Thursday, August 15, 2013

Remodeling Efforts

Last year I promised myself I'd write a novel in this year-of-our-lord 2013.

Well, a lot of things have happened this year, but I haven't written that novel. Know what I did? I've written two! And you know what? I think I'm getting better at it.

So, two books huh? Woooooow, you're so cool I want to smudge this webpage over my special parts. Why don't you tell us more, jack?

Book #1

Hmm, in hindsight it probably wasn't worth the toil, the effort, the insane obsessiveness, driving to and from my day job, the weekends, every waking minute I wasn't focussed on "real work". The storyline is pretty solid, in a it-keeps-moving kind of way, but things only really get going about 15,000 words in. One critic said the pacing was fine, the other said - well, just that it was a little slow to begin with. But the rest was okay, I guess. If you like reading stuff that sounded like a very amateur (possibly mentally-ill) version of Agatha Christie, maybe in the 1930s.
But it gets there, eventually. Eventually. I don't like anything that gets there "eventually", and it's not just because I'm ADHD.
So, Book #1 was my two months of dipping my toes in water. It took me five weeks to write and a (wasted) month of editing.

Book #2

This one has been an enormous amount of fun. I've always liked the writing styles of Elmore Leonard, James Burke, Carl Hiaasen, et al, so decided I'd see if I can impersonate it, just as an experiment you know? Oh boy, and once I got going? Whoosh.
You know when you're working on something that doesn't feel like work at all? Yeah, that's what this one felt like. Now, uhm, to be 100% clear, it's not for everyone. In fact, it may be for no-one, by my definition of being someone. If you don't know what I mean, well, you probably won't get it either. Probably/maybe. Feedback so far? "This is something else", and "8/10" and "great hook".
Progress: 75,000 words and I hope to finish it this weekend.

But this feedback...I'm not convinced of its authenticity. For all I know, these "critics" would rate the back of a Captain Crunch or Coco Pops cereal box as 8/10. Maybe they were home-schooled, or maybe they still think "lip service" is an expression.

On the other hand, maybe they just like it.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sacrifice (Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Tolerate my Job)

Like most people, I hate my job. Maybe "hate" is too strong a word. "Dissatisfied", "disillusioned", "dismayed" may all be more appropriate. The absence of career opportunity or development, the lack of personal satisfaction, the very limited opportunity for advancement or incentives - all contributing factors which make me think "what the fuck am I doing here", every day?

I know I'm not alone. 

I once worked with a guy who abandoned his promising career in corporate finance to head up the R&D team of a highly profitable investment research institute in the UK. He loved it. They loved him. He made a shitload of money, and got to work on some really interesting and challenging engagements. Then his work visa ran out, and he went back to his homeland. He's pretty much where he started - a pencil pusher in the undeniably benign world of corporate finance and banking. 

Now this guy is super smart and could have chosen any number of avenues to further develop his career. Hell, he could have probably become a silent partner in any one of his clients' firms. Started his own consultancy. Invest his considerable savings into the money markets and become a full-time trader. Whatever. Instead, he decided to play it safe and return to a full-time role with a bank where his income is guaranteed. Why? 

I don't know. 

Maybe he's learned to curb his natural drive, and plan for the future. Think about it: he spent the last 7 years aiming for the top, and when he got there, he decided "fuck these people - I can do better than this". I'm not sure but I suspect he's probably sitting back in his cushy day-job and formulating his master plan for world domination. Despite his limited income opportunities at the bank, I have no doubt this guy will be a millionaire many times over before he's 40. 

"Sacrifice" is too laden a word for gifting a few years of your stale career in exchange for planning and implementing higher goals. 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Project X

When I started out as a career criminal, I knew (or believed) that key to my advancement was to be involved in as many projects as I feasibly could. I could use these as references for more project-based work in the future. And by Job, it did. After a couple of successful projects, I got referred, constantly. I was just starting out, so had loads of energy, and enthusiasm and commitment in spades - a 60-hour week to me was light. Then, in my late-twenties, I began to rethink the approach. Not because I was getting tired of it - I particularly enjoyed short-term project engagements - but because I began to question my success in these activities. Why? Because I'm not particularly talented. Because I'm not that intelligent. Because I was prepared to work past my paygrade and not ever question things. 

Gradually, I began to see myself as a gear in an insatiably hungry machine, mission-critically designed for one purpose: realizing massive cost-savings, or adding real value. I didn't really care which - I'd contributed to both - but it just didn't feel right - what was I achieving, personally? 

So I diversified - I became a peripheral component to successful projects by switching skillsets. And became a wallflower. Observed. And what I realized came as an epiphany - that everyone on a project was simply seen as a "resource", someone with a specific (or commoditized) skill set that could be applied to fulfill someone else's goals. I say "someone else's", because very little of the spend on these projects actually justified a real business benefit - rather, someone's ability to convince someone else that the project would, or could, deliver real value; the "business" people had no idea. NowI understood why project managers walked out of meetings visibly relieved they got the funding they desired. They bluffed, and got away with it.

But no one can deny the centrifugal force of being involved in a project environment - timeframes are tight, extreme highs and lows are omnipresent, and people can get very tense. Immensely challenging, but also immensely satisfying if it all goes to plan. It's simply inescapable - once you're in, it's difficult to get out. 

I've learnt this very late in life, but personal projects can also deliver a huge amount of satisfaction: believing in the goals you've set, fully committed and focussed to achieving them, and reaping the benefits you decided was worth pursuing from the outset. I hear people lauding their personal "projects" all the time: re-decorating, renovating, learning a new language, traveling, raising a family, whatever. Look at the smiles on their faces when they tell you these stories, perceive the satisfaction and realize - personal satisfaction is almost always more powerful than the collective outcome.

With that power, that belief, we could all be our own project managers. Or entrepreneurs. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

The Writer's Blockparty

For as long as I could, I've always wanted to keep on writing. In my mid-late teens, it became an ambition - I enrolled in a feature-writing journalism course through the London School of Journalism. I wrote book reviews for a comparatively large regional newspaper. I volunteered my skills at a small, community newspaper. I critiqued amateur poets' work. I even got positive feedback based on my samples from large, national magazines when pitching myself as a potential, student freelancer. Needless to say I read fervently - important news, classical literature, vintage and modern beat-poet tomes like Cuckoo's Nest and The Beach, and some classics like Shakespeare and Nietzsche.
  • It was fun - I received free books to review, and on-sold them or donated them to the local library. 
  • It was important - for the first time in my life, I believed I had some real talent in something other than sports, or "being the nice, quiet guy"
  • It was naive, but innocent nonetheless
Breaking into print is really not that hard; anyone with a half-decent vocabulary, who can string comprehensible sentences together to form a cohesive story together, can do it. After all, "creative writing" and "journalism" are offered as school-level courses. This isn't astrophysics. 

Finding a voice is pretty easy too, once you understand your market, and your audience. It's easy to whore yourself out to anyone who would be willing to pay you bottom-dollar rates in an intensely competitive industry, with a byline for your efforts. You write. They pay. You get the credit. For some writers this is like free crack on christmas day; they buy into it, and give it their all. Some become alcoholic, egotistical, print journalists. And don't we love them for it. 

Developing and honing a unique voice within a distinct market is an altogether different story. In fiction or non-fiction. It's not easy. I think people forget that, just like any other career, professional writing has its substantial fair share of dropouts - people very capable on paper, but not the paper that mattered - their "customers" (readers), in other words. It takes practice - years of practice - which most never master. 

In 2013, I'm going to try and write a novel. I don't care if it doesn't get published. I won't blame myself. I won't blame my friends or family who will support me through this arduous, lengthy process. No. If nothing comes of it, I'll blame you. Wish me luck. Now leave. 

Monday, December 17, 2012


The other day I read an article which explained that children who lie, deceive, manipulate, are more intelligent than their peers, and are more likely to succeed in later life. They do this not because they have inherited a dishonest or corrupt set of genes, but because they realize that by doing so, they are more able to influence the outcome of their individual situations. In other words, a tool used to personally benefit from a circumstantial situation.

Many long years back, I read a quote by someone (I think it was Einstein), which said that a true mark of intelligence is the ability to adapt to any given situation. The ability to be cast into unfamiliar surrounds, mould your behavior and attitude to its demands, its challenges, and emerge with newfound wisdom which you can take with you.

In light of the recent shootings in Newtown, CT, I think it's equally important to recognize that these poor, encumbered, mass-murdering individuals are, most likely, not intelligent (in the crucial essence of the definition). They could not:
  • Adapt: to changing circumstances around them - many were simply angry at what the world had "given" them
  • Adjust: their behaviors - they had no faculty to, no support; they most likely always felt like outsiders
  • Accept: their own misgivings, and find alternative outlets to express their "creativity"

Contrast these attributes against those of highly successful psychopathic murderers - the Chikatilo's, the Bundy's, the Dahmer's - who of course are, by nature, highly manipulative, more calculated, well-adjusted and undoubtedly more intelligent, and you come to a chilling conclusion: 

  1. There's been a veritable drought of evasive psychopathic murderers over the last 15-20 years
  2. Despite all the surveillance around us, we wouldn't recognize them in the adjacent cubicle

Thursday, August 2, 2012

We Do It For the Love Of It

When did Information Technology (IT) become such a laden word? Laden with conceptions of monolithic manned helpdesks, its operators serving every whim of every hopeless end user. Fraught with nightmares of oversized, overworked and underpaid corporate departments who have absolutely no idea what "business requirements" they are supposedly solving. Poisoned with executive types who try to sell multi-million dollar software products, but wouldn't know whether those products run on 32-bit or 64-bit OS's. Littered with sincere, hard-working yet unmotivated people, in every "specialist" area, who have absolutely no interest or desire to learn the basics of a different operating system, for example, or to understand the basic underlying fundamentals of internet architecture.

I "got into computers" (note the terminology change) because I've always liked them. Because I like playing with them. Because I like learning from them. Because I like seeing them doing things for me. And, some day, I will be fascinated by them learning things from me. Because, to me, it was always stimulating and exciting, a bicycle for the mind. And, finally, because there is still so much work to do to progress our conventional and scientific understanding of the physical, metaphysical and natural worlds.

Why Do We Do This?

Today I had an interesting discussion with two old colleagues, both testers, over lunch. The first, in his early to mid-30s is a part-time property investor in India, a man with larger ambitions than "just test automation". The other, an exceptionally talented exploratory tester, wants to head back into finance or become a partner in a large-scale production fish farm in Asia. Both could happily remain at my client for decades to come - they're perceived to be that good. Testing for a highly successful IT department for the last six years was, apparently, simply a stop-gap measure, another rung on the ladder to climb before they could move on.

Hopefully, there are a lot more people out there who are simply extremely grateful to be working in an industry where they get to do what they love. Hopefully. I have my doubts though. The perception of IT as a great career direction will muddy the waters even more.

Seeing the Bits for the Bytes

I'm not a tech purist by any account. If things turn sour, if my few and unremarkable skills are perceived as extraneous to employment opportunities at hand, if I see no other opportunities at sustaining a business for myself in computerland, I will have no reservations whatsoever to chart a course in a different industry. 

It will take some convincing though. As I said, there's still a lot of work to do. Oh, and of course, we do it for the love it

Friday, July 13, 2012

This Just Isn't Working Out

I know nothing about running a business. Really, I don't. I have aspirations to one day, though, and I fervently read articles and blogs posted on the subject. Like any startup, you have to start small and work very hard at securing contracts, building a reputation, building a decent cashflow and, eventually, hiring staff.

Knowing Who (Not, or How, or When) to Hire

One of the consistent themes I've come across is: "how to hire the right people" (or, "how not to hire the wrong people", depending on which side of the current business optimism scale you're on). It's always been difficult, and always will be. Finding the perfect candidate is a near-impossibility. So how do you manage that? Well, according to the common-knowledge HR mantra, I guess you:

  • Attract (advertise; get great candidates)
  • Retain (incentivize; and)
  • Develop (grow them)

If you're in the right line-of-sight business, development and/or incentivized opportunities for employed staff are real, and they should be consistently aware of that. If they're not, you should be worried, because perhaps they're not committed to what you're trying to achieve. If they are, another challenge lies ahead: how to challenge, develop and grow them. Some grow naturally - they get older, wiser, are more consistent, settle into the role. They're good at what they do. You appreciate, and reward them for it. Everyone wins. 

So, what happens if you hire the wrong person? 

If it was me, I would critically examine every step in my recruitment process:
  1. Why did I hire an additional staff member? Was it absolutely necessary?
  2. How effectively did I attract? What did I miss during interviews?
  3. Why can I not retain and develop that person, instead of firing them?
As a startup/small company, to me, it really boils down to Q#1: why did I hire? And then, stemming from that I, of course, I would extrapolate further on rambling things like sustainability, market opportunity and awareness, and effective resource allocation. But that's just me. As I said, I know nothing about running a business.

If it Must

Ok, so you're stuck with a dud employee. Now what.

It's taken me a while, but I'm a strong believer that there's a place for everyone to develop their potential. Personally I would like to think that I can still offer the worst employee in my company a job. Doesn't matter what - making coffee, filing paper, downloading torrents for me, whatever. Hopefully I diversify enough that none of those would be necessary, but I digress. 

If I, as an employer, can't make a pre-considered, conscious provision for that possibility, then I'm not really qualified to take on any staff in the first place. 

But let's assume you're in this situation, and you simply can't afford to keep them on anymore. You issue a redundancy notice, maybe with a decent paycheck. Nothing wrong with that. Except that, as a startup, you should know that:
  • They will never recommend any of their friends come and work for you
  • People, including your clients or customers, will hear about it, and your reputation will suffer
  • Other staff will become jittery
Which brings me to back to, get the idea (see numbered list above)

Can We Move On to the Point, Please?

  • Don't just interview. Engage. If you're simply looking for "resources", you're in the wrong business
  • Extend - you're either looking in the wrong places, or you're not looking in the right places
  • Back to Basics - re-evaluate what you're about, and communicate it clearly; consistent, constant feedback
  • Everyone Has Potential - don't let it go to waste. Attraction vs Retention costs were 3:1 last I checked
  • If you build a trend of firing staff, you're fucked. Re-evaluate, and go it alone

Hiring staff is hard work, but firing is a much worse consequence, as an employer. In all ways. Make it the absolute last option if possible - the "quick fix" you desire is really pointing to much more deep-seated, underlying problems in your own entrepreneurial abilities.