Sunday, January 5, 2020

2019 Year in Review

I haven’t blogged much the last few months because it’s not as easy to see progress as it used to be in my life. Running 18 miles in a week doesn’t feel like an accomplishment, despite the fact that it is for me now. Similarly, having a part I design work the first time we physically assemble it isn’t as exciting as the first 500 parts I’ve worked on. However, I have been doing these for nearly a decade so a year end review seems like a really good way to update the world.

Work

This was a fascinating year for me. I am at a startup that has gone through several phases just this year. Phases that I would not have guessed a year ago, but are actually common to startups. We started 2019 on a high note achieving a number of milestones, but near the end of the winter we had a set back and morale started to deteriorate. There were a few moments where we had minor victories but in general there was a slow grind down in motivation among the more experienced employees who had been at other companies. The people new out of college might have been a little oblivious, and frankly, at the time I tried to keep it that way. There is a positivity spiral and a negativity spiral. Once you get on either one it’s a lot easier to keep going in that direction than it is to stop and change course. 

This summer we changed course. We had some management turnover, and some public fighting. I questioned wether this was the place for me long term. Maybe the company wasn’t headed in the direction I wanted to be a part of. Some actions are not okay. As I told a coworker on a walk at work one day, we have the opportunity every day to burn the bridges of our relationships. It can take a very long time to build a bridge, brick by brick or casting the concrete, but burning one down, destroying it, it just takes a few hours, maybe even minutes. In short, we had some emotional moments this summer. Moments that no one really likes discussing, but they are lessons we shouldn’t forget. A few people had to take apology tours to rebuild relationships. It was rough. I think it was a very definitive year for the company. 

After the drama settled down we reorganized for the second time of the year and had the chaos of trying to certify our product at the same time in the late summer. When I lit out and spent that week in September climbing mountains we essentially did it, certified our product (to our own internal standards) and shipped one to a customer. Whew that was not easy. But! It actually went pretty well. I’m quite happy with the amount of documentation that we put into it, and while we have a long way to go, we’re not in a bad place. 

The fall we settled back into fewer weekend work and just one shift instead of two. However, for our second product, or product line you could say, we are building a new test facility, and we designed the whole thing in house. It’s roughly three times as many parts (thus three times as complicated) as our product, so needless to say it’s a big project. And to be honest, we are almost done and we basically did the whole thing in just over a year from just one guy working on initial design and sizing to a team of over a dozen people at times bolting stuff together, and more people ordering parts, kitting stuff, and designing random stuff. It’s interesting how as a project gets more complicated you need to spend more time communicating the designs and assembly. In other words, when the entire team can sit in one room and just turn around in their chairs and talk about it, you can move super quick, however, somewhere between 10 and 20 people working on the same thing and that’s just not possible any more. I’m employee 27, four of the people who started before me have left, and still we are up to 59 full time employees and we have two different locations 30 minutes apart, so it’s harder to communicate than it used to be. 

Point being, we know we need to put in effort (human time, engineering time) into how we communicate to all the necessary people, but we don’t always know who needs to know, or what information those people need. With any communication it’s rare that the person trying to convey the information will give 100% of the story. If it takes me three weeks to come up with a new design, I’ll usually be able to describe it technically, and the work done on it in maybe 10 minutes, but that leaves out all of the design work that I tried that didn’t work or the many little iterations that I had to make to get it all to fit together and pass analysis. 

Also as we grow we run into different problems. We work with mostly young (or perhaps I should say still maturing) people who are exceedingly bright, have great educations, but step on others toes and many are still trying to prove themselves. To boil it down to three general scenarios we have situation one where person A screwed up and person B caught the mistake, situation two where person C thinks that person D screwed up but actually didn't, and situation three where person E and person F simply have different opinions about how to handle a situation, and neither one is clearly better. In situation one, person B should try to handle the situation so that it allows person A to keep his or her dignity, instead of publicly eviscerating person A’s work. In situation two person C would do well to check a fact or two before confronting and accusing person D about the mistake. By the same token, person D could stand to be a little less defensive, because it’s likely that person C doesn’t have all the information (because again we are learning how to communicate as a company). Also, people frequently don’t know if they are in situation one or two at the onset of a confrontation! Finally situation three, if it isn’t super important it can be nice to not make a decision until you have to. Spreadsheets exists to make decisions like this. That’s one of the things I did multiple times at my old company and it helped me get my Six Sigma Greenbelt in 2018. I mean situation three is basically peace in the middle east or nuclear weapons in emerging countries. However, going into situation one, two or three, if you think it might possibly be situation three then going in with humility is a good idea because it could be situation two and you are person C. Both person E and F would do well to go in with the attitude that he or she might be wrong and the other person might have a better idea about how to handle the situation. Unfortunately I see more of these three types of confrontations in the future for us. 

In short, despite the last paragraph, we’re actually in a pretty good place now, as a company overall. However because of a number of issues related to situations one, two and three above, I think we are at risk of several people leaving in 2020. In 2019 a total of six people left the company. Whatever the case, I did exercise my first batch of stock options so now I’m a part owner in the company too, roughly .01% to .02% of the company. I'm bullish for our future, and I expect that while 2019 was a year where we figured out things as a team, as humans who work with each other and about our culture, 2020 will be all about executing and delivering. We'll probably have another fund raising round after we hit a couple milestones, and I'm guessing it will be a big one which will take my stock options from valued at a small vacation in Colorado to a nicer used car.

Running

I don’t want to talk about it. It was pretty bad. After getting over the pulmonary embolism, I broke my ankle and now I have a whole new appreciation for a sprained ankle because the ligaments healing (one is the deltoid ligament I forget the other one) is going so very slowly. I am at 677.7 miles run (and hiked) for the year. Just this month in December have I ran three days in a row and been able to do five mile runs consistently. I’m thinking about making it a 2020 goal to run 1800 miles (and that would including hiking miles too). That’s only five miles a day and I have been over 2000 miles for something like 15 years including a year high of 3640 miles.

Climbing/Mountaineering/Skiing

From my perspective I basically didn’t push my limits at all. But that needs some clarification. I’ve done so much that between my sickness and injury it’s been hard to get to the point where I’m really going for it. I did lead a number of grade 3 ice climbing pitches and mock led a grade 4. In my mind, leading grade 4 ice is the clear next step for me. Also trad leading 5.10 is also on the list, which I have done before. It’s what I need to do to feel ready to go climb K2 or go to the Charakusa valley and do K7. The other skill I need to work on is steep skiing. There is a good argument that skiing is not necessary at all in mountaineering, but it opens up so many opportunities for easy access. I’m reading the biography of Voytek Kurtyka, and up through 1984 it doesn’t mention anything about skiing, but it talks a lot of deep snow, avalanche conditions, and some very slow progress at times when skis might have sped things along.

By the numbers, I climbed 17 Colorado 14ers for the first time and that leaves me only 9 to go, and I added maybe eight 13ers to the ticked list. I did Mt. Rainier in a day again, about 14.5 hours round trip and added on Mt. Hood two days later. I climbed Sharkstooth finally in RMNP, did a bunch of simple crag climbing, and did the third flatiron three times, twice just after work. I went ice climbing in Canada twice this year, and Mt. Murchison Falls is super cool I’d like to go do it again, but lead all of it next time. 

What’s on tap for 2020? Finish the Colorado 14ers, perhaps go climb and ski Mt. Robson in Canada in the spring, another Rainier trip, maybe Liberty Ridge finally, and there is a chance of a Pakistan trip, looks like Charakusa Valley is the most likely to do some technical rock climbing on 6000 meter peaks. (If you are interested let me know, I might be organizing the logistics and we have room for more people.) Plus the usual local weekend trips to places like Ouray.

Dating

Ugh, I’ll put this down because I get asked about it, frequently. I dated seven different women this year. That seems like a pretty big accomplishment for me, but I am confident that there are people who read this who have dated seven different people in one month. It’s a statistics game, looking for the one that can check a few boxes. To be fair to the all of the women I have ever dated, I’ve dated some pretty awesome women! As I think about the relationships that have been the most successful for me there are some themes that make me scratch my head, which I’m not going to put down in writing for the world to judge because my thoughts on them are like 'really?! that can't be a criteria or even a thing.'

Point being, it’s fascinating how I can sit across the table from a woman, an objectively awesome woman, and not really be attracted to her, and then be around a woman who is debatably awesome or perhaps even clearly radically different than me and I am totally enthralled. 

My dating has kind of hit the skids the last few months (I’m just not getting any dates despite a few swipes most days) and there is a part of me thinking that I just need to take more time off the apps and go climb and run more. But to be honest, I'd like to be in a romantic relationship at least for a little bit.

Financially

I had the best year I've ever had in terms of investment increase and net worth increase. Wow, I did so well in the stock market this year. I mean, basically everyone invested in index funds did too, the difference is that unlike in 2013 when we had this kind of massive year, I have a lot more money in the stock market now. In other words, my gains were almost triple my contributions for the year, and I contribute a lot. On that note, I bought a BMW X5 used from 2008 with 148,000 miles in cash. I finally have all wheel drive! And still I've never had a car loan.

This year I reached the point where I could potentially retire in a relatively undeveloped place, like Pakistan or Rwanda. Another way to put it is that I could not save any more for retirement, and at age 65, between the pension from my former employer, social security and my probable investment gains, I would be just fine. Of course, that's 32 years in the future, hard to say what is going to happen between now and then.

With this great increase comes guilt. Financial wealth is complicated, we hate people that have it, and yet we want to have it ourselves. I've dealt with my guilt by donating a little more to charities, like Give Directly, supporting a basic income experiment in Kenya. As I look forward to what my possible career looks like the next 30 years, and subsequent earnings, I feel it's not fair. Sure, I have worked hard, but not especially hard. Sure I have skills, but not especially extreme skills.

I realize talking about my fortunate financial situation makes people uncomfortable, but not talking about it, even in these abstract terms, confers advantages to those that already have wealth. In other words, there is essentially no limit on investment gains. I read a quote recently in the book "Born on Third" that essentially said, 'to turn $100 into $110 takes work and saving, but turning $100 million into $110 million is all but assured.' I've railed in the past that Bill Gates made something like $73 million in dividends from his John Deere stock in one year alone, for doing essentially no work, while the CEO made a mere $20 million. I will probably not make $20 million dollars in my whole life, let alone $73 million, let alone in one year, and my lifetime earnings are likely far higher than millions of Americans.

So, while I have honestly considered taking a vow of poverty for the next decade, moving to Pakistan, specifically the Hushe valley, and climbing mountains while living on a handful of dollars a day and being the only American or Christian within 500 miles nine months of the year, I'm staying and working. I do have some engineering talent, however minor. I'm paranoid that I would lose all of my wealth from a cyber attack (please more two factor authentication!) or an illness or injury. Plus, while I don't really understand how, I want to give back, even more than I am. Right now I essentially fund a small neighborhood, what's next a whole village? Maybe.

In other news…

Two family members died and one was actually a suicide, my sister was married, two of my climbing partners were married, a famous climber who was actually on the route beside me in Utah in November when I took a 30 foot fall died in a rappelling accident a few weeks after I saw him. I renewed my lease for another year. My parents moved in for three weeks with me while their new house was being built (that was rough). I will be losing my silver status on United because I don’t travel much for work any more. 

I’m not sure I will ever have a traditional job again after I leave my current company. Meaning when I do finally leave, hopefully many years in the future, I’ll likely start my own little company, buy a company, work some little part time or seasonal outdoor job, or who knows what. While it's nice to have the stability of being an employee, I'd like to try the adventure of building not just a product, but an organization.

My social circle has expanded a little to include a neighbor (like we actually hang out), a retiree from church who makes home cooked meals for me, and a random climber I met who was dirt bagging it until he ran out of money and moved to Boulder, among others such as new employees at work and my sister's friends. I'm quite happy with the size of my social circle, I get the sense some people aren't, especially after they move to a new place. That being said, I have a spare bedroom (with a bed) and I invite people to visit and stay a couple days so we can catch up in person.

Finally, as we go into 2020, and maybe head toward war with Iran (and I've hung out with Iranians on 8000 meter expeditions, they have always been very nice and generous to me), I'll leave you all with a Bible passage from 1 Corinthians 13, verses 4-7, that I read at my sister's wedding, because the world could use more love (and patience) and less hate (and self-seeking). 

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Injured... again. November 2019 edition.

Tuesday was a snow day along the front range, and in the evening I went for a run on the treadmill. After ice climbing in Canada for three days, I guess my feet were feeling it because I woke up on Wednesday with a lump, about the size of a pea about one inch in front of my heel near the outside of the bottom of my foot. I'm limping. It's been two days now. I took a butter knife to my foot to try to aggressively massage it, eh. I've tried to massage it, eh. I'm trying to stretch my calf, eh. It's my left foot, so the same as the broken ankle from skiing. It's depressing. It's really depressing. Thanksgiving? I'm struggling here.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

"It's not my job."

First, I hate when people say, "it's not my job". It's a failure of the organization to take ownership.

I've gotten to that point because at my former company design engineers doubled as responsible engineers (a new concept for me), and we would get blamed for a lot of problems. I had a boss that once said about the production line that had thrown up a lot of problems that day, "their job is to build things, we can't take the work out of work."

So I've come to the idea that if it is not your job, it must be mine.

That's one of the fun things for me about being at a startup, especially as we work on these one off facility projects instead of the higher volume products, we don't have a clearly defined structure for who will kit the facility assemblies, so it must be me, I mean, I did design it.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Colorado Startup Life: Week 59

October 20th to 26th. Another good week at work and outside of work. The lowlight was being out sick most of Monday and Tuesday. On Sunday I climbed the 3rd flatiron for the third time with one of my coworkers who wants to learn to trad lead, and it just was too hard for the sore throat and runny nose that I had. I recovered toward the end of the week, but no one likes being out sick.

It's funny how being out sick gives us guilt. I'll tell you what, if retirement is anything like being sick every day, meaning no place to go, nothing to do, than it's not for me. I do usually tell sick people to just go home, and it can be hard to take my own medicine, and go home.

Being sick was definitely the major event of the week. I didn't go rock climbing, I only ran once for 3 miles on Friday after work. Basically I went home every day and laid on the couch. Saturday after spending the majority of the day laying around, I finally went for a little 29 mile bicycle ride, because it was 76 degrees out and probably the last good day for road bicycling for awhile.

If there is a startup lesson for this week it is chapter 7 from the book Extreme Ownership, prioritize and execute. We've prioritized and not prioritized with mixed results in the past and currently. In my personal life I like to imagine that I'm pretty good at it. Without knocking off tasks one at a time I wouldn't have climbed Mt. Everest or been on two Team USA ultra running teams. Point being make a list, in order of priority, and work your way down that list. I really like to see these types of lists, because even if people don't agree, they at least know the priority and can work around that.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Colorado Startup Life: Week 58

October 12 to 19, was a pretty typical week. I feel like we are hitting our groove. People are up to speed and contributing. We're working full blast on the design for our new facility, and it's almost done, the design at least. I'm actually quite happy, this is the most detailed facility design I've ever seen in CAD.

The biggest risk at the moment, in my mind, is validation of our business model. There is a large established company that does what we do, and many companies do what we do internally, but no one does quite exactly what we do. Coming from a large profitable company with a known customer base I worry sometimes that we don't have a customer base. That leads into my next point.

I'm very fortunate. I'm fortunate to have been born in the 1980s and not the 1880s. My electric bill is regularly something like $20 a month. One minute of light in my apartment is so inexpensive I just don't think about it. I don't have to find an oil lamp, find a lighter, make sure the lamp is full, and light it so that I can read after dark. I think light is a proxy for wealth. Being able to have light where I want it when I want it is a luxury that did not exist even 100 years ago, or in all prior humanity. I recently passed an arbitrary financial milestone that by my calculations meant if I quit working today I would have the money to buy food, have a cell phone, and health insurance the rest of my life. Unfortunately, I would really like to live in a a house or apartment and I definitely don't have enough to cover rent or a mortgage, or car expenses, indefinitely. Still, the realization that, if managed well, I will never go hungry is pretty crazy to me.

It's easy for us at every stage of wealth to look up to the next stage and lust after what those more financially fortunate people have. But how often do we look back at where we used to be? Billionaires are starting to really talk about inequality. On a day to day basis they might not have thought about how their standard of living and political power increased so much from when they were an average college student, until the difference between them and us is so large. On a much smaller scale I tell me parents and grand parents they don't need to leave me any inheritance. I don't need it. Spend your money.

The last two paragraphs were really just a long way of saying, I'm totally along for the ride in this startup adventure. If we fail I'm in a better position than many. Probably the two biggest lessons I've learned in the past year are first, sales solves a lot of problems and answers a lot of questions. If you have sales, you have a business. If you don't have sales, you don't really have a business, more of a research project. In other words, while I am an engineer my personal pendulum has swung to the sales side and I would love to sell something that doesn't exist and then spend four years making it exist. (The normal engineer thing is work on a product in your basement for years and then unveil it and wonder why people aren't buying this super cool product.) Secondly, management matters. It makes a huge difference. I thought I had a broad array of managers at my previous large established corporation. As I have learned over the past year, both in person at our company, and vicariously through stories my new coworkers have told of famous managers at other companies, management matters. Now, I'm not saying we need strong authoritarian leaders, I'm still confident that in many circumstances flat hierarchies work, but even in a flat organization there is management of a program.  If a program is not managed, if decisions are not made (which of course is a decision) the program will not progress smoothly.

To be blunt, what I have learned vicariously is that at one company the CEO is the ultimate decision maker and sets the direction. The company delivers, not always on schedule. There is strong clarity about what the goal is, but this CEO often fires people for a single mistake, and often that mistake is more a result of conflicting information than a person's failure to deliver. So there is a culture where people work five years to vest stock and then quit. At a second company the CEO seems to want someone to tell him what the goal is. So they work on this and work on that, interesting projects, but haven't really delivered much for all of the money they have spent. A nice guy, but without a super strong direction. At a third company the CEO is a go getter, but he may very well be willing to burn bridges in an effort to get subset X done, at the expense of the overall program. Entering the startup world has been interesting. I think we have a good management team and good leaders, but it is clear from the rumor mill that not all young companies in our industry are as fortunate.

In short, it's important to think not just about what you are going to deliver, but how you are going to deliver it. What is the balance of culture that gets you where you want to go. It's good to forgive people for mistakes, but at some point you have a draw a line and part ways. It's good to have a strong sense of direction, but it's good to take feedback and pivot too.

Two runs for 6.6 miles, and then Saturday I led the first pitch of the Bastile Crack! Whew it's a fun one!

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Colorado Startup Life: Week 57

October 6th to 11th. Life is good. Again, after the personnel drama at work this summer, and the push to qualify and ship a product, we're in a good place. Sure, it would have been nice to be in this place six months ago or a year ago, but we are where we are, and I'll take it. Plus, I'm sure it's been a lot harder for our CEO as he was even more friendly with the people that left, and he raised a series B during that same time.

I spent most of the week working on designing our new facility, which again is not what I expected I would be doing, but it's an interesting diversion, and it will help me understand our testing much better in the future. Plus, we're doing a lot of forward thinking this time around. Our first facility was really the minimum viable facility, and the new one has some room for expansion, and extra safety precautions.

Outside of work I'm going for the occasional three mile continuous run without pain, which is a big step in the right direction for my ankle. I'm also doing some rock climbing and bicycling on warm days. I think I'm ready to build a training schedule for myself and start getting into more formal shape.

Friday I took vacation and drove to Iowa for a wedding. It was 12 hours of driving and I made it a point to never sit for two hours, so I stopped frequently to take little walks to reset my Garmin activity tracker. Saturday morning I went for a run with an old training partner, had coffee with another friend, and took a quick walk on some trails I used to run almost daily. It was a nice little whirlwind tour of Dubuque. Wedding festivities happened in the afternoon and evening and it was great! I am so happy for my friend S who married H! Ever since they met three years ago we could tell there was definitely something there.

It was interesting, my friends of course talked work and how some things change and some things don't at my old company. The grass isn't always greener on the other side, and I like to tell my former coworkers many of the good things about my former company they may not realize, because for most of them it's the only place they have really worked. But to keep the discussion honest, I tell them about the benefits I now have that I did not have before. In other words, at this exact moment, there is no place else I would rather be. There is no company I would rather work at right now. There is no other place I would rather live. The Ozo coffee shop I am in is playing "Let Go" by Frou Frou, I mean, great music too right?

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Colorado Startup Life: Week 56

It was a good week. Vacation was a nice break. After all of the rush to ship a product, and the stress of last minute changes, and doubting my place here, I am reenergized and relaxed. Life is good.

As far as work it was pretty typical. That being said I spent a huge amount of time designing facility related things, not our actual products, which to be honest isn't as fun for me as designing a product. But it needs to be done for our expansion and I have skills that make it go faster.

A big highlight of the work week for me was assembling a subassembly I designed for our second product (or product line?) and it went together as planned! I've made so many parts in the past that failed to assemble because either my tolerances and design were bad, or because the parts were not made to tolerance, and this time, with more due diligence ahead of time on the tolerances, everything went together as planned. In other words, what I spent so much time designing appears to work just as intended. I even did a little functional checking, which won't actually be relevant for at least six months and it seemed to work!

Friday night after happy hour at work M and I headed down to southern Colorado and camped at the Blanca trailhead. We arrived at about 11 PM. Then we woke up at 4:30 AM to begin the day.

The Lake Como "road" is pretty terrible. We stopped at 8,500 feet in a Subaru Outback and walked a lot. There are a couple parts of the road where I am not sure any street legal vehicle that can go 75 mph would make it up. We started hiking at 5:07 AM, and went from there. I'm having trouble with my GPS data so I'm not totally sure on the time line for the day otherwise.

We did Little Bear Peak first, including a little stretch of 4th class slab with some ice which made it a little sporty, but the exposure wasn't too bad and there wasn't too much loose rock. We summitted around 10 AM and then began the infamous traverse to Blanca along the 5th class ridge. I got sketched out so we whipped out the harnesses and my 20 meter 8 mm dynamic rope and planned to simulclimb the initial 4th class down climb. I started leading, but I got scared by the snow and ice along the ridge and maybe 150 meters after we started the ridge, we turned around and decided to head down the normal route, and then do the standard route on Blanca and Ellingwood.

We reached the road at 11:55 and then headed up Blanca in the very good weather. The nice thing about months other than June through September is that afternoon weather tends to be better, fewer thunderstorms. We made our way up and around 13,800 feet some rime ice and snow began to cover much of the route. It was cold! Blanca, at 14,345 feet stands noticeably higher than Little Bear and Ellingwood both right at 14,000 feet within a mile. Oh how I wish Colorado had some 15,000 foot tall mountains, or 16,000... or 26,000. We summitted around 2:20 PM, then did the traverse to Ellingwood, summitting around 3:30 or so. Then we headed the long 9 mile back to the car, arriving just 10 minutes after sunset just before 7 PM, making for an almost 14 hour trip car to car. While my watch died after 12 hours, M had just over 20 miles, 52,000 steps for the day, and 8,600 feet of elevation gain, and that includes 3rd and 4th class, a little roped travel and some icy snow. That makes it 44 official 14ers for me! Only 9 official ones remaining. The Wilson group, the Eolus group, Culebra, Pyramid, Capitol, and Snowmass. Not exactly easy ones to get to or to hike. Culebra and Pyramid I'd like to take a crack at this winter, otherwise, it appears they will probably have to wait until next year considering how much snow and ice we encountered this week.

We had Pizza at All-Gon in Fort Garland, and then drove back to Denver, I arrived home about 11:30 PM, took a shower and slept the sweet sleep of night sweats. (After big days it's not uncommon for me to have night sweats, it started in 2014 after the North Coast 24. I figure that my hormones are out of wack after such a demanding day.) I hope you had a good week too!