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 fiancé 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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

The Magic (of a Good First Article Assembly Build)

In the world of manufacturing, after design has made the drawings, and supply chain has purchased the parts, and the vendors have made the parts, there comes the first opportunity to build the assembly. In my ideal world, that happens with the technician who will build it every day, standing right beside the design engineer who invented it, and the manufacturing engineer who will make it easier to build, all three together building it. It's magical. 

Why is it so cool? Well, there are often things about the design of the part that the design engineer will have to change. It's a very humbling time to be the design engineer, this thing you spent months on is happening in real time and when there are problem you are the only person to really answer most of the questions. It's also great because when the manufacturing engineer is right there, he or she can take notes and update the work instructions and maybe even the bill of materials in real time. By having a really good edit to the instructions during the first article build, future builds will go much more smoothly. Of course it's somewhat a never ending process, continuously improving the parts and instructions to make it go faster and have fewer issues. But the magic is the first time it happens. Everyone has a genuine curiosity about the process. And everyone becomes steeped in the details of the process, so that when future people are hired to learn how to do it, anyone that was there at the beginning has a wealth of knowledge about why things are done a certain way. 

I've thought a lot the last few years about how to scale from one to ten, and ten to 100, and a little bit of thinking beyond that. If you only ever make one, for the most part the engineers who designed it can build it. But very quickly, somewhere between zero and five products, it's probably best to create documentation so that people skilled at building things, can build things, and people skilled at designing things, can design things. 

Point being, the magic is the deep understanding of how the thing is built, and the ownership from everyone on the team to be there for all of the little successes and scary failures that inevitably occur in the process of building something new. It's so cool when it happens!

Thursday, September 15, 2022

I have started to cultivate Bonsai trees!


My first Bonsai: A Juniperus Horizontalis

For years I've wanted to get a bonsai tree, like over a decade. About a month ago I was shopping for plants to put on my balcony and I was telling my fiancé about my desire to have one, and she found this tree for me that was $12.95, and bought it for me!

Where does this hobby go, I do not know. Trees don't grow very fast. I've had it over a month and while it is definitely alive, it definitely hasn't gotten much taller. I'm going to aim to make it straight and tall even though this style of juniper grows horizontally. Next up I'd like to transplant an alpine tree like a blue spruce. Some of them are so cool looking!

A blue spruce (I think) on a recent backpacking trip. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Failure is still underrated.

Failure is underrated. We learn a lot from failure. In many cases a lot of things went right, but it only took one thing to go wrong which then puts the whole mission in the category of failure. Of course, there are many days too when something has clearly gone wrong, but the end goal is still accomplished and so to the outside it looks like a complete success.

Mountaineering is a great teacher in this respect. People will often view success and failure as making the summit or not making the summit. But in reality it's far more nuanced, there is living and not living of course, which is far more important than any rocky summit. There are injuries, there are friendships, there are new personal altitude records, there are good weather days low on the mountain, there are good meals, there are card games, there are movies and reading books, there is sleeping in on rest days. Climbing mountains is about a lot more than just making the summit. 

So it is the same in business. Failing at a goal can teach a company a lot about what went right, even when something went wrong. In fact, sometimes succeeding can teach an organization the wrong lessons, such as, of the 100 steps in the process, actually only 17 contributed to their success. Since the thing had never been tested with less than 100 process steps, hours will be debated about taking away one or two steps, when 83 of them are not needed. Or perhaps everyone worked 60-80 hour weeks to make it a success, so that becomes normal at the company for the next 15 years.

I recently read the book Scrum by Jeff Sutherland, and one of the ideas is go to market when you have some feature that works, but it's only 20% of the complete product. That might be easier done in software than hardware, but the idea of making a product with the minimum features and getting to market, so that you can get actual customer feedback makes a lot of sense. What engineers like and think are important are not always the things that customers think are important. 

So when a company has a "failure" it's a huge learning opportunity. Most failures expose one or several weaknesses, and even if it is systemic, it's never the whole process or the whole system that was wrong. It's okay to fail. In fact, testing to failure is often a great way to test systems and components so that then you know, everything was okay, right up until the fraction of a second where it failed. Without breaking things it can be really hard to definitively say how long a product will last. 

So the next time you see failure, before excoriating the organization or the people for their incompetence, consider all the things that went right, and hope we can all learn from the failure so that it doesn't get repeated. 

Friday, July 29, 2022

It will be okay.

Well, if the last few years haven't been crazy enough, now we've got inflation. Being in California, I see any gas under $5.50 a gallon and think it's cheap. There is talk that we are in a recession. I know people with new and big health problems, including myself. It's easy to be pessimistic. And I think that's part of the fun to being optimistic, how challenging it can be sometimes. 

That being said, 2010 was a big year in my life. It was really hard financially, emotionally, and mentally. Since then I've come a long way and have a much broader view than I did back then. My broader view gives me more reasons to be optimistic. 

For starters, I know a couple people that retired this year. That's a good thing because for very working age people like myself that means that there are jobs out there that people have given away. Demographics in the United States, and many European and Asian countries are skewing older, meaning less working age people. Simple supply and demand suggests that wages will continue to go up for workers who are willing to work. I don't think people realize how dramatic this is. It's not so bad now, but in 10 or 15 years when baby boomers are moving into assisted living in record numbers there is going to be a huge shortage of health care workers to care for them. Health care is probably going to get more expensive, and unequal. Of course again there are solutions, for starters immigration of health care professionals is a great first step. And raising wages for the lower paying health care jobs would be good too. That's all a long way of saying, predictions from 100 years ago of a 15 hour work week will not happen, and on the contrary, there will be demand for many 40 hour a week people. Which is good news for people looking for jobs.

Another reason people might be stressed, inflation, is another area that is not as bad as many perceive. Interest rates are going up, and that means housing sales will go down, and then shortly car sales will go down, and a number of retailers are already seeing rising inventories, meaning their product isn't moving as fast as expected, and there will be sales. In short, this is the beginning of demand slowing, and supply increasing. 

Finally, it's been raining in Colorado, that's a dry state where extra rain is a good thing. 

Maybe not what people were expecting me to write, but I'm feeling good about the economy despite the two negative quarters we just had. Restaurants are still having help wanted signs in the windows, and back in 2010 that did not happen. While housing in California and Colorado is still wildly expensive and unaffordable for many people, there are jobs, and with jobs come income and with income bills are paid. 

Monday, May 30, 2022

"It's like Grand Junction."

Today ends four days that my amazing girlfriend was out here in Oakland visiting me in the Bay Area from Colorado. We went to Muir Woods. We ate fancy food in San Francisco. We cruised around Oakland and Alameda. We went up to Napa Valley, where she made the title comment. 

Yes, Napa valley is like Grand Junction. We didn't have time or the reservations to hit up a dozen wineries, we just walked around the town of Napa, so take this with a grain of salt. The hills are maybe 2000 feet taller than the town. It's dry, very dry at the moment, but not quite a desert. All of the agriculture is irrigated. It was an interesting observation, and while I have only been here two weeks, I was not expecting it to be so dry in May. I don't think Grand Junction has any Michelin star restaurants or $175 dollar four course meals at wineries yet, but heads up everyone, it has wine and outdoor sports too.

In the short time I've been in the Bay Area I've realized that it's just different than other places I've lived because of the startup and venture capital scene. I don't have a ton of evidence yet, but two data points, I eat breakfast and lunch at work every week day paid for by my employer. Second I've seen more Lambourginis, Ferraris and Rivians in two weeks than I've seen in the last two years around Denver, and probably more than exist in all of Grand Junction.

Point being, if Napa isn't in the budget for your summer or fall vacation but you want to go wine tasting and take some hikes, check out Grand Junction, it even has an airport.