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Archive for July, 2009

Last week, I went to another doctor about my hip.  I had to go to a separate one because my insurance wouldn’t cover my previous one.  They did an assessment and told me that the good news is that my hip is not falling apart; the bad news is that I have to go to yet another specialist.

They referred me to a guy who specializes in hip assessments and this type of surgery (yet another guy).  So, I phoned up the place only to realize that he is part of the same network of surgeons/doctors that my insurance does not cover.  Translation: it will cost me a ton of money to go and see this to get my hip diagnosed with the follow up.

I had to change doctors, but the doctors I have to change to also aren’t covered.

Great.

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Diversified skillsets

I’ve been procrastinating for a very long time to get a new set of mailbox keys for my renter in the condo that I own.  Finally, I took the bull by the horns and called up a locksmith to come down and replace the lock.  I phoned them up and explained that I needed a new lock and they asked me if I had the key.  I said no, and they replied that they’d then have to drill into it and that’d cost $110.  I said fine, what choice did I have?

It turns out that I did have a choice.  I hurried on down there ahead of time and brought my set of lock picks with me.  Yes, that’s right, I have a set of lock picks.  I went to the mailbox and stuck in the pick and jiggered with it for a while.  It wasn’t working very well so I switched picks.  I played it with it for about a minute or two… and it gave!  I had successfully picked the lock of my own mailbox.

I was pretty proud of myself.  I still had to get the lock replaced but at least I saved the charge of drilling into the mailbox.

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A few years ago, I wanted to be a full time professional stock market speculator.  If you go back through my post archives, especially in 2006 and the start of 2007, you will find a lot of posts on my thoughts on the market.  I decided I couldn’t do it for two reasons:

  1. I hadn’t lived through a bear market yet and didn’t know how I would react
  2. I didn’t have enough trading capital.

I mention this because I recently picked up the book Enhancing Trader Performance.  This is a book by Brett Steenbarger, who is a psychologist and trader.  The book is an examination of what the characteristics are of top performers in their field.  For example, many of us like to play sports like football or baseball, but not all of us are star athletes.  What is the difference between the average folk and the elite performers?  What makes them so different?

Steenbarger went and examined that and wrote a book about it.  It relates to stock traders in particular but he also examines athletes such as Tiger Woods and Nolan Ryan.  Clearly, these are athletes that are not only great, but exceptionally great.  They are among the greatest in their respective fields.

So what makes great traders/athletes great?  I’ve only read a bit of the book, but here are some things I have picked up:

  1. Elite performers have a natural liking of what they do.  To them, practice doesn’t seem like a chore, it is enjoyable.
  2. Elite performers have a natural ability to do what they do.  You can learn a skill, but elite performers gravitate towards the skills towards which they have a natural affinity.
  3. Elite performers see things differently than the rest of us.  For example, a rookie football receiver and an elite receiver would see the field in very different ways.  A star receiver would recognize holes, see patterns and find ways to get open that a rookie could not.  Star performers literally process information differently than the rest of us.
  4. Because they process information differently, star performers can learn to do things in new ways that the rest of us don’t see.  They can discern different patterns that an average or above-average performer wouldn’t.  Their brains can come to different conclusions than other people do given the same set of data and this gives them an edge.

There’s tons more but this will do for a start.  Given what I have learned from this book, what sorts of abilities do I have which I can be a star performer?

  1. Ballroom dancing – I am competent at this but I am not a star performer.  I don’t really have the desire or drive to put in the work required to really excel at this.  To be sure, it’s fun and I do it a lot, and I enjoy it.  But it’s not a natural ability of mine and my brain doesn’t process information quickly enough to see new moves in dancing while I am doing it.
  2. Magic– As a magician, I would definitely say I am competent.  I would not say I am an expert.  Why?  Because to me, practicing sometimes seems like work that I do not enjoy and I often find myself having to motivate myself to rehearse.  There are periods of time when I do tons of practicing but there are also stretches when I do not.But I am not just competent.  I can pick up tricks quickly, I can learn to see new uses for tricks and I am constantly trying to update myself.  However, my delivery is not as naturally smooth as it could be and I don’t put in the effort necessary to be an elite performer.  I’m simply above average.
  3. Anti-spam researcher – I work in email security for a living, specifically, I fight spam.  In this regards, I would absolutely consider myself an expert.  This is particularly true when it comes to the data analysis portion of my job.  I thrive on data.  I write scripts all the time to gather data and parse it.  I do this for fun.  I constantly am looking at data and I constantly finding myself seeing new and different patterns in the data that others simply do not see.I find that I can process information differently.  I can “see” things from end-to-end and quickly determine whether or not something will work, and I can often do it in less than five seconds.  I have done this so much that I can see if a message is spam or not in less than two seconds.  I can screen entire screens of email and easily pick up spam messages from normal messages.  I can do all of this effortlessly because I really enjoy doing it.  It doesn’t feel like work; to me, it’s fun.  It’s a challenge and when it becomes too easy, I want to move onto the next challenge.

This exercise, examining myself, has been enjoyable.  It explains why some people are elite performers and others are average, and it also explains why some people are better in fields than others.  It’s because those are their natural skill sets and they are doing what they are “meant” to be doing.

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Last Wednesday, I lost my cell phone.  "Great," I muttered.  I looked everywhere in my home, my office at work, and the probably location in which I lost it (one of the cafes at Microsoft).  No luck.  I wasn’t looking forward to it but I resigned myself to the fact I’d have to repopulate my address book.

Luckily, I have an extra cell phone at home, a Blackberry Pearl.  "Well, now’s as good a time to start using it as any."  The only problem with it is that the battery is a piece of junk.  It doesn’t even recharge at all.  I had to go buy a new one.  I went down to the local AT&T store and tried to get one but they didn’t have one in stock.  I went to the other AT&T store and they didn’t have one either.  I’d have to order one online which meant waiting about a week.  Sigh.  Fine, whatever.

Then yesterday, I went down to the University of Washington to consult with another doctor about my hip, which is not getting better.  I found the University just fine but finding the clinic was a bit of a challenge because I had to drive around the whole campus, go through a cave, climb up a hill in order to come to a wall and then speak "Friend" in Elvish to reveal the secret entrance to this place.  As I left my car, I decided to quickly check something in my bag (which I left in my car) before heading out again.

I went in, had the appointment (where I was told I’d have to make another appointment… and the bottom line is that my hip might be SOL until I get a hip replacement in 10-15 years) and then came out of the building.  As I was walking to my car, felt my pants pockets.  They felt a little thin; I expected to feel my keys in my pocket but I didn’t.  I immediately figured out what happened: I had left my keys in the car.  I had locked myself out of the car.

Now consider this: I had lost my cell phone the week before and I couldn’t replace it.  And now, just when I need it to call a locksmith, I have neither my cell phone nor my backup cell phone.  And furthermore, I’m no where near my home where I do have back up keys.  I was stuck, locked out of my vehicle with very, very few options.

A perfect storm of inopportunity.  Strange how all of that stuff just seems to pile up in compressed time frames, doesn’t it?

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Sit ups update

I took a couple of days off last week from doing sit ups to give my stomach muscles time to recover.  I picked it back up again this week.

I have made some real progress, I believe.  I did a set of 130, rested for a couple of minutes, did 90, rested, and then did 30.  That is a grand total of 250.  Not bad, I think.  My goal is to eventually hit 200 without stopping, rest, and then do 100 without stopping.

Will I get there?  We shall see.

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This is the second part of my post.  If you haven’t read it yet, I suggest you read part 1.  This one won’t make sense if you don’t read that one.

As I was saying in my other post, they’re threatening to cut off my access eventually when we move the servers.  And guess what?  I’m the Program Manager in charge of moving the servers.  So basically, I get to be the one to sign my own death warrant when it comes to cutting off my access.  Just great.

The other part I am not enjoying as much is the attempt to box me into things that I don’t enjoy doing.  Part of being a Program Manager is tasking, scheduling, being a go-between, collecting requirements, and so forth.  It’s not something I’m particularly good at.  I have improved marginally at it, but I don’t really like it.  I do it because it’s important and it has to be done.  But I get virtually no fulfillment out of it.  Unlike data mining and researching important things, this is not what I look forward to in the morning.  I have to force myself to do it.  I know it’s part of the job and so I do it to the best of my ability, but I have always been grateful that I have access to the data to be able to research ideas that tweak my brain.

The thing is that most of the people around me don’t want me doing the research and data mining and do want me doing managerial stuff.  My Dev Lead, Test Lead, other Program Managers… even my manager probably wouldn’t complain too much.  So you see, these people don’t actually have a problem with my access to data being cut off because it would force me to concentrate more fully on this particular area that I am not good at.  The theory is that if I wasn’t distracted from doing it (because my mind wanders to “fun stuff”), then I would get good at the other stuff.  I think that theory is flawed and that the results they want would never occur.

The problem with this managerial stuff is that ultimately I think it’s just a bunch of secretarial work.  If all I’m doing is scheduling people’s work time, talking to other people to follow up on such-and-such item, collecting requirements (with no additional input from me because this other team didn’t ask for it), asking when such-and-such work item will be done, where’s the creative input?  Why does it even matter if I do it?  What value do I add?  Why not just hire an executive assistant for the group?

I was talking about this with another Program Manager the other day and said that this whole Program Manager thing is turning into a secretarial position for everyone else.  He said “Do you think Jake is a secretary?  Or Bob?  He’s really technical but he doesn’t do it, he does PM stuff…” (note: not their real names)  At the time I didn’t have an answer but as I thought about, what do they do?  They follow up when a certain project will be done, schedule meetings, do timelines, etc… exactly what I was saying.

My manager had myself and my Dev Lead and other program manager in a meeting the other day (same guy as above) and he was saying that PMs drive teams with influence, this shouldn’t turn into a documentation position, ie, PMs just do documentation.  At the time, it sounded good.  But now that I think about it, I think it’s all bravado.  People can talk a good talk about how something should be this or should be that, but the reality is that it’s not.  Reality trumps a should, every single time.

So basically, I feel like I’m being boxed in.  On the one hand, my access is being cut off by people who think I shouldn’t have it, and on the other hand I feel it’s useless to complain to anyone because they’d be happy that I don’t have it and now have to do the stuff I am not good at doing.  I could do that stuff as long as I had my access.  Without it, there’s nothing to look forward to.

That is where I feel the position is going.  And I don’t like it.  And I feel powerless to stop it.  And I wonder whether or not it’s worthwhile sticking around watching what I perceive is a train wreck in slow motion.

The one thing that really keeps me going is that I am perceived as a maverick.  Even typing it right now makes me smile.  It means I think for myself.  It comes from being a stock trader.  When trading, you absolutely must think for yourself.  Others can have opinions but you have to develop a style and feel that fits your own personality.  But more than that, you have to be willing to accept the consequences of your own actions and in trading, the pain comes quicker than later.  I learned to listen to others but to ultimately make my own decisions.  I live and die by them.  And, I wanted to be a stock trader before I wanted to be in Internet security.

Work is starting to get shrouded in more layers of bureaucracy.  I follow procedures in some things, actually a lot of things.  But there are times when I think the process would get in the way so I short circuit them.  For example, I’ll write my own scripts to collect data I need, or send data away.  But I get results.  I always get results.  For a company that claims to be focused on results, they sure seem to value the process more highly than the results.  But I have never caused any serious damage to any production system.  None of my stuff even touches production these days, the last time was back in September 2008 and I cleared it with a lot of people (and it didn’t break anything, in fact, it reduced our network load by 10%).  But the point is that I live by making my own decisions; if I feel that process is blocking, I am not averse to short circuiting it.  I can’t stand this ambiguous process that can take days or, more often, weeks to get done.  It doesn’t make sense to me.  In trading, time is crucial and it seems like the company doesn’t value that so much.

So that’s my dilemma.  I don’t like where I think my position is headed.  Not sure where to head from here.

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This past week marked my five year anniversary of working in the anti-spam space.  In that time I have seen a lot of spam cross my desk, and I have worked on a lot of features.  I have enjoyed my time immensely:

  • I’ve gotten to travel
  • I’ve gotten to work with interesting technology
  • I get paid well with good benefits
  • Most importantly, I’ve enjoyed my day-to-day work.  There have been many days when I have looked forward to going to into the office and stayed late… because I liked doing what I was doing.

Now that I have hit five years, I have to take a step back and evaluate where I’ve been, where I am and where I’m going.  The first is positive, the second is alright but I don’t know if I like the third.

I’m pretty certain nobody that I work with reads this blog so I’m going to post my thoughts on the matter here.  This past year I have been enjoying my work less and less.  That last bullet point doesn’t apply anymore.  I feel that things have become much more adversarial and that I am being pushed into tasks that I don’t really like.

I’m currently reading Jim Cramer’s book Confessions of a Street Addict.  Cramer was a hedge fund manager but really enjoyed writing.  He started a website TheStreet.com where he was the writer but had other people manage it.  He couldn’t be too involved in it, however, because it’s illegal to own stocks in size like Cramer did and then hype them up on his web site.  So, he had to have disclaimers.  Cramer was a star trader, went on TV to get lots of publicity in order to drive readers and subscribers to his site.  People would have thought on the outside that he controlled everything, but on the inside he had very little influence.  The CEO of the company would keep him out of loop and he got the impression that the management of the company viewed him more of an obstacle; it’s the complete opposite of how the outside viewed him.

I feel the same way.  To many outside of our spam team, it looks like I have a lot of influence within it.  But I don’t.  It’s been waning for months and months now.  And it’s probably going to get a lot worse.

There’s a project afoot to move our existing servers out of California and into Texas.  I have had access to that server for years.  But I fear that once they move it, they will cut off my access to it.  The reason is that I am seen as a bit of a maverick (that was supposed to be a criticism but I took it as a compliment — I am genuinely proud of being someone who makes their own decisions and acts upon them).  I do a lot of research on that box and sometimes people don’t agree with my methods.  Even though everything is either (a) cleared with the legal department, or (b) doesn’t affect anything in production, they still want to clamp down access because since I’m not a developer or a tester or a spam analyst (even though I know more about spam than anyone), I shouldn’t have that access.  They don’t like how I like to tinker around.

Tinkering around is perhaps my favorite activity.  I thrive on data and statistics.  I can do data analysis all day long.  One of my greatest strengths is to pore through piles and piles of data, extract meaning from it and then present it coherently.  I’m excellent at that.  I never get bored of it.  Writing scripts to data mine stuff and then present me with information, or to test something, is a hobby.  It’s the fourth bullet point above.  Cutting off my access to data is like cutting off my lifeblood.  It removes my favorite part of the job.

I can hear it now… if I want data then make a request through the dev team.  That would drive me crazy.  For one thing, I do all sorts of ad hoc analysis all of the time.  For another, why in the hell (forgive my language, but this is ticking me off just thinking about it) should I go through someone else who could take anywhere from 1 day to 14 days to do something (assuming it even gets approved) when I could easily do it myself?  It’s inefficient and places me at the mercy of someone else approving the work.  I have new ideas all of the time and I like to test them.  Cutting off that access would really bother me.

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