Sunday, January 2, 2022

What I learned in 2021

My blogging hasn't been prolific the last year, or really couple years. There is a variety of reasons. Dubuque, Iowa was uniquely set up for a person without Internet to blog, plus I was single and in my middle 20s. Independence, Kansas was not, and while Longmont, Colorado definitely is, a pandemic isn't. Well, I've had gigabit speed Internet since about my third day of working from home. I bummed low speed from a neighbor for a couple days but quickly realized that didn't cut it for video chats and loading large CAD models. However I only worked full time remote for three weeks in March and the first week of April 2020, and I've been in person nearly five days a week ever since. That's all a long way of saying, I've been focused on other things and not blogging, even though the learning to do I've done is pretty great.

I'm going to focus on one simple lesson I relearned multiple times in 2021: communication can always be improved. At my company I recently passed over 100 formal interviews I have conducted, with a dozen or so more informal ones I've been a part of. In a recent interview I made a comment that "no one in the world has perfect communication" and was struck by how true that actually is. I like to imagine I communicate well, and I think I do, yet miscommunications happen all the time. To give an example, I have a girlfriend who is incredible, and we've been dating since August 2020, and it's going well, yet we still miscommunicate. In many ways I've found having a significant other exposes communication issues better than any corporate setting. 

As I write this I have 11 years of industry experience. I've held six distinctly different engineering positions. Additionally I have a technical master's degree that I completed before I really entered industry. After going on a lot of first and second dates, I have a long term girlfriend for our third calendar year. Additionally, I've done well running and climbing, the later involving climbing partners and trying to describe those relationships is outside the bounds of this blog post. Point being, 10 years ago when I was writing I didn't understand relationships the way I do now. Communication is so important. Sure I've always communicated, but how is it that we stumble over our miscommunication more as we get older?

I read a few months ago an anecdote about how everyone is struggling with something. I think that's really true. When someone flips out that I'm wearing a KN-85 mask, they don't know I had a pulmonary embolism in 2018 and honestly it could have killed me. Similarly, I don't know what he or she is struggling with. 

My solution? Lead with curiosity and as much empathy as possible. A big challenge in today's world is that we don't understand each other as well as we need to to accommodate all of our baggage. Using an allegory, I have a square suitcase and you have a circular one, and the trunk is a triangle, how do we make this work? It's not always as simple as walking a mile in their shoes. While that is super helpful, it doesn't always give the past, as a day in my life in 2021 would not show the 2018 pulmonary embolism. 

Again, the solution, just talk to people. Ask, "how's it going?" It's okay to say you had a bad day. At work a couple weeks ago a manager brought in a bottle of whiskey after we finished building a product and we drank 3/4 of it that night between a few of us. I know I need a lot of alone time, and I'm surrounded by a truly incredible groupie of family, friends, and current and former coworkers. So ask for help if you need it. Say there is a problem when there is a problem. Don't yell at a random dude. We're getting there one step at a time. We're doing something as a seven billion person world that we've never done before. Take a chill pill and keep trudging, we're going to get there. It will be okay. Jesus loves you. And if you want to make it better, remember, communication can always be improved

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Enough and the Pendulum

There is a concept in the personal finance realms about enough. It's similar to the concept of a pendulum seeking to be right in the middle, yet swinging from one extreme to another. Today I'm thinking about it in the context of emotions. Specifically, how different people emotionally relate and communicate. None of us are perfectly rational creatures, and I think the more we've been given or fortunate enough to stumble into the harder it is for us to understand those without those luxuries. 

For example, for the person in the right place at the right time to be promoted to be a manager at 25 years old, it's easy to believe in your own excellence rather than recognizing that you fell into that position through the people you randomly knew and being in the right place at the right time. What does this have to do with enough? Well, enough is wildly different in different situations. From a financial perspective, the wealth of the world makes it so that honestly we almost don't have to work to maintain 90 year old standards of living. Yet we do keep working, to buy nicer cars, bigger houses, fancy phones, season ski passes, a second home, etc. Another example, at some point in the future I'd like to try full time entrepreneurship again, yet I feel inadequate. I was just thinking yesterday however, that I've had six different jobs, structural analysis engineer (FEA), structures design engineer, drivetrain systems design engineer, axle design engineer, configuration engineer, and now manufacturing engineer. That's quite the gamut of engineering experience, and honestly I don't know of any of my engineering friends who have covered so much different ground. So how much is enough? I don't know.

Getting back to emotions, I think an advanced part of emotional intelligence is communicating with people on the level they are at. What I mean is we all have different ways to communicate and articulate our emotions, even if we don't communicate them as emotions.  Here is a graph for a simple example. You could insert any number of other spectrums, like not anxious to anxious, not laughing to laughing so hard your stomach hurts. 

Going from Calm to Angry, and how do you communicate with someone who does it differently than you?

If calm is zero and angry is a 10, for people that jump from 0 to 10 they have trouble articulating and communicating with a person who ramps up and is at level 2 because in their head you're either in or your out, when for the person than ramps up it's more of a 'hey, this thing is bothering me'. To rephrase this in the pendulum analogy, if you want to be in the middle, there is always something to be angry about or upset about, take global injustices or systemic inefficiencies. If we really want to make this world better, there must be things we can work to fix. If we were perfectly calm we are ignoring those imperfections. Yet for a person who goes from no emotional response to yelling,  receiving communication with even some emotion might be hard to deal with. 

I don't know. I write these things to help me work them out in my own head even when what I write isn't fully formed and I know it's not perfect. As I've said before, I think the meaning of life is relationships so I  try to make them better. That can be super difficult sometimes as I try to figure out how to communicate with people where they are at.

Sunday, October 31, 2021

I'm tired of being a linchpin.

Just over 10 years ago Seth Godin wrote a book titled Linchpin. It says that instead of thinking about there being workers and management, think of a third group, indispensable "artists". 

Back Cover of Linchpin by Seth Godin

So for a long time I've thought of myself that way. Engineering is art. It's design and manufacturing and testing (which is quantifying practical use). I've tried to learn the things that help people, and I've tried to connect people. I'm tired. 

My company is having a few challenges right now. We physically moved manufacturing in September. Then we changed ERP systems. And we have a few customer deliveries we have to make on a product that we're still having development issues with. Plus, we've probably hired 30 people in the last four months, growing from something like 100 to 130. I'm employee number 27, and due to people who have left my seniority is up to 21. That's another way of saying, I help with on boarding a lot because I've been here longer than most and I enjoy teaching. It's exhausting. 

I desperately want a different role in the company at the moment. I want a slower pace of work. I want the opportunity to get bored enough I read all of my emails. Yet... I can't easily leave. I was playing clean up for two of my coworkers this week, and even my new boss says, "I go to Isaiah to get the history on stuff." My new boss is really good by the way. Last month when I went on vacation, and back in May when I went to Denali, there were gaps. To be more specific, yeah if I quit tomorrow the company would be fine, I'm not actually indispensable, I'm just efficient to ask, but a lot of balls would get dropped along the way. The challenge is when I'm running around trying not to drop balls, I'm not spending any effort to streamline the bowling alley so that the balls flow smoothly and don't get dropped, which means I have to keep chasing stray balls. 

We've onboarded so many new people, that I look at what all the new people are doing, and then what I've done over the last three years and it scares me how many tasks still depend on a single person at the company. It also scares me that we haven't figured out better ways to automate things. It's hard building a company.

Saturday, October 30, 2021

My Friend the Billionaire

Technically he's still in the 180 day lock up period after his company went public where he can't sell shares yet, but as long as the price doesn't drop by more than 25%, even after taxes he'll be a billionaire. 

We are high school friends. He wasn't my best friend in high school, but he was definitely on the short list of good friends. We spent a lot of time together way back in 2001-2003. But times change, he went to MIT, and I purposely did not even apply because I didn't want to follow exactly in his foot steps. Funny enough, he was the liberal one and I was the conservative one back then. Now I'm pretty liberal in many respects as I try to interpret Matthew 22:39. I wonder in what ways he's changed. We haven't kept in close touch. I think I only saw him twice in college and I didn't go to his wedding. I bet he doesn't ride the subway as much as he did in college. 

Once when we were in Spanish class I remember us having a discussion in English and he said that his older brother an engineer was rich, because he had a hot tub. I'll call my friend J. I think J was maybe trying to decide what he wanted to do and he wanted a good paying job. He ended up majoring in software, which definitely worked out for him. There are only approximately 740 USA billionaires, and now one of those is a good high school friend of mine. It's bizarre. All this talk of inequality... it puts the discussion in a new light. 

I'm in approximately the top 10% of Americans for income based on my age. After going to Africa in 2013, and reflecting on the many other international trips I have taken, it's hit me for years how fortunate I am. Even when I have a week like this one where my 4runner needs $1400 in various repairs. I'm very fortunate, I just go and pay the bill. $1400 is more than many people survive on for a whole year. Yet my dominate savings are locked up in my 401(k) like many Americans, not in a publicly traded company. How to put this another way, J is on the brink of having enough money to do more financial philanthropy than everyone that went to high school with him combined. His tax bill, even with just long term capital gains, will probably be greater this one year than all of the income, sales, and capital gains taxes I have ever paid combined. When I think of how much I donate to Give Directly, it pales in comparison to what he could do with 0.1% of his wealth in a single year.

Sometimes I think people think of billionaires are "others", as not normal people. As people with the capability to put microchips (with antennas and batteries) through a tiny needle into a human and have it capable of not corroding instantly and being able to transmit signals through human tissue. The reality is, if my friend was seated two tables away at a restaurant, I might not even see him. Guaranteed that basically no one would recognize him in Colorado, and he's not famous. He drove a little red Ford Focus in high school and didn't have a car the first part of college. While being very intelligent, and having a healthy dose of emotional intelligence even back in high school, he's just a guy. In some ways it scares me, because if he is the representation of the top .0002% of Americans, we're nowhere close to having a Star Trek warp drive to take us around the galaxy or tricorder to detect cancer. On the other hand, if he can do it, well, I might not be able to replicate that success, but I can definitely do something similar. 

I invited him to come out and ski sometime here in Colorado. I'm guessing he'll do his own thing and not take me up on the offer. It's strange, I have two friends with condos in Aspen, which I always think of as the peak of my kind of luxury, but my friend could go and buy a ranch there if he wanted and fly there in his private jet. (I can basically guarantee he doesn't have a private jet yet, that just wasn't his style, and he's probably still figuring out what to do with all that money.) I know that some of his high school memories were not pleasant, and for all I know I might remind him of some of that pain. I hope he's doing well and I'm excited to see what my 36 year old billionaire friend does the next 50 years.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

How to be Great at Something

I was in two different work situations recently, first person A was upset at person B, and in the second situation person C was trying to be motivational. Both situations were failures to prioritize or at least communicate those priorities. I didn't realize it until I was taking one of my usual 5-10 minute walks outside to relax and calm down for a few minutes, and also insure I don't get another pulmonary embolism from sitting too much. Instantly it made sense. Failure to prioritize means a failure to deliver.

You don't get great at something by optimizing your existing routine 5% and doing it all a little longer and harder. That seems like the standard American way, just do what you're doing 5% more. But time and again I watch people try to do that and either get burnt out, or get bogged down doing non value added things thinking those things are important. You get great at something by focusing on the top one or two or three things that add value and doing them 100% better than you used to, not by doing the value added and non value added things 5% better. Let me give two examples.

First marathons and ultra marathons, if you want to be really good at them you have to do long runs, and they have to be long and fast runs. They essentially become race simulations. It doesn't matter much what you eat, you don't need a lot of weight lifting or cross training, just enough to not get injured, and your other runs and workouts are really in support of your ability to do longer and faster long run days. I just boiled down hundreds of pages of books to a single paragraph which feels dismissive of the big picture, yet the person that had 15 good long runs in their marathon build up will run a good race. 

The second example is in mountaineering. The number one cause of death in the mountains is falling while climbing unroped, and the solution to that is don't fall, and the method to that solution is excellent foot work. On Mt. Everest, and other places, it's often horrifying seeing people in crampons trip over themselves and fall down on flat terrain because they don't have good foot work. It doesn't matter that you can climb 5.12, it doesn't matter how fast you can run, it doesn't matter how much weight you can carry, it matters that you can walk with crampons on just about any terrain. 

So there are two examples of what it takes to really excel in those two sports. In neither case does the amount of weight you can squat or the fact that you like Wendy's Jalepeno Popper sandwiches matter to your performance.

Getting back to the original inspiration for this post, I've been stressed at work because I'm getting requests to open work orders, close work orders, open discrepancy reports, close discrepancy reports, find actual hardware, know what hardware someone else needs to go find, and implement design changes. I spent an hour today putting up signs for shipping and receiving. It was kind of nice because it's a place where I can see my handiwork, those two signs bolted to the side of the building. It also gets me away from the computer and never ending stream of requests for a little bit. I put those signs up because I took a walk at lunch and watched an Amazon delivery driver drive around our little three street complex for no lie 15 minutes trying to find receiving. We only have .3 miles of road! So I realized that no one had prioritized putting those signs up, but without them we were wasting a lot of time for delivery drivers trying to find the place to deliver.  It's a clear example of prioritize and execute, as mentioned in the book Extreme Ownership. Because no one had been prioritizing something as simple as signs things weren't getting delivered to the right place and immediately getting lost. A company, like a factory, has inputs and outputs. If the inputs aren't coming in smoothly, it's likely the outputs aren't going smoothly either. 

Obviously I don't have the answer to every company what those few key things are that need to get 100% better for the organization to be the best. The point is to figure those things out and get good at them.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

A More Holistic View

Last week when I typed out that blog post it surprised some people how stressed I was more than I was expecting. I often like writing because it's a chance to put a thought down, and tweak it seven times before releasing it to the intended audience. Sometimes, well actually a lot, I struggle to say things exactly the way I want to say them. I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to say things before I say them. While I don't plan to change that anytime soon, I do realize that sometimes it's better to communicate an unfinished idea so that I can get help with the issue rather than wait for a perfectly fleshed out idea.

That all being said, Monday I walked into a situation I did not see coming at all. It totally blindsided me and changed my perspective. I stand by what I said last week because that's where I was mentally, but in the last seven days wow have I grown! I was humbled by an issue at work that frankly I had basically nothing to do with.

I wasn't sure what words to use exactly in that last sentence and I settled on humbled because while I knew in theory that this situation could happen, I did not feel prepared to be in the middle of it. Fortunately I think it worked out for the best, so I supposed I was prepared for it, but it was a shock. The situation gave me a perspective on my particular role that I didn't have before. In other words, when it felt like my learning was slowing, my eyes were opened to a challenge (and challenges) I had not considered before and the large amount I have left to learn.

Additionally, and not related to the situation above, over the last two days I was able to articulate a few different things that were stressing me out, outside of work, which gave me even more perspective. Which is to say, a few days ago I could barely laugh because the weight of the issues at hand was traumatizing, and now I see so many positives and larger perspectives I can laugh again. In other words, when four things were causing me stress, I focused on the one I could best articulate and the specific items there. However, the four items in context paint a different picture of the situation, of my life situation. So, thank you for the prayers!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Work Stress

It's 11 PM on a Saturday, and I'm awake because just before bed I started thinking about work. We have a reorganization happening Monday which is going to leave a few holes in the org chart and I can't help but feel like my new place in the organization is a demotion. Overall the reorganization is going to be really beneficial, and I'm not being demoted, but there will now be another layer above me in the org chart. I came to a startup to hopefully grow with the company and develop as a leader and get the opportunity to manage, but more than 80% of the company has started after me and I haven't been promoted at all in almost three years despite also being more experienced than most at the company. What am I doing so wrong?

My current role is exhausting. I fail constantly. I end up making all sort of decisions and so many of them are wrong. I'm inches away from quitting. Before getting out of bed to write this I was strategizing how I might go look for another job or if I should just take the plunge and start a company. I'm okay with a little work stress, but a constant stress to fight the fire of the day and get all of the embers out perfectly without using too much water while not choking on the smoke is a really tough ask. 

For years I've known about the FIRE movement, Financial Independence, Retire Early. I passed the point not too long ago that if my sole goal in life was to retire, I could do it today. However, I would basically be relegating myself to a vow of poverty in the USA or living abroad essentially permanently. So I'm not ready to pull the trigger and retire. But I'm 35 years old, for me to have bought into the idea of early retirement feels like a systemic failure of engineering. This stuff is still cool! I still design little parts like my ice axe for fun in the evenings. I'm reading Work by James Suzman right now to try and help understand why I work, and more specifically why we all work so much. 

Friday we had a company party and honestly it was tough at times, so I took a walk part way through to give a tour to my girlfriend. Two days before we had a product failure in testing. That day we had an existing company announce they were going to enter our market and compete with us. During the party the comments from my peers were humbling, and heartbreaking. Two people said they would follow me anywhere. How am I supposed to respond to that? One guy said to me at one point loud enough that at least five coworkers could hear, "Isaiah, I don't know what your career plans are, but we need you as a manager." I quickly replied that yes I did want to be a manger, but it's something that has to happen at the right time and the right situation. It felt like I was digging my own career's grave at this company by being diplomatic. 

I received an email this week from one of the local running store chains that they too were hiring! And hiring managers! A decent sized part of me wants to jump ship and take any management job I can in a company I believe in at the moment. I haven't applied for any jobs or talked to any recruiters because the work I am doing now is really cool, and I like to think that perhaps it will be recognized, and going back to the FIRE comment, it could set me up for life, but is currently in a fragile state where me leaving might have an impact on that success.

When I was away for three weeks in May to Alaska I was really hoping that everything would go smoothly without me, so that I could focus on other issues, longer term issues. In short it didn't go great. As one coworker (who has only been here six weeks) said at the party Friday as he introduced me to his wife, "Isaiah does everyone else's work so he doesn't get a chance to do his." Again, how am I supposed to respond to that?

Pray for me please. I don't have the answers.