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Year in Review — 2018

Do you remember, as an adult, when you stopped making a big deal out of your own birthday?

For me, it was probably when it was no longer cool to get presents or throw parties that would highlight a birthday, when the raw age itself became less meaningful as an increment of a bigger whole, e.g., going from 32 → 33 less important than 2 → 3. Eventually though, birthdays became a natural demarcation of time, a good cadence to reflect and introspect and perhaps plan ahead.

I’ve had the same thought process with end-of-year and new-year celebrations and musings. They went from a major event to no big deal to a somewhat major event, for different reasons over the course of some 30 years. In fact, I’ve used the finality of this calendar year as a forcing function to make myself look back, and draw out emerging themes and trends. And unlike past Years of Review, I’m actually writing this truly during the final days of the year, though that in itself may be a good microcosm of 2018.

And if you’re curious, here’s all the posts of 2018 here.

Climate Devastation

There is admittedly some amount of recency bias in thinking about climate change in light of recent news and reports, but history will show that 2018 was the year when the earth’s response to a warming planet could no longer be ignored or downplayed. The timelines for action—to keep from heating beyond 1.5ºC—have been aggressively but necessarily shortened, and the increasing intensity and cost of natural disasters have certainly at least given pause even to those frame the climate crisis in purely economic terms.

In California, the shift in climate norms has first come in the form of dangerous wildfires, which are now setting new records every year in size and amounts of damage. We’re lucky in the Bay Area in that, through the worst of it this year, the main effect has been a week of terrible air quality, but the annual cadence and intensity has folks wondering whether smoke pollution is the new norm for the state.

There are times when the enormity of what needs to happen and the lack of complete commitment at a political level has given away to despair and fear for what our children will inherit in 20–30 years. That said, I know that people—society at large—are immensely adaptable and weather technological, ecological, environmental change much better than worriers like myself give credit. I also have some faith that these weather effects will continue to drive mobilization at an accelerated pace. It may be undeserved optimism, but collective optimism is pretty much the only shot we have at actually getting to a solution.

Tech Industry Stumbles

It has not been a particularly good year for the technology industry. The big public tech companies’ valuations were going well—until December gave out all the gains for the year and then some. There still isn’t anything introduced now or on the horizon that is a successor to the smartphone in reach and importance. Worse, some of the stewards of the entire sector have been mired in controversy, and previously stellar reputations have taken a beating.

On that last point, I’m always reminded of an excellent metaphor I heard a while back from the Head of Comms at Square: the press constructs narratives like a clock, and its coverage and sentiment trend towards a cycle of good and evil storylines. Of course, none of this absolves Facebook selling personal data, or Google paying off employees to keep quiet about sexual misconducts, but it’s telling that we’re relitigating behaviors from years past, and timeliness1 is not as much of a factor as the ability to pile on and reinforce the narrative.

2019 could be an inflectional year for tech, as multiple major startups are lining up to go public. And while the finance folks are obviously excited for new entrants into the public markets, I’m actually more interested in the downstream impact of these exits, both to the availability of talent2 and to how this new pool of capital is recycled back to the tech ecosystem in the form of angel investments and founding new startups3.

How Children Learn

As a father of two adorable children, their needs tend to expand to fill up whatever time and energy I have left outside of work. Of course, I don’t mind; it’s fascinating to see how little humans learn, and learn to learn, all the way down to their epistemological roots. Having kids aged 54 and 25 will do that.

The cliche is “a beginner’s mind“, but kids at these ages are truly approaching things they do not know and having to make sense of it. Sure, many things end up being subject to rote memorization (e.g., numbers, vowel sounds, etc.), but there are also plenty of situations where they have to reason from first principles, and they end up in a very different place than the practiced mental leaps that adults typically make. Reversal of cause and effect is a common faux pas, as is extrapolation from incomplete information. In fact, it’s a fun exercise to try to reverse engineer exactly where they took an innocent left turn, the way only a child can.

Which makes the increasingly competitive push towards academic success a worrisome development6. Yes, there are studies and pleas to curb the predominance of helicopter parenting, but of course the phenomenon persists, in part to due instilled cultural norms in other countries and in part because selection bias showcases its most successful practitioners. In the Bay Area, the most expensive zip codes also typically feature some of the best schools in the country, so this spirit of academic competition is alive and well.

2019 will continue to be a year where we try to strike that balance between (home)work and play. And watching them grow up way too fast.

The Positive Effects of Mentorship

Last year, as I was transitioning from my previous job to my current, I started volunteering for a people management mentorship service called Plato. I’ve kept at it through 2018, and have thrown in one-off events like a keynote via a San Francisco Engineering Leadership Community meetup at the Affirm offices. At both my regular job and through the chats facilitated by Plato, I’ve found conversations into management topics to be personally rewarding, and hopefully recipients find it useful as well.

I suppose it’s a foregone conclusion, but my engagement with a bunch of people managers—both willing to give and receive advice—makes me optimistic for this field that is both familiar and uncharted.

Familiar, in the sense that leadership as a discipline in business has been studied for decades, and commonalities exist across industries that are useful to study, regardless of exact role of the manager and the roles of those managed.

Uncharted, in that software engineering as a discipline is still fairly young, and combined with the current talent crunch makes for a very different environment that necessarily ones espoused by managers in other areas. That’s not say that engineers are special snowflakes; rather, the same set of people management principles apply, but need to be tuned and adjusted to its audience7.

The long-term goal here is to elevate the level of management in the software industry, so 2019 should bring more of the same.

Joy in Reading

I’ve always kept a backlog of books on my Kindle, and have made it a point to go through 1 or 2 regularly, usually as a break from other media (e.g., finished a season of television, finished a long single-player video game). Since 2014 or so, I’ve also made it a point to post mini book reviews on this blog, both to keep myself honest and to be able to point to a piece of writing when I recommend a book to others.

I think I’ve actually read less this year than years past; additional responsibilities at work and as a parent have made quick work of whatever was left open in my life schedule. Scarcity, though, is ending up elevating those chunks of uninterrupted reading time; they’re more precious precisely due to the reduced opportunities.

One thing I have to get better at in 2019 is giving up on a book if it’s not worth the time and effort to finish. I’ve honed my spidey senses on useless articles, but haven’t gotten around to applying the same principles to book-length literature8.


  1. And hence, arguably, their severity from the press’s standpoint.

  2. That is, people are no longer locked up in illiquid pre-IPO equity. In particular, if they’ve been able to cash out reasonably well, they may very well look to do something different, optimize less for compensation, etc.

  3. It’s also unclear the effect this will have on a softening housing market, though the actual number of employees affected here is probably not significant enough to make a massive difference.

  4. When they start attending real school and have to pick up on a breadth of academic topics.

  5. When they start to learn to talk, and where language starts to provide a window into their thought processes.

  6. Well, outside of the aforementioned climate apocalypse.

  7. Though to be fair, most engineering managers start in the role in the opposite way, where they’re familiar enough with the parameters of engineering, but have to learn the basics of managing people.

  8. Which in many ways is worse, given the time commitment. You can tell when I’m annoyed I put in the time to finish something I shouldn’t have.

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