Sunday, August 4, 2013

Don't step back, step forward - why pain is good

First posted on Medium under similar title: don't step back, step forward.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it. - Yogi Berra

Our fears and our views

I love running hilly courses. I find it odd that even those who run regularly often express fear of running uphill. And those who don’t run assume that I prefer to run flat surfaces: “Oh, so many hills in that neighborhood! Where do you run?”

Why is that?

It is as if people retain the memory of the pain. The pain of huffing and puffing up a hill, the muscle in the legs tingling with unpleasant soreness as the lactic acid builds up. The burn in the leg. The burn in the lungs. Pain leaves an impression. It is nature’s signaling mechanism, a coping mechanism intended to preserve us from future harm. And we project this memory of pain. “You are running up the hill?” Implication of thought: ‘ouch, that sounds painful.’
“Your new idea is failing?” … ‘ouch, that sounds painful.’
Why do I like running hills? It is because of the perspective: literally and figuratively. As you rise up the hill, you can see more. There is a vista of the city or the valley below. And as you inch toward the pinnacle, there is an inner transformation that hints at other things in life like accomplishment, possibilities, pinnacles. (I suspect that such feelings echo what mountaineers feel, when they undertake to bag an untamed peak.)

View atop Pyramid Peak. Lake Tahoe to left.

On perspectives

In business school, we adopted certain common phrases that spoke to a position befitting a leader. Chief among these:
Let’s take a step back.
I am often heard giving advice to people: “take a step back” or “let’s look at the big picture” or “take a 50,000 feet view from the top.” Or some such platitude. Why? Because you feel that is what you need when you feel bogged down in the mud of conflicting stakeholders, or lost in the darkness of uncertainty. How often had I really given thought to what I was saying from the perspective of the person receiving that comment from me?

Then, recently, I had the experience of hearing it as an advice offered to me. I have many different thoughts in my head and trying numerous projects. I should perhaps step back and gain perspective on what I really want.

It stopped me. It really made me think. Is that true? What is my next step? What does it actually mean for me? Step back to what? Does it mean putting my different efforts on hold so that I can focus? But, that’s more like stepping forward, rather than backward. Is it to spend a few days not thinking about the current problems to let the mind tie the pieces together?

In his book Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, Steve Johnson suggests a technique for stepping back by recalling Poincare’s description of a “eureka” moment.
I felt them collide until pairs interlocked, so to speak … by the next morning I had established the existence of a class of Fuchsian functions …
Henri Poincare had been stuck on a problem. According to Johnson, one evening Poincare took a break from the routine to go for a walk. It had apparently loosened the ideas that existed in Poincare’s head, literally let them shake in the head and bump into each other. That’s the process of serendipity.

Step Forward, not Backward

But both my reflection on words from a friend, and reading of Johnson’s book reminds me that there is actually no stepping back. Just as you go for a walk to let ideas progress, so you don’t step back. Instead, you step forward. For entrepreneurs, that might mean more focus, more persistence; not relenting to take in a bigger picture, but rather to dive deeper in search of new truths. It sounds painful.

When you are at a wall, and banging your head, it is painful. We are conditioned to avoid pain. Step back. Look where the fires are with a bird’s eye view. Maybe you should avoid it. Or maybe you should walk through the fire and see what’s on the other side. If only you’ll walk forward.

I have the experience of giving up on something. There was a mobile application I built with a friend called Voicegram. It was sort of a non-starter idea, and neither of us were mature or experienced to know it. Now we know. But, I remember saying of that particular project:
“Never give in, never!”

… citing Winston Churchill’s exhortation to the Britons under existential German attack. Never give in. But I did. We did. We gave up. And yet I never did. I am still learning and growing. And that pain of failing, of letting go of an idea and learning… of climbing a hill, feeling the burn … that pain is useful and vital for progress. It is the only way out of mud and out of darkness.

I love running hills. Maybe I’m dumb. But I love the perspective.

Chasing sunset

Of faith

Many things in life, as in entrepreneurship take faith. To trust that there is a better future, to have faith that our efforts will bear fruit. We fear pain and failure, but faith would tell us to be resourceful and look beyond the pain. Anything is possible, even for an MBA to break into tech as a programmer.

Important thing is to keep doing, to keep an open mind and not label and dismiss others, but to always learn and grow.  And that growth is not always linear. Just like life, one takes interesting turns and forks in the road.  I never thought I'd publish a book on Happiness, but I did.

Don't lose faith.  Step forward.

Further Reading

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

How does a MBA break into high tech? My story

I quit a nice corporate job, and moved to San Francisco, I started more or less from scratch,  No one cared about my MBA degree.  

So Many Resources, If Only You Look

I wanted to break into the San Francisco Tech community, and quickly learned that programming skills were valued above all; and MBA degree per se had limited appeal. There was no way to learn to program quickly, but that did not stop me from building a network.  Specifically, I began appearing at local evening meetups through groups like SFRuby, and in the course of a few weeks, begin to see the same faces and make friends with developers. Soon, I learned that there is a thriving community of people helping people learn, through workshops such as - workshops for women and their friends. It did not take much more than some courage and willingness to learn to become a volunteer and gain visibility.  (Hackathons are another great place to see/meet tech-minded people: why you should go to a hackathon today.)

How Rookies Got Started

I was hooked. Tech was not as scary as I had imagined. All it took was willingness to learn, to pitch in what I could, and not be ashamed of being a rookie who may not have all the answers (unlike an MBA who would be expected to have ALL the answers). These experiences helped me become more aware about the importance of learning in my own life; I persisted in coding.  I soon met others in my position - those new to city or new to programming. Then, it occurred to me that I could help in a new way: why not form a small group and create a co-learning experience, and give each other support? Thus was born RubyRookies. I had done some volunteering in politics before: canvasing, voter registration, etc. But, this was my real first experience in building a grassroots effort. I made many new friends through these gatherings. One of my big fears as a newbie in town was where I might find a community to plug into. It turns out, I was lucky enough to be fitting into my very own! We had a lot of fun - including hosting some panel events and lots of fun programming meetups:

Lot of fun coding away at night
Long story short, there are plenty of ways to build a network like the one you might find in a MBA Program. What I would recommend is that you keep these basic human principles in mind:
  • Ask what you can contribute - You have some skill here and now, even if it's not the one you want, that will allow you to add value. I can recommend a really good book on this topic for people of all stripes - a classic by Peter Drucker, called The Effective Executive.
  • Focus on and measure outcome - If your contribution is not valued, it is a signal to you to re-articulate or to re-frame ... until you begin producing outcome. It's not an easy process. You just have to chip away at it.
  • It's about them, not you - If you take the self-centered approach, I think you might find your world to be a very small one indeed. Look around you, there is so much need and so much opportunity! Network starts there.
  • Learn, learn, learn - That's my mantra, anyway. If I am not learning, I am dying. I am not sticking around a place where I am stagnating. Only by learning can one grow, and only by growing, can one branch out and help others.
  • Do what you love - I wasn't getting paid to organize events or create venues, nor was I charging to hear people out or give them coaching. It was just what I enjoyed doing. The gratification I received from those who attended my gathering thank me was enormous. And that joy spilled over into introductions and to positive brand. It helped me in so many ways in the local community.
  • Have faith. Have courage - Whether you are an MBA or not, you really have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Step out of the comfort zone until it feels natural. Sometimes it's painful. But, that's okay - step forward. You can do it!
  • Persist - Similar to last point, but don't give up. Never give up (even though you may pivot).  The luck favors the prepared. It also favors the one that's around ... and if you gave up, well, you're not around anymore.
  • Be human - At the end of the day, you learn that life is joyful; life is short. Don't use people. Instead help people and be who you are. Be genuine and just enjoy the process of connecting with new minds and new skills. Do it because it's fun, not to fatten your rolodex. People are human beings, not stream of revenues.
  • Sell - As IBM's Tom Watson said, "nothing happens until you make a sale." Learn to sell yourself, learn to sell for someone. Sales is truly valuable to anyone. You do that, and people will listen to you. I share my experience of starting with small in How I sold my first lemonade.

Other Thoughts

I will add that another way to build a network is to attend an intense, brief learning community, like a Programming Course. 

For those set on attending MBA, consider the ROI relative to alternatives. Now, learn to code - it is a truly useful skill to learn for our age. See the entry: soon your taxi driver may know more Ruby than you do. Finally, yes, it is scary, and you may fail, and failure can be painful. But, sometimes, pain can be good - instead of stepping back, consider stepping forward.

Help others and they help you

Further Reading

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Friday, May 31, 2013

How I sold my first lemonade and made a buck

I sold my first lemonade. This is a personal story of creating (tiny) wealth and earning (tiny amount of) money on my own. The amount is not so important as is the illustrative value of the process.

Flavor of the lemonade

Not lemonade.  Rather I sold tickets to an event.  An event I organized.  In short: 1) I had a customer in mind. 2) I used resources I had to create value from thin air to serve those customers.  3) Then, I monetized the value I created.

The value I created was a panel talk geared to educating community members.  It included product managers from well-known companies like FacebookIndiegogo, and Snapfish.  It was titled What do product managers really do?

1) Customer in mind & value proposition

It starts with the customer and their needs. In this particular case, we had a strong hunch (from other validations) that people are interested in learning about product management and willing to pay to network with product managers. Bringing that to the customer would be a valuable service to them.

Demand as manifested in pricing was unclear to us, but I knew that a hypothetical customer would pay something.  In this case, we priced the tickets at around $15 - 20.

Demand as manifested in headcount was also unclear.  We knew that some would be interested at the above price range - just not sure exactly how many.  You can see that headcount and pricing points are opposite sides of demand for the service in question.

2) Using resources to create something from nothing

As a former B-school student, I must say that this is a technique that absolutely should be discussed, yet not included in the curriculum.  MBA programs should have a class called "creating something from nothing."  How do you create this event?  You need a venue, you need speakers, you need to market/distribute to customers.  You need team hours to make all those things happen.  How did we do it?

  • venue - we had spoken to many startups in San Francisco in our prior work. We decided to host the event in the evening (when the work places are empty anyway) and pitched the value of exposure to prospective startups.  We sold the value as a concept, and came out with several venue choices for free.
  • speakers - this was all about gaining traction. Again, we knew that some people love sharing and teaching (just as we do) and are eager to connect with crowds.  After 'signing' that first person, the next ones become easier.  We used this technique to find four high caliber product managers, including a director-level product manager and a PM from Facebook.
  • distribution/marketing to customers - in our case, this was done in the course of validating the customer needs.  In particular, we built an educational meetup community centered around the product management vertical.  So, we cheated on this one.  And I love the fact that we cheated legal and square.  That should be another MBA class: how to stack the odds in your favor to win.

3) Monetization

Well, the three bullet points above outline a value creation for potential people interested in this sort of thing.  Being the first of its type of service, we had no idea how much to charge (in retrospect, we could have benchmarked from similar events in other arenas).  So we experimented.  Let's price at $15 and see if we can fill the seats.  Then we hustled, and over-filled.  We planned for 55 people, but over 120 people signed up to go and begged us to let them in: "pleeeaaase!" Lesson learned!  Next time, we should find a bigger venue or charge more.

The lucky few who were able to get in - and were happy to pay money to do so ...

Was this bit of profiteering?  No, not really?  We have done other events free out of love of the work.  We are involved in building a community.  But time is not free.  To create a sustainable enterprise, you should charge.  You should charge fairly, but you should charge money.  That is the clearest indication that you have indeed created wealth - that customers are willing to give you something back in return for the wealth you created.

There you have it.

"The people most likely to grasp that wealth can be created are the ones who are good at making things, the craftsmen." - Paul Graham essay: "How to Make Wealth"

Other tidbits

And we are in the golden age of doing things that make you happy AND make you money. Have you considered writing your own book to a market that needs your knowledge and experience? Or have you wondered about the story before this story - of how I am getting started in tech in the first place?

And as much as I wish I could figure out how to make more wealth, I realized it's all about first finding a good intersection of interest (or passion) and solving a problem (or capitalizing on market inefficiency). I have learned that this is not something one can intuit or think about - you have to learn by doing, and tinker your way to the answers.

Further Reading

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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

ROI on MBA vs Coding Schools - which is better?

What is ROI?

ROI is a plain and simple concept that both prospective engineers and business students can understand.  It is Return on Investment.  We will keep things as apples-to-apples as possible by using annual salary and normalizing class time period - 2 years for MBA.  We do gross (before-tax) salary and expenses.  Basically, cash in and cash out.  We will leave the discussion about the intangible things like network or personal growth, etc.  It's definitely a separate debate.

(In full-disclosure, I attended Darden MBA - campus was beautiful, and I loved it!)

Beautiful Darden Campus - we lived under TJ's shadows and among giant tulips

Should You Get an MBA?

Let's take a premier Business Schools - Harvard Business School (HBS)

Investment -
  • yr 1 - Fully loaded cost - $87k/year for single person
  • yr 2 - Repeat at $87k/yr => let's round down to $170k for two years

Return -
Salary depends on the industry/company, but let's take highest median, which is private equity/LBO per HBS Employment Report.
  • Summer internship salary for LBO/private equity (assume 3 months) - $24k
  • Yr 3 - median LBO/private equity salary year 1 - $150k
  • Yr 4 - let's assume 10% bump with good performance in year 2 - $165k

So, here you are, 4 years after you first attended business school.
ROI = $339k / $170k = 1.994 or basically 200%

Should You Attend a Full-Time Programming Course?

There's not a strong or widely publicized salary data around this yet (so this is slightly an orange), and so I use a well-recognized industry report from Riviera Partners - a San Francisco-based placement firm for tech talent.  I can corroborate these figures based on postings and also local tech group mailing lists where salary figures are thrown around ... so it's reasonable.

Investment -
This varies by program from around $10k to $20k, but let's use an approximate mid-point at $15k for the program duration, which is generally about 3 months.  You can read more about the schools and coding in a prior post - Soon your taxi driver may know more Ruby than you do.
  • yr 0.25 - $15k
  • rest of year 1 - 0, you're making money
  • rest of year 2 - 0, you're making money

Return -
Salary figures, as noted are from Riviera Partners 2012 engineering salary review. Let's use JavaScript.
  • yr 0.75 - junior dev: $83k * 0.75 = $62k
  • yr 2 - $91k (after 10% raise)
  • yr 3 - $100k (after 10% raise)
  • (junior dev is 0 - 3 according to this report, so afterward you're a midlevel*)
  • yr 4 - $132k ($120k in 2012 reasonably adjusted for inflation - but likely higher)
The reality is, many graduates from the 3-month program are hired directly out as non-junior devs and after 3 years, may work as senior developer.

So, here you are, 4 years after you write your first lines of code at a school.
ROI = $385k / $15k = 25.66 or basically, holy crap!

Pay off debt first

By the way, if you have student loans, pay it off first.  That's a guaranteed return!  Guaranty is a hard thing to come by these days.  As a side note, being laid back about debt is a relatively modern, American phenomenon.  For most of history, debt was not a good thing; it's something that was considered to be at least undesirable, and at worst, a sin.

Of course, you may not be able to pay off a big lump sum.  In that case, consider refinancing your loan with low-interest rate loan from Earnest.  Check out the current rates (as low as 2.2% variable at the time of this writing, 3.5% fixed rate).  And by following this link, get a $200 refinance bonus!

  • So which would you rather have?  200% or OMG%?
  • Food for thought.  Isn't this damning for the traditional education? Is your MBA or other diplomas worth the cost? 
  • If you are a consumer, it's got to be a no-brainer from a financial perspective (of course, don't do it for the money, do it for interest/passion, etc.  But I mean, who has a passion for MBA? That was for money, too, right?  Apples to apples.)
  • Traditional schools/companies - please wake up and smell the competition.

The Truth is that life and career are about more than money.  A happy career is doing things you love doing, and about working with people you enjoy working with.  Neither coding school nor MBA will bring you happiness, but avoiding unnecessary debt is a virtue.

Further Reading

Maybe you are considering a Programming School. If so, consider making a small investment to purchase and read this guide I wrote just for folks like you: Choosing the Best Coding Bootcamp for You.

Related Books:
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