Are You Mature Enough to Go Back to the Basics?

I’ve been doing some career exploration recently, and have found it increasingly difficult as I pick up more skills, and gain more experience. One would think that this is perhaps a good problem to have, but it certainly doesn’t make things easier. I’m pulling all my mental models for this one, and whenever I allow myself to follow a clear career path behind a concrete job title of sorts, a red-alert goes off in my head that flashes the ignored opportunity cost associated with my choice. I certainly cannot clone myself to minimize these sorts of tradeoffs, and so I continue to wrack my brain for an ultimate career choice, whatever that may be.

One job title in particular has my attention, and that is the very ambiguous and interdisciplinary role of Product Manager. It’s a really confusing title, as it doesn’t seem to draw from just one particular academic background. Certainly no one studies to become a product manager when they are in school, and I’d venture to say that if you asked someone who is currently a product manager what is the best way to become a product manager in terms of training, they’d be at a loss for something firmly definitive.

But something that I find all product management roles have in common is that you will need to work across disciplines, with different kinds of people, be able to solve problems, and make sound decisions given the unique complexities of the team, stakeholders, product, its users and the resource capacities you are working with at any given time. It really sounds like you have to be a project ninja that openly welcomes to being hit with all the issues related to the intricacies and complexities that could come up during the build and rollout of the product, but you aren’t really working on anything concrete that is actually a part of that product. None of it’s really yours, but then everything hinges on your judgement calls!

I recently watched an interesting talk that Rose Yao gave on product management (no relation to me!), and it helped lay the foundations of the ins and outs of product management, what’s important to keep top of mind, and the various challenges that you may face. (Here’s another talk she gave about being the CEO of the Product, as the PM.) I think the following quotes nicely describes the PM experience in a nutshell, according to Rose:

  • “Let’s be real.”
  • “Set the vision.”
  • “Know your people, know your data.”
  • “All the responsibilities, but none of the control.”

All said and done, being a PM seems to require a breadth of knowledge, but most importantly, a certain level of maturity that helps keep the team on course, motivated and working collaboratively with each other to keep a complex machine moving forward and to completion.

I think the key word here that needs a moment of reflection is: “maturity”. I think we all have a general sense of what it means to be mature, but I really want to spend a moment to explore this word in greater depth à la Alan Watts. I think this blog post gets to the heart of maturity. The author ultimately arrives at the “beginning of infinitude” where things transcend their limitations to reveal their true essence without pretense, and where all things flow to oneness.

I think this definition of maturity is exactly what is required of the PM. A good PM should be able to take their learned skills and experiences from various avenues, and integrate the many perspectives with a clear vision. It’s from this point where you can truly optimize on the decisions that need to be made for the product.

These are all things that can be kept in mind whether it’s building a team, managing a product, creating a work of art, interacting with friends and family, working on a hobby, fulfilling an obligation or carrying out duties. Bring your best self forward, with no expectations. You will be surprised by the outcomes if you live by such credo.

I get the sense that such ways of being can often be called foolhardy, naive and/or suspicious. It’s rare enough that it raises an eyebrow, and elicits doubt. Maturity can almost seem like blind faith at times because it’s so low-key and underrated.

I attended another ruby meet-up here in Atlanta, hosted by Pivotal Labs. Yosep Kim presented on the latest RailsConf he attended in Pittsburgh. Through his engaging and humorous presentation to a super diverse group of developers, UX designers, recruiters, job hunters, die-hard rubyists, past Flatiron students and more, we were passed on some valuable knowledge about the Ruby community. (Most memorable of which is a man named Aaron Patterson, AKA, tenderlove. Please click that link!) The conference was packed, and many amazing presentations were given.

We were also told that the juicy gossip has always been that the ruby language is dying, in light of the strong fan base for some of the other languages out there like Python and Javascript. Yosep’s enthusiasm and relay of information from the conference quite busted such an unfounded rumor. Apparently, Eileen Uchitelle, a member of the Rails Core team described the state of the language and framework as having become “mature”. Ruby isn’t dying, it’s “maturing”. There is that word again!

But what does it mean? It’s just a word! But if we can recall our deep-dive into the essences of maturity, my fears for the ruby language would be well mitigated. A mature language probably has lost some of its original hype, but that doesn’t mean it no longer has its powers. People might just have short attention spans regarding what is considered “hot”. Furthermore, I think the fact that the language is developed in Japan might just mean that there’s almost a cultural aspect to it. I would describe Japanese culture as one of modesty, with strong emphasis on perfecting one’s craft. It doesn’t need hype to make an impact.

This blog post enlightens us on Pairing with a Very Well-Grounded Rubyist: Interview with David A. Black. When asked about why he loves the language so much, David references the community of people who make the language great. I feel that this is a particularly values driven perspective, and it makes me feel that what Eileen Uchitelle said to be spot on. The ruby community is made up of all kinds of people from across disciplines who have found the language a joy to learn and to use.

When things become more developed and complex, we can no longer count on one sole perspective. We need something that’s more unified. We need to go back to the basics of being human, and if we can speak for all humans, we are seeing from a higher perspective. We need to know who we are in order to know what our values are. It is through values that we have vision, and is through vision we can start to build amazing things that will make the world a better place for everyone.

Jordan B. Peterson so aptly said:

“I think that truth is the highest value, although it has to be embedded in love. What I mean by that is that truth should serve the highest good imaginable. For me, that is what is best for each individual, in the manner that is simultaneously best for the family, and the state, and nature itself.”

As such, good product manager should be able to go back to the basics, and see the simple, omniscient truth.

Connecting the Dots …

I’m an associative thinker, and perhaps consequently, that made me extremely prone to becoming a nerd. It was really only a matter of time.

This thinking style is the trait that keeps me up at night, and what makes it hard to get out of bed in the mornings because I was too busy thinking through all the never ending connection possibilities. I swear it’s not laziness! Ok, maybe only partially.

In all my endeavors, I’m always trying to connect and integrate things. So here’s a nerd story for the books: when I was a high school freshman, we had a science project that required us to come up with something interesting to showcase. I literally didn’t have a clue what to do, and as usual, procrastinated until the very last minute, leaving the due date to provide the jolt of panicked inspiration I needed. I ended up making a board game that had various lights that would light up whenever the game pieces landed on a certain space. The board game felt too simple, so I decided I needed to do something more science-y… oh, I know! I will make my own battery.

To make a long story short, I somehow got my hands on a jar of sulfuric acid. Two jars if I had to be more precise, because the first one I dropped in front of the public library a few blocks away from my school and spilled all over the parking lot, so I had to request for another jar. It was quite the tragic nerd scene.

The point is, I really liked watching the lights on my board game come up whenever the pieces landed on a space that connected the circuits within the board. That was the spark that really captivated me.

Recently, I found myself similarly pulled in when I attended my first ever ngGirls (the ‘ng’ stands for Angular) workshop in Atlanta that was taking place alongside ngConf, the biggest Angular conference in the world, where Michio Kaku was a speaker!!!

Back to ngGirls. The workshop turned out to be incredibly fun! I was able to dive into the code immediately, and my amazing mentor, Kim Maida, provided real-time feedback to all my questions and tangential musings. Other women in my group also came from various backgrounds in different stages of their coding journey. I have to say that this event had the 3 main C topics covered: code talk, career talk, and cat talk! Even more awesome is the organization’s overseas ties, as it was created by Shmuela Jacobs.

By the end of the day, I had under my tool belt the ability to set up a simple and flexible Angular app in Microsoft Visual Studio. Even better, a random participant also showed me how to find my command line window on my computer, because I’m a total Mac n00b! I really felt more confident walking out of the workshop than I did going in.

After exploring some additional features available with Angular, I found out about Augury and Arduino. (I’m starting to sense a pattern here…) The former is a Chrome extension that will let you visualize your Angular app’s architecture. The latter is an electronics platform, perfect for exploring a full range of possibilities in the world of Internet of Things (IoT). Now the internet can be connected to anything! Just think of that!

So all these lessons in technology has gotten me reflecting on the connectivity of our human-centric world. I’ve always held a more linear mental model of cause and effect, in a controlled, scientific setting. However, given that all things are connected, and it’s really hard to define the boundaries of observation, I can only conclude that everything we do has an impact, like the butterfly effect, if you will. Everything you do is connected to something else, and although its impact may not be statistically significant inside your world, you have no idea how these actions when “crowd sourced” from each of the individual locales can start to make a massive shift of value in our world.

All we have to do is to just keep on connecting the dots…

Just As Certain as Death and Taxes: Change.

People hate change. I don’t blame us, who wants to change? That stubborn stagnation does keep us from spiraling out of control. Yet, to grow requires change.

So, without change, life itself would cease to exist. I’m just going to throw out a theory that change is needed to keep up with our expanding universe (making some general assumptions about causality here), maybe to reach an equilibrium or something…but I’m no physicist.

I was always used to technology changing, but in the last half a decade or so, it feels like the rate of change has really kicked up a notch. I went overseas to graduate school to bury my head in academia. When I finished a year later, ready to get back into the work force, it was very clear things had shifted. I felt like I had time-traveled into the future, and suddenly all around me there were coding schools that allowed students to become coders through immersive course work and projects. The new mainstream path to becoming a programmer had changed completely, and it was available to everybody! I also knew that this was something I had to stay on top of, because it really resonated with me. I had been secretly eye-balling what was once known as “Hacker School”, despite consciously making an effort to get into the nonprofit and social policy sectors at the time. And here I am, now, taking the online version of the full-stack developer program at the Flatiron School. w00t! (Do they even say that anymore?) FTW!

Other things interesting of note was that while working at a consultancy, building custom applications under tight deadlines, we naturally adopted a lot of agile and scrum methodologies. Except back then, I was a “Data Analyst”. In a similar fashion, when I was a “Finance Manager”, I was the sole technology person on my team. Since I understood the finance tool, I served as the liaison to the technology team to build out the online tool that covered the whole spectrum of product development including the layout and usability for the global team. A decade later, these roles have evolved to become more specialized, and descriptors like Agile, Lean UI and UX have evolved to be more distinct and intentional.

But even in change, there are patterns (perhaps more on this later), and we needn’t balk at all the perpetual extra work required to keep up, and some of it’s natural and organic anyway. But keeping up is becoming ever more crucial, especially in the fields that technology touches (which is pretty much everything). There is now this concept called the Adaptability Quotient (AQ) to surface alongside the well known Intelligence Quotient (IQ) and its brethren, Emotional Quotient (EQ). AQ may just be a new catch-all term that would probably describe someone who can just roll with the punches, if the said punches were rapid technology automation replacing workers in a competitive market economy, bombarded in the media by polarizing politics, general iffy attitudes about immigration, amongst other things. (Even this is constantly cycling through time: ‘What Do You Think Is the Most Important Problem Facing This Country Today?’)

I think this post about Why Adaptability is More Important Than IQ and EQ addresses this phenomenon with good equanimity for people whom change brings about a sudden onset of panic. Everyone will be covered, so as long as our government remembers that it’s not jobs that we want to protect, but rather, our workers. Put simply: if your company isn’t training you with the right skills to keep up, take matters into your own hands to do it. Here’s a helpful 4 Steps to Develop Your AQ. If you are having trouble finding the mental wherewithal to tackle all of this, especially for those of us who are churchless, a step into Taoism or Zen can serve you well. Here’s an article that talks about the distinctions to start you off: Zen minus Buddhism equals Taoism.

ASIDE: I also quite liked this post for many reasons, one of which is this awesome polar-grizzly bear.

This post on Tackling AI-driven job displacement: A Primer discusses solutions and reminds us to stay proactive, since change is inevitable. Yet, amidst all the frenzy to keep up, we must also not forget that new knowledge cannot be accumulated without mastering the basics. And finally, it’s always important to look at the dates of articles and blogs, but this somewhat dated post about the end of coding humbly reminds me I’ve got ways to go, so keep learning!

Going back to my speculation of the technology/biology inverse relationship, I’m going to suggest that if technology out-paces biology in change, brain power (or some alien force) is our only savior. When the machines outsmart us, we will be doomed for sure!

Internet Sovereignty and the Great Firewall of China

Growing up, some of my favorite stories that my parents told were tales of their youth during the Cultural Revolution in China. They were high school age during it’s height in the late 1960s and early 70s. The regime under Mao ZeDong, in a drastic leftist move, revolted against all that was considered bourgeois and sent all the youth down to the country to re-educate them about the proletariat ways on the rural lands of China.

Despite the hard life that was forced onto them, my parents’ stories always delighted me because as a 1.5 generation immigrant to America with a much more privileged life than they had, the stories always kind of reminded me of the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. (Note: this is happening in 20th century China, but Mark Twain’s stories takes place in the late 19th century). I think what also made their experience seem less arduous was the fact that all of their peers were there with them, going through the same thing, so it literally just sounded like a hoot and a half! Even my parents say they do have some fond memories since a lot of the enforced activities were community-based, and good times were to be had if you happen to fall on the right side of the community.

It wasn’t until much later in life that I finally understood what that period in their life was about on a national and global scale. As I have family on both sides of the political divide (in this case the “proletariat” vs “bourgeois”), literally down the maternal and paternal line, it is safe to say no political move benefits everyone. Ultimately, such heavy-handed authoritarian mandate by Mao uprooted China’s economy, and left behind detrimental human impact for generations to come.

I am my parents’ only child, like many of my peers in China born after the one-child policy was enforced. Now fast forward to my parents and I residing in Beijing in the late 80s, and this time the students are revolting against the government for democratic freedoms. I’ll never forget the images and sounds witnessed and processed through my 6 year old brain, and have spent a life time making sense of the events. It’s what led me to be curious about economic development, the policies enforced by the government, and the impacts of those policies.

In the readings that I have been doing on the internet, one thing that stuck out to me the most was learning about the degree of censorship the Chinese government enforces on information out there about these kinds of political events. What’s on the internet internationally isn’t available to the internal people of China, with the exception of certain elite groups. So I began to do some surface reading about the current state of China’s censorship laws, which of course due to the rise of internet technologies and social media, has become increasingly complex. China seems quite proud of their nuanced “internet sovereignty”, so much so that they also encourage the rest of the world to take notes.

The below are just a few bullets of what I found interesting from two articles of the Washington Post, one from 2016, and the second from 2017:

1. China’s scary lesson to the world: Censoring the Internet works
2. The walls are closing in: China finds new ways to tighten Internet controls

  • China’s new Cybersecurity Law that came into effect this June.
  • Made to keep foreign ideas and uncomfortable truths out with censorship and surveillance, while the economy is still connected to the outside world.
  • There is this new concept of “social credit” that is determined by an individual’s online conduct that can impact a person’s access to financial services, transport and foreign travel.
  • All this is in light of the discovery that chat groups can shape public opinion of the government
  • One in four internet user is behind this “Great Firewall of China”
  • Also called the “Golden Shield”, which blocks sites that is detrimental to the Communist Party’s narrative.
  • The degree of censorship varies by region, as some people have VPN access to the outside world.

I’m not writing all of this to take a stand on anything, but only to reflect on my story, and what has led me to explore these topics. I am a little bothered by the fact that not everyone has equal access to information in this era, information that very much establishes the identity of a person, that helps them understand where they come from, and why they are the way they are. Perhaps that urge is particularly stronger in me because I am an immigrant, and I am grateful that at least I can read about certain events that happened to my family from a distant perspective. I can certainly see the motivations behind why censorship may be necessary, and it’s very hard to make that judgement call between what is right and wrong from a place where the economic infrastructure is more stable, and the cultural/demographic makeup is drastically different.

All I can say is, we really don’t know what we don’t know, or are not allowed to know, and that makes me feel a little less of a human being, but perhaps a happier one.

Of Chimeras and Cyborgs

In a previous post, I mentioned I believed that software is the inverse of all things organic. So if I took that premise and abstracted with some mathematical heuristics, I get the following equation:

This means that the interaction of technology and biology gives us not annihilation as all those doomsday AI fear-mongers would have us believe, but rather, the collision begets a single entity! Numerologists regard the number 1 as a symbol of creation. It’s pure and strong, much like mother nature. It is an elemental building block.

All of this could very well be part of the next step in our evolution, according to this article about The Rise Of The Biobot: Mixing Biology And Technology. What a great thing, since many people are benefting from the advancements micro and nanotechnologies that can now interact and replace central body functions. Humans are now truly pushing the boundaries of what we consider “cyborgs”, which is a portmanteau for cybernetic organisms.

The article also mentions that the mixing of two systems like this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. Cyborgs are essentially a new form of chimeras that have long been observed in genetic research. Chimerism range from naturally occurring organisms having both male and female sex organs like this lobster, to this human-pig hybrid created by scientists. Obviously, the latter raises lots of ethical concerns, and the same concerns hold for these biobots. Policies and regulations are needed, like any other human endeavor.

Or is this unity like an unachievable universal dream, and the number 1 merely marks a limit, that of which we may never reach? Whatever the case may be, I hope cyborg research stays a step ahead of AI, or else that math equation might end up being equal to 0! Then we will have to bring in the likes of Elon Musk to get us out of that pickle.

In the meantime, enjoy this photo of a chimeric mouse I found on wikipedia!

To be && not to be. That is the statement.

In life, we are always busy labeling ourselves. Am I thrifty or extravagant, feminine or masculine, intense or relaxed, this or that, and ultimately “good or bad”?

As I gain more experience living the various things life throws at me, I see more and more the importance of being comfortable with multidimensional dualities. Our external world is becoming more complex, and especially as populations are becoming more cross-cultural and integrated, the “OR” is shadowed by the “AND” qualifier in terms of relevancy. I suppose the challenge has always been striking the precarious balance when all things collide.

For instance, for a really long time I wondered if I had more male or female characteristics, or if I’m more Chinese than I am American. I have a business degree, but I really love to code. Am I an urban gal or a country girl? Introverted or outgoing? Pretty mainstream, yet extremely otaku? Am I a millennial or gen x-er? I think Barrack Obama captured this best in his memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance – that identity is fluid! Grasping onto one or the other can be extremely polarizing.

I went to a ruby workshop the other day hosted at the Pivotal Labs Atlanta location, where Scott Bellware was speaking about event-sourced microservices. Struggling to muster up some inner courage as the fact of the matter was that this was the first coding meet-up I had ever gone to, I had just started the ruby lessons in the Flatiron School web dev curriculum, and the attendance gender ratio was vastly skewed, my inner voice screamed, “I’m not a ruby engineer, help! [ fail whale ]! ” I felt like I had walked into the wrong class. Yet, while only intermittent topics made sense, the room felt really open-minded and welcoming. I realized soon that nobody cared whether I was or wasn’t a coder, my flail was all in my head. We were all there to learn and add to wherever we may be on the scale of developer/non-developer, as this label is mostly a matter of perspective. But this was something that took me years to finally realize, and I still have to constantly remind myself.

Because of these personal challenges that may or may not be all in anyone’s head, I’m glad to see news such as this one about CMU’s incoming female-majority 2017 freshman class. Many paths now comfortably embrace the male/female duality in our external world, and that is reassuring.

Why did you decide to learn software development?

I don’t think I chose software development, so much as it chose me. I know this sounds like one of those determinism debates, and this is how it all played out for me: I found that the more I opened my mind, while directing my energy towards where my [sometimes misguided] curiosities lie (business, finance, economic policy, social sciences, design, etc.), the road always led me back to software development.

Naturally, there was only one conclusion I could make. It seemed that no matter what I was learning to do, I wanted to transform those learnings with new technological creations and tools that could communicate reorganized ideas to myself and to the world. It’s the field that touches all other fields and discriminates against none, as the one uniter.

Writing code gives people a voice, and a seat at the table. Not speaking a word of English when I immigrated to the United States at 8 years of age, I had a lot of catching up to do. When I was introduced to programming languages in high school, I was hooked! For the first time, it felt like I was put on equal playing field as everyone else. That sense of empowerment was a much needed boost in confidence for this 3-year ESL student. (And despite all expectations, I really wasn’t that amazing at math either!)

So here I am, after a long winding academic and career path, at the source that unites the world.

If I can sit back and take a bird’s eye view of how software development fits into human existence, I see it as the inverse of all things organic. It helps humans discover who they really are relative to the universe, not quite unlike my constant search for identity. It’s the gateway to machine learning and artificial intelligence, and will ultimately help us answer the questions of ‘who are we?’, and ‘why are we here?’

But more relevantly, why aren’t you learning software development?