What I'm Reading
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Monday, July 30. 2012
This post outlines my quasi-spontaneous trip down to Ecuador. It was definitely something I didn't foresee doing this year, but hey, everything worked out.
Last month, I was visiting a sister church in Gilroy where my friend is employed as a pastor. He was organizing a missions trip down to Ecuador; the primary objective was helping build a school. He mentioned that a couple people had dropped out of the trip last minute, so he was looking for people to go. Without really thinking it through, I said, I'll go.
This past year, I've been unable to leave the U.S. due to a change in my work visa situation. It's kind of unnerving knowing you can't leave the country, especially if there was a family emergency back in Canada or something. In either case, a week before, I had finally received an updated work visa status, and I could leave the country again. I had also hit my vacation cap at work, so I thought, what better way to celebrate my new found traveling freedom than to go to Ecuador. I double checked with my immigration lawyers, and they green lit everything. I talked with my parents about it, expecting hesitant concern, but was met with excitement that I was going. Everything seemed to line up, so I signed a cheque, and that sealed the deal, I was going on my first missions trip to South America.
The missions team had a couple of meetings previously, probably to get people to bond and to get to know each other. I knew a handful of people, but the rest were totally foreign. My first impression of the team was shaped by this one statement in one of the meetings:
I heard it's currently winter time in Ecuador, so it's going to be cold. I looked at the forecast and it says it's going to be 30 degrees, that's going to be really cold.
I casually asked if the forecast was in Celsius, but the lady didn't back down from her assertion. Oh well, funny is worth points.
I've had some people ask me if I was going to burn out if I did a building trip after a very high-tempo couple of months at work. The strange thing about me is, the more I accomplish, the younger and reinvigorated I feel. Just give me a war worth fighting for. This year has been a year of proving to myself that I've still got it. A lifehack that I have been using to increase the sense of urgency in my life is pretending the world is going to end in 2012, what would I do if this was the last year on this earth. An overseas missions trip has always been on my to-do list, so what better time than now?
The second inspiration was that I've been having lunch with a co-worker debating philosophy. Lately we had been asking a challenging question, what are we doing to help change the world? When the opportunity came to build a school in Ecuador, I found my answer. I look back at what I have accomplished in my career, and the foundation of all that is education. That was my ticket to success. I envisioned the idea as literally building the foundations of a nation, and this was a critical way of breaking people free from poverty. Education is one of those areas I'm passionate about, so this mission was a good match.
SFO -> MIA -> GYE
We had to catch the first flight out of San Francisco, so the plan was, the Gilroy convoy would leave at 2:30am (designated Fireteam Charlie), head to San Jose to pick up additional team members (designated Fireteam Alpha), then head to San Francisco and be there by 4:30am.
Eleven brave souls linked up at the San Francisco International Airport, and we were on our way to Miami then Guayaquil, Ecuador.
At the airport, the men (and the boy Cameron) made a pact that we would not shave on this trip.
When we approached Miami, we actually ran into some weather. The pilot was trying to avoid giant columns of clouds so we took a huge detour and ended up flying over Key West. This was a bit of a problem because there was only a 45 minute window to catch out connecting flight. When we finally landed, we had about 20 minutes to catch our connecting flight. We made a mad dash to the gate, and thankfully got on-board on time.
On the Miami to Ecuador flight, I did notice quite a number of Americans on the flight. I later found out that the flight had two other mission teams which were helping with other build projects across the country. I guess Ecuador was a popular destination for humanitarians. The guy sitting next to me on the flight was an Ecuadorian, and he asked what I was doing heading to Ecuador. I was telling him about the school that we were helping construct, and he asked if I was a missionary. I hesitated to answer because I realize I'm playing toy soldier at this point, I'm just a tourist on a very short-term mission. In either case, he expressed his thanks to me and the church for helping his country.
That exchange with the gentleman on the flight made me think a bit about the church and society. On the internet, I read comments from people who are fairly mad at the church, and believe society would be better off without it.I think the American media also overplays the idea of a culture war going on between religion and secular society. From talking to the guy sitting next to me, I sensed no hostility at all against the church. It made me consider that the hot button topics that are discussed are essentially wedge issues meant to drive people apart, and a lot of it is manufactured rage on both sides. I do think there's a lot of common ground, such as education being very important. If you look at history, the original universities in the West were seeded by the church. In either case, it made me think about the idea that the church would do better in building bridges of understanding if we promote what we are for. I think there's a lot of common ground with the secular world in the fight against poverty, improving education, access to healthcare and AIDS prevention.
Touching Down In Ecuador
After about 11 hours in flight, we finally touched down in Ecuador. Everyone cleared through immigration/customs pretty quick except me. The immigrations officer looked at the photo in my passport, then looked up at me, and started gesturing that I was not the same person as the person shown in the passport.
He asked, "Spanish?"
I responded, "Anglais", not realizing that I had just started using Canadian French as my default language.
The guy looked displeased, and started flipping through my passport. After a couple minutes of him looking through stuff on his computer, he finally let me pass. As I rejoined my team, I realized I wasn't the last person out. Tori allegedly brought fresh apples into the country, and she got written up at customs.
Fun fact: The Americans on the team were looking at my passport, and they asked why I looked so serious and angry in the photo. I told them that Canadian passports require you to not smile in the photo. American passports on the other hand, I guess you're supposed to smile. Smiling makes computer facial recognition more difficult, so that's probably why in Canada, they want no smiling for passport photos.
As we exited customs/immigration, we met up with our handler, Kirk. He took us out to the parking lot to load our stuff into the van. My first observation as I walked out of the airport was, the air wasn't as humid as I was anticipating. My other senses then took over, the smell of the place, and the distant sound of traffic, the city felt alive. It then finally hit me, and the reality set in, I was now in a third world country. As we were loading the vans with one of Kirk's henchmen, we realized that there was a random guy lurking amongst the group and the van. The guy was trying to steal luggage when we weren't looking. We quickly put everyone into the vehicles and left quickly.
While driving out of the airport, we started seeing the traffic and noticed how noisy it was because everyone seemed to honk their horns. It seemed like traffic lights were more like suggestions as traffic kept flowing even when there's a red light. I couldn't see lane dividers on the roads. People seemed to cut people off quite closely. One thing I was impressed by was how modern the cars on the road were, but that might be because we were in a richer area of town. I was expecting junky old cars in the streets.
We got to our hotel, and Kirk gave us a quick briefing:
Fun Fact: Ecuador uses US Dollars for their currency. Previous governments used to print cash which caused inflationary problems. They settled on using the US Dollar for more economic stability.
After the briefing, we went up to our rooms. The rooms were okay. One interesting thing was, they try to conserve energy as much as possible, so you need to put a keycard in this card reading in order to turn on the electricity in the room.
Our team was pretty hungry, and thankfully the hotel's restaurant featured "Night Sandwiches." It became a nice evening tradition for the team. This is the Sanduches De Pollo.
The funny thing is, Kirk had just finished telling us to avoid things like lettuce and tomatoes because they might not be cleaned properly, and here we were eating sandwiches with lettuce and tomatoes on it. Turned out the hotel restaurant's food was safe to eat.
Stay tuned for part 2.
Wednesday, July 18. 2012
Before leaving for the long-weekend vacation (July 4th), I got contacted about potentially presenting at the next Yahoo! Demos and Drinks event. They wanted to showcase my latest Hack Day win from Q2. I sent in a short abstract and didn't hear back any details so I went on vacation. When I got back, I see this email saying they wanted me to present to 800 people. Awesome, just got back from vacation and I had about a day to put together a presentation and supporting materials. In about two days, I put together a one-pager summary of my Hack Day idea complete with screenshots, and also a 10 minute presentation.
Yahoo! Demos and Drinks is an event that showcases the latest and greatest from Yahoo! The event has five stages, and talks would be going on simultaneously. Presentations would repeat every 15 minutes so employees can make their rounds stage-to-stage.
After rehearsing my presentation a couple times, I headed over to the event to setup. The funny thing was, they handed me a wireless mic, and I had some troubles getting it on. As a sound guy, I'm used to handing wireless mics to speakers; the roles were reversed this time around which was unfamiliar. I met up with Eric Rowell (founder of KinectJS), another Hack Day winner who was presenting and thankfully he felt as ill-prepared as I did. Before the event started, we were whisked away to the media folks for an interview.
Begin The Demos and Drinks
The clock read 4pm, and it was time for our first presentation cycle. Eric started, then I went next. The crowd in front of our stage wasn't big at all, so I was wondering if we weren't interesting. My first presentation went okay, but I definitely forgot some key points. When I got to the punchline of my presentation, I didn't get a single laugh from the crowd. Not a great start. 4:15pm hits, and we presented again and I'm seeing some higher level folks in our crowd, some VPs and SVPs. After my presentation, I see my partner showing our demo on a smartphone to an SVP and making some small talk. Great. The VP of Engineering from my division comes up to me and asks, how come we can't ship this thing now? I had another fellow come up asking why feature X didn't exist. My answer was that we only had 24 hours to build this thing for Hack Day. The guy hinted with he didn't believe we built this thing in only 24 hours. I guess it's a good sign that we had done something magical, but I was adamant that we built everything in 24 hours.
Hello Mr. CEO
By 4:30, all the presenters were told to stop because the interim CEO, Ross Levinsohn was going to make a speech on the main stage. I see the CEO wandering over to our booth, and he starts reading our posters. I whisper to my team mates, oh my goodness, that's Ross Levinsohn, the CEO, act cool. He comes up to me and asks, "so what is all this about?" while gesturing at my poster. I respond, "I can give you a demo after your speech". He replies, "That can wait, lets see what you've got." Alright, making a pitch to the CEO sitting in the front row, no pressure. Eric takes the stage, and the crowd is starting to grow around the CEO. I take the stage after Eric, and the crowd keeps growing, and all I see is the CEO standing there with his magnificent hair. It was my third time to do the presentation, so I think I finally found my groove and hit all the key points. I hit the climax and the punch line, and the audience laughs. Oh thank goodness. I finish my presentation and walk off stage to the sound of glorious applause. I was relieved. The first thing I did after was to meet up with my team, and I held out my hand showing them that it was shaking because of all the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
Before we could take a victory lap, the SVP of our division came up to us and congratulated us on a great demo, and he told us to setup a meeting with him to discuss the future of this product. My eyes widened at the possibility of another one of my ideas getting off the ground and funded. When I walked back to the office with my team, we were giddy with excitement. At the same time, we realized, wow we're going to be busy, we're already working on one of our funded hack day projects. I was also about to go on vacation, so I really didn't have the time to try to close a round of funding.
Here are some of the photos from the Yahoo! Demos and Drinks event:
Another Funding Round?
We managed to setup a meeting with the SVP before I left on vacation. We sit down and the first thing he asks was, how do you envision this product moving forward. I told him a bit about the business strategy I had for it and such. After I finished, he pitched to me his business idea which was complementary and made a lot of sense. I was relieved that the exchange was much more collaborative and respectful than what I had experienced earlier with another higher-up. The million dollar question he asked was, how fast can we get this to market. I explained to him that I was already working on a funded Hack Day project, and he kind of smirked because it's a good problem to have. I told him I basically needed resources to help so I can delegate tasks which would enable me to take on multiple projects simultaneously. 10 minutes into the meeting, we basically had a gentleman's agreement on how we would proceed.
I walked out of the meeting with my co-founder, and he goes, oh my goodness, that was so easy compared to the first time we tried to raise funding. Last time we spent a good two months working on a winning funding pitch. I was absolutely relieved, I had no idea how the meeting would go because there was no agenda.
Hopefully the second time around with the explicit support from an SVP, a lot of the blockades will be cleared. Hopefully it'll silence the critics because I have proven that I'm not a one-hit wonder, and not just a simple lowly engineer. There's no more hiding in shadows. There's a lot of people watching now. We'll have to strike while the iron is hot. It's going to get really busy.
We'll see if we close another round of funding. Stay tuned.
Tuesday, July 17. 2012
Deng Xiaoping's 24 character strategy for China was, "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." The following is a story of that strategy in action.
The project that I received funding for is well underway now. Couples months ago, I was wandering through the organization calling up folks for help, and bringing in talent who saw the potential of what we were working on. Once I put together the team, I thought alright, we can start building and things should be easier from this point on. How wrong I was.
Unfortunately there was a political war that had to be fought before I could proceed with my vision. Some people were making accusations that my funding approval was not valid because some key decision makers didn't attend my pitch session to offer the explicit approval. Things got worse when a re-org hit, and some new leadership came in reviewing all projects. The review process typically creates uncertainty.
In either case, I gave a pitch of my project to one of the new leaders, and I got really positive feedback over the phone. The guy said he was going to be in town the following week and wanted to meet with me to talk about the next steps. I thought great, I've got a high ranking ally on my side, nothing to worry about.
I was supposed to meet with this new leader with my boss, but my boss was sick that day. I walked into the meeting alone (no backup) with no idea what the new leader wanted to talk about because he didn't propose an agenda. We sat down to talk, and the mood of the meeting suddenly turned negative. He started by asserting that I didn't have a team and had no plan. Very odd since I had spent over a month putting together an elaborate business plan and a team. I informed him that his information was wrong and I infact had a team and a plan. The new leader decided to start ripping apart my team claiming I'm just an engineer so I can't do X, this person is just a designer so she can't do Y, this person is not a capable of Z, etc.
The meeting basically was him talking at me for the next 30 minutes about how I have no idea what I'm doing because I was just an engineer. This was pretty surprising to me because the guy had no background information of who I was, or what I had accomplished thus far. I attempted to explain myself a couple times, but it was clear he wasn't interested in actually listening. I had spent three weeks negotiating with a contact and landed a huge customer for my product, but the new leader assigned zero value to this.
This was a great first impression, on the phone in front of everyone he was all smiles and rainbows, one-on-one, he was a completely different person. It became abundantly clear that he was going to try to replace my team members with his handpicked people. I worked hard to form a team around a common vision and a common culture. Dismantling my team was crossing the line and I was going to resist with everything I had.
Couple key points came to my mind:
Prepare The Nukes
I spent the weekend plotting my next political moves to end this threat. I remember talking to a friend at work about this situation, and while he couldn't offer any advice, he was very interested in the outcome. The easy choice was to just let my team members go and accept defeat, but it would violate my principles, I couldn't sell out my team.
When I got into the office on Monday, I called a meeting with my boss. He was shocked that my meeting with the new leader had gone so poorly. My boss had spoken to the new leader in the past, and never had interactions like what I encountered. I assured my boss that I wasn't exaggerating or misinterpreting what I heard. A couple days passed, and the new leader made an edict that he wanted a key member of my team replaced. Thankfully, I operate on the principle of mutually assured destruction, and I had come up with a nuclear option (with a little homework and some intelligence reports). My boss dropped the nuke for me, and the mushroom cloud was glorious. This new leader had underestimated my political and diplomatic cunning because in his eyes, I'm just a engineer. Long story short, my team remains intact, and I've created a buffer zone now.
"If you keep running from the school yard bully, he keeps on chasing you but the moment you turn around and stop you punch him really hard in a sensitive spot. He'll think twice about coming back." -Admiral Adama
A Game Of Thrones
After the nukes were dropped, I had lunch with the same friend to talk about what had transpired. He mentioned that as an engineer, he's quite happy when he produces a lot of code, and builds something useful. These political wars would just be so demoralizing and draining to him. He then observed that I seem very much alive when I'm engaged in these political struggles, and that I enjoy the showmanship of conquering seemingly impossible odds. My answer should have been this quote from Game of Thrones.
"I do belong here. These bad people are what I'm good at, outtalking them, outthinking them, it's what I am and I like it. I like it more than anything I've ever done." -Tyrion Lannister (aka The Imp)
I learned a couple Key life lessons from this experience. First, you can tell a lot about a person's true character by how they treat the powerless. This new leader thought I was a lowly engineer, and he tried to walk all over me. I kept my mouth shut and maintained a low profile until I was ready to strike. This new leader didn't bother doing his homework, or bother listening at his own peril. Second lesson was, don't ignore the political games that go on behind the scenes. I've been very purposeful in building up a large alliance by focusing on diplomacy and building bridges.
I'll end this entry with this picture that keeps reminding me of the journey ahead.
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"Unhappy the land that has no heroes. Unhappier still the land that has need of heroes."
--Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), German Poet and Playwright
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