Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Nerdiest Thing I Do

I stepped up to the end of a growing line of people at work. We were having an end-of-summer event and the line was for ice cream! To make the most of my wait, I introduced myself to the person in front of me. To my horror, he knew me and we had talked before. With prompting, I vaguely remembered our conversation. I wanted to crawl into a small cave and hide.
I have always been impressed with people with great memories: The people who remember others’ names, along with supporting details, after meeting them once. Those people are so dang thoughtful. To my continual disappointment, I cannot do that. I just can’t. Since I cannot remember those things naturally, I try to achieve the same effect through brute force, using flash cards.

Smartphone screenshot. White text on black background. The open app is titled Ankidroid. On the left side of the screen are bolded names of decks of flashcards. On the right are numbers showing the number of expected reviews for each deck.
Screen shot of my Anki decks before studying one morning. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

Should I Go to Grad School and Get a Ph.D.?

One of my favorite things to do is to formally and publicly address newly minted Ph.D.s with their title. “Congratulations Dr. Smith!” I’ve done it in person, on LinkedIn, and Twitter. Getting a Ph.D. is hard. It requires time, luck, and personal sacrifice. It makes me happy to acknowledge that person and their accomplishment.

I get to work with many extraordinary college students through my company's internship program. When I talk to them, some are deciding between going to graduate school or getting a job after graduation, but aren’t sure what to do. This post is my advice to those students.
David holding a small girl, both looking at the camera. David is wearing academic robes with blue academic hood around neck and going down back. David is holding a very small girl (toddler) who is wearing a purple dress.

Graduation day many years ago, holding my daughter after receiving my Ph.D., with my mother to the left. 

Monday, September 18, 2023

Hiking My Way To My Job

I got my current job because I hike. Rather, I wouldn’t have gotten my current job if I didn’t regularly hike.
Many people think that their success is solely due to their hard work. They planned, put in the effort, and achieved what they set out to do. They deserve credit for what they have done. However, I also think they benefited from a large helping of luck. More importantly, I think we do everyone a disservice when we claim complete control over and credit for our own success.

Man looking at camera in left foreground. Wearing a grey cap, glasses, and an orange shirt. 

Background is looking down over trees to  a partial view of a river with hills rising up from each side.
Me on a recent hiking group outing with the Hudson River behind me.

A Story of Success

The short version: I was a smart kid. I did well in school, and got into a good college and a better grad program. I earned a Ph.D., got a great job after graduating, and then an even better job several years later. Along the way, I published papers and patents and grew my network. I worked hard, charted my path, and succeeded. This is the story that teenage David would tell, of completing my destiny to have a great career in computing.

That story is short because it leaves out a lot of details. Let’s start with the easy omissions: I was born to two loving parents who raised me in a well-to-do neighborhood with good schools. I may have been an awkward child, but all the adults (and many of the children) expected and encouraged me to succeed. Unfortunately, many people do not grow up with that support. I was very lucky.

A Story of Chance

The long version includes a number of lucky breaks. I ended up at graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) in part because my friend and classmate went there a year earlier. Seven years later I was hunting for a job as I finished my doctorate. The company and research lab I ended up with had a strong pipeline from UIUC. If I had gone to another school, I would have been less likely to end up where I did. Further, I was hired right before a hiring freeze. My hiring manager sped up my paperwork to make sure I got in. So, if I had been on the market a few months later, I would not have ended up with the same job. I loved working in that lab and got to know many amazing people, including IEEE and ACM Fellows, National Academy Members, and a Turing award winner.

Soon after joining the company, I joined a weekly hiking group at work. Many fellow hikers became friends. I know them solely because they also like hiking and worked at the same company.

A Second Chance

Moving forward several years, I had built a nice role for myself, in which I got to work on interesting projects and was well rewarded. However, my company was not growing and had gone through periodic layoffs. I didn’t worry about my job, but I did worry about how much I could accomplish in that environment. Then, across a year, several unrelated but important things happened.

Several members of my team had a side project that suddenly became successful. They and their project were moved to a new division. I was excited for my colleagues, but it also meant I needed to find a new team. Around the same time, my youngest child was finishing daycare and starting kindergarten. His daycare was located at the site of my office, and I had been dropping him off and picking him up every day. Finally, one of my hiking buddies had been laid off and started a new job at a startup I had never heard of before.

Because of the reorganization, I had to re-evaluate my job. Because of the health of the company, I was willing to look elsewhere. Because my son was done with daycare, I was no longer tied to my current office. Because of all these things, I decided to look far and wide for my new job.

One of the places I looked into was my friend’s startup. The one I only knew about because of him. The one he worked at because he had been laid off. I told him what I was looking for and described my skillset. It turned out that his company was looking for my exact skillset at that exact moment! I interviewed and was hired.

Let’s see all the small changes that could have happened and kept me from my current job. If my colleagues’ project hadn’t taken off, I’d have no need to look for a new job. If my son was younger, I’d still be tied to the daycare. If the company was healthier, I wouldn’t have looked outside it. If I didn’t hike or my friend wasn’t laid off, I’d be completely unaware of my current company. If all of this had happened a few months earlier or later, the company wouldn’t have needed me.

Poster. Title: "Tuesday Night Hiking Schedule May and June, 2010". Below the title on the left is a picture of several people climbing up a rock scramble. To the right is a heading "Hike Rating" with text descriptions for Easy, Strenuous, and Moderate. Bottom half of poster is a table with three columns. The categories are "Date", "Hike", and "Difficulty". The "Hike" column is the largest column and takes most of the space in the table. Below the table is text: "Join us for hiking and camaraderie ...."
Hiking group poster from 2010. The man in the yellow shirt is the friend who introduced me to my current company.

Do the Random Parts Matter?

At this point you may object: David, there may have been a lot of chance involved, but things would have worked out well for you anyway – the particulars were random, but your being successful was not by chance.

You may be right. But there are two important points to consider. First, my life would have been very different in ways I couldn’t have planned if I hadn’t ended up where I did. I had an acceptable competing offer in hand – I would have ended up at a very large company, instead of a small one. All my experiences would have been very different and I strongly doubt I would have become as well known in my field as I am. I may have been successful, but it would have been a very different version of success. It would have looked like a very different plan.

Second, I have the privilege of having a lot of opportunities. Yes, I have worked hard to provide myself with opportunities, but as covered above, I have benefited from many factors outside my control. Many people do not have all those opportunities or never get the right one.

Increase Your Luck

Hard work and planning matter: they are necessary for success, but not sufficient. So, by all means, celebrate your victories. You earned them. But also acknowledge your luck and be grateful for it. I am.

Finally, consider what you can do to increase your luck. You can put yourself in good situations where things are likely to go your way. I did that by working hard in school. I did that by applying for many jobs so I could compare multiple offers. I also did it when I chose to do something I love – hiking – which happened to introduce me to many people who would become friends.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Book Review: Nine Lies About Work

A few years ago, I read a New York Times article that changed my life. That may sound overly dramatic, but the effects of it show up repeatedly in my blog posts, including My Yearly Reflection and Planning and Writing and Labeling in a Journal. It’s why I knew Cookie Club was so important to me and it’s why I knew I should stop being a manager.

While writing one of those posts, I discovered that the article was based on a book. I was more than a little embarrassed to realize that I wasn’t crediting the ultimate source, and worse, that I hadn’t read that source.

I have finally rectified my mistake by reading the book Nine Lies About Work, and I’m so happy that I have. In this post, I share some of my notes from the book. Nine Lies About Work is nominally aimed at managers, but I think it is also useful for anyone who has a manager. Most importantly, I encourage everyone to read chapter eight about love in work.

Cover image of the book "Nine Lies About Work". The cover has 9 crumpled pieces of paper arranged in a 3x3 grid, followed by the subtitle: "A Freethinking Leader's Guide to the Real World". 

Below the subtitle, is the title: "Nine Lies About Work". Followed by the author's names Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Making Good Decisions

A few summers ago I got to work with a wonderful intern. It was a pleasure to work with him, as it always is with our interns. He was a rising senior, and at the end of the summer, we extended him an offer to return as a full-time employee after he graduated the following year. He was excited to receive the offer, but then, over the next couple of months, he tortured himself and everyone else over this offer. The problem was that he had too many good options, and he couldn’t choose among them.

This post contains my advice to that intern and to many interns since. However, I suspect (and hope) that it will be relevant to many people in addition to interns. Specifically, this post focuses on the importance of making good decisions, rather than trying to make perfect decisions.

Large piece of paper with hand written notes comparing three job offers. Across the top are the headings "Factor", "MegaCorp A", "Large Co B", Late Stage Startup C". Down the left side of the page are the factors "Salary", "Change to Get Rich", "Stability", "Growth Opp", "Interesting Role", "Work/Life", and "Commute". The rest of the table is filled out with plusses, and minuses, and some notes and questions.
Hypothetical comparison of three job offers

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

How to Work With David

Everyone is different, with their own unique interests and quirks. If you can tailor your interactions for each of your colleagues, you can get more out of them. If you make it easy for your colleagues to understand and adjust to you, they can get more out of you. In both cases, you end up with a more productive and enjoyable environment.

This post is my attempt to make it easier for my colleagues to understand and adjust to me. I wish to provide to anyone who works with me, the tools to get the most out of me. It builds upon (but does not depend upon) my previous post on learnings about myself. Additionally, I hope that this post may provide you with tools to work with anyone who happens to be like me, as well as the inspiration to share your own guide so that I may adjust to you.

Teenage boy standing on a newly constructed, short wooden bridge in the woods. The boy is holding a hammer and wearing work gloves.
My son standing on a wooden bridge on a hiking trail. He built the bridge with my help.

Monday, May 8, 2023