“Wave a magic wand”

wand photoThat was what a previous boss said when I would ask him about some particularly knotty, unwieldy issue. “What would the end solution look like if you could wave a magic wand and have it happen?”

For instance, when choosing a vendor to revamp the flagship website, don’t think about all the million details that need to be done to ensure this is successful. Don’t think about who has the best process. Certainly don’t think about the technical details of redirects, APIs and integrations. Instead, “wave a magic wand” and envision the end state–what does that look like? Who is using
it? What do they do with it? What do you want to be able to do with the site? What do you want it to look like?

Or if an employee is unhappy in their role, ask them to “wave the magic wand” and talk about what role they’d rather be in. With no constraints you find out what really matters to them (or what they think really matters to them, to be more precise).

When you think about issues through this lens, you focus on the ends, not the means.  It lets you think about the goal and not the obstacles.

Of course, then you have to hunker down, determine if the goal is reachable, and if so, plan how to reach it. I like to think of this as projecting the vector of the ideal solution into the geometric plane of solutions that are possible to you or your organization–the vector may not lie in the plane, but you can get as close as possible.

“Waving a magic wand” elevates your thinking. It is a great way to think about how to solve a problem not using known methods and processes, but rather determining the ideal end goal and working backwards from there to the “hows”.



Should you be mapping or using a GPS?

gps photo

Photo by Jimmy_Joe

I recently spent a long time in the car, driving cross country. I had a GPS that led me from across the USA, including through New York City, at 60-80 miles an hour. It was easy and convenient to focus on the road and the radio while listening to the dulcet tones of the GPS, but I missed the map reading and location awareness I’d had in previous cross country trips, when using a Rand McNally atlas. Because all I’d been doing was following directions, I didn’t have the understanding of the larger context–how roads fit together, what cool places were just off the interstate, or even which city I stopped in for lunch.

In the vein of Mark Suster’s “Is it Time to Learn or Earn” (which is definitely worth a read), I wanted to talk about whether your current task is a “mapping” task or a “GPS” task, and what each type of task looks like.

Mapping tasks can be high level or low level, but share the following characteristics. They:

  • require you to look at the big picture
  • are focused on a long term goal, not tactics
  • often result in serendipitous results
  • take longer
  • sometimes require backtracking from dead ends
  • make you stop every so often and look around
  • have learning as a direct goal
  • require iterative search queries

Examples of some of my past mapping tasks include selecting a public records data vendor, hiring an employee, creating my first REST API, and making my first departmental budget. Don’t be afraid to ask for help with mapping tasks, or to stop every so often and make sure you on right track.

GPS tasks, on the other hand, tend to be tactical. GPS tasks:

  • often have clear directions (sometimes from others, sometimes from your experience)
  • don’t require you to understand context
  • require little, if any, exploration
  • are action oriented
  • often are smaller in scope
  • have learning as a by-product, if at all
  • can be phrased as a single google query
  • may not be core to your business or job

Some of my past GPS tasks include: setting up a virtual server for development, finding a way to display release changes in maven, connecting to the QuickBooks Online API and writing an employee review (after the first one).

The main difference between these tasks is the amount of context needed. With mapping tasks, you have to have your head up and be “looking around” at the problem landscape. With GPS tasks, you can put your head down and just “drive” toward task completion.

If you do a GPS task often enough, you’ll start to acquire context, just as if you drive with a GPS around a new city for a few days, you start to see how the streets and areas fit together. The first time you do something relatively complex, like setting up a new server, hiring or making a department budget, it will be a mapping task–but after a few times it may turn into a GPS task (especially if you document your process).

Next time you take on a task at work, think about whether it is a complex, big picture task that would be best handled by mapping, or a quick, “gotta get this done” task that you don’t need to fully understand.


Priorities and Focus

ben horowitz photo

Photo by TCDisrupt

I enjoyed Ben Horowitz’s ‘The Hard Thing about Hard Things’.  It was an in depth view of the lonely life of a CEO going through hard hard times.  I was only recently out of school when the dotcom bust happened, but I still remember layoffs–the company where I worked was going to be huge! “offices in Singapore and London!” until it wasn’t–which happened the week before Thanksgiving.

I cannot imagine what it was like to be in upper management in those times.

Must have been pretty wretched.

My favorite part of the book, though, is this section:

One very hot day my father came over for a visit. We could not afford air-conditioning, and all three children were crying as my father and I sat there sweating in the 105-degree heat.

 

My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”

 

Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”

 

“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.

 

Again, I replied, “No, what?”

 

He said, “Divorce.”

 

Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously. But his joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family. By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing. It was the first time that I forced myself to look at the world through priorities that were not purely my own. I thought that I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. More important, I always thought about myself first. When you are part of a family or part of a group, that kind of thinking can get you into trouble, and I was in deep trouble. In my mind, I was confident that I was a good person and not selfish, but my actions said otherwise. I had to stop being a boy and become a man. I had to put first things first. I had to consider the people who I cared about most before considering myself.

It’s a beautiful vignette.

As a father with a lot of interests, this really resonated with me. Kids (or, I imagine, other major challenges such as a sick relative) take so much time that they force you to re-evaluate everything and think about your priorities and life focus.


What a pleasurable way to learn a language!

This site was recommended to me, and I have to say, it is a fun way to become more familiar with the syntax of a language. There’s the journey aspect:

things are not what they appear to be: nor are they otherwise
your path thus far [...X______________________________________________] 19/280

and the fact that when you see something you want to investigate further, you just write another unit test:

  def test_slicing_arrays
    array = [:peanut, :butter, :and, :jelly]

    assert_equal [:peanut], array[0,1]
    assert_equal [:peanut,:butter], array[0,2]
    assert_equal [:and,:jelly], array[2,2]
    assert_equal [:and,:jelly], array[2,20]
    assert_equal [], array[4,0]
    assert_equal [], array[3,0] # my addition
    assert_equal [], array[4,100]
    assert_equal nil, array[5,0]
  end

Now, running through these koans certainly isn’t going to make me a Ruby expert, but I will have passing familiarity with the language and be ready to use it on my next small project.

Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because there appear to be koans projects for quite a few languages: java, haskell, erlang (cue whatsapp reference), and even bash. I was, however, unable to find a koans package for assembler.


Coursera online MOOC: one student’s experience with Stats 101.

I have been taking Statistics 101 from Coursera. This course is taught by a Princeton professor. I have been interested in stats for a while, but have never taken any classes. As a bonus, a work project I’m focused requires a lot of linear regression. (I’m using a library for the linear regression, of course, but wanted to understand some of the limits of linear regression before applying it for a business purpose.)

It was very easy to sign up for the class. I was a bit early, (the lectures are put up weekly starting on a given date), so I just added my email address to the wait list. When the class started, they emailed me and I registered.

It was free.

There are some changes coming to the university world. I have some friends who are professors and I’ve been sharing articles like this one and this one for years.

So, that was an additional reason to take the course. What would an actual online class be like?

The class is divided up into 12 weeks, 1 midterm and 1 final. Each week there are between 4 and 6 lecture videos to watch (the longest was approximately 20 minutes, the shortest is approximately 5 minutes), a lab video and a homework assignment. The lab typically examines the lecture concepts and puts them into practice using R, an open source stats tool/language. The homework is an untimed quiz that I have 100 tries to finish. Each quiz has 10 questions, some text input, some multiple choice, and typically is due 2 weeks after the initial lecture on the topic. I can complete the quiz later for reduced credit.

I’m over halfway through the course.

Am I learning something? yes. Definitely. I’ve learned basic concepts of statistics. There has been some handwaving on some complicated concepts and single letter concepts are occasionally introduced with little explanation (t, Z, and F values, for example), but this is an intro course, so I am unsurprised. I definitely have become comfortable with basics of R.

Am I learning what I would be in a normal college classroom? Nope. There’s been no collaboration (because of my time constraints, I don’t participate in the forums, which are the only form of collaboration I have seen). All R scripts are provided in the labs, which means you sometimes just cut and paste. Questions on quizzes are constrained by the online test format. Because I’m jamming it into my schedule, I don’t review the material as much as I should. There’s no opportunity to stop the instructor and ask exactly what he meant.

But….did I mention it was free? And that I’m not in college and don’t have the time for a normal college class?

If you are thinking of taking an online course through a MOOC like this one, here are some tips.

  • block out time to watch the lecture videos–I spend about 1-2 hours a week doing this. You can double book this with mild exercise (treadmill), sometimes. Sometimes the concepts were complex enough I could not multi task.
  • Coursera has a button on the video player to run the videos faster. I just started using this and find running the lectures at 1.5x is doable.
  • plan to spend some time on the labs and quizzes–I spend about 1-2 hours every week.
  • know what you want. If I wanted a deep understanding of statistics, I would probably need to spend an additional 2-4 hours each week working on understanding all the concepts covered in the lectures, and get an additional statistics book. (This one looks nice.). But I want a conceptual overview that lets me dig into third party libraries and learn the domain jargon enough to search the internet for further resources. This class is letting me do that.
  • get a tablet–these devices are perfect for consuming the lecture videos.
  • be flexible in your viewing, but try not to view a week’s worth of material in one day–that much academic knowledge transfer is no fun.
  • no credit is available. This might be an issue for some students.
  • be committed. It is very easy to sign up for these courses and then drop out, because there really are no consequences. But there are a huge variety of courses from a number of sources: udacity, udemy, edx, Khan Academy.
  • enjoy the free world class instruction.  Did I mention this was free?

All in all, I’m happy with this course and will come out of it more grounded in statistics.

From my experience in this class, I think that the business of teaching, especially introductory material that lends itself to video lectures, is going to undergo a change as radical as what newspapers have been through over the past 20 years. I don’t know if MOOCs will augment or supplant universities, but the scale and cost advantages are going to be hard to beat.


Trying out a habit

I have been wanting to practice meditation for the longest time.  Periodically, I would subscribe to newsletters, read articles, download apps (I love the Chakra Chime app) watch videos, and get fired up about the benefits.  Then I would meditate for one or two days, and then would have a tough day and fall into bed exhausted, meditation forgotten.  Having fallen off the bandwagon one day, it was easier to skip it the next day, then meditate the following day, then skip it the next three days, until I wasn’t meditating at all.

I mentioned this difficulty to Corey, a friend, and he recommended a different approach.  It has three components:

  1. A monthly calendar.  You can print one out from this site.  Write the activity at the top.  Put it by your bed.
  2. A sharpie.  Put it by your calendar.
  3. An agreement with yourself that no matter what, you’ll do what you want to do once a day.
Once you perform the activity, you can put a big fat X on that calendar.  I’ll tell you what, once you get four or five Xes, you start to gain some momentum.  Even when I’ve had some really long tiring days, I still want to keep the streak going, and the calendar provides that extra bit of motivation to do it.
I don’t know if I’ll continue to meditate once I’m done with the calendar, but at the least this method made it easy to try it out as a habit.  If you have a habit you’ve been wanting to try, but haven’t been able to make room in your life for, try Corey’s three step method.

 



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