Sunday, March 19, 2023

No Races in 4.5 Years!?

I haven't run a race since the 2018 100 km world championships. At my second world championship I DNF'd after 40 km, which took over 4 hours and where my heart rate had averaged over 180 beats per minute. 

About six weeks after that race I discovered I had a pulmonary embolism that I had been battling since March of 2018. Only six month later I broke my ankle skiing and that proved to be a harder injury to come back from. I'm not sure I ever will come back actually. However, in April 2022 I had a procedure to take stem cells from bone marrow in my hip out and put into my ankle bones and ligaments and honestly the ankle is feeling really good. I haven't pushed it or done any big mileage runs over 8 miles due to mild setbacks like muscle cramps and knots that have hampered my progress, but it feels good even on the days after I run, which wasn't the case for much of the last few years. 

I've put on about 20 pounds from my racing weight, and I'm 36, so I don't recover like I used to when I was 26 and 130 pounds. 

...But I'm not done. I don't want to be done. I've only run eight ultramarathons and three "serious" marathons in my semiprofessional running career spanning 2011 to 2018. I definitely don't know what the future holds for me, and I don't want to live in the past... yet the thrill of preparing for and arriving at the starting line ready to give it my best, and then those moments in a race when things are going well and the miles are clicking off... it's so hard to find a comparison to that in other areas of my life. It's such a simple joy. I don't think I ever really took my running ability for granted. I'm definitely a late bloomer, not breaking onto the national scene until 2014 at age 28. I'm nowhere close to race fit right now, but I want to run races again. 

Thursday, February 23, 2023

The Unemotional Pivot?

I've been working on a project for the last eight months. We committed to the process in June 2022, and now in February 2023 we are saying this doesn't work, we're essentially canceling this project and pivoting to something that we know we can make work.

What changed? Well we originally picked the old process based on assumptions we had about lead times, and technical ability to do certain things. And we did have progress. We broke ground in areas that I don't think anyone else has explicitly done. We read published literature and didn't find anyone doing exactly what we were doing. We also had (have?) a path to success using that process we committed to, however we all came to realize that the amount of time and money needed to make that successful was more than we had available. Doing a new cool thing for the sake of doing a new cool thing doesn't make businesses successful. It's about making and shipping a product to a paying customer, or some variation of that as it relates to delivering a service. So we decided to make a change.

For all practical purposes this was essentially a secret development. Only a handful of people actually understood what we were doing. So in the spectrum of failures, it wasn't even remotely public, even across the organization. However, as I've thought about it the last couple weeks, I feel this sense of emotional defeat and personal failure. I advocated for this process, and it failed. As much as I try to make it an unemotional pivot, we tried a technical path and it didn't work, so we're going to go to a more well established path, there is still that sense of failure. 

As I reflect on the failure, there are three technical pieces of information that had we known any one of them at the beginning we probably would not have gone down this path. One was an obvious one, but also one that there was some limited published papers suggesting that it was an issue that could be solved. Unfortunately we ended up solving that problem in an expensive way by adding a whole other process. The second and third issues were unfortunately specific to the application of the process that we chose. I'm trying to avoid any hint of specifics on this because it's part of the secret sauce in my industry. Those second and third issues, had we known from the outset, would hopefully have stopped us in our tracks.

It's not all negative, I've learned a ton in the process. There are some technical things that I now know, with many applications, that were very difficult lessons to learn. I now know from experience some things which could potentially save my company even millions of dollars on future projects. Still, in this moment, it feels like a waste. As I like to say, we created "desk art" which is to say very expensive pieces of hardware that will never be used because they were ultimately a failure.

Can you have a big pivot and not have emotions attached to it? I'm not sure. The more time and effort that gets invested into something the more sunk cost hope there is that it will succeed. By the same token, it's okay to feel bad about going down a dead end. Now you know it's a dead end. One day you might even laugh about it.

While the result of going down this path for eight months hurts emotionally as it feels like failure, I'm really proud of the team that worked on this and pushed the technology forward! We learned an incredible amount. We did things that are truly cutting edge technology. And like most business projects we developed a number of new business relationships that you never know how they might be mutually beneficial in the future. It's a small world, and it's fun to be a part of it.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Why I'm buying a Rivian

In June 2021 I finally put in a deposit for a Rivian R1S SUV. I have had my eye on them since 2018, and when I returned from Denali, having recently turned 35 I thought, 'now is the time.' My estimated window is this year, in the fall, and I've been watching videos and thinking about getting it, and I wanted to lay out why I want a big electric SUV.

For starters, I've spent a lot of time on glaciers, over six months of my life, between time on four longer expeditions and a number of smaller mountains. While I don't have evidence that I have collected myself to quantify climate change, I can tell you that the glaciers are melting. The streams in them are big, some nights the streams don't freeze completely. Other times the rockfall is far higher than it would be if the rocks were frozen. These places just feel precarious. Like if they were a little colder they would be stable, but they are not that cold.

The evidence from scientists says that carbon dioxide and methane from burning fossil fuels is an enormous contributor to climate change. And as anyone who has stood behind an idling 4runner knows, it's just not that fun to choke on exhaust from an off road capable SUV that on it's best day gets 21 miles per gallon.

On top of this, I've never had a car less than 11 years old. My daily driver just turned 21 years old. My weekend adventure 4runner is 16 years old. Yes I can definitely continue driving these vehicles. I've never had a car loan and the thought of one scares me. I like low insurance costs. However, I've been saving money for years, and as I looked ahead to my 40s I thought, 'am I ever going to buy a new car, after all what am I saving for?' My college plan had been to get a job out of college and quickly buy a Mini Cooper, however my 2010 year of unemployment dissolved that idea, and I've been driving at least 11 year old used cars ever since. So I had a bit of a reflection and decided that you know what, I could in fact afford such an expensive car as long as I kept working. Plus, the Rivian comes with an 8 year powertrain warranty, which puts it into my mid 40s by the time it would be out of warranty. I hope that in that time my financial situation looks even better than it does now.

Finally, given all of the above, I feel an obligation to do more about climate change. I think a lot of people either don't care because it's a slow moving crisis, or are overwhelmed because the scale is so big that they don't take any action. Since I make a good income, I feel like I need to take action. Yes, hopefully battery prices get cut in half and the size and weight of batteries gets cut in half in the next five years, and charging infrastructure becomes as reliable as going to gas stations, but until that happens the market (people like me) needs to step in and encourage research, development, and infrastructure build out by creating demand for those products and services. Me buying this expensive car shows Rivian and other companies that there is demand for these types of vehicles. And when I inevitably charge it on road trips, that shows the charging companies that they need to have reliable chargers. 

I test drove a Mitsubishi i-Miev way back in 2012 or 2013, and then a Tesla Model S in 2015. I've had my eye on an electric vehicle for a long time, but nothing really fit the bill to do the things I wanted until the Rivian came out. I like to take road trips of several hundred miles to four wheel drive trail heads and camp there preferably in the car, not exactly what the average EV was designed for. At some point this year I will be taking delivery. And I want to give as many people test drives in it as possible. I want to let others get behind the wheel and experience electric vehicle driving. From a mechanical point of view EVs are simpler than internal combustion engines. It stands to reason that they should last even longer than the existing vehicles on the road. Perhaps you need to replace the battery pack after 10 years, and then you can get another 10 years out of the vehicle. I don't know. It's going to be an adventure!

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Organizational Culture: Part 2 - Laughs Per Hour

How do you measure culture? You can measure it with the rate that people quit (20% at one place), or the rate that people are fired (4% at another place) and laid off (16% at another place), but I think there are other metrics that are helpful. One that I came up with a few years ago, always to be turned down as ridiculous, was laughs per hour. 

We've all had days when we are stressed to come into work, stressed at work, and then have stress when we go home from work. On those days there might not be any laughing. A life without any laughing is sad. But I think for most of us, on most days there are a couple laughs. I'm not sure what a target laughs per hour rate is, but I think in the range of .25 laughs per hour to 2 laughs per hour is probably in the ball park. That means even on the low end there are two laughs in the day. That's still a nice amount of laughing at work, even if that low rate is entirely sarcasm. Of course on the high side, work does need to be done, and comedy can often be making fun of a person or group, so having a lot of laughs per hour is probably not appropriate either because it's bound to marginalize someone in the office.

There you have it, a new metric to measure cultures by: laughs per hour.

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Company Processes: The Drawing (Blueprint) Review

All companies have processes, how a company pays it's supply chain, and how it gets paid by it's customers are two big processes that need to go right. There are many different processes, but today I'm just going to talk about one, the drawing review.

As I was thinking about this post, I had the thought that there are probably two general types of companies. Those that have A similar number of inputs and outputs, like a farmer who buys five tons of seed, and half a year later has 500 tons of corn to sell, essentially one input and one output. Obviously modern farming is ridiculously more complicated than that, for example with satellites guiding tractors to make the most use of a field, and whole ecosystem of companies and products designed to make sure those seeds are planted on the perfect day at the perfect depth for their soil, with the perfect fertilizer. Similarly the services industry, while there may be a lot of specialized tools in any given service job, essentially the basic trade is one person's time for the other person's need. The other type of business, where I am far more familiar is where hundreds or thousands of individual parts are put together in order to be sold as a single working thing to a customer. In other words, a huge number of inputs and a small number of outputs, like the automotive industry, where thousands of parts go into a vehicle, and at the end you have three different trim levels, and seven colors, and four wheels to pick from, and that's it. 

A big part of making these complex things like cars, is designing one individual part, making a drawing also known as a blueprint, and having either an external or internal manufacturing group make the part. A drawing is one of the main deliverables from a design engineer. It is essentially, how to inspect the part so that it performs according to it's performance requirements. There is a push to put all of that information into the CAD (computer aided drawing) file, however it's a slow transition, so for the foreseeable future, drawings will continue to exist at most companies as the source of truth for what the physical part should be.

Drawings generally come in two flavors, in work (or draft) and released. There are different softwares to handle the approval process to go from an in work drawing to a released one. In most cases though, there is a human that did not design the part, that will review the drawing, often several humans. It is a way to catch errors, typos, and other things that could result in a nonfunctional part when it gets made. Often there are checklists for drawing reviews, other times it's left totally up to the discretion of the reviewer what he or she checks. Some people look at these as a chance to catch all the wrong things on a drawing, but as I've gotten older, I view them more as a language to communicate a desired function to the person manufacturing the part. Which is to say, most of my comments on drawing reviews these days are suggestions rather than requirements. 

The drawing review is often one of the last steps in the larger design review or design release process. The process that companies use to design an assembly of many different parts, and then release that to manufacturing for it to be made. It can be used as a stop gap, meaning, design reviews run the gamut from every dimension being discussed, to a few slides showing how the product generally works, yet the drawing review can often catch items that would make manufacturing the part impossible, items were not caught in a design review. 

There is no right or wrong for how to do a drawing review. It will be a different calculation for each company of what level of rigor or autonomy they want reviewing drawings. When I made my ultralight ice axe for Kickstarter, I actually made the conscious decision not to make a drawing, and accept any reasonable ice axe from the manufacturer. That is one extreme, since that part does not have to interact with any other parts. However, for assemblies of many parts, getting all of them to come together nicely can be very difficult, and it starts with good drawings. 

Will I write more about company processes? I don't know, but if I do, here is a list that I might write about.

  • How to pay vendors.
  • How to be paid by customers.
  • How to make or do a thing (work instructions).
  • How to document an imperfection or nonconformance.
  • How to approve a purchase.
  • The Design Review
  • Meeting a requirement, and what is a requirement?
  • How a company validates it's product before selling it.

Sunday, October 23, 2022

Making a Bonsai Pot from a Rock

As I get into the art of bonsai, very quickly I learned that it's not just about the tree, it's about the pot too. Many really cool works have fascinating pots. So, I had the inspiration to use an actual rock as a pot. While not technically a bonsai, there is this little tree in Colorado that inspires me because it's been there for over a decade, and it always strikes me as such a difficult existence.

Natural Colorado Tree

Yeah, that's definitely my favorite tree in Colorado. So using that as inspiration, last month while out near an alpine lake, my fiancĂ© and I picked up two rocks, and I proceeded to make them into pots. 
Two Colorado rocks about an hour into drilling.
Same rocks viewed from the top down.

Both rocks had some natural features that already lent themselves to being a pot. I used a series of drill bits, but of course the rock was wearing through drill bits pretty fast. Since the concrete drill bit I bought was wearing the least, I ended up using that 1/2" bit the most. The goal for both rocks was to leave the outer surface as undisturbed and natural looking as possible. That meant leaving the edges in the two rocks above untouched. Then drilling a series of holes to try and enlarge the volume available for roots and dirt. I'll call it rock One on the right and rock Two on the left, sort of triangular shaped. I was routinely spraying some water on the rocks as I drilled for two reasons, one to cool down the drill bit and extend the life of the bits. And two as the rock powder would accumulate in the hole it was hard to see exactly where I was drilling, and if I was hitting any new air pockets, so I would wash out the dust.

Method of Drilling

As you can see in the picture above on rock Two I drilled into the rock, but left the edges of the original hole in tact. Both rocks had a number of holes in them already, and as I drilled I would hit more air pockets and be able to lightly pry on the drill bit to try and expand those natural air pockets and remove the edges of each pocket to make the volume larger. I then used a small drill bit, about 3/32" or even 1/16" in some of the natural pockets on the bottom of each rock to make a drainage passage in both rocks. Many bonsais are susceptible to root rot and having good drainage is a necessity. I've made the self imposed rule that all the water has to drain from the rocks in their nominal orientation, any pockets of water that don't drain could lead to problems.

Rock One Complete!

I finished rock One and you can see the drain hole in the center. Getting to this point took about three hours of drilling time split between the two rocks. This is going to get an indoor jade plant my fiancé has been growing for several years, and I'll update when I have pictures. Rock two is still not done, I think that it might not get a tree until 2023 because I don't want to transplant what will probably be an outdoor plant going into the winter. Especially such a small root system that is sure to be more fragile than a tree with more roots.

That's all for today! Research question for another day, since I expect most of my bonsais to be outdoor plants, will I need to get a cold frame to keep them at least a little warm in the winter?

Thursday, October 6, 2022

Organizational Culture: Part 1 - What is Culture?

Every organization has a culture. Culture is the behavior of people in the organization. It’s the worst tolerated and accepted behavior. It's also how a group rewards and celebrates successes. It’s how a group documents things, it’s how they run their meetings, it’s how they communicate and how transparent their finances and decision making is. In the same way that Japan and the United States have different cultures, so to do Apple and Tesla have different cultures, even though their main offices for years were 20 miles apart and they definitely shared workers.

For a long time I thought culture, the soft skills, was something that was harder to measure, but as I get older, you can put concrete numbers to it, I’ll give some examples. A company with a median tenure of 9 months. A company with a median tenure of 12 years. A company that fires 4% of it’s employees. A company that lays off 30% of it’s people in 2020 versus a company that had company wide pay cuts with higher earners having higher pay cuts. It’s a company where the normal meeting is an hour, and typically goes over time, versus a company where the average meeting is scheduled for 30 minutes and it often ends early. It’s a place where only released drawings are used in manufacturing, versus a place that routinely uses unreleased drawings. It’s a place where 100% of people in operations can pick up any part and find the part history using it’s serial number, versus a place where you’re not sure what the part number is let alone the serial number and part history. It may be a place people yell every day, or almost never. It’s a place where someone can question the CEO, versus a place where people are afraid to speak up to middle management let alone the CEO. It’s a place where managers try to build their fiefdoms versus a place where managers strive to give their people the best resources and the best coaching. 

Those are topics you can ask about in an interview to get an idea of what the culture is. You might not get good answers to all of those questions, but some of those questions will have numerical answers you can use to quantify the behavior of the company. There is no perfect place and no perfect culture. And many of the things that make a culture good, or at least fun for some people, are often things with difficult downstream consequences. For example, design engineers can often bristle that they need to release all part drawings and assemblies before the parts and assemblies are made. Having spent more than two years in manufacturing at this point, that’s laughable because without something in black and white (which a printed drawing is) what are we supposed to build? Once, I was in a meeting getting some feedback from a different functional group and my group was being told we built the thing wrong. So we compared the picture of what we built to the work instructions, and they matched. Then we compared it to the CAD model, and it matched again. Then we compared it to the original test article we had built, and it matched too. All of the documentation was in order. Moral of the story is, don’t hold meetings after 5 PM when people are tired, but 5 PM meetings are a cultural thing too.

A friend recently left a slow moving four person startup because the team hit some roadblocks and he realized that his voice wasn’t fully being heard. To paraphrase him, a company is always going to have a little bit of it’s founder in the culture and either you get on board or get off at the next stop. As I get further into the world of startups, I get to hear about more companies all the time first hand from people living those startups. It’s fascinating because there are so many really really cool technologies out there that have the ability to disrupt the world. Yet there are also a whole bunch of people out there making the same people relationship mistakes over and over. To give an example, don’t threaten an engineering team because half of them will just leave in the next few weeks. But then again, if that is your culture, one of threats, and a constant turnover of people, maybe that works for your organization. One of the big companies in my industry published a turnover rate of 21% last year, and given what I know, it’s probably been around that level for years. This company is known as the benchmark, and it’s clearly a market leader, and yet 21% of their people are leaving every year. I haven’t worked there, so I can’t really say, but the stories do seem to be a place that burns people out. Yet another example, an industry incumbent that several of my acquaintances recently left was described to me as having a “terrible culture”. When I asked if it was so bad that it would not be around in 20 years, despite having legendary status and a long customer backlog, the answer was that it might not be, it was hard to say. Surprising to say the least.

So, I’m going to write about organizational culture. Mostly companies, but also non-profits, sports teams (yes there will probably be some Ted Lasso examples), even social groups, all have their behavior norms and what is acceptable without being pushed out of the group. Let’s talk about those things. Let’s dive in and talk for example about how when a first time manager micromanages, how is that person’s manager supposed to know, and quickly, that the new manager is micromanaging? I’ll have to come back to that because I don’t know. 

This series is partly inspired by the Big ERN’s Safe Withdraw Rate series, which is an open ended series where he dives into a bunch of details, and attacks the same problem, how to withdraw money in retirement so that you don’t run out, from a wide variety of angles. Most recently how using a line of credit, like a reverse mortgage or home equity line of credit, could be used to pay for part of a retirement. In short, every person’s retirement is different, so there is no truly one size fits all answer. Similarly, as I write about culture, it’s will be based on my experiences, and how I hopefully lift up those I spend my days with so that we accomplish great things. Yet, in large part this will subjective, as quantifying things like individual productivity and the turnover and firing rate are not things usually published by companies, so I'm not sure how much I can speak to them. To be clear, I’m not actually trying to change that, I’m just trying to articulate and quantify things that could be described as the culture of an organization, so that as people are looking for their ideal culture, they can ask the right questions. 

Again, there is no perfect culture. A culture that is super high performing likely has a fair amount of turnover. A culture that doesn’t document things well, probably is a lot of fun sometimes just doing experiments, but that failure might come to bite them. This is my attempt, between culture’s I’ve lived, those my friends have lived, and those I’ve read about, to quantify organizational culture.