Forced System Growth

It’s been a busy few weeks between work and a sick kiddo at home. Sorry for missing the last two posts.

The changes I’ve recently experienced at work has inspired some thinking on this post’s topic. While I typically have a good mind for keeping track of projects (with some liberal use of a notebook), the updates to my job and the sheer scope of accrediting an engineering degree has proven to be more than my current organizational and productivity systems are capable of managing. Tasks were rapidly multiplying and open-loops weren’t being migrated for tracking; there was no translation between meeting notes and what was getting scheduled into my calendar.

I functionally hit a crossroad. One path was to keep trying to do the same thing and fall further behind, and the other was to force a systems growth to accommodate my new workload. What got me here won’t get me there, if you will. Put another way, my outputs were optimized to how I managed my workload, so if I wanted to change or improve my output, I would have to change the system. Changes in work forced the system to grow.

On one level, I want to deny this – why do I have to constantly adapt the system to new work? Can’t I find one universally applicable approach to managing my workload? Sadly, no. This is the pipedream sold by productivity wizards who claim their one system will take care of everything. The reality is that those systems are often tweaked to meet the unique cognitive needs of the person. If you want to use those prescribed systems (GTD, Building a Second Brain, etc), you will need to adapt it to how your mind processes information. And it makes sense that as you grow in your career, you will need to grow the systems that you use to keep on top of things.

Most of my systems have developed “organically.” I would implement new features on an ad hoc basis in response to specific needs. This is one of the first times that I’ve had to make large changes by first thinking through what I needed and how I wanted things to play out. As weird as it is, it reminds me of Stephen Covey and seems to combine two of his principles – begin with the end in mind, and sharpen your axe. By knowing where you want to go, and by spending a lot of front-loaded work setting things up, you have a better chance of dealing with bumps as you go.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Optimizing, Values, and the Right Answer

Engineers love clear problems with delineated right and wrong answers. Data, especially quantified data they think, is objective and clean. Without painting too strong of a stereotype, they don’t like to muck around with soft skills, or social/political factors in problems. They like to keep engineering pure.

The problem with this view is that it’s not correct – it makes an underlying assumption about what makes something a right or wrong answer to a problem. Most problems that engineers deal with when designing a solution are not value neutral. When we think of problems with clear right or wrong answers, we think of problems that are purely mathematical or having discrete binary solutions (e.g. “will the object handle the forces that it will be subjected to under normal conditions?”). The secret is that all problems have “right” and “wrong” solutions based on the underlying values you are trying to optimize for.

An engineering problem that is optimizing for maximizing return on investment might have different solutions than one that optimizes for addressing systemic inequity for particular people. The tradeoffs are not just opportunity costs, but instead are tradeoffs on which values inform the vision of the final outcome of your solution. When you seek to return on investment, to maximize profit, the answers are pretty clear – drive down expenses, raise prices as high as the market will bear, communicate the value proposition to the customer, and produce enough goods at the right rate to meet demand without excess goods sitting idle. When you seek to address systemic inequity, your solutions will have decidedly different considerations – your expenses will go up as you pay fair wages, prices might not maximize your margins, you will be more candid with your customers, and your manufacturing and distribution will be likely slower and more intentional as you make ethical considerations in your processes. You will also consider all sorts of other externalities that pop up as a result of your solutions, boosting the positives while capping the downsides.

This is not to say that all solutions will be equally easy to implement under any one set of values systems that you choose. However, it’s fallacious to believe that the same answer will always be given for “can we build this?” and “should we build this?” if you aren’t also examining the underlying values that you set in your assumptions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

On Slowing Down

At Christmas time, I shared with my wife that I was thinking about getting a vinyl turntable and records. She had asked for gift ideas, and being pretty content with things and not feeling immediately drawn to any shiny new toy, I reflected that I’m starting to look for gift ideas to help me slow down and appreciate things more. With all the access to music through streaming services, listening to music sometimes feels disposable – something you put on in the background instead of silence. I thought with a turntable, it would force me to be more mindful of the activity. I had grown-up with a turntable in the house, but I never appreciated it until my adult life. There is something alluring about a single-purpose device that is a centre-point of a room. You put on a record and sit and listen to it. It doesn’t last very long before you have to flip sides, so you can’t just walk away to do something else. It’s a point of focus in the room; something people can gather around.

My wife, being the wonderful partner she is, surprised me with a turntable and my first album. While I tested it out at Christmas time, it was only this week that I finally set up the space in my office with the turntable. It was great to quietly sit and listen to music, doing nothing else. The pops and crackles of the needle, creating a sense of imperfection, gave the affair a unique analogue experience compared to the perfect replication of digital playback.

Of course, I noticed right away a difference of pitch in the playback, indicating that the turntable was playing slightly off from the 33-1/3 speed it was set to. With new toys come new maintenance responsibilities if we want to keep enjoying things. Still, despite the altered playback, I found the sensory experience a satisfying way of capping off my day. Always more to learn.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Getting the Need for GTD

I seemed to have hit an inflection point in my job recently that I’ve been struggling to overcome. While my work has had multiple buckets of concern, I’ve been able to managing things fairly well using my memory and jotting notes and to-do’s in my notebook. However with moving into a position that requires managing complex, long-term, and poorly-defined processes, I’ve been increasingly finding it difficult to keep everything straight in my mind. My tasks aren’t are clearly defined, and I’m required to be more independent in how I manage both my own personal workflow and the various areas under my responsibility.

Simply maintaining a to-do list doesn’t seem to cut it anymore. There is too much to keep track of, too many legacy pieces of information that has accumulated over time, and the pace at which things are added or change is steadily increasing in velocity. Add to this the need to keep on top of things in our personal life at home, volunteer work, and activities that I find gratifying, and I’m feeling slightly paralyzed in knowing what I should fix my attention to.

In an effort to get a handle on things, I’ve picked up David Allen’s Getting Things Done. It’s the first time in a while where it feels like the text is speaking to me. I went into the book a little leery of going after yet another gimmick or shiny new toy. GTD is a seminal system in the productivity space, and so it sometimes carries with it some baggage from some of the more problematic areas of the space. Yet, I’ve found it helpful so far in thinking through my problems. At its core, my problem is in two areas: the meaningful transformation of input, and in execution.

I suppose GTD will eventually help me with the latter (I don’t know – I haven’t finished the book yet as of writing), but it’s been incredibly insightful in tackling the former. I tend to take notes and capture to-do items all over the place. However, what I’ve been lacking is examining each of these pieces of input and doing something with it; processing them into their buckets. The list has grown so large and unwieldy that I am having trouble finding stuff when I need it. I have tried popping items into information systems like Notion, Trello, or using tags to help me find it later, but most of these systems have lacked the context to help make the inputs useful later. Instead, they sit in whatever capture system was used to grab them at the time – physical notebook, email inboxes, Trello, tags in OneNote, calendars, or tasks in Teams.

I’ve found GTD helpful in suggesting organizational structures and parse out what will be meaningful later and what can be archived out of mind. I’m still working through developing a system, but so far embracing ideas from GTD has helped keep things more readily at the top of my mind, which has translated into less general anxiety as I go through the work day.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Cross-Domain Knowledge

I’m a huge fan of cross-domain knowledge. Coming from an academic background in philosophy, I feel my greatest strategy for creating and building a career is leaning in hard to knowledge and skills that are learned in one domain or context, then applying it to a unique area. You get a large confidence boost when you make connections by spotting patterns and connections that map analogical cases to each other.

The first time I truly appreciated this was in my days working for the university gambling lab. We were collecting data on slot machine players by recruiting participants into our study to measure the effects properties of the machine user-interface had in gambler’s cognitive awareness. In other words, did how the graphics and sounds play on the screen help the gambler understand their relative wins and losses over time. In one study, the simulation we were using for participants to play on during the trial had been modified, but on some of the laptops the wrong version of the software was copied over, and we didn’t realize the mistake until the end of the day. Of the three laptops, two had the right software, and one did not. At the end of each session, we uploaded the user data to a secure repository and deleted the local files, which meant that once we were back in the lab, there was no way of knowing which participant file batch came from the defective software.

We thankfully caught the issue early and limited the damage, but afterwards we had an issue with figuring out which files to exclude from analysis. On the face of it, there was no way of knowing from the participant’s biometric data which simulation they used. So instead we had to dig into the debug files that were spit out by the machine to verify that the simulation ran successfully.

All the files were generated in an XML format, however I had neither experience in basic coding nor reading XML files. I had to figure out a way of showing whether the version of the software was correct. To me, the XML files were largely gibberish.

But, I was able to spot a pattern in the files that reminded me of my formal logic courses from undergrad. While I did poorly in the courses at the time, I did retain some of the strategies taught for understanding the structuring of the syntax of formal logic arguments, specifically how nested arguments worked and how assumptions were communicated. I started to see the same structure in the XML code, how sub- and sub-sub arguments were written to call different files into the program, and where those files were being drawn from.

And there it was. At the bottom of one of the debug files, was a list of the files being called on by the simulation. In the broken simulation, the file path to a certain sound that was meant to be played was empty, meaning that when the simulation was supposed to play and auditory cue, there was no file name to look for, and so the simulation moved on.

I compared this with the files we knew came from the working simulators and saw that this was the main difference, giving us the key for finding the bad data points and justifiably excluding them from the overall data set. By finding this, I saved an entire day’s worth of data files (a cost savings that includes the some-30 participant files, their remuneration, three research assistant wages, per diem costs, travel, and consumable materials on site).

I grant that computer programming is entirely built on the foundations of formal logic and mathematics, so it’s not that I was gaining a unique insight into the problem by bringing knowledge from one separate domain into another. However, this was one of the first times I encountered a problem where I lacked the traditional knowledge and skill to address it, so I came at the problem from another angle. It was a case where I gained confidence in myself to be resourceful and tap into previous learning to address new/novel problems.

As I noted above, being trained in academic philosophy has pushed me in this direction of career development. On a superficial level, relying on cross-domain knowledge is a career survival strategy because philosophy doesn’t always teach you skills that are easily applicable to the working world. I have sadly, never once, had to use my understanding of Plato’s arguments in my workplace. But on a deeper level, I think training in philosophy naturally pushes you into this kind of problem-solving. Most of my experiences in philosophy involves approaching a thought experiment or line of thinking, considering what it’s trying to tell us, then testing those arguments against counter-factuals and alternative arguments or explanations. To do this well, you have to reduce a problem down into its constitutive parts to tease out relevant intuitions, then test them out, often by porting those intuitions from one context into another to see if they still hold as both valid and sound.

It’s not all that dissimilar to the processes used by engineers or designers to gather data and accurately define the problem they are intending to design for. Whereas the engineer will apply the tools they’ve been taught fairly linearly to create a design for the problem, my strategy is to adopt cross-domain knowledge to make connections where they might previously had not been apparent. The results can often be solved quicker or more efficiently if I had the relevant domain knowledge (e.g. an understanding of coding), however when I lack the specific experience to address the problem, as a generalist thinker I have to rely on analogical thinking and a wider exposure to ideas to suss out those connections. What I lack in a direct approach, I make up for in novelty and creative/divergent thinking, which has the benefit of sometimes opening up new opportunities to explore.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Pandemic Career Development

I was reminded today of one thing I missed in the two years we worked from home. When carrying out your duties from home, in isolation, your interactions with your colleagues has two defining features: it’s mediated, and it’s pragmatic.

It’s mediated for the obvious reason that it’s done entirely remotely. You see your colleagues, but through a screen. You work hard to not talk over each other, because doing so makes the conversation stilted. The interactions are just more screen time you are seeking to limit, and it’s artificial in the conversational decorum that’s needed to make the medium work.

And it’s pragmatic in that your interactions are always deliberately chosen. Unless you intentionally sit on an open call, waiting for people to come in as they please, all interactions with colleagues are done by appointment and with a specific purpose in mind. The two of you “connect” virtually to discuss, then disengage to carry on with your day.

The office is different. There is something to be said for serendipitous conversations that pop up when passing each other in physical space; when you wander into someone’s office or cubicle and strike up a chat. The conversation has a tendency to float from topic to topic, because unless you booked a meeting into their calendar, your interaction doesn’t have the same constraints. Once the purpose of the chat is over (e.g. your question is answered, or the message is conveyed), you then move on to whatever adjacent topics are on your minds.

In the time I’ve worked here at the college, I’ve found a lot of opportunity for career development in the casual conversations I’ve had with people around the office. The conversations aren’t even about my career development explicitly, but instead are lessons learned through osmosis. Lessons learned when a manager is describing an issue they are dealing with, and you gleam from them insights into the skills you need to develop to meet similar challenges. Or where they share stories from earlier in their career that’s relevant to something being experienced in the present. It’s not a traditional mentorship, but if you listen closely, it can come close.

During the time I worked at home, my career development came through the projects I worked on, reflecting on skills I lacked, and seeking out ways to train into what I needed. It was always reactive and “just in time.” I didn’t realize how much I missed what happens when people are sharing a space together, and you as a colleague seeking wisdom get a chance to learn proactively with “just in case” wisdom that gets filed away for future use.

I miss the freedom of wearing shorts at home, but I’m glad to be back for the water cooler discussions.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Slipped Time

Sorry for the lack of posts these last two weeks. I have lots of reasons (the holiday Monday, work has been keeping me busy, feeling tired from childcare, and our family being sick the last week), but those are poor excuses for not carving out some dedicated time to put thoughts to screen. I have been doing a decent job of holding myself accountible with work, but knowingly allowing two weeks to go by unplanned without posts shows that my systems still have some issues with keeping me on top of everything.

I appreciate the grace you have offered in my absence.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Stepping Back Into The River

As the saying goes from Heraclitus, you can’t step in the same river twice. There are two ways we can interpret this metaphor. The most common interpretation is that you cannot step in the same river twice because the river is constantly changing. The water is flowing past, the flux of the water is changing the boundaries and composition of the river, and so it’s impossible to step into the exact same river twice. But another way to interpret the metaphor is to place more emphasis on the youYou can’t step in the same river twice – whereby the you stepping into the river changes and is not the same over time. This can be taken as literally as when describing the flux of the river – your cells are changing, etc. But I like the more poetic version of the metaphor that speaks to us changing with our experiences through our lives.

When you return to a river (the river being a stand-in for any number of things), you are a different person, and your past experiences make the phenomenological event that you experience different. The first time I encountered this was retaking a course in high school. I was the kid that took a course called Writer’s Craft, loved it and the instructor so much that in the following year I enrolled in it again with the same teacher. However, the materials selected for the class by the teacher, and indeed my fellow students, were all different. It was different, less enjoyable this time around. I still enjoyed studying under my teacher, Mr. Steffler, but with it being a different cohort of students (students from the grade below me), I realized that the experience lacked the magic of when I took it with my original cohort. I tried to step in the same river twice and was surprised when it was different; that I was different.

There is also the case where you revisit a book you read previously and it speaks to you on a different level. Maybe your experiences help you connect with the characters on a different level, or you empathize with the characters differently. Your values might have changed. Or just that you are older and more knowledgeable, you understand more of the text and draw different connections.

This happened to me recently. My job promotion at work was approved, and I’m taking on management tasks as part of my portfolio. Maybe because I have mild imposter syndrome (I sometimes believe I am continuing to fail upwards), or maybe because I’m trying to be proactive, I decided to pull my copies of books by Peter Drucker off the shelf to learn what it means to be in management and how to do it well. I started with a short text of his called Managing Oneself, which I read back in 2017.

Something in the book landed differently this time, which I think breaks down to two differences about me now versus who I was five years ago. The first is I am busier now than I was then. This isn’t to say I was idle then – I was working three jobs, heading up a non-profit, in a relationship, etc. However now my life feels fuller with things that feel more critical – a higher stakes position at work with more responsibility, co-managing a household with my wife, the responsibilities of family and childcare, dealing with a pandemic, etc. I might have fewer work domains on my radar than I did in the past, but things have higher stakes now, and the idea of more effectively managing myself speaks to who I am as a person, where I’m trying to be mindful of others, plan for the future, and lay down a good foundation to support our family as we go.

The second thing that landed differently was the section about learning more about yourself and how you operate as you manage yourself/your life. I don’t remember this sticking in quite the same way (and based on my blurb from Instagram, it seems I was slightly underwhelmed by the text). For as much as I feel like I’m an imposter sometimes, I also know myself more now, am more confident in my skills, and have cultivated experience and expertise as I travelled along my career path from then until now. And so to revisit this section about managing yourself (that is, identifying what you should prioritize your focus on nurturing and developing) speaks to me. Rather than being frenetic and jumping on every opportunity while you are early in your career, it is better to slow down, be mindful, and think through what will add value to your life.

I don’t need to worry about losing out on opportunities by not acting fast. Instead, I can think about enhancing quality, enriching life, and paring down the things that no longer serve me.

I thought I was going to read the book a second time to remind myself of its content. Instead, I realized I was coming at the book afresh, for the first time, ready to learn.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Back In The Office

Last week I stepped in the office for full-day work for the first time since the start of the pandemic. I have visited the office twice in the last two years to pick up items and personal effects, but have otherwise acted as an employee from the comfort of my home. I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to work remotely, and now things at work have been deemed safe to return.

This is not to say that everything is back to “normal.” We are obviously still following public health protocols by conducting screens on entry, displaying our vaccine QR codes, wearing masks, maintaining physical distancing, and staggering our time in the office to cut down on the number of people on site at any given point. But it’s the first step back towards “normalcy” I’ve experienced in two year – I had to put on pants to “go to work.” In my time at home, I have whole-heartedly embraced what I call the Zoom mullet – business up top (in camera view) and party down below (always shorts; even I have a sense of propriety).

What I found most jarring about my return is the paradoxical strangeness of being on campus. It’s paradoxical because intellectually, I know I have been away from the office for two-years, however on an emotional, visceral level, it doesn’t feel like I’ve been gone at all. I have a few guesses why it doesn’t feel strange being on campus. First, I have continued working my job during my time at home, so I’m not stepping back into an unfamiliar context. I’ve also been in regular contact with many of my collegues (though some I literally have not interacted with them since we’ve been away), and I’ve seen many of them on video, so there is a sense that we’ve not been apart too long. Third, the pandemic has created a distorted time dilation, where large swaths of time pass quickly, even if day to day existence is (sometimes) painfully long. This tricks our minds with a kind of time travel into the future; perhaps we’ve all been more zoned-out on auto-pilot than we realized. And finally, I think the reason why it feels like I’ve been gone for a short time is that the office hasn’t changed. I mean almost literally, the office is the same as when I left. Because we have all more or less worked from home during this time, and everyone has been out of the office, no changes have happened to the physical space – the furnature is all where we left it, the decorations are the same, the same names appear on the walls, etc. Other than the desks being decluttered, you wouldn’t know that people have been gone for two years. Props to the custodial staff for keeping the space clean.

I came to work with some mixed emotions. I’m a little sad that our time at home is over and we have to move on to the next phase of things. The pandemic might drag on, but I am entering a new phase of interacting with the phenomenon. And of course, I’ll miss the flexibility that came with always being home. However I was looking forward to my return as well. I looked forward to the separation of work and home, the commute to function as a liminal space. I embrace the structure imposed on my time by virtue of changing phyical locations. I look forward to the serendipitous interactions with my colleagues, around the proverbial water cooler.

All things change, and now so must I. I will look back with some fondness on the last 23 months, despite all the negatives it brought. However, now it’s time to get back to work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan