that aren’t so important like material success. At first, I was a bit turned off because the book was slightly preachy and also a bit too simple (or maybe too direct?) in the way that Morrie explains these concepts. That is until I realized that it’s actually a true story! I just assumed that this was fiction but the events in the book actually took place between Morrie and the author.

Even if you’re not explicitly into reading about these topics I’d recommend this book. It’s always good to have a reminder to cherish the important things around you, and this one is a cute little book that serves this purpose. It’s an easy read and serves as a nice break between heavier stuff.

Models of My Life by Herbert A. Simon

This was another re-read of an autobiography I picked up a while back about a polymath named Herbert A. Simon. He was simultaneously a Nobel Prize winner, Turing Award winner (the equivalent to Nobel Prize in computer science) and one of my personal intellectual heroes. My technical blog is named after one of his big contributions to economic thought (“Bounded Rationality”), and I found that I could relate to so many of the things that he went through in life from academic research and teaching to bigger topics like career choices and even love interests. Here are some random thoughts about the book.

  • Being in the AI field, it was illuminating hearing about the story from the beginning. Simon was one of the original participants at the “Dartmouth Workshop”, which is usually attributed as the first AI conference. Hearing about all the different characters (and opinions) about how to approach AI was fascinating. So many “old” techniques were being discovered at the time such as early search algorithms and linear programming. Interestingly, Simon was a big advocate of trying to understand models of how the human mind works, and I believe he would likely be a big critic of how modern day deep learning eschews (or at least ignores) this original goal of AI.
  • Simon was really a polymath. His original field of study was political science, however, he quickly moved into higher level maths to, at first, study economics, then computer science and AI. He, of course, learned to program early on and contributed to some of the early advances in AI. On top of that, he was a polyglot (which included basic Chinese) and frequently read famous texts in their original languages.
  • Simon himself was very much an empirical scientist. He describes himself as an economist or sociologist by training but more like an engineer in spirit — a man after my own heart. His keen focus on always the empirical (particularly in the face of messiness) is inspiring, especially at a time when economics (and other disciplines) was moving into more seductive theoretical areas. Finding a model that actually matches reality was always more important to him than finding a (mathematically) beautiful one.
  • On teaching:
    • “I learned that there is no use lecturing to a class unless the class is listening. And they will only listen if you are saying something that they think they can understand and that seems relevant. They will listen better if you talk LOUDLY. If you pace up and down, you can tell from their moving heads whether they are following you (like the crowd at a tennis match).”
    • “Teaching is not entertainment, but it is unlikely to be successful unless it is entertaining (the more respectable word would be interesting).”
    • “Coverage of subject matter is a snare and a delusion. You begin where the students are prepared to begin; and you carry them as far as you can without losing them. Whether that takes you to the end of the specified curriculum, half as far, or twice as far, is irrelevant.”
    • “You start every class by giving students the opportunity (or better, the obligation) to ask questions about their reading, about previous sessions, or about anything.”
    • “Students don’t learn by being lectured at, anyways; they learn by thinking hard, solving problems, dissecting proofs… Enlightenments, like accidents, happen only to prepared minds. If students have thought about something, you can discuss it profitably in class; without the preparation, it is just a bull session.”
  • On research:
    • “There has been failure after failure of interdisciplinary ‘teams’ to integrate anything… except to the extent that individual team members became interdisciplinary. I would not give a dollar to assist a typical political scientist to collaborate with a typical economist unless each one of them gave me a sworn statement that he would study seriously and not in a dilettante’s way the discipline of the other for at least a year.”
    • On research: “Push across the front; when you find a soft spot, wherever it may be, pour your reserves through and keep going. Research, groping through the uncertain and then unforeseeable, must be flexible to grasp and exploit every sign of progress.”
    • “Doability and significance are always good bases for choosing research problems. We want a problem whose answer has interest and value, but only if we have some ideas for approaching it.”
    • “I soon learned that one wins awards mainly for winning awards… Once one becomes sufficiently well known, one’s name surfaces automatically as soon as an award committee assembles.”
    • “The true line is not between “hard” natural science and “soft” social sciences, but between precise science limited to highly abstract and simple phenomena in the laboratory and inexact science and technology dealing with complex problems in the real world.”
  • One of the recurring themes in the book was the metaphor of a maze. He often viewed his life as a series of decision points in a maze that “led” him to where he ended up. He’s careful not to conflate his ingenuity or talent as the reason why he made the correct “turn”, rather more of an observation that success (or failure) is usually more of a matter of circumstance (the maze) combined with a series of conscious and unconscious decisions where you can never really know the exact outcome. For Simon, he reflects that most of his success has been a matter of circumstance rather than following a big plan, and that he’s had few big decision points in his life, most of which were not very difficult decisions for him. In retrospect, I feel like my life has followed a similar path. There have only been a few instances where I think I could have taken a very large divergent path but that’s a story for another time.

Simon’s autobiography is precisely the type of biography that I like to read, sprinkled with wisdom and insight into his life. Although, not every chapter was as interesting as the next (e.g. his early childhood), I thoroughly enjoyed his autobiography and would definitely recommend it to anyone’s whose interests intersect the topics above.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

This was a management book recommended to me by a friend. I took it on a short vacation and finished it in a week or so. It has a lot of great ideas about management. First Scott’s credentials: she worked at Google and Apple, learning from the great managers such as Sheryl Sandberg and Tim Cook. She led a large organization at Google and then moved on to lead Apple’s management training program. My big takeaways from the book are three points:

  • Be Centred: To be a good manager, you need to have your own life together. If you’re burnt out, personal life is a mess or have health issues, there’s no way you can even begin to be a good manager. The first step to being a good manger is making sure your outside-of-work life is in order so that when you come to work you can focus on work.
  • Care Personally: This is a prerequisite to building trusting relationships: to care personally about your employees (and everyone else you interact with)! If you don’t have trust with your team, how can you ever hope to help them achieve excellence? Caring personally doesn’t mean all the superficial things that usually come to mind but rather, genuinely caring about them as a person, including the crazy things that may be going on in their personal life.
  • Candid Feedback: Building trust is only half the story, to helps your team excel, you need to be able to tell them honestly when they’re doing well, and, just as importantly, when they’re not. The latter is the hardest part for all managers (me included), and can only really be effective if the other side is actually willing to listen. This is exactly why you need to build trust or else candid feedback is useless.

These are the big ideas in the book but of course there’s a lot more. There are many more anecdotes to give you a better intuition about what these three points mean, as well as more tactical things you can do in situations like 1-1s, meetings, performance reviews and even socials. I don’t think there will ever be “one” book on management, but this one definitely has a lot of really good ideas, and you’d probably be missing something if you didn’t at least skim through this one.

Ultralearning by Scott H. Young

Ultralearning is a term (as far as I can tell) made up by Young to describe learning a new topic or skill incredibly fast usually by self-directed learning utilizing a common toolkit of methods. His claim to fame is the MIT Challenge where he successfully completed (approximately) the MIT computer science undergrad curriculum in about a year. Other accomplishments were that he learned four languages to a roughly intermediate level within a year (including Chinese and Korean), and also learned to sketch faces pretty well within a month (without any prior art training).

The book itself is pretty typical for these types of books: chalk full on anecdotes in between the clearly labelled ideas of how to learn really fast. Most of the anecdotes weren’t really that interesting to me since they were either about people who were extreme outliers (like himself) who dedicate all their time to learning or mythical figures like Richard Feynman. It’s difficult to relate to either of these two situations because I’m not in those categories.

However, the really great part of the book was all of the strategies and tactics on how to learn. This was particularly inspiring because I’ve more recently (as an adult at least) gone through struggles learning two new skills: music (guitar and singing) and Chinese. After graduate school, I started learning both of these in earnest and it has been a challenge. I’ve made decent progress with some great teachers but much of the real progress comes from work you do outside of the lesson. Having thought of ways to improve the efficiency of learning, I’ve stumbled upon a few of the techniques mentioned in this book. It also gave me a few extra ideas on how I could accelerate the learning. Here are some interesting ones:

  • Meta-learning: Researching the most effective ways to learn how to learn a skill/topic
  • Tactics to deal with procrastination or finding time to learn
  • Directly practicing the skill you want to learn (e.g. focus directly on practicing speaking a language if that’s your goal, not reading/writing)
  • Spaced repetition
  • Focused practice — identify and drill your weaknesses (related to importance of good feedback)
  • Intuition is build through deep work on problems where you have time to “struggle”
  • Utilize experimentation and the scientific method once you start to enter mastery territory

I’ve actually picked up many of these things at one point or another to varying degrees. The one thing that I have not be doing well is the directness aspect, I usually favor the practicing techniques that are either convenient or familiar, which I have learned usually plateaus my learning relatively quickly. That’s why it’s good to read sources like this: to get new ideas about how to learn so that you can do it more efficiently.

Overall, I’d recommend skimming this book and looking out for new ideas about how to learn faster. I doubt many people will attempt some of the more extreme learning challenges but I’m sure most people will find a hint or two on how to improve their learning.

Another Apocryphal Story

Another great story that Charlie Munger has been telling more recently:

A 14 year old boy asks Mozart: “How can I learn to be a great composer?”

Mozart: “You’re far too young.”

Boy: “But you were only 8 when you wrote your first symphony!”

Mozart: “Yes, but I wasn’t going around asking people how to do it.”

Charlie was telling this story in response to all the people who were asking him how to become a great investor. I think this same idea applies to a lot of other unconventional ideas:

  • Should I drop out of university?
  • Should I quit my job and start a company?
  • Should I do a long distance relationship?

If you have to ask, the answer is probably no. Steve Jobs didn’t ask anyone if he should invent the iPhone, Elon Musk definitely did not ask anyone whether or not he should try to send someone to Mars, and I didn’t ask anyone if I should give unsolicited advice about how to conduct your life — I just do it. Maybe Nike had it right all along, or not. Perhaps I should ask someone…

Book Impressions — 2019-Q3

The Demon Under the Microscope by Thomas Hager

Often times we get so caught up in the latest technological advances that we don’t think about all the discoveries that came before us. This book is about perhaps one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century: antibiotics.

Hager does a masterful job weaving between different story lines about the search for antibiotics. As the subtitle suggests, we are taken from the trenches of World War I to Nazi research facilities (sort of). The one thing he does incredibly well is provide a narrative involving the individuals: the scientists (and bureaucrats) who, though all their flaws, make progress toward discovering the first antibiotics.

One thing that the book clearly describes, and something I never really put thought into, is how deadly bacteria can be. Something as simple as strep throat, an accidental cut on a stone in the garden or giving birth could easily lead to an terminal infection. Millions of people died from these “simple” infections. Nowadays, these problems are just an afterthought because we’ve discovered a panacea in antibiotics.

Besides all the more scientific details, the thing I appreciated most about the book is the humanization of the whole endeavor. One of the “protagonists”, Domagk, was a brilliant scientist who methodically tested hundreds (if not thousands) of drugs that eventually led to the (accidental) discovery of sulpha (the first antibiotic). However, it was clear that he was just human. He was worried about money, status, and his family. He became depressed at various points in his life, was conflicted about Nazi Germany, and jealous of competing researchers who soon after discovered a much more effective sulpha variant that was lying under his nose.

Often we forget that the most brilliant of us are just regular people with hopes and dreams and just doing the best they can. We idolize Einstein or (in my case) Munger but they too were/are just humans. It’s a bit of relief to know that the problems and worries that you have also afflicted the best of us. It’s obvious when you think about it but it’s always nice to get a reminder and to humanize those whom we put on a pedestal.

In summary, Hager writes a great narrative about one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century that really gives life to the great minds behind the discovery. Go read it!

Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

If someone told you that there was something you could do that could simultaneously make you look more attractive, healthier, and smarter, you’d probably think they were a scam artist, right? Well that thing does exist and it’s sleep!

Why We Sleep is an easily accessible book on everything to do with sleep. It covers a broad spectrum of topics such as sleep’s function (as we understand it today), health benefits, disorders, dreaming, societal impacts, and, in particular, how to sleep better. A theme throughout the book (surprise, surprise) is that sleep is very important. What I found most interesting is why it’s so important.

Two interesting models (I use the term model because we don’t know exactly how sleep works yet) that I learned:

  1. There are two independent processes going on when you get tired: a circadian rhythm and a sleep drive process. The circadian rhythm is your biological clock, it cycles roughly with day and night. It causes you to be more awake during the daytime and exerts little pressure to be awake at nighttime. The sleep drive process has the opposite effect. As you stay awake, your brain releases a chemical adenosine that gradually builds up and causes you to be more sleepy but gets purged when you get a good night’s sleep (caffeine inhibits the effect of adenosine). Your peak sleepiness will occur when your circadian rhythm is low but your level of adenosine is high, which typically should be at night time. This explains some common phenomenon such as having a “second wind” after pulling an all nighter (circadian rhythm), jet lag (circadian rhythm), or usage of caffeine to stay awake (sleep drive).
  2. Sleep has two (sort of) distinct phases: non-rapid eye movement sleep (NREM), and rapid eye movement sleep (REM). REM sleep is the shallower sleep state where we dream, while NREM is a deep sleep state. Every night we cycle between REM and NREM several times, with NREM being more prevalent earlier in the night (deep sleep) with REM being more dominant as morning approaches. One of NREM’s primary functions is to take everything in our short term memory and store it in our longer term memory, kind of like filing things away. REM’s corresponding function is to make connections between all of the things we’ve learned, the metaphorical creative side. Of course, getting enough sleep is critical to ensuring both of these processes occur to make you smarter. However, what’s not obvious is that the proportion of NREM and REM sleep you get is pretty consistent with respect to the time of day (controlled by your circadian rhythm). So if you are going to bed 2 hour later than usual but still get the same 8 hours of sleep, you are going to get less NREM sleep. So it’s important to both sleep a solid 8 hours but also at the right time!

Besides these two important models of sleep, Walker goes on to espouse the myriad of benefits of sleep (as well as myriad of disorders due to lack of sleep). In our 24-hour screen society, it’s becoming so much harder to get a good night’s rest, and Walker attempts to educate and warn us of the perils of missed sleep.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, I definitely recommend it. It’s easy to read with a huge amount of information. Personally, I’ve been practicing much better sleep habits since I read the book including a more consistent sleep schedule, no screen time before bed, cooler room temperature, and relaxation before bed (no work). If I still haven’t convinced you to read it, just sleep on it, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice in the morning.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz

After I read the the previous books, I wanted something lighter. Sometimes I get into a mood where I just don’t feel like using my left brain and instead switch to my right. Outside of fiction, this book is probably in that latter category.

I had already read this book last year, so this was a re-read. Definitely a sign of a good book. You can check out my previous impression here: https://briankeng.com/2019/01/2018-year-in-review/.

The only additional thing that I’ll add is that humans are complex, and so are their psychological disorders. We all suffer from some disorder to some degree. It’s eye opening to see the extreme ends of the spectrum in this book but it has also allowed me to reflect on my own behaviors and of those around me. And in particular, I think it’s allowed me to be a bit more understanding when people behave irrationally. And who doesn’t want a bit more understanding?

Book Impressions — 2019-Q2

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

This book tells the story of the meteoric rise and fall of Theranos, the Silicon Valley unicorn that claimed to have technology that could analyze blood samples with just a few drops of blood. It’s written by the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the original piece exposing them as a fraud so it had an in-depth view of the whole situation stitched together from numerous sources (including himself).

It’s a really interesting story outlining the mania that can happen in Silicon Valley startups when you mix a charismatic founder, a world-changing idea, powerful connections, and cheap VC money. This is really a case of life being stranger from fiction. The dysfunction that occurred at Theranos is just simply unbelievable considering they raised more than $700 million and peaked at over 800 employees with almost no revenue. Here are just a list of some of the ridiculous things that happened:

  • Elizabeth Holmes idolized Steve Jobs so much so she started wearing black turtlenecks as her uniform.
  • She also would consciously speak in a deep baritone, a few octaves below her real vocal range to have more presence.
  • Employees at Theranos were compartmentalized so much so that the technicians trying to work on the blood tests and the engineers building the actual device were only allowed to communicate through Holmes and her inner circle.
  • She had 5-star generals, former secretaries of state and billionaire CEOs on her board of directors, none of whom had any doubts that Holmes had build a revolutionary technology (in fact, they defended her from any criticism).
  • Any criticism from employees would result in immediate termination and a team of the country’s most powerful lawyers threatening lawsuits (the same ones who dealt with the Microsoft anti-trust case, Al Gore’s presidential recount case, and more recently, Harvey Weinstein’s accusations) and other intimidation tactics like having them being followed around by private investigators.
  • Some patients in Arizona actually received false blood tests for things as serious a syphilis or HIV.

It’s an incredibly interesting story and the unbelievable part is how Holmes was able to systematically convince the whole world that her technology actually worked — including the employees at Theranos who could plainly see that it wasn’t working — and, more importantly, how she wasn’t exposed for years. We still don’t know if she actually believed that she was changing the world or it was just a big con. Either way, this book is definitely worth a read.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

This is a great book! I heard great things about it and I took it with me on vacation and devoured it. It’s an autobiography from the founder of Nike, Phil Knight, detailing his (and Nike’s) incredible journey from nothing to IPO. It’s written in an easy-to-read, more informal style. Knight is a great story teller (which is what makes it hard to put down) and also sprinkles in loads of wisdom and insight along the way.

The reason why I liked the book the most is because I can identify with a lot of the ups and downs he has had while building Nike. Being part of a startup from early days to (hopefully) success is a unique experience that is hard to describe. Shoe Dog does a great job of conveying that feeling and putting a lot of perspective on the whole experience.

Here are some random thoughts from the book that stood out for me:

  • Crises! Boy were there a lot of them! It seemed at almost every turn there was a new crisis where Nike was on the brink of collapse. I think one of the most important things Knight captured in this book is the mood and feeling of those crises. When you have an early stage startup, it really is touch-and-go where the whole thing can come crumbling down at a moment’s notice. Having this view into one of the most successful companies in the world, and knowing they also experienced the same thing, has given me so much perspective.
  • Cashflow is king! Among the many crises that Nike had, chief among them were cashflow problems. Sometimes us in technology don’t think about this much because the marginal cost of producing software is zero (you can just copy it), but when you actually have to manufacture a physical good, you need enough cash to bridge the time between paying supplies and actually selling the final good to your customers. On top of this, when you’re growing extremely fast (doubling sales every year) your need for cash is magnified (more cash is tied up paying suppliers but before you have made the sale to the end customer). In the 70s, venture capital was almost non-existent save some early efforts in Silicon Valley, so Nike had to turn to borrowing from friends and family, the bank, and its suppliers. You might thing that everyone would love to invest in a high-growth startup but the banks, being conservative institutions, actually wanted them to slow their growth! With VC money coming easy nowadays, it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this.
  • Trade-offs: The other thing that was apparent was the trade-off Knight made between between family life and business. Nike was all consuming for him (and many early employees) and had dramatic effects on his personal life. He admits that his relationship with his sons could have been better and that his wife also put up with a lot. I think this is the harsh reality of building these companies. You have a fixed number of hours in a day and if you’re going to build a new company, it’s going to take up a huge portion of your time, not to mention your mental energy. Life is full of trade-offs and we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.
  • Competition: Throughout their history Nike dealt with some shady businesses both in Japan and America. When you have your primary manufacturer plotting behind your back to drop you, and your competition lobbying the government to tax you to bankruptcy, it’s hard to survive! We like to think that modern economies are relatively fair meritocracies but lots of shady stuff still goes on.
  • Maniacs: Knight had built a team of “maniacs”! This diverse group of misfits (his words), who were just as fanatical as he was, really pushed Nike to success. I would wager that this is probably a recurring them for most super successful companies.
  • Bias: Throughout the book Knight acknowledged some of his mistakes related to some shady stuff they did (stealing documents from Japanese business partners) to his absence on the home front. It’s great that he included some less favourable views of himself but ultimately, humans will be humans. I did feel that most of these events had a very positive spin on them but it’s interesting to see how we interpret our own mistakes.

In summary, great book, go read it.

Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday

I think I came across this book in the comments section of Hacker News. The person who recommended it was effusive that it was worth a read, I usually try to pay attention when I hear something like that. Suffice it to say, this book is a definite recommendation from me.

The author, Ryan Holiday, used to run marketing at American Apparel and now consults on various branding and marketing campaigns, particularly in the new age of internet media. The premise of the book is pretty simple: the instant gratification, free, and always on incentives of the internet has created a situation where it’s very easy to manipulate the general public into believing something false. Not only that, the first half of the book goes on to show you example after example of how he (and others) were able to accomplish it. The second part of the book then goes on to show the dark consequences of this brave new world of media manipulation.

The interesting part about this book is that the original edition was published in 2012! This was well before “fake news” became a common part of our vernacular or the awareness of foreign manipulation of democratic elections. At that time, Holiday basically gave a playbook on how manipulate the media and the public (although not specifically for interfering with elections). I don’t know about you, but I certainly like to understand when and how I’m being manipulated.

After reading this book, I’ve become much more aware that most of the “interesting” articles I read on the internet are probably half-truths, exaggerations or outright lies. And for the most part, it’s not malicious by the actual authors of the blog posts, articles or tweets — it’s more of a necessity based on the economics of internet media.

Let’s take a simple case: you’re a writer for a popular internet news media outlet (or even a traditional one). Your company makes money by people viewing ads on your website. This means that the articles on your site need to grab the attention of your audience. Now keep in mind, the average internet user is a fickle creature. Anything can easily divert their attention from a new flashy hyperlinked headline to a picture of a cute dog. So naturally you, as a writer for this site, make your articles with click-baity type headlines, make it simple and short to read (above the fold) and make sure you are the first to actually publish it (who wants to read old news?). Add on top of this that you get paid by the volume (not quality) of articles you produce, putting you in a state of constant grind to write the next viral article.

All of these facts lead to our current state of internet news: barely researched articles based on a single source, exaggerated and misrepresented to get you to click. An exaggeration? Maybe but probably not too far off.

If that weren’t bad enough, this internet news cycle makes it incredibly easy to “suggest” news to these people in order to get your story to the top. I won’t go into too much detail (you should read the book) but if you sat down and thought hard about it, you probably could come up with a handful of ways to do it yourself.

Anyways, this book is definitely worth your time to read. It’s a pretty easy read and the anecdotes about manipulation are both interesting and a bit appalling at the same time — just what you would expect from Holiday.

Books Started but Paused

These are a couple of books that I started to read but put down because I wasn’t getting into them. I saw an interview by the author of Farnam Street who said that we all should get over the need to finish books. You should decide what you want to get out of it, if you got what you wanted out of it but didn’t finish it (or you’re not getting what you want out of it), then stop reading it. There’s no shame in that, instead it’s just rational (we’re not in school anymore, we don’t get marks for finishing books). Anyways, here are a couple of books in that category:

  • Retail Disruptors: The Spectacular Rise and Impact of the Hard Discounters by Jan-Benedict Steenkamp and Laurens Sloot: I actually find the topic very interesting from a business model point of view and also because Rubikloud is in the retail industry. However, I just wasn’t in the mood to read the book. It’s a much more academic treatment compared to the above books which are told much more through stories and anecdotes (although I wouldn’t say Retail Disruptors is dry like academic papers, more like digested research for the mass public). It’s probably because I was still in the mood for some great story telling that I put it down (coming off of Theranos and Shoe Dog). I’ll probably pick it up again at some point.
  • Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China by Ezra F. Vogel: I’ve been meaning to learn more about Deng Xiaoping, the successor of Mao who opened up China and started it along a multi-decade growth streak. The book was ambitious at 900+ pages. I only got through the first 70 or so, which interestingly covered most of Deng’s life (the last 800 pages covered the last decade or two under Mao and afterwards). The issue with this type of biography is that it’s very much told as a series of events rather than a story. I have a hard time getting into these types of books because the whole reason I want to read biographies is to “get to know” the subject, not learn a bunch of facts. I do understand the difficulty for the author though, Deng was an incredibly secretive fellow, never writing anything down for fear it could be used against him. On top of that and he grew up in a time of turmoil where record keeping likely wasn’t a priority. I might end up picking this book up again but I’ll definitely need to be in the right mood to do so.