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Wednesday, February 22. 2012
This chronicles my journey through my first Hack Day at Yahoo!
What Is Hack Day?
First, let me get the Hollywood image of hacking out of the way first. We're not breaking into computer systems, we're not launching distributed denial of service attacks, and we're certainly not Anonymous. The technical term for those malicious activities is actually 'cracking'. Hacking in this case refers to "a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a computer system."
The core of Hack Day is as follows:
Back in my academia days, I was exposed to "The Cathedral and The Bazaar", which is one of the most influential essays in the open source software movement. The essay argues that every great piece of software starts by scratching a developer's itch. The ideas I came up for Hack Day did in fact originate a need which came from a fairly frustrating period of time at work, in which I took three weeks of vacation to recover from. After that experience, I thought to myself, I don't want anyone else to have to go through that, and then a lightbulb went off. Rather than complaining about the problem, I was going to help solve it. If I could recreate the Matrix as I saw fit, this was what I would do. So, during my vacation time, I actually fleshed out two separate Hack Day ideas.
With two ideas in hand, I had to recruit enough talent to staff two hack teams. Some folks thought the ideas were cool, but didn't have time to participate. Some folks thought I was a mad man and wanted nothing to do with it. In the end, I was able to recruit four engineers to back me. I would act as team captain for both teams.
We Came, We Saw, We Hacked
Hack Day officially started on Thursday at noon. My team packed up all their gear, and we relocated to official Hack Day venue. The room was setup with four-man workstations with ample power supplies for our electronics. The sides were lined with drinks and snacks. The back had a couple bean bag chairs for people to rest. The Hack Day organizers gave their inaugural address, and the competition began. I gave my team their marching orders, and we started our 24 hours of hacking. I put my headphones on, put on my coding playlist, had my geekiest t-shirt on (a Battlestar Galactica t-shirt) and away we went.
The team gelled really well together. I had an A-list of talent, so everyone were masters in their respective areas of expertise. Everyone collaborated really well. Any time we ran into a problem, we were able to come up with quick solutions.
Hacking and bootstrapping code was quite liberating as you don't have to worry so much about edge cases, scalability, performance, etc. The whole goal was to get something quick and dirty working in a very short amount of time. It didn't need to be pretty, it just had to work.
By 8pm, the mood started changing at Hack Day. The atmosphere was a bit more laid back as people started getting tired. The Hack Day organizers setup a turntable.fm room, and folks in the room took turns DJ-ing. It was a really cool collaborative experience. When it was my turn to DJ, I went with my go-to techno artist, Rob Dougan. I got lots of props for throwing that on. Someone in turntable.fm complimented my playlist. The music started getting kind of weird at 5am in the morning, someone had put on some really bizarre sounding jazz.
By 11pm, all of my team had went home. I decided to drive home to take a quick shower, and I came straight back. At 1am, one of my team members rejoined me at the Yahoo! campus, and we continued hacking through the night. Another one of my team members was working remotely at home. At 7am, everyone got kicked out of the Hack Day room because they had to reconfigure the room for judging later in the day. We relocated our command center to a booth in URL's Cafe. Unfortunately we were stuck on a major bug that was blocking progress, and we were waiting for one of our team mates to come into work to help solve the problem. At 8am, I saw my team member slump over in the booth and fell asleep. I thought okay, maybe now is a good time to rest while we're stuck. I slept for about 15 minutes (it felt like an hour) before waking up to the sound of classical music; lucky us, the sound technicians were doing an audio test of the whole building that morning.
10am, team member fixes the critical bug in our system, and we're unblocked. By 11am we had one hour left; we were frantically killing off bugs and implementing features. Even more awesome, the primary laptop we were working on was running out of batteries. At exactly 11:55am we finished everything and submitted our hack. Talk about a photo finish. We opted to skip eating lunch because presentations started at 1pm.
The rules of presenting at Hack Day were simple. Every team gets 90 seconds to pitch their idea to the audience and the judges. Powerpoint presentations were absolutely banned. Teams must present working prototypes. The judges represented key leaders from across the company including Senior Directors, Architects, Senior Vice Presidents, and the CTO. Winning teams have an opportunity to be funded by The Catalyst Program which helps incubate ideas and turn those ideas to real world products for the market.
We went to sign-in for our hack, and picked up our official Hack Day t-shirts. There were a total of 65 teams competing. My presentation slot was #31 and #32. Unfortunately I had to present both ideas back-to-back, and my stronger idea was up first; ideally, I wanted the order reversed because I wanted to end on a climax when presenting. Oh well. As I watched the first 15 presentations, I saw some really strong presentations, so this was quite a crowded field. I threw back on my headphones, put on some fight music, and got into the zone.
#31 was called, and it was show time. This was our time, our moment. I opened the presentation stumbling a bit with my words, but then found my groove as I started seeing some judges nod their heads in approval. As I finished my opening statements and logged into my hack, the crowd started to thaw and laughter started to fill the room. My adrenaline started kicking in and I went with the flow, and the crowd looked absolutely delighted. As the clock ran down, I ended with my punch line and the crowd responded with loud applause. It was probably the loudest the room had been all day. Later when I walked off the stage, one of my co-workers in the audience said, "dude, you owned the room." I managed to present a very subversive idea in a funny way, and showed an incredibly simple way of solving the problem. As I came off the stage and sat down, my team member showed me an email that had just come in. One of the VPs had sent an email saying how much he loved the idea.
After a 90 second break, #32 was called, and I had to go through the second pitch. I felt a bit more confident and talked a little bit slower. I didn't quite get the same visual feedback from judges, nor did I get the same audible feedback from the audience. The presentation also went about 10 seconds overtime unfortunately, and one of the key features we were trying to demo broke at the end. Oh well.
The other presentations finished, and the pizza party began as the judges left the room to deliberate. I was exhausted, and the team had given it their all. There was nothing left to do but wait. Some of my team members already went back to the office not really expecting to win. 45 minutes later, the judges came back from a deeply contested decision. They started running through the list of winners. Then I heard, "The Hack Day Design Award goes to #32." I thought to myself, what on earth, the weaker idea and weaker presentation won? I got onto my instant messenger and recalled my team members to get over here, we had won! As I'm trying to regroup my team, I heard "and the Hack Day Hackers' Choice Award goes to #31." My team members exchanged looks of disbelief. I guess lightning does strike twice. We went up to claim our prize, and a special black Hack Day t-shirt.
I don't really recall precisely what happened after this, but we were instantly whisked away by media folks. There were a lot of photos taken, and a lot of video interviews. I wasn't really in the mood for photos because I looked hideous; I hadn't shaved, and I hadn't slept at all. It was a very strange experience, everyone suddenly wanted a piece of you.
When the media was through with us, I packed up my gear and started walking back to my office. One of my co-workers along the way asked, "how does it feel that you've won big?" My reply was, "I'm the same man I was 24 hours ago, and I'm still the same man today, and the same man tomorrow. Besides, it wasn't me, it's the team. I couldn't have done it without them. It would have been impossible for me to get those two ideas off the ground without them."
That night when I got home, I crashed on my bed and had the greatest sleep ever.
Big thanks to my team, Andrew, Huge, Melissa, and Srini for helping me with my crazy ideas. You said yes when my idea only existed as scribbles on a piece of paper. Those 24 hours at Hack Day has potentially changed the future.
The Business Day After
As I walked through campus, I noticed I started getting double-takes from strangers and faint whispers of "hey, that's the guy from Hack Day." At lunch time, I was in line for some food and a guy comes up and introduces himself as the lead of The Catalyst Program (the idea incubator).
Catalyst: "hey, I'm the guy that was chatting with you on turntable.fm, I was really liking your music on Hack Day. Rob Dougan is so awesome."
One of the questions I get is, "How did you pull off that pitch? I didn't see you even bothering to practice before you went up." The answer is mastery. This doesn't happen accidentally, and it doesn't happen overnight. It is a very deliberate investment of time. No one sees the many of hours behind the scenes that were spent preparing for this one moment. For example, during my vacation, I watched about 200 different business pitches on Dragon's Den. Watching that many pitches, you're bound to learn what works and what doesn't work.
Fast forward to today, and I'm still doing various media spots. Some of it will eventually be made publicly available for you to see. For now, all my interviews and such are internal only. I'm waiting to be summoned by the Product Leadership Team and The Catalyst folks to pitch to them. We'll see if my ideas get funded. The entrepreneur in me is quietly awaiting that opportunity. This is one of the cool things about working at Yahoo!, they invented Hack Day.
I'm feeling very blessed these days. This was Act 1 of Empire Building. This blog post wasn't meant to be bragging. I just noted earlier in a blog post that we tend to always remember the bad things that happen. Perhaps it's good to dwell on some of the good things that have happened.
Tuesday, February 14. 2012
2012 marks the fifth year of my five year plan which began in 2007, that fateful year where I decided to do a blind jump to Silicon Valley. This blog post is the battle plan strategy for 2012. The reason why I'm posting this is, I heard from a friend that people who post their goals for the year are more likely to succeed in achieving them. The rationale is you're more accountable to achieving the goals, and the document serves as a reminder of what you need to prioritize.
Before diving into the strategy, let me paint a backdrop of how 2011 went. A modern philosopher of our time, Eminem asks, "If you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?" The unfortunate answer is, I let it slip. The other unfortunate thing is, when you look back in time, your brain is wired to remember lost opportunities more than past victories. That's likely why we ponder the couldas, wouldas, shouldas so much.
"Men like us we never get back the things we love." - Deus Ex: Human Revolution
If I had to use one word to summarize the theme of my 2012 strategy, I would use 'Empire.' A critical leadership lesson I've been learning is focus on your strengths, and bring on people to help fill your weaknesses. As an engineer, my strength is building things, so this year I will focus on empire building. Last year, I was met with great resistance in trying to achieve my goals, so this year I have a lot of lost progress to make up.
"A wise man will make more opportunities than he finds." - Francis Bacon, English Philosopher
We shall wander the country side recruiting allies to complement where we are weak, gather our forces, and retake what is rightfully ours, and avenge our fallen master. We are as ronin, we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain.
This year I need to shore up my social network in order to find the right partners; however I am horrible at networking. As an introvert, networking is an emotionally draining experience. Nevertheless, it's a critical thing I have to master. This article I found had an interesting spin on networking, "Forget Networking, How To Be A Connector."
We all know people like them, people who seem to know everyone. They're always able to help -- or if they can't, they know someone who can. You meet them for the first time and in 15 minutes, you're talking with them like you're childhood friends. They're successful, smart and funny, with a likable touch of self-deprecation. And they're interested in everything. Who are they? Connectors. [...] Gladwell describes them as having an ability to span many different worlds, subcultures and niches. [...]
Perhaps one of the most important attributes of a connector is a willingness to help and to reach out even if there is no obvious or immediate payback. That means thinking long-term.
I need to become a connector. "The Introvert's Guide To Networking" is also a good read.
Saying No Is Just As Important
I was reading my company's strategy document, and what was interesting was that it lists what we're going to do, and it explicitly lists what we're not going to do. Normally strategies don't mention what will NOT be done. Applying that idea to personal strategy makes a lot of sense. By saying no, you reduce the number of distractions, and it allows you to focus on key priorities. I would much rather do a couple things really well than doing many things poorly.
One area that I'm not going to do this year is buy a house. A lot of my friends have been asking why I'm not investing in real estate. It's currently not the right investment for me. As an investment, there are a lot of commission costs to both enter and exit a real estate investment which is very unattractive. Taking out a mortgage is essentially leveraging your money 5:1 which is also absurd (think about if you'd ever use that much leverage for stocks). I also need liquidity to keep my options open, and a house is definitely not a liquid asset. Instead, I've been investing in real estate income trusts which pays me a 13% dividend, and I don't have to do any work. I don't have to worry about tenants paying rent, property taxes, or dealing with home maintenance.
First and foremost, I am going to continue aggressively diversifying my portfolio. Unfortunately my assets are still largely tied to tech companies.
Next theme is to focus on investments that require little time. One of the most interesting pieces of financial advice I read was 'how much money would continue coming in if you suddenly stopped working?' Since time is a scarce resource, I like the idea of putting money to work, and it comes back without needing a lot of attention or time. This means I'll be expanding my portfolio to include more dividend yielding stocks.
One area I've been fascinated by is the area of angel investors. Maybe I've been watching too much Dragon's Den, but the way those angel investors put their capital to work is really intriguing to me. My goal this year is to learn more about angel investing and investing in private companies. A stretch goal is to pull off a deal with other strategic partners. Hopefully that will setup a foundation for future investment partnerships. I'm also looking to pitch some ideas to investors to attract some investment for a couple crazy ideas I have. This year will be much more entrepreneurial than the past.
The 24 Character Strategy
The other day, I was reading about China's meteoric rise to power over the past decade. What's interesting was that the West was caught off guard by China's rise, but it didn't happen accidentally. China rose because of a carefully constructed strategy called "The 24 Character Strategy."
"Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership." -Deng Xiaoping, Chairman of the Communist Party of China
Such an excellent, profound, and concise strategy.
Time Is Finite
One of the big events that happened last year was when Steve Jobs died. There was an incredible outpouring of love for that man, yet it made me ponder. Even a man that powerful and wealthy couldn't save himself, and he couldn't even add one minute to his life if he wanted to. I re-read Steve Jobs' famous commencement speech that he gave at Stanford.
My third story is about death.
When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: "If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you'll most certainly be right." It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: "If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?" And whenever the answer has been "No" for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.
Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure - these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart. [...]
Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Very interesting insight, and it's causing me to urgently want to change the future while I'm still young and healthy. I've also read that the average programmer's career peaks at around 35-40 years old. So, now is a critical time to accelerate progress to secure the future before the peak comes.
I realized last year with all the crazy changes going on, I had used so much of my time trying to predict the future and the next thing that would happen. Rather than trying to predict the future, my time would be better spent building the future I want.
Fight the future!
The Bezos Test
Whenever I visit home, I'm constantly asked if I'm married yet. When I say no, I get a wide variety of strange reactions, as if there's something wrong with me. When church folk inquire about my marital status, my go to answer comes from Proverbs 31:10 - "A good woman is hard to find, and worth far more than diamonds." This was a problem 2000 years ago, and it's still a problem today, so this isn't exactly a new problem.
This problem reminded me of an article entitled, "The Inner Bezos," which covers the life of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com. He had an interesting test to find resourceful women.
The limitation Bezos set for friends producing candidates for his "women flow" was more esoteric. "The number-one criterion was that I wanted a woman who could get me out of a Third World prison," he says.
"What I really wanted was someone resourceful. But nobody knows what you mean when you say, 'I'm looking for a resourceful woman.' If I tell somebody I'm looking for a woman who can get me out of a Third World prison.
I thought that was an interesting and novel way to limit his search criteria. Perhaps I'll apply that test.
Monday, February 6. 2012
Ronin - A samurai with no lord or master during the feudal period of Japan. A samurai became masterless from the death or fall of his master.
As I draw up battle plans and objectives for 2012, I thought it was important to review 2011 as it's always important to draw lessons from the past. If I had to summarize 2011 in one word, I would use 'ronin'. 2011 was a bizarre unpredictable year where I lost a lot of masters that had authority over me in my professional sphere and personal sphere. I looked at my organizational chart, and for the first time, every single person up the chain of command was different/gone from the time I started at the company.
Big changes in leadership always produces a lot of distractions, and lost time as folks get up to speed in their various roles. Brand new leaders also have to spend a lot of time trying to earn their people's respect and loyalty which is not a fast or easy thing to do.
This constant state of change produced lots of strange paradoxes. My natural tendency and defence mechanism was to preserve the present in times of great change, but sometimes it felt like the more you resisted, the greater the change. A key lesson learned was, change is inevitable so you might as well embrace it and influence the outcome.
A side-effect to being masterless is this odd sense of freedom which is quite empowering. I had a lunch-time discussion with a friend at work who had recently become fully vested. He noted that there was this strange sense of freedom because for the first time, he wasn't worrying as much about losing his stock anymore, and he felt that he was now working at the company because he wanted to rather than out of financial fear. It's quite a liberating feeling having nothing to lose and everything to gain.
We are as ronin, wandering the country side in exile, in search of adventure and a way to avenge our fallen master and regain our honour.
One of the most revolutionary ideas I came across this year was the notion of a balanced information diet. Just as your body can't function properly if you ate all junk food, your brain can't function properly with all junk information. A balanced information diet requires learning about ideas that are relevant, important, uncomfortable, challenging, and even opposing ideas. This video by Eli Pariser eloquently lays out his arguments in this TED talk.
As a foreigner living in the U.S., I am often surprised by the civil discorse around politics. I wonder if arguments and debates would be of higher quality if people consumed a balanced information diet which includes learning about uncomfortable, challenging opposing views. At least maybe the debates would have more substance, respect, and empathy.
To further extend the idea, I often get asked by college folks, "what is the purpose of going through college and taking all these random classes?" My answer is, you learn how to learn in college, and when you get out, you should be able to learn new subjects quickly on-the-fly. Those random classes that were taken in subjects outside of your core major could lead to some interesting cross breeding of ideas. As a technologist, I can view problems in other fields through a fresh and different perspective and vice-versa. Perhaps other disciplines have novel solutions to problems in my field of expertise. That is why this last year, I placed more importance on being more well-rounded in my knowledge, and aimed to be more cross disciplined.
While in academia, I never had a chance to take any philosophy courses, so as a stretch goal, I decided to go through Harvard's online course on Justice and Philosophy. Very enlightening experience. When a politician on television talks about being a Libertarian, I can now safely assert, "you good sir know nothing about real Libertarian ideals, Nozick would be rolling in his grave."
One of the new philosophies that the leadership team at work has instilled is failing quickly. The idea is that it's okay to fail as long as you fail quickly. If an idea doesn't work out, change course and work on something else that might succeed. It's better to fail quickly than to have a long drawn out slow-motion failure as it's very costly. I thought this was a very liberating and counterintuitive idea. The entire academic system is built around the idea that failing is a bad thing; however, in the real world, failure is inevitable, and risk management / risk minimization is just as important as succeeding. Jim Cramer has a saying about investing which goes, limit your downside and the upside will take care of itself. That being said, failing quickly can apply to dreams, opportunities, relationships and other areas of life. I certainly wished I applied failing quickly to some relationships I tried pursuing; it would have saved me from chasing phantom dead-end dreams and the dreaded friend-zone.
I looked through my portfolio this year, and realized I had some horrible investments from 2006 that have lost a lot of money, and had become dead money. Hoping that the stock would rebound was a futile effort. The opportunity cost was just too high, so I purged my portfolio of all the deadwood and reinvested the money into more favourable investments. I wish I had applied failing quickly earlier.
Disclaimer: I'm not advocating to give up quickly on everything. Perseverance and being able to fight a long campaign is also very important. It's more of a matter of choosing your battles, and deciding which battles are worth fighting.
Purpose, Autonomy, Mastery
As I advance in my career, a management role might be in the cards in the future. I was asked about filling a management role, but declined because I hadn't maxed out my technical skills yet. Some people had asked me if it was a career mistake of not going down the management path, and my response is that I already take on some management tasks. Real leaders don't need to command fancy titles to lead. To further drive home the point, in the company employee directory, I list myself as the "senior summer intern" because I honestly don't care about titles. Sometimes that lowly title is even advantageous because unfamiliar people underestimate me and I end up overdelivering in their eyes.
In either case, as management is a possibility in the future, I spent more time learning about people and management. The video below was the most important management lesson I had ever learned. It blew my mind because it highlights all these bizarre beliefs we have about the workplace which are modeled after antiquated agriculture-based rules which don't apply in a skill-based economy.
The Empire Fund
In late 2010 I had started a couple lectures on financial literacy for young adults. My goal in 2011 was to extend that by offering more hands-on one-on-one teaching. I established something called 'The Empire Fund' which was a place for folks to learn more about investing and finances. It consists of a fantasy stock market league, and a Facebook group for Q&A.
Some results from financial advising this year:
Fear produces paralysis. Despite all this chaos occurring locally, there was a lot of macro fears as well. In 2011 we witnessed a double-dip recession which was fairly scary. The stock market actually has an index nicknamed 'the fear index' (VIX), and fear was at a 2 year high. There were dire fears about a breakup of the European Union which wreaked havoc on global stock exchanges. The US stock markets performed horribly for the most part, with only 1% upside for the whole year. I'm kicking myself for sometimes being too afraid to buy stock that had fallen a lot; I missed some big opportunities because of fear.
In terms of finances this year, I learned a whole lot about the power of dividend stocks and stock options. I'm currently employing both financial instruments in my portfolio. I have to admit that I was wrong for ignoring boring dividend stocks for so long. Dividend stocks are not as exciting as high flying stocks, but they sure save you in a double dip recession.
Worst investments of the year: Bank of America, Alcoa.
Best investments of the year: Lululemon, Amazon, Annaly Capital.
The street hockey league that I help run, Barn League Hockey, enjoyed its second year with 80% growth. We had 60+ people sign-up this year. We saw the average skill level rise, new faces, couple injuries, and an epic hockey fight.
Over at Bethel Church, had a good cake war at the Mission's Banquet. This year I was appointed to the Communications Committee where I sit as an adviser for their web presence. I also continue to help out as a sound technician there. Strangely I found myself doing sound and lights at a women's conference this year. Didn't see that one coming.
To Be Continued...
Stay tuned for the 2012 battle plan.
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"The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
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