Today is my birthday and I am well into my adulthood. The past few years I’ve noticed my attitude towards things shift, especially as more and more overlap between dealings in personal and professional contexts overlap. A few things I’ve been thinking about:
- Don’t take anything that’s important to you for granted. I feel extremely fortunate to be constantly surrounded by loved ones. Every day I am delighted to spend time with Jen and our kids. Thanks to Jen for being the foundation for everything good in my life.
- Identify the right tradeoffs. In the past I think I’ve always been looking for a way to do it all, and I have gone into situations thinking that there would be some absolute best outcome. Over the past few years I’ve come to realize that it’s not so much about looking for the absolute best thing, it’s much more about identifying the important factors and trading those off against things that aren’t essential. It’s also about making a good decision with the (sometimes limited) information available. If you don’t know what you’re trading off by pursuing a path, then you probably aren’t aware of the entire situation. This applies in all sorts of contexts – obviously at work in engineering complex systems, but also at home. There aren’t people in the world who ‘have it all’ so much as people who know what makes them happy and seek it out above other things.
- Build people and culture. Over the past few years I’ve read a lot of parenting books and management books. The ones that resonate the most are generally about putting people in good situations, trusting them, giving them autonomy (including the freedom to make mistakes), and supporting them wholeheartedly. Channel the best parts of human nature – love, generosity, curiosity, and creativity. Creating a strong culture and value system makes that possible, especially when you can’t oversee every decision (because who wants to do that?).
- Luck and execution both matter to success. Somehow, despite highly valuing both of these things I’ve underestimated both of their impacts. Every success story requires ‘being in the right place at the right time,’ no individual has the power to manipulate the environment to the extent required to set up these situations. But that’s not enough, once someone’s in that situation it’s up to her to execute, which can only be done reliably well with discipline and mastery of craft.
- Confidence is elusive. Impostor syndrome has been getting a lot of buzz lately; engineers may be predisposed to it, and engineering managers even more so. I think it’s only been in the last year or two that I’ve felt fully confident in my ability to lead a team, despite having done it for nearly half of my career. I’m not sure what would have gotten me there sooner, maybe fewer people telling me that I was smart when I was growing up.
Other random tidbits:
- Take care of yourself. Sleep, eat well, exercise.
- Wake up at the same time every day.
- Take care of your personal finances.
- Don’t skimp on spending when it comes to the things you use frequently.
- Travel before you have kids.
- Life’s best and most basic pleasure: good food with friends and family.
One of my colleagues moved to Hamburg, Germany this past weekend. He gave me his smoker before leaving, and I used it for the first time this past weekend.
I enjoyed it a lot more than I expected. I started preparing Wednesday evening – got an 8 lb pork shoulder and applied a rub to it. On Saturday I started warming it up around 7am and had the meat going by 9am, where it cooked for 8 hours. Afterwards the meat rested for an hour, and then we made delicious pulled pork sandwiches out of it.
Smoking is awesome for the following reasons:
- The anticipation is amazing. I daydreamed about this for several days, and was super-excited to check on it all day Saturday.
- It smells so good. I sort of liked my clothes and hair smelling like smoke, it reminded me of what was going on in my backyard.
- It was low-stress. Didn’t require constant attention. I checke dthe temperature and swapped chips every 1 to 1.5 hours. Was able to go out to the farmers’ market, grab lunch, get a haircut, go for a walk to get some ice cream all throughout the day. It felt like even if I missed checking on something for 30 minutes, nothing terrible was going to happen – as long as the smoker temperature stayed below 250F, something tender and delicious would emerge from the smoker. My biggest worry was that some of the wood chips would ignite and make it too warm.
Things didn’t work out perfectly. I think it could have cooked for another hour or two (got up to 175F internally). The meat wasn’t as smoky as I had hoped, I’m pretty sure that’s because I wrapped my foil packets of wood chips too tightly. So I’m definitely looking forward to doing it again soon, had to restrain myself from firing it up again today.
My earliest memories of playing around with computer hardware were in high school, when my mom agreed to buy 8MB of RAM so that we could upgrade from the 4MB that our computer came with. Back then it was over $300, an inconceivable amount of money. I struggled with putting it in and I think we eventually figured out that I was being too delicate with the motherboard. In any case it was quite a stressful situation.
Later on in college I got a 3DFX card and it was amazing. Since then most of my computing has been done on a laptop (Thinkpads for 7 years and then MBP for 5 years). I had never put together an entire machine myself.
In any case, JR has been wearing me down over the past few months. For the most part it’s been easy for me to ignore his advice to get a gaming PC. The last thing I need is another platform to collect games that I don’t have time to play, no matter how cheap they are on Steam. But eventually I started looking into it. I still couldn’t justify the cost, but then the power of rationalization kicked in. I figured that if I installed OSX on it, Jen and I could use it as a family computer (mainly for organizing photos), which is something we’ve been wanting for a while but unwilling to splurge on a nice laptop or Mac Pro. Plus it could be a fun opportunity to build my own computer for the first time, something that was missing from my resume.
The research phase was really fun. I probably collected 40 links to PC-building websites that I’ve saved away. In particular:
Newegg and Amazon made it incredibly easy for me to quickly turn a whim into a pile of parts on my doorstep.
I raced to read every instruction manual and online resource I could find, and put the machine together over the course of a couple of evenings. Of course, when I went to turn it on, nothing happened, which was my biggest fear all along. I fiddled with a few ore things before taking the entire thing apart and trying to test individual components (which was really hard since I didn’t have any tools or extra parts).
I found a computer repair shop that (for a small fee) offered to help me test my motherboard and verify that most of the computer was working, so I swallowed my pride and brought some of my parts in. The guys were super-nice and excited on my behalf. My motherboard turned out to be broken, so I ordered a new one and we put the computer together and now it’s working.
A couple links that were helpful:
I’ve got all the parts hooked up now, but need to spend another few hours organizing the cables and putting all of the fans in. Right now it’s a mess of black wiring. But it works! Some highlights:
- Dual boots Windows 8 and OSX, each OS has its own SSD
- Windows: Bioshock:Infinite runs nicely, along with some cheap Steam games I’ve been accumulating over the last few weeks.
- OSX: Lightroom installed and working. Will probably do some development on this side.
Overall building my own computer turned out to be a really fun experience. I obsessed over it for a few weeks. There are definitely some fun problems to wrestle with, mostly on the spatial front (in what order should these components get installed into the machine? Where do all these cables go?), and who doesn’t love looking around for good deals on components? In retrospect I probably should have been more patient with the whole process. Jen was super-supportive throughout the entire thing, even when we had a pile of parts that were assembled into a completely unresponsive paperweight. I also borrowed a lot of evening and weekend time from her and the kids.
I also realized that it would be a waste for me to only build one machine after doing all this research. So I’m on the lookout for friends who are looking to build a computer (or reasons for having more than one computer in the house).
Finally, thanks to everyone who got excited on my behalf and offered support on this project all throughout the last few weeks.
I’m kind of a sucker for business and management books. I’ve read quite a few over the years (actually, ‘read’ is a pretty strong word, usually I just skim and take notes on things that interest me). These are the ones that I keep referring back to (and recommend to people on my team).
Tribal Leadership (Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright): The language used by members of the team tells you a lot about its coherence; this book proposes that there are 5 successive stages of team culture. It’s a nice framework for thinking about how to coach a team along from one state to another to improve effectiveness.
Great by Choice (Jim Collins, Morten T. Hansen): My favorite Jim Collins book with a lot of useful lessons on how the best companies are incredibly disciplined and careful with their investments.
Crucial Conversations (Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler): Super, super helpful both at work and at home (even if you don’t memorize all of the helpful mnemonics). Except when I get in trouble with the wife for telling her to stick to the facts.
Kanban (David J. Anderson): My favorite software process book; it’s guided a lot of the things that I’ve tried to do at Yelp over the past few years. After working in a scrum environment for a couple of years I didn’t think that it would quite fit with what we were trying to do. Kanban emphasizes focus, teamwork, and incremental change.
It’s been tough to find time to play video games this year, but I’ve managed to squeeze in a few hours here and there.
Most recently I finished Guacamelee and The Wonderful 101. Both are highly creative but playing them together really highlighted how amazing Guacamelee is.
The Wonderful 101 was fun overall but kind of a grind at times, and occasionally confusing and buggy. The controls worked pretty well (there were some complaints in reviews about drawing shapes for special moves). The characters weren’t that interesting. The continue system would let you restart midway through a battle which took away some of the satisfaction of beating something. Definitely not as polished or enjoyable as previous Platinum games like Viewtiful Joe but I’m still glad I played through it.
Guacamelee is a pleasure to play. It’s a Metroidvania-style game with simple (but gorgeous) graphics, tight controls, fun combat, and hilarious content (there’s a move called the ‘Dashing Derpderp’ and a funny little goat man). The platforming is devious at times and the bosses are satisfying to beat. Also a lot of reviews call out the game as being beatable in under 6 hours as a negative, but that’s actually a huge bonus in my book.
Also I should call out Super Mario 3D World as my favorite game of the year. In an uncharacteristic multiplayer gaming binge, I was able to finish the game with a couple of friends over the course of a weekend. Multiplayer Mario works much, much better in 3D. This game is an absolute pleasure to play.
Other random gaming thoughts:
* It took a few months but I finally didn’t regret owning a Wii U. Played through Pikmin 3 (perhaps the most beautiful Nintendo game ever). Working my way through Rayman Legends, which of course is gorgeous, fun, and polished (after a half year delay). One sad thing is that we finally have a HD Nintendo system and one of the big selling points of the system is that you can play it on a little non-HD tablet (which also runs out of batteries incredibly quickly – they are finally making bigger battery packs available).
* Tomb Raider was really good. Kind of creepy at times, but gorgeous. Uncharted 3 was not bad, but all the Uncharted games are kind of blending together. I enjoyed Uncharted: Golden Abyss more than I thought I would.
* Finally beat Chrono Trigger. I have a letter from my buddy phil dated 7/13/95 asking me to buy the game and beat it. No problem, Phil, it’s done! Overall a fun year on the 3DS. Played through 999 in the hospital when Max was born. Against my better judgment I got Animal Crossing and Pokemon Y but didn’t play either one as much as some of my work buddies (how do you log 100 hours of Pokemon in under 3 weeks?). Now I’m playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds.
Somehow I unintentionally ended up wrapping up a lot of in-flight consumption last weekend. Kind of a strange cross-media collection of things.
Principles of Product Development Flow. Goes deep into the theory side of things, but a lot of great ideas in here, especially around looking at work queues and economics. Not the first agile development book I’d recommend reading (that would be Kanban), but maybe the second.
End This Depression Now. Trying to be less clueless about things in general.
Giants of Enterprise. Fascinating read about 7 American businessmen (Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, George Eastman, Charles Revson, Thomas J Watson Sr., Sam Walton, Robert Noyce) about their personalities and business acumen. I’m surprised that IBM training doesn’t have more material on Watson Sr. The last chapter, about Robert Noyce and the emergence of the Silicon Valley, is definitely worth a read for software engineer.
Chrono Trigger. Crossed off the biggest item on my SNES to-play list. I’d started it several times in the last 10 years but always lost momentum. Really enjoyed the combat and story. Felt bad that I GameFAQ’ed my way through the final bosses, but would have felt worse if I never beat the game. Still like FFVI (or rather, my memories of FFVI) better.
Archer Season 4. Meh on the season finale.
Arrested Development, seasons 1-3. Have been chipping away at this for months and wrapped it up right before Season 4 started (we’re about 2/3 of the way through).
It’s been a tough year to be a Laker fan, though I’d argue that the team as constructed, with injuries, did about as well as anyone could have hoped. By the time Game 4 against the Spurs rolled around and we were starting Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock, it felt like a fitting ending to the season. Just wish Kobe had been out there, since there’s always a little bit of hope when he’s on the court.
But even during this trying season, I’ve still tried to carve time out of my schedule to watch a few quarters here and there and have been following the playoffs closely. Some of my work buddies see watching sports as a waste of time and really want to have nothing to do with them, but it’s still something that I really enjoy. Here are some of the reasons (mostly with examples from the past few months – obviously the examples get more compelling as you look across the past few decades).
The drama. Once in a while, something really unlikely happens, and it’s amazing. Or it’s heartbreaking. Either way, seeing something unfold live is breathtaking, and you immediately text/IM/call your friends who are also following along.
The meaning of winning. The sporting world is full of reminders that, at the end of the day, it comes down to whether you’ve won or not – it’s not about how much fun you’re having or your individual performance or anything else (though those can be nice to have). And oftentimes winning comes down to execution, which boils down to dedication, which boils down to character. Everyone playing at this level is insanely talented, but it can still be pretty easy to tell who wants to win the most. One note on Kobe – personal issues aside, his combination of talent and drive is incredible, and by playing on the US Olympic team and showing those guys what it really means to care, I think it’s made all of the top NBA players better.
The team. A team that plays well together is a work of art, a tribute to the players, coach, and management of the team. I love seeing how personalities mesh and different approaches players and coaches take to get the most out of each other. It’s also interesting to see whether coaches can take advantage of their talent or try to shoehorn players into the wrong system. Love seeing different leadership styles in players and coaches.
The market for talent. Everyone knows what everyone else makes, and that can be awkward. Drafts are especially fascinating because there’s so little information to go on (1 year of college in the NBA), interesting to see what general managers and scouts pick up on. So, in trying to put together a team that plays well together, here’s what needs to be considered: huge discrepancy in salaries, salary cap, having a fixed number of openings on the team, competition from every other team. Something always has to give.
Second-guessing everywhere, every time. The Internet is watching, all the time – in-game decisions, team moves, strategies, everything.
I’ve never been great with financial planning. The only lesson (which, it turns out, was probably one of the most important ones) that I learned from my parents is to save a lot and spend a little. I’ve made a good number of avoidable mistakes along the way, mostly in the form of small 1-2 year experiments – working with a financial advisor and playing around with individual stocks.
Last year Andy Rachleff came to Yelp to give a talk on portfolio theory. It was the kick in the pants I needed, so I spent some time reading and getting our financial things in order. I’ve been sharing bits and pieces with some of the younger engineers that I work with, but figured it would be nice to summarize some of it for future reference. Here are a few things that I wish someone had told me to do in my first few years out of college:
- Understand that this is important, and you’re the only one who cares. Retirement is a long way away, but you want to start planning immediately, even if your plan is to have someone else do this for you. As many books point out, the guy who is best at managing money is going to have much bigger fish to fry than your little retirement account. [Edit: Great point from Grant: once you get things set up, you can let it do its thing and check back 1-2x/year.]
- Spend some time reading. This isn’t the sexiest material in the world, but it is interesting – most of the books cover a lot of history and psychology of investing (super-relevant given the two bubbles that I’ve already seen). There are a lot of great books to get started. “The Four Pillars of Investing” by William Bernstein is probably where I’d start (by the same author: “The Intelligent Asset Allocator”, also a good read).
- Save, save, save. Contribute to retirement in every way you can (Roth IRA, 401k, even if there isn’t a match). These accounts give you a ridiculous amount of flexibility later on because you can, for the most part, shuffle things around without worrying about tax implications. Save and invest in addition to this if possible, but keep in mind where your investments live.
- Understand your options. Read “Consider Your Options” by Kaye Thomas. It’s good to know about things like AMT kicking in for options that you exercise and don’t sell by the end of the year.
- Get all of your accounts in one place. Also, that place should probably be Vanguard. Their costs are really low, and they have a lot of investing options. If your 401k isn’t with them, consider rolling it over to them when you leave your current company (I’ve done this with both of my previous 401ks).
Finally beat Cave Story after battling the final set of four bosses for over three hours. They don’t make games like they used to; this was only one of three games over the past few years that actually required some sort of skill (the others being Donkey Kong Country Returns and Rayman Origins (of course with Rayman it was because of a stupid bug that I replayed this level repeatedly).
In any case, I was on the verge of giving up. My tolerance for unforgiving games has definitely gone down over the years, but I’m happy to have beaten this. The game is pretty unforgiving to first time players who do minimal GameFAQing: I didn’t get the best weapons in the game and also forgot to exchange my Mimiga mask back for my booster, which I think would have made the core a lot easier. Had 60 Health and 30 Missiles heading into the last bosses.
Just some notes for my future self if I ever try to pick this up again to get the best ending (very unlikely): Misery: use the machine gun, keep moving. Don’t worry too much about bats or spinning barriers, since they only do -2 damage. First doctor: stay as close as possible so you can jump over the red wavy shots, machine gun works fine. Second doctor: use missiles, watch out for him jumping and dashing. Core: beat Sue/fill up on missiles, beat Misery, use the cloud platforms to get close enough to deal damage with the swords, then switch to missiles when the Core starts shooting those huge laser balls towards the end. Also don’t forget about the life potion. I had completely forgotten that I had it.
It’s still cool to see how a game like this forces you to get better. I went from losing nearly all of my health on the first Misery to losing 2 on the last couple of playthroughs.
Last weekend I made fried chicken (3 whole chickens). I can’t find the recipe for the brine, but it was about 4 cups of buttermilk, 1/2 cup of Tobasco sauce, and 1/2 cup of Worcestershire sauce, soaked overnight. Then I followed the technique from this good ol’ Mom’s recipe, which is a really fun read (especially since I’ve had the Thomas Keller fried chicken several times, both home-cooked and at Ad Hoc.
I’d recommend cutting up the larger breast pieces in half so that they cook faster. Also, since we had all that oil lying around we made some shrimp tempera too.
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