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Year in Review — 2016

Posted in Thoughts

Man, 2016 has been a hell of a year.

Globally, it has been a year that defied expectations. Brexit and the US presidential elections were at the forefront of political turmoil, but there has been major instability in various regions of the world as well, with an ongoing refugee crisis in Europe and corresponding xenophobic sentiments. Scattered throughout the year were terrorist attacks and an unusually high number of high-profile celebrity deaths.

Last Week Tonight put together a video that sums up this sentiment pretty well1.

In light of the turmoil that’s come to pass, recounting personal events feel much less significant and perhaps overly self-indulgent. Yet, this is the one time in a year that’s made for reflection, and it’s therapeutic to remember individual, personal experiences and grow from them.

Square IPO

Last year I had learned about the amount of effort and steps it took to take a company public; this year I learned about what happens when you hold a sizable amount of stock in a newly public company and thus has disproportionate interest in the daily fluctuations of the stock market. Google famously banned its employees from checking real-time stock quotes after it went public, and now I can understand why.

What I did try to learn was what made the stock markets tick. After a year of digging into whatever materials I could find and comparing that with what I knew when I left the company, my main conclusion is that the public markets are, at best, an imprecise instrument that may eventually converge on the true valuation of a business. There’s just too much weight on daily rumors, too many financial instruments at play (shorts, various puts, options), and analyst noise that influence where the price can be on any given day.

In fact, I’ve come away from this deeper dive into the stock market with less respect for traders and the finance industry. If it wasn’t apparent before, following the ups and downs of Square shown me that the finance industry’s claim to “provide liquidity” by ensuring there’ll be buyers and sellers is really just a skimming profits off the top of businesses, most of which are truly trying to create economic value. I’m starting to lean towards with the idea that the financial sector is a parasite on the rest of the economy.

Difficulty of Kids

We had our second child this year, and after the initial adjustment period, we’re back to an established routine (of sorts) that kind of works because luckily, both my wife and myself have some flexibility in our work schedules.

Raising kids is hard enough; the policies and help (lack thereof) for new parents in the United States makes it doubly difficult. It’s not just that daycare/preschool is expensive; it’s that our work culture of long hours and playing-the-hero on nights and weekends takes its toil on the children’s development. There’s not many hours left in the day after a full workday + commutes that parents get to spend with their kids, and even then most days we’re simply too tired to fully engage. Of course, any prior hobbies will be lightly touched, if not shelved for a decade plus2.

Interestingly, when I think about my peers — middle-class folks who have been lucky to ride the technology wave — the vast majority of couples chose to have one spouse quit their job and stay at home a few years after their kids were born. We’re incredibly fortunate to have that option, but for all the talk of dual-income households becoming the norm for the 21st century family, it’s revealing how many choose to opt out of the grind.

Management Gets Hard

I haven’t written much about my current company, Counsyl, ever since I’ve left Square in 2015. In large part, it’s because my role there is a manager-ass engineering manager, and the things that tend to come up are specific to situations or are personal in nature to begin with. Code and engineering insights are shareable; management challenges less so.

That said, it’s been an eventful year as I continue to ease into grander management responsibilities. This was what I wanted when I made the switch over to the management track, and I’m committed to at least getting far enough to understand how and why crappy, Dilbert-esque decisions get made. I want to root out whether the bad management I’ve had in the past were ultimately of circumstance, character, or just the way that things are.

It’s not much of a surprise that I’m now a bit more sympathetic about the plights of managers. Hard decisions have to be made and communicated, and managers bare the blunt of that responsibility even when it wasn’t ultimately their call. At times, not all information can shared, and so what looks like incompetence from the engineer’s standpoint may actually be a nuanced conclusion that took much more elaborate consideration. And of course, it’s much easier to wave things off as dumb or misinformed when the rules are being applied to you, but much more difficult when you’re the one making the rules. Of course, none of this excuses bad communication or poor management, but it’s often a crutch to jump to calling people crappy managers when things aren’t going swimmingly awesome3.

Science Fiction is Awesome

I didn’t read all that much this year, but of what I did read, I’m becoming less impressed with self-help books in general. I end up plowing through a set of the usual business, case study, and management books so I can sound smart once in a while, but good ones are rare and it takes effort to find those needles in haystacks of crap. Instead, I’ve gravitated towards science fiction as a refuge of clever ideas and entertaining prose.

Strangely enough, I grew up reading a lot of fantasy books; the genre was the primary way I taught myself English as an ESL student in elementary school in Canada. Back then, fantasy was all about good and evil, knights and dragons, magic and swords; Game of Thrones was one of the first series I’ve read that added a layer of political intrigue and complexity on top of the simple dualistic narrative.

But science fiction has enough rooted in reality and technology that good stories promote further thoughts and questions. There are books like Seveneves that go a bit overboard with the physics, but most of the sci-fi that I find interesting mix in psychology and politics and culture and the general messiness of humanity against a technological backdrop that shifts these established dynamics. It’s a genre that has provoked its fair share of “uh, that’s an intriguing possibility” end-of-book moments, and that’s freaking awesome.

  1. And since it was produced in November, it missed out on a few crappy things that are rounding out the end of the year here.

  2. Keeping this blog usually requires me to stay up well past everyone else’s bedtimes.

  3. Exhibit A: most negative company reviews on Glassdoor.