Archive for the 'career' Category

Six-month anniversary

Monday, February 2nd, 2009

I have been on vacation for exactly six months. Andy sent me this link about taking a year off:

Don’t mess with Texas

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

I concede that there is something slightly contradictory about having a to-do list for your time off, but one of my first steps after quitting was to make a list of things to accomplish during this sabbatical. I realized today after reading Schwinger’s comments, though, that these goals are actually projects, and as such deserve cool names.

The project getting the most attention when I was wrapping things up at work was related to TAXES, and was called Project TEXAS. My advice was, Don’t call it that. At best, people will think you can do very simple anagrams. At worst, they’ll assume you’re dyslexic. In fact, as it turned out, the following conversation became common:

— Oh, TAXES, I thought you were saying TEXAS!

— I was, it’s called Project Texas.

— Sorry?

If you are impressed by the Texas/taxes “connection”, call it Project Lone Star, or Project Don’t-Mess-With-Texas, or Project Longhorn. (I am morally certain that Microsoft’s Project Longhorn was named by or in honor of a UT-Austin alum.)

On one of my last days in London, I was walking through St. James’s Square on my way to Green Park, and passed Norfolk House, the building in which the allies planned Operation Overlord. Of course it’s hard to separate the name from the history, but doesn’t it give you chills? All projects should have such cool names.

I think Andrew understood this intuitively when he gave his own projects the following code names:


So I have also asked him to name my seven projects — I’ve provided the details and we’ll see what he comes up with.

If your project has a silly, inappropriate, or namby-pamby name, feel free to send me a project initiation document, and I will get back to you with an appropriately cool project name either from my own background in mythology or from Schwinger’s repertoire of smackdown-style designators.

What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?

Tuesday, August 19th, 2008

Since all of my time is currently free time, I’ve been spending a lot of it in parks and pubs, and “measuring out my life with coffee spoons” in cafes. Sometimes, I get to talk to strangers.

I was in the Crown and Anchor, writing in my journal, when a woman sat next to me, ordered a pint, and opened Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. I assumed she was a philosophy student (as I was myself once), because of the book and because she was somewhat scruffy. She asked me to watch her stuff for a minute, and when she got back I asked her if she was carrying that heavy tome for self-defense on the mean streets of London, or if it was for a course. It turns out she’s doing a philosophy degree at UCL.

It may be that reading technique has declined since I was a student: hers involved moving her head side-to-side as if she were watching a miniature tennis match taking place on the pages of her book. I got the impression from this that the book was a little bit for show, and that she was absorbing more beer than Bertrand. Philosophy students weren’t pretentious back in my day, oh no.

For laughs, I was tempted to ask, “What are you going to do with a degree in philosophy?” I didn’t, as I know from experience how annoying that question can be. Instead, I confessed that I had done a degree in philosophy, followed shortly by another. I should have added, “And now I’m unemployed.”

I’m reading The Undercover Economist (which itself struggles with pretension); it had this analysis of the value of philosophy degrees:

Spence himself first used his insight to show why students might choose to pursue a degree in philosophy, which is difficult but does not lead to specific career opportunities, like an economics degree or a marketing degree. Assume that employers would like to hire smart, diligent workers but can’t tell from an interview who is smart or diligent. Assume also that everyone has to work hard to obtain a philosophy degree, but lazy, dumb people find it particularly troublesome.

Spence then shows that smart, diligent people can prove they’re smart and diligent by going to the trouble of getting a philosophy degree. It’s not that lazy, dumb people can’t get that degree but that they wouldn’t want to: employers will pay philosophy graduates enough to compensate them for the trouble but not enough to persuade lazy, dumb people to bother. The employers are willing to do this despite the fact that the philosophy degree itself does not improve the candidate’s productivity at all. It is merely a credible signal, because a philosophy degree is too much trouble for lazy, dumb people to acquire.

Is this an accurate analysis? A friend of mine was studying for a mid-term in a course called Gemstones and Gemology. I said, “Are you really going to get college credit for a course on jewelry?” She came back with, “What are you studying? Aristotle? What use is that to anybody?” So I bet her that I could take the practice exam she was working on and that Aristotle would help me do better than she had after three months of lectures on the subject.

I took the test. Not only did I beat my friend’s score, I got everything right. Why? Aristotle is the foundation of western science. If you understand Aristotle, you understand how scientific problems are formulated. In addition, since he started the tradition and his disciples continue it, much of scientific terminology is in Greek or Latin. I don’t have to take a class to tell me what “anisotropic” means — the word itself tells me, and I can guess from it (for example) that anisotropic gems split light in different directions. (This sort of thing is why it’s still worth studying Greek*, even for the pragmatically minded.) Finally, as the founder of syllogistic logic, Aristotle gives insight into contradictions that allow a test-taker to eliminate incorrect options and to see how questions later in the exam illuminate earlier ones.

This is a roundabout way of objecting to the assertion that philosophy “does not improve the candidate’s productivity”. I think philosophy, like mathematics or other problem-solving disciplines, does increase productivity by giving students tools to analyze problems and to accelerate learning. And I doubt that most students who study philosophy choose the degree to signal diligence and brains to potential employers — there are more direct ways of doing this, and most philosophy students don’t think about future employment at all**. Being able to do your coursework in the pub is probably a much more important factor.

* I was flipping through a book called something like The Smartest Guy in the World in an airport bookstore, about someone who read everything he could to be a success on the game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. I put it down when he confessed that the multiple-choice question he missed was, “What are red blood cells called?” One of the answers, erythrocyte, means “red cell” in Greek. Can’t be that smart.

** A friend of mine wrote a comic that I thought was funny at university: A guy is standing behind a cash register and the customer asks, “Where’s my change?” The guy answers, “True change comes from within.” The caption is, “Why philosophy majors have trouble finding a job.”

The early worm gets eaten by the bird

Sunday, August 17th, 2008

Today is the start of my third week of freedom, and I woke up again before 7:00a. Why so early? I think it’s because I feel like the “pipeline” is still full.

I will license the following metaphor to the first management guru to write in: As an employee, you are an avalanche victim — you are buried in snow (work), and your job is to dig your way out. Part of what you are paid for is to prioritize correctly — there’s always more to do than one person can accomplish. You need to pick the correct direction (up, or at least upward), the right tools, and the right technique to make progress while the snow continues to accumulate above you. If you dig deeper, or dig upward but try to make the hole bigger than necessary, or if you use your hands when you have tools, you won’t make enough progress. You don’t have to shovel all the snow, just enough to get up to the surface. (OK, maybe this metaphor needs some work.) Anyway, I wake up every morning ready to dig, even though the things I still have to arrange before I leave should take less than a week. All the pressure of work waiting to be done is more or less imaginary.

My friends who have taken sabbaticals have not been encouraging: they say it takes four months to stop feeling like that.

Why I quit

Friday, August 15th, 2008

I’ve been off work for the past two weeks, but today is officially my last day. Not going into the office was surprisingly easy to get used to, but not getting paid is probably going to take more adjustment.

I decided to take a sabbatical to do some traveling before moving to Shanghai to study Mandarin. Since I announced my decision, I’ve received a lot of kind notes and encouragement from friends and even relative strangers. Many of them say that it is a brave thing to do. Is that code for “foolhardy”?


However much I love this company, the signals all point in the same direction:

  • I have been here for over seven years (in three different offices, sure, but that’s a long time relative both to my working life and to my age).
  • I have just wrapped up the current project I moved from Tokyo to accomplish.
  • The person I hired and trained as my successor is more than ready for the role.
  • I had a number in mind when I started this job, and I hit it last November.
  • I want to take a year off to travel at some point in my life.
  • The opportunity cost is relatively low: my salary is only going to get higher (making a year off in the future more expensive), and the credit crunch is likely to affect our bonuses (making this year the best one to miss a bonus, if I have to pick one).
  • The business team I work with is essentially the same as when I started — a change will be refreshing.
  • Moving to a new internal role would mean a 2-3 year commitment in order to make a real difference, which is a long time to wait if I do want to take a sabbatical.
  • I’m more likely to get my next big increase in responsibility by moving externally than by moving internally.
  • I’ve got a big birthday in November, and would rather mark this year than subsequent ones.
  • I am ready for a new adventure.


There is yet another good reason to move. I don’t think folks in technology give this much thought, but their trajectory is different from that of the business team (this applies mainly to the “partnerships” we develop in finance — if I were working for a technology firm, the following wouldn’t be as relevant). The IT “earning curve” starts off much higher than that of the typical business team member, but is flatter, which means that at some point, after more or less time being more valuable (as measured by compensation), technology is left in the dust. Here’s the chart:

This graph is based on real data, but I obscured the actual numbers. The first jump in the business line is moving from graduate to FTE. The jump in both lines between -3 and -2 is promotion to principal/vice president. The last data point for both series is just a continuation of the previous year’s progression to make the trend more visible. The red dot marks now, where the difference in values is currently just 2.3%.

What this chart shows is that I have exactly this year captured the last of the alpha to be gained from opting for a career in technology. In the next year or so my business counterparts will outpace me significantly and continue to accelerate. There are two possible responses if I want to avoid this:

  • Stay on the same curve but increase my y-coordinate (e.g. by changing firms, which usually entails an increase in responsibility and compensation).
  • Look for a new curve (e.g., by moving to a business team or joining a technology company where I can contribute directly to the bottom line).

What is consistent in both alternatives is the need for a move.


Finally, there’s the omen. The day after I handed in my resignation, I talked to a friend of mine on the trading desk in Tokyo. He said, “You’ll never guess what I did. I resigned! And you’ll NEVER guess what I’m GOING to do. I’m moving to Shanghai to study Chinese!”

My signals, my charts, and my friends all indicated it was time to take a risk!

Turn in your badge and gun

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Last night was my leaving do/going away party in Shoreditch, and today was my last day at work. I came in just to say goodbye and give back my ID card and BlackBerry. After two years of being on call, I wasn’t sorry to give up the BlackBerry, but after more than seven years at the company, it was a little sad to ask the guard to open the gate and let me out.

Andy and Mechelle took me to lunch with them at the Walrus and Carpenter. I ordered steak and ale pie in short pastry and mentioned that when I moved to London, I imagined I would be eating like this all the time. Andy said don’t stereotype the English. I said if I were stereotyping, I would have ordered a curry, a lager, and a punch-up.

After lunch I walked back to The Light to pick up my credit card and pay my tab from the night before (I forgot this when we wobbled out to the second venue).

Next I went to the post office and mailed my passport to the US Embassy here in London to get it renewed (that takes some faith!). I had added some new pages two years ago, but on my trip to Ireland last month, the immigration officer used up the (entire) last clean page. The website says it will take 15 days, so (fingers crossed) I will have it back before my flight leaves on September 1.

When I got home, I disabled the script that plays music to wake me up in the morning — I still don’t quite believe it, but I won’t need to get up regularly at any certain time for the next year at least.