Category Archives: Career

On meritocracy, luck, and giving back

Kottke’s post on meritocracy, a concept that I had in my younger days considered infallible, reminded me that even those of us who have worked hard and achieved so-called “success” have much to owe to “luck”.

Even the smartest, hardest working, most beautiful of us all, would likely have not fared well, had we been born in the midst of a famine to parents who couldn’t even afford to feed themselves.

And even the dumbest, most slothful, and ugly of us all, would not have fared too badly, had we been born to highly influential and powerful parents whom held us in even the slightest regard.

So let us all remain humble if are ever lucky and become “more successful” than others.

We probably owe more to chance and luck than we think.

Lucky

I met up with a friend last week over lunch, and one of the things that was brought up in the conversation was on our work, our careers. He was genuinely happy and excited for me that I was (finally) going to graduate from my Master’s degree in Analytics.

To him, my having these analytical skills, backed with a Master’s degree, would easily propel me to the top. I would, he said, be in high demand.

Being quite the realist, though, I didn’t exactly share his optimism.  I knew that even if I was the best in the world at what I did, if nobody knew what I did, it didn’t matter. There would be far too many people like me with similar qualifications and experiences.

But I knew where he was coming from.

It was true that my skill set was in demand. And it was true that I probably had an easier time than most in finding career opportunities. Unlike many others I knew, I was in the rather envious position of not worrying whether or not I’d find another job if I left my current one, by choice or otherwise, because I knew I would. I only stayed because I wanted to.

It then occurred to me how lucky I was.

Living the Dream

“I am living the dream,” I said to the group, “doing what I love.”

I was in a management development workshop organised by the company, and that was my response to the question, “tell us something nobody else in the workshop knows.”

It had come spontaneously and was as much a surprise to me as it was to everyone else.

It wasn’t that my career was perfect — I still had much I wanted to do; much I wanted to achieve.

But given all the million-and-one constraints, my career’s turned out pretty good: leveraging my business-IT background, I work within Sales but deal with technology (even doing some scripting and programming) every single day; I develop data products that are used by hundreds, from the frontline through to senior management; I regularly get to present my ideas and train Sales on technology and data literacy; and I lead a team of wonderful colleagues who do excellent work (and at the same time have a great boss); it’s almost precisely how I would have envisioned a “good” career outcome (shame about the pay!)

But it could have been so different.

I knew was lucky.

Right Place, Right Time

I was lucky in that my parents weren’t poor, and had purchased a computer for the home even when that wasn’t a very common thing to do. And I was lucky that I was allowed to use this very expensive toy, which exposed me to technology at a very young age.

I was lucky that I grew up in a time when the Singapore government wasn’t too interested on clamping down on software piracy — I suspect the government did this on purpose because many of us, though not poor, were not rich enough to actually purchase professional-grade software to play around with. 99% of what I know I learned on bootleg software.  This move alone probably bumped up Singapore’s technological literacy a fair bit.

I was lucky that I was never stopped in pursuing my love for technology — when I opted for a technology-focused polytechnic education (i.e. the Diploma route) instead of going the more traditional “junior college” (i.e. the A-Levels route), I never met any parental resistance (which in a way, was because I was lucky enough that my grades were good but never exceptional, and so my parents didn’t really care — had they been exceptional, my guess would be that the would have been far more opinionated).

I was lucky that I was hired for an analytics position at the very last interview that I decided to go for before heading into the world of Financial Advising, thereby leading me to my current world of technology and analytics… what were the chances?

Right place. Right time. And if not enabled by the luck, at least not hindered.

But not everyone will be so fortunate, and it is up to us, the lucky and empowered ones, to give back and to try to provide opportunities to others who may not be as lucky.

Yet.

On Giving Back

My one simple philosophy on giving back: that anyone whom I work  or in any way interact with should find that if I had never appeared in their lives they would have been a little poorer for it.

I seek to be the luck in people’s lives.

Because so often they are in mine.

What you do determines what you see

Author’s note: This post was originally titled “Déformation Professionnelle”, but I had trouble understanding it myself and have renamed it for easier future reference!

This post in three words: Profession -> Perception -> Truth

The following text is taken from the excellent book The Art of Thinking Clearly, by Rolf Dobelli.

A man takes out a loan, starts a company, and goes bankrupt shortly afterward. He falls into a depression and commits suicide.

What do you make of the story?

As a business analyst, you want to understand why the business idea did not work: was he a bad leader? Was the strategy wrong, the market too small or the competition too large?

As a marketer, you imagine the campaigns were poorly organised, or that he failed to reach his target audience… As a banker, you believe an error took place in the loan department.

As socialist, you blame the failure of capitalism.

As a religious conservative, you see in this a punishment from God.

As a psychiatrist, you recognise low serotonin levels.

Which is the “correct” viewpoint?

The above is also what is known as Déformation Professionnelle (what a term!) — a tendency to look at things from the point of view of one’s own profession rather than from a broader perspective.

I’m only too wary of falling into this trap, which is especially easy for me to do because my expertise lies in data and its derivatives and the scientific method , things I hold dear and believe are as close you can get to a panacea for all the world’s ills.

Which is why I often preface the ideas I share with, “if I put on my analytics hat…”, because I know not everybody will share the same view. And I respect that.

A Chinese perspective on business

I’m currently reading a book called Dedication – The Huawei Philosophy of Human Resource Management, by Huang Weiwei. I’m only in the first chapter, but I’m already in love with it.

It’s so, so different from the most western-centric business books that I’m used to.

I’m just going to leave you with a couple of the passages in the book that made me go did he really write that?! because it was just so damn Chinese and absolutely refreshing (reminds me of the books by Lin Yutang, that I unsurprisingly also adore):

For the past ten years, I’ve worried about failure every single day and paid no attention to success. I have no sense of pride or superiority, just a sense of urgency. This might be the reason for Huawei’s survival. If all of us try to figure out how we can survive, we may survive for a much longer time. No matter, what, we will fail one day. Please be prepared for that. This is my unwavering point of view because it is a law of history.

[…]

I love my nation, and I also love my company and my family. Of course, I love my family more than my employees. That is the truth. We can unite our employees only by telling the truth. We need to give meaning to our employees’ work, and make them realize how their work contributes to their country. We also need to avoid empty talk and encourage our employees to start small, such as helping people around them and improving themselves. Working for one’s country and for one’s family are two engines that we need to start at the same time.

[…]

Huawei’s Board of Directors has made it clear that its goal is not to maximize the interests of shareholders or stakeholders (including employees, governments, and suppliers). Rather, it embraces the core values of staying customer-centric and inspiring dedication.

Don’t believe I’ve ever read anything close to that in another business book. Brilliant.

Great, but incompatible

It’s painful how sometimes you can put in lots of effort and sacrifice  into a project (or a career) in the hope that it will pay off, only for it to fall through in the last moment.

It’s worse when the motivation that was used sustain that effort was based on the fact that “there’s only X months to go; we’ll be done soon,” but X months has passed and we’re no closer to our goals than we were X months ago.

And sometimes it’s not even the first time this has happened. It could be the second or third (or forth) year you’re telling yourself, “not this year, but maybe next.”

But there will come a time when we have to tell ourselves that it’s time to cut our losses. There will come a time when we have to realise that the seed and soil may both be great, but simply incompatible.

The question is when, and will we know it then?

If it’s not a ‘Hell, yes!’, it’s a ‘No.’

The title of this post, “if it’s not a ‘Hell, yes!’, it’s a ‘No.'” comes from a Tim Ferriss book I’m currently reading called Tools of Titans, and is one of Ferriss’ favourite rules of thumb. Here’s a little more context (Ferriss is quoting Derek Sivers here):

Because most of us say yes to too much stuff, and then, we let these little, mediocre things fill our lives… The problem is, when that occasional ‘Oh my God, hell yeah!’ thing comes along, you don’t have enough time to give it the attention that you should, because you’ve said yes to too much other little, half-ass stuff[.]

It reminded me of how uneasy I was when being tasked with a slew of little projects that I knew were nice to have and that closed a few “open loops” (if only for the sake of closing them). I wasn’t too keen because I knew these were not the game-changing things I wanted to work on, things which I anticipated were on the horizon for myself and the team.

I concurred that, in principle, these were things needed to be done eventually, but that they would have be pushed to the back of the queue the moment something more momentous opened up.

We agreed to putting these tasks on the back-burner, with one or two trickling through during periods of slack and/or while we gained more clarity on any “Hell, yes!” projects that might be coming up (the act of scoping and gathering requirements may turn what seems like a “Hell, yes!” project into a solid “No.”).

I’d never actually though too much about it, but this has been one of key plays of my career thus far. Admittedly, it’s difficult to say “no” to customers (internal and external) early on, when you’re still finding a career niche, building up work experience and interpersonal clout (in fact, saying “yes” to just about everything is likely the better strategy when starting your career).

But once past that, saying “yes” to each and every opportunity and task is a recipe for mediocrity. If I’d continued doing that since starting work a decade ago, I’d probably still be copying and pasting data from spreadsheets, generating business reports by hand because somebody else told me so (albeit in an excellent manner, no doubt).

Instead, I’m working on developing my data science career, leading a great sales operations team, and thinking in my spare time about how I could bring my company’s analytical capabilities to the next level. Things I’d very much rather be doing, because I’ve said “no.”

How I Said No

  • Sure, I understand the report is essential, but does it have to be done that way? (Can we change the process or data sources a little so we can automate this?)
  • Can a self-service option be considered?
  • Can it be done by somebody else in the team?
  • What if we could generate a report that had 80% of the information but that could be churned out at 20% of the usual time?

The questions above are actual examples of those I’ve asked over the years. They were my way of saying “no” to projects that would have sucked up my or my team’s time, without which the many “Hell, yes!” projects (highly impactful, hundreds-of-people-thanking-us projects) would never have come into existence.