Initial thoughts on being back in the Valley
I keep forgetting to tip.
Good lord, Walmart. Walmart is insane. It’s huge, it has everything you can possibly dream of buying (including bins full of Star Trek DVDs, bras the size of little salad bowls tied together, and one-gallon bottle of vitamin-ized water for babies, priced at $1 each, and a huge over-cute baby face plastered on the side of every bottle so a whole wall of baby eyes are staring at you as you hurry past, slightly creeped out by a) why would babies need special vitamin-ized water? and b) EWW BABY EYES).
An American small is an Asian large.
Cars drive on the wrong side of the road. Drivers are sitting where they shouldn’t.
But the scenery is beautiful, the redwoods are ever-present and the cows grazing around the Stanford Dish are just as perplexing as when I last passed the area.
It’s good to be here.
The best way to manage a fledgling business is for managers to be impatient for profit but patient for growth.
— Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Solution, via the Harvard Business Review
Growth as Panacea
Sam Altman has a powerful essay applying the consequences of Paul Graham’s Startups = Growth argument to governments.
Growth is what we should be focusing on. Growth is great—it lets us run deficits, it means the country is not zero-sum, it lets us invest in innovation and continual improvement in infrastructure, it provides a buffer for a little mismanagement, and it means tomorrow will be better than today. Contrary to what one might expect, growth provides long-term stability. (…) Without economic growth, democracy doesn’t work because voters occupy a zero-sum system. (emphasis mine)
It’s a compelling piece, and it ties in a lot of ideas I’ve either heard of or have been thinking about recently. I’ve come to terms with the argument that growth is all that matters in today’s SV-funded, consumer internet startup. But I’m beginning to wonder if growth explains away a lot of other beneficial things:
For instance, I’ve noticed how little in-fighting there is in NUS Hackers, as compared to other student organisations of our reach and influence. In the past I’ve hypothesised that this was due to the strong central vision of the club. Now I think it might simply be the constant and visible growth that’s acted as a counterweight to any political in-fighting that might have otherwise occurred.
Similarly, late last year I observed (to a Singaporean friend) that there was much less complaining about the PAP during his parent’s generation — and that perhaps that was tied to Singapore’s rapid and very visible growth during the period. How could you complain when you saw your standard of living increase year-on-year? But things are very different today (where it feels as if growth has slowed), and it’s not uncommon to hear complaints about how the PAP has failed, or messed up, or is dumb — even though, as an outsider, the government here seems competent and not visibly worse than previous administrations.
It seems that there’s more motivation for in-fighting when an economic pie is zero-sum. If the overall pie isn’t growing, people start thinking that the only way to win is by taking away someone else’s portion.
(It doesn’t take much to trigger this effect: all you need, it seems, is the perception of non-growth.)
Conversely: when all ships are being raised by a rising tide, it’s in everyone’s vested interest to ensure the tide continues rising. There’s also something to be said about creating the perception of growth, though there are probably limits to how much you can lie assuming your growth isn’t real.
I’ll close with another Altman quote, one that feels like the right way to think about globalisation:
Robots are going to replace human workers in lots of factories; jobs that do require human labor are going to continue to move to the lowest-cost place. But that’s ok, and these sorts of jobs are not what will generate economic growth for us anyway. We should strive to be a net exporter of ideas and technologies.
The countries that embrace growth are probably going to outcompete the countries busy protecting jobs. (And if that sounds crazy to you, change the world ‘country’ to ‘company’, and see if it still reads as wrong).
If Altman’s hypothesis is true, growth as a panacea is as close to an Economics wonderdrug as we’re probably going to get. It still needs to be verified (Economists! Where art thou?!) and the side-effects are probably going to as tricky as our current problems, but this seems both important enough, and testable enough, to try.
Everything should come from somewhere and go somewhere,” he says, adding that he’s irked by apps that have menus that pop up or collapse on themselves because the interactions aren’t real. “The most important thing is obviousness. The problem is overdesign.
— Loren Brichter (WSJ interview)
Changing The World
I was studying on the 17th floor lounge in Tembusu College with Harshal and Alan, talking intermittently about random things (as such study sessions often go), and Harshal suddenly asks: “what is it with computing guys and changing the world?”
I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say.
“Eh -” I said, looking at Alan. Alan blinked, and looked back at Harshal.
“That’s an interesting question …”
“The vast majority of computing students don’t think about the future like that -“
“I’m not saying the other faculties don’t have people who do this.” Harshal said, “But it seems like a lot of computing people always talk about what they want to do with their lives, how they are going to change the world …”
“Maybe it’s selection bias - like I think like that, and I’m biased towards making friends with people who are like that, so you see a lot of people from my circle who think similarly.”
“Maybe it’s because we think we really can change the world.” Alan offered.
“Actually I know,” Harshal said, cutting us off. “You guys are like the mechanical engineers in the early 20th century. They, too, believed they could change the world.”
“The early 20th century?”
“The start of the industrial revolution.”
“But they did change the world.”
“Yes, they did. And now everything is becoming digital, so you guys think you can change the world too.”
Harshal stops here. He is a final year civil engineering student. I’m not sure how he chanced across this observation, or how much thought he’s put into it.
But I do think this insight is a valuable one. I’d always wondered at the differences between the computing faculty and - well, just about everyone else. There’s a lot of optimism in computing. It feels like we’re pushing very important, immediately practical boundaries. It doesn’t feel quite this way in business or physics or engineering today (although it probably did for them at specific points in the past).
This optimism isn’t going to last forever. But I’m very thankful for it, and I consider myself very lucky to be experiencing it now.
This bears some thinking about. I should probably spend some time exploring the idea in an essay. But not now. Now I have 2 midterms to prepare for.
I thank Harshal for his insight, and we go back to studying.
Highlights from Phillip Su’s 2010 Farewell Email
Original post here:
- I don’t listen too carefully when a poor performer tells me how awful their previous manager was. My ears perk up when a star performer constructively criticizes their management.
- If you only ever implement feedback that you agree with, you probably don’t need the feedback in the first place. For feedback to be useful, you must at least occasionally consider implementing feedback that you don’t initially agree with. How else will you discover your blind spots?
- Don’t fear process. Fear bad people dictating process. Fear process trying to make up for bad people.
- In a company as large as Microsoft, I guarantee you’ll find someone higher level than you who you think is worse than you. Don’t get stuck in this mental trap – it won’t motivate you to be your best. Look instead towards the person you admire most at your level. What can you learn from them? What unique strengths might you have which they don’t have?
- Do you practice specific skills with repetition and intent? Athletes do drills. Musicians hone difficult passages. What do you do?
- You can control outcomes with three types of approaches: a) People Control, where you decide who to hire, who to fire, and who to put in what positions; b) Action Control, where you tell people what to do; and c) Results Control, where you define the metrics of success. Know when to use which.
- My first year at Microsoft, I had a sleeping bag in my office and worked all the time. On weekends, I still write code to learn new technologies. I regularly read books about leadership, communication, management, and technology. Equally smart people fare differently in their careers partly based on the amount they’re willing to put in. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.
- Leadership is the art of getting people to want to do what you know must be done. This was told to me third hand; I’ve unfortunately lost the attribution. [ed: I’m told this was said by Eisenhower]