Personal

The value of money in a technology career

Wednesday, September 21st, 2016

Michael O. Church wrote an essay awhile back called “Why programmers can’t make any money.” The post is no longer on his website — for some strange reason — but you can have a look at the archived version here.

If you don’t wish to read his post, this quote will give you the summary.

When the market favors it, junior engineers can be well-paid. But the artificial scarcities of closed allocation and employer hypocrisy force us into unreasonable specialization and division, making it difficult for senior engineers to advance. Engineers who add 10 times as much business value as their juniors are lucky to earn 25 percent more; they, as The Business argues, should consider themselves fortunate…!

I empathize with his thoughts, but I have struggled — for years, now — to understand the author’s conclusion.

If we want to fix this, we need to step up and manage our own affairs. We need to call “bullshit” on the hypocrisy of The Business, which demands specialization in hiring but refuses to respect it internally. We need to inflict [...] artificial scarcity.

I decided to (finally) publish this response today because I have seen artificial scarcity play out in another industry; my wife is a medical doctor in the US. Are we to believe that programmers should establish artificial scarcity in the same way that doctors have — with political organizations like the American Medical Association and credentialing via something equivalent to medical school and board certification?

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The 3 best headphone options for programmers

Sunday, September 11th, 2016

Apple just announced that the headphone jack is going the way of the dodo, but as programmers, we know better. The headphone jack is our reprieve from cantankerous office banter, our salvation from your office mate’s obsession with cat videos, and our gateway to productive coding flow.

For those of us who still believe in the simplicity and beauty of the good old auxilliary audio input, here are three headphone options that I’ve field tested extensively and can vouch for quality and convenience.

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What entrepreneurship really looks like

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

In 2009, Jack & Russ hacked on an early prototype of SeatGeek for the Dreamit Ventures summer class in Philadelphia. The initial prototype came together in the last two weeks before demo day. I remember that Russ hadn’t shaved in weeks because they were spending every night hacking.

You see, before that, the founding pair knew they wanted to start a company, but they weren’t sure about the idea. They had brainstormed ideas ranging from “WebMD for pets” to “amateur art marketplaces”, finally landing at “Yelp for Bloggers”, an idea they called Scribnia. This got them into Dreamit Ventures.

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Delta customer service: exclusions may apply

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Some friends of ours invited us to spend 4 days with them in Paris in late August. They had some rooms free in an apartment they had rented and so all we needed to do was figure out how to fly there.

I don’t normally travel to Europe in the summer and know it can be a busy time of year, so figured I’d have to do a bunch of research before booking these tickets. What I never expected how this would send me into a rabbit hole where the major airline, Delta, would prove to me how poorly it can treat customers and prospective customers who are about to spend thousands of dollars with them.

Doing research

My research started, as many a traveler’s does, on the web. I used hipmunk and expedia and seatguru and all the usual tools to shop around. Because this was a short trip (only 4 days total), we were hoping to perhaps use some of those thousands of American Express membership rewards points we had built up over the years to at least get a Business Class upgrade for the overnight (red eye) flight from Washington, DC to Paris.

We figured this was an appropriate splurge. It’s one of the rare times my girlfriend gets vacation time away from grueling medical school hours, and for me, this trip is days before my 30th birthday. Given that we’d need some comfy sleep after an 8-hour flight and 2-hour drive to the airport before that, we were hoping we’d be able to recline a little on our flight over to Europe.

Digging around, I find rates for tickets are all over the map. But eventually, I get a couple of promising leads. First, Delta has a SkyMiles frequent flyer program, and they have a relationship with American Express, especially if you have an American Express + SkyMiles credit card. I don’t have one of those, but I realize that I’ve had the same American Express “Blue for Students” credit card for like 12 years, and that this card is now discontinued, so I should probably upgrade to something that actually earns me some travel points.

I sign up for SkyMiles and get instantly approved for this credit card. So far so good.

But little did I know I was about to enter the tangled web of fine print that dominates so much of corporate America and consumer interaction today.

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Disable Google Hangout’s auto-mute on typing

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2014

Damnit, Google. Sometimes, you make product improvements that are awesome. Other times, you make “improvements” that are downright depressing regressions.

In an effort to stop the annoying sensation that happens when you are on a Google Hangout video conference and you hear nothing but your colleague’s “tap-tap-tap” on their loud programmer keyboards, Google added a feature to the software that automatically detects when someone is typing and auto-mutes them.

This is a nice idea, but what about when talking while typing is what you actually want to do? In this case, Google provides no recourse. And indeed, recently I gave a walkthrough to my team of a new code project, but constantly cut out because as I was showcasing ideas in code (and even simply navigating code with my keyboard using vim), Google would constantly mute me and make me cut out. Damnit, Google! You suck!

Well, Internet users unite! We have a working fix for this “feature”.

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Uninterruptability

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Paul Graham, in a footnote from his essay on “How to Make Wealth”:

One valuable thing you tend to get only in startups is uninterruptability. Different kinds of work have different time quanta. Someone proofreading a manuscript could probably be interrupted every fifteen minutes with little loss of productivity. But the time quantum for hacking is very long: it might take an hour just to load a problem into your head. So the cost of having someone from personnel call you about a form you forgot to fill out can be huge.

This is why hackers give you such a baleful stare as they turn from their screen to answer your question. Inside their heads a giant house of cards is tottering.

The mere possibility of being interrupted deters hackers from starting hard projects. This is why they tend to work late at night, and why it’s next to impossible to write great software in a cubicle (except late at night).

One great advantage of startups is that they don’t yet have any of the people who interrupt you. There is no personnel department, and thus no form nor anyone to call you about it.

Going mobile in 1998

Sunday, December 30th, 2012

My first mobile device was a Palm V. I understood the power of mobile really early. I was 15 in 1999, when the Palm V was released. I first came across the Palm devices in 1998, when the Palm III came onto the scene. I never owned one, but played with the one my Dad owned, but barely used.

This device was comically under-powered in retrospect. It had 2 megabytes of RAM, which had to be used as not only the working memory of the device, but also the storage. It had a 16 Hz processor, a 4-greyscale screen, and a stylus-driven interface.

The Palm V was an amazing device. In lieu of the plastic of the Palm III, it had a finished anodized aluminum finish, very similar to the kinds of sleek devices we would only begin to regularly see in the last couple of years. It was nearly half the weight of its predecessor, and as thin as the stylus you used to control it. It had a surprisingly well-designed docking station (imagine this: since USB hadn’t yet been developed, it had to sync over the low-bandwidth Serial Port available on PCs at the time).

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Questioning the Canon

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

I was in the best of settings when I realized that Shakespeare was indeed great. My freshman year in high school, I had English class with an esteemed teacher, Mr. Broza—hailed as the Paul D. Schreiber High School Shakespeare aficionado, founder of Schreiber’s Annual Shakespeare Day, and, perhaps most heart-warming of all, a self-proclaimed Shakespeare lover whose posters of The Bard could be found as wallpaper in his small office. How lucky I thought I was. Indeed, if I wanted to appreciate Hamlet, I was in the right hands.

But how misled I actually was—at least, in Walker Percy’s eyes. In his essay, “The Loss of the Creature,” Percy recalls a scene from The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter:

…the girl hides in the bushes to hear the Capehart in the big house play Beethoven. Perhaps she was the lucky one after all. Think of the unhappy souls inside, who see the record, worry about the scratches, and most of all worry about whether they are getting it, whether they are bona fide music lovers. What is the best way to hear Beethoven: sitting in a proper silence around the Capehart or eavesdropping from an azalea bush?

Percy here contrasts two different approaches to viewing art—the girl who informally and spontaneously encounters the work of art, out of context, as opposed to the “unhappy souls inside” who formally prepare themselves for a kind of pre-packaged listening experience. Percy wonders which is better—a question meant for the reader’s pondering. But his essay offers his answer: we can only truly see or hear a piece of art by “the decay of those facilities which were designed to help the sightseer”. Perhaps Percy is right—it might have been better if my experience with Hamlet had been an accidental discovery rather than a guided tour, an “eavesdropping from an azalea bush” rather than “proper silence around the Capehart.” Perhaps I should have encountered the text unaware of its origin but intrigued by its mystery. After sitting by a tree and reading the text front-to-back, perhaps then I would be able to “see” Shakespeare in Percy’s sense of the word.

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Smaller buckets and bigger thimbles

Saturday, December 8th, 2012

Just came across this essay I wrote on my morning commute from Long Island to NYC in 2007, while I was a software engineer for Morgan Stanley.

I was joking with some friends the other day that my “to read” list keeps growing every day, and it only seems like things are added but never removed. I made the following analogy: it grows by the bucket full and shrinks by the thimble full, to which my coworkers replied, “you need bigger thimbles and smaller buckets.” If only it were that easy.

Unfortunately, I’m not getting used to this 9-to-5 stuff even if it is only 9-to-5. The other day I watched a video of Andy Hertzfield (one of the original software developers on the Mac team at Apple) and he was talking about how when he was my age he would work 80 hour weeks and just poured his heart and soul and to work. And I thought: I can’t do that on my current project. Why should I?

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“Normal”

Saturday, December 1st, 2012

Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for – in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day so you can afford to live in it.
-Ellen Goodman