17 January 2008

A comment on comments

I don't know that I've made this explicit. If not I should. And if I have, it bears repeating. I read every comment. They can't escape my notice due to the way I have my blog event notifications set up. I read your comments and I almost always reply. It might take me as long as a couple weeks. But especially if you have a question or a juicy statement, I will post a response in the comments.

16 January 2008

On the bench

I initially wanted to write a post about liveblogging a sales meeting at Microsoft. We had about ten Mantis folks in the room, including a principle and all four directors. Our sales manager for this client couldn’t be there in person and I’m one of the few people around comfortable speaking unvarnished truth. I can also read people well and type quickly, so she asked me to provide running commentary in IM. It’s the first time I’ve liveblogged and it actually made a difference, giving her the opportunity to step in and save the day (at least) once, in a way that she wouldn’t have known to do since she couldn’t see her clients. But, as it turns out, both of us had prudently disabled the history feature of our respective IM applications. So no record exists. This is probably for the best as I had some unfiltered and unflattering things to say about both our team and the client.

Instead, I’ll talk about being on the bench. I’ve groused before about being overcommitted. But I face the opposite problem at the moment, so it’s been weighing heavily on my mind.

Due to the poor integration of the product design discipline into my current employer’s processes, I occasionally find myself unoccupied. I usually give it a few days – catch up on old or low priority tasks, do some casual research, detox from whatever large project I’ve just wrapped. Then I let the Powers That Be know that I have a clear calendar. My calendar fills back up and the cycle repeats.

Not lately. For a number of unsatisfying reasons (organizational reshuffling, miscommunication, negligent oversight, politics, crazy internal policy), I have not had a major assignment since… November. My primary role has been to support business development at Microsoft. I’d be concerned for my future (see the list below), but that is a non-issue*. In any case, being on the bench can lead to reduced visibility. Poor visibility in this instance promotes a vicious cycle in how to apply you, getting you off the bench. The longer you remain out of circulation, the more likely the following sorts of things are to happen.
  • Your intermittent work, no matter how well done, cannot be fully recognized for merit. Promotions and raises will be difficult to negotiate.
  • For the executives, the shine comes off your field. You are offered/forced to take a different job or get laid off. Sometimes, rather than lay you off, the work conditions are made unbearable – not hostile, just so happiness-wrecking that staying causes you continuous and ever increasing pain. If intentional, this is one of the most contemptible managerial ploys to get you to quit. If unintentional, you never had a future there anyhow and you'd be a fool to stay.
  • The managers/executives get distracted by something shiny. You languish unseen and unheard in a company backwater. For some, this is a hugely sexy prospect: a fat check for almost no work! For me, I go stir crazy, my schedule collapses, I wax acerbic, I vanish from the office, after a while I update my resume and find a position with a rival.
  • Since you are between major projects, you do short stints of work that are frequently given away to clients for free. For the record, something that is free has no value.
  • You are inappropriately assigned to projects just to get you back on the books as a revenue generating employee. Supposedly huge tasks are accomplished quickly. Supposedly trivial tasks drag on for weeks or months. Your work load becomes unpredictable, unmanageable, or both.
  • You are denied sufficient resources for training. If you want to remain professionally competitive, you can pay for it yourself or skill up on your own time – probably both.
  • You are shuffled through a procession of new bosses or boss surrogates.
  • The temptation to quit quietly increases until a magic happens or you quit.
You can˚˚ plan for your employees to go on and off the bench. It’s a great opportunity to schedule vacation, internal projects, training, mentorship – any number of possibilities. I rarely see this sort of planning or action. I'm told it is viewed as expensive. I can't see how it is more expensive than the alternative: badly benched or overcommitted staff.

* Either a miracle will occur and my discipline will suddenly have a career arc that puts me in line for a directorship in short order or I’ll walk myself to the door long before recognizing that they’ll never get their me-related ducks in a row and lay me off.
˚˚ read: must

09 January 2008


Should I write up my recent travels to China and Hong Kong here?

Some of it is business related, some not so. At the very least, I will eventually write one (purely business related) entry if there is minimal interest in anything more.

06 January 2008

No new year's resolutions

I couldn’t precisely say why I don’t do New Year’s Resolutions. I suspect that it has something to do with my preoccupation with notions such as: If it takes an artificial prime mover for you to achieve a goal, you probably can’t achieve it anyway. I make (or fail to make) changes once I figure out how to fix the thing I noticed was broken. I spent too much money on coffee for two years running. Part of that was priding myself on the superficial and genuine fact that I had never made a cup of coffee in my life. Until this week, that is¹. I don’t need a resolution for that. I just need resolve.

So no resolutions for me. But I do love my lists and guiding principles. So I have a set of guidelines inspired in part by Gretchen Rubin’s “Twelve Commandments” at The Happiness Project. My guidelines are broader in scope than happiness-promotion, but they are essentially the same in practice.
  • Relax, be sociable
  • Risk it
  • Indulge in healthy pleasures
  • Language or music, every day
  • Do what ought be done, do it now
The list used to be longer. But once a guideline becomes habit, I drop it. I’d like to think that by attending to this list I’m actually accomplishing more self-improvement than I otherwise would with standalone annual resolutions.

My casual [Okay, they’re not casual at all – I calculate, I consider and reconsider, and I measure.] personal goals have little to do with business. But they do inform how I move through my all of my life, so they necessary bump into my business life. In fact, I actually have a much easier time fulfilling my principles for growth at work.

Relax, be sociable. Though I have strict rules about conduct while on the clock, my job is unavoidably social and while it’s stressful, it’s usually an easy kind of stress for me to push through. Risk it. I get paid in no small part to identify, disarm, and take worthwhile risks. Indulge in healthy pleasures. I generally plan the pace of my work so that I take breaks, eat well on the job by prepping lunches in advance, and I bike commute whenever possible. Language or music, every day. Most of my hard drive at work is pressed into the service of storing music. And I have the delightful obligation of working with language. Do what ought be done, do it now. Unless it’s a make-work task [hello, hours reporting] I can find a way to dodge, I don’t generally get the luxury of waiting for long to accomplish any given task.

Actually, if I fail at those five points at work, I’m pretty well screwed.


¹ Geoff was kind enough to teach me how to use my French press and Jake was kind enough to pick me up excellent beans from Batdorf & Bronson.

31 December 2007

Financial house cleaning

I find money compelling. Good thing, considering I’m planning on entrepreneurship. I think, and overthink, about money quite a bit more than most folks I know, including those who are strapped for cash or need to be especially careful. Unsurprisingly, I keep a meticulous budget. I started my budgeting to promote and maintain rigorous financial discipline. It was a difficult and unpleasant habit to form. But budgeting is in my blood now.

When I first began to seriously budget, I had very little disposable income and a near-pathological debt aversion*. As a result, I have an up to date plan that lets me tell to the cent the full valuation of my estate. [This is only a slight exaggeration as anyone who has seen my budget can attest.] That visibility into my financial position is important to me, but not as important as the ability to look at trends in my spending behavior.

At the end of every year, I examine how I spent my money. I view it against what and how I spent in previous years. I look at whether, how, and why I met my goals. Then I make notes on which behaviors I should keep and which I should attempt to change. Thankfully, I only need to aggressively revisit my retirement projections once every four or five years – it is an awful pain to crawl that data and tweak it to accommodate reality.

This year, several things are clear to me:

  1. Provided that I continue to meet or exceed my savings goals, I will retire˚˚ 10-15% earlier than I anticipated – at about age 45 for simple living or at 55 for comfort.
  2. As I earn more money, I grow increasingly casual about luxury spending. Ten years ago, I would have saved for a year to buy myself a liter of my favorite Sicilian olive oil. I bought four this year. While I have never spent beyond my means, I have taken to blowing windfalls on straight luxury.
  3. As my standard of living rises, I have a very hard time imagining lowering it, even in lieu of any need to do so. I know, it’s ever so shocking.

A finance site I started following this year is My Open Wallet. The blogger there keeps her identity a secret. This isn’t a bad idea considering her premise and content. Though I am generally against anonymity and secrecy, there is a certain degree of crazy around publishing one’s personal finances online¹. I know from experience that I run a company’s budget very like I run my own. So without revealing any specific dollar-by-dollar breakdowns, here’s a high level [jargon] peek into my 2007 books:

  • 63.3% Savings (401k, 529, IRA, other investment)
  • 12.2% Rent and utilities (including phone)
  • 6.4% Travel (Argentina/Uruguay, China/Hong Kong)
  • 4.3% Entertainment (restaurants, media, events)
  • 3.9% Groceries and supplies
  • 3.8% Cuisine-related luxuries (coffee, wine, dinner parties)
  • 3.1% Owning and operating a car
  • 1.8% Giving
  • 1.2% Health and fitness

I did well with overall fiscal responsibility…

  • I increased both my income and my wealth over the previous year beyond the rate of inflation. This has been consistent every year but one since I entered the workforce full time.
  • I met my long term savings goal for the year. Actually, I exceeded it well beyond the figures above due to market appreciation and 401(k) matching. In fact, I saved so well that I managed to reduce my anticipated retirement age by a full year (provided that the dollar returns to something like its pre-2004 valuation).
  • I kept my housing expenses under my target – by more than a full point – while living alone in Bellevue. Next year, my utilities cost will fall by nearly half (I dropped my cell in favor of VoIP. I will also be moving back into Seattle, sharing an apartment or house. This will reduce my rent and slightly reduce overall utilities.).

…but I did not correct the spendy habits I picked up.

  • I took two vacations. Provided I can afford this extravagance, I am fine with spending a significant portion of my disposable income on experiencing global culture. However, I failed to plan for or adequately track my expenses on my trips. Also, excepting Hong Kong and Uruguay, I chose to go to places I ended up generally disliking.
  • I lavished 8.1% of my net income on restaurants, music, movies, parties, and what largely amounts to narcissism. It doesn't seem like a lot of money while I'm spending it. It certainly does though when I add up expenses at the end of each month. I did the same thing last year, took a note on it, and failed to change the behavior at all. Provided I'm meeting my savings goals, I do an abysmal job of saying no to entertainment.
  • For someone who is supposed to be using a bicycle as his primary mode of transportation, I spent far too much time in my car and money on gas. With a bit of luck, I should be able to halve figure in 2008. Bonus: for every hundred miles I ride rather than drive, I lose about a pound. There’s also that global warming thing.

I’ll close with a couple of ethical dilemmas I have the privilege of wrestling with. Feel free to weigh in if you’d like.

I am now within the bracket of the top 1% richest people on Earth². Of all the money I spent, less than 1/50th of it went toward charitable purposes. I can say with verifiable certainty that less than a third of that went to anyone genuinely poor. Of the money I invested in assisting truly resource-starved people, I suspect that most of it actually ended up (or will end up) back in the pockets of resource-rich people. I did some good, but not in an especially sustainable manner. Troubling.

I continuously struggle with my savings strategy. I intend to be independently wealthy, sufficiently so that I do not have to work except as I freely choose. However, in pursuing this strategy I am effectively stockpiling capital resources. I'm not likely to suffer the claim that I did not earn what I've got. But a strong argument can be made that many will endure hardship or die, explicitly as a result of my stockpiling [My savings strategy is investment-oriented, so I while am accumulating wealth, I am not hoarding]. I am going forward anyway. Once free to do as I please, I can apply as much of my excess income as is reasonably available, a sum that will be increasingly larger than anything I could have achieved without venturing down this path. Or so I tell myself.

Oh yes, one last thing. Welcome back, dear readers.

* An aversion I continue to enjoy.
˚˚ I can’t retire any more than anyone else in my family can. We work. Once "retired", I will simply choose my avocation to align most perfectly with what is uncompromisingly most satisfying for me.

¹ Though I’m leery of publishing them on the web, I probably have no problem sharing my personal finances with you. If you want a closer look at my numbers, feel free to ask. I may still say no, but I’ll have a suitably good reason.
² According to www.globalrichlist.com, which I don’t think has been updated since 2004.

24 October 2007

Sorry about all the cobwebs and dust

It is unnerving to have a month flash past. It’s not like nothing happened and then it was gone. It’s that all too much happened and what got put to the side simply had to wait its turn. Hi, blog! I’m almost back on my routine, so I am finally able to reincorporate the writing into that apparatus. And that grinding sleeves-rolled-up work I was talking about? It’s about time to get back to that as well.

Here’s a tantalizing morsel before I retire this post. I’ll be starting two companies, not just the one. The additional one will be a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. It’s kind of a gift, though how much of a mitzvah it will be remains to be seen. More on this in December.

So. You’ve had a month to think about what I’ve written to date. Maybe we’ve spoken. Even so, I invite you to comment about what you’ve been mulling over while I’ve been sorting things out on my end.

p.s. Of this past month’s crazinesses, the funniest bit for me is the notion that NASCAR is fake*.
p.p.s. Really, it’s fake˚˚.

* NASCAR is not fake.
˚˚ You have no idea how tempting it is to add (you know, add, not vandalize) this as one of the Criticism passages in the NASCAR Wikipedia article.

25 September 2007

It’s like a romance… only, completely unromantic*

I got a little spun around by the fun of this blog thingy and got distracted by the excitement I feel when planning and designing. While it’s cool and fun for me to research, ultimately there are parts where it takes banal and unglamorous work. Gradual incremental effort – though punctuated by gushing moments of breakthrough – but generally grinding sleeves-rolled-up work. Sometimes it is effortlessly let-the-sparks-fly leaping forward and sometimes it just plain takes work.

I’m forcing myself to go into just such a work phase right now. I’ve got many weeks’ worth of speculations, so I’m overdue for a period of knuckling-down. Simple pragmatic milling out of flour from corn: clarifying the articles of incorporation; establishing most of the specifics of the operating agreement. Speculative posts will likely take a back seat to status and retrospect. This is just as well as the day job is heating back up a bit and I’m trying to attend to my goal of being more sociable.

Next step: a practical accomplishment and then a post.

* And without the kissing.