Not ready, but I’m doing it anyway

50 metres from the fork in the road I had to decide, “where do I want to go from here?”

To the left was a detour of about 7 kilometres; on the right, a more direct route that would have taken me home in about 3.

It was an exceptionally warm day; I hadn’t ran this far in ages; and I wasn’t feeling great.

My mind told me, “running literature recommends the direct route on the right. You haven’t built up sufficient mileage in recent weeks; you aren’t sufficiently hydrated; and the weather’s only going to get warmer.”

In short, I wasn’t ready for the detour on the left.

But I took it anyway.


When I applied for my first job, I was asked if I knew pivot tables. “Yes,” I said. “Great,” the recruiter replied. That night I spent an hour researching what pivot tables were and another hour practicing it. I aced the interview test on pivot tables and eventually got the job.

I wasn’t ready. Did it anyway. And then I was.


When I applied for my second job, the job description that was provided me said, “MBA preferred,” among a list of other nice-to-haves that I did not have. I didn’t feel ready. Not by a long shot. I applied anyway.

I passed the first round of interviews; and then the second. And then a third. At each round of interviews I learned more about the job. The more I learned about the job, the more I learned what was required. The more I learned what was required, the more I knew where to focus my attention on. With each round I’d become a stronger candidate. I got the job.

At the end of all the interviews, I had on hand a much clearer idea of what success would look like in this role. In the weeks leading up to my starting the role, and in the months following, I continued studying and researching how best to carry out my role. It’s been six years now, and sometimes I still don’t feel “ready”, but I think I’ve done decently well.

I wasn’t ready. Did it anyway. And then I was.


In one of my first major projects I was tasked with developing a forecasting tool for the Sales team. It would be used by the whole sales force, from frontline to senior management. There was a laundry list of requirements and it needed to be done by a date weeks earlier than I would have liked.

“Sure,” I said, a million doubts singing at the back of my mind. A few weeks and many overnight programming escapades later, I released the tool, and it’s been in use for almost five years now, and has been one of the most successful projects I’d ever done.

I wasn’t ready. Did it anyway. And then I was.


And similar stories emerge when I took on a management role; when I introduced machine learning to the sales team; and when I emceed at the company’s year-end event and the Sales Kick-off a few months later. Or even when I ran a marathon last December – when I signed up I definitely wasn’t “ready”.

In all the most important and exciting challenges that I’d put myself in, I’ve never been ready.


Still, it hasn’t been easy ignoring my mind who cowers instinctively from such challenges with a “but you’re not ready!”

  1. On the pivot table question I panicked after I said yes – I almost said no.
  2. On the application to my second job I was filled with self-doubt and constantly second-guessed myself – I almost gave up pursuing this opportunity.
  3. On the forecasting project I pushed back hard on timelines and only agreed after making very sure on the scope – I almost gave in to the temptation to say this was something IT should be doing.

I’m glad I took the detour on the left. Because now if I had to do it again, I’d be ready.

Less insight, more value

One of the things that I get asked a lot at work is to create a reports, run an analysis, or get some data so we can get visibility on XYZ, normally as a result of a question asked by a HiPPO (highest paid person in the office) because they were “curious”.

To these people throwing these requests at us, more data is always better. If we knew more about our customers/competitors/employees, even if just incrementally, wouldn’t it be better than knowing less?

Well, yes and no.

If there is zero cost to obtaining the data; if there is zero cost to refreshing the report; if there is zero cost to running that analysis, then yes, for sure let’s do it.

But the problem is that there is often a cost involved.

A cost to get the data in the first place; a cost to run an analysis; and a cost to generate and maintain a report.

And if it’s a regular report, that cost just goes on and on unless fully automated, which may also incur a larger large initial development cost to get it automated in the first place.

Then there is also the opportunity cost. Creating this report means not creating that report. Running this report regularly means less time for focusing on optimization and future development work.

Yes, the having that insight and visibility would be nice. But not having it could possibly be nicer by freeing up more resource for higher value work, and we shouldn’t forget that.

The Attention Asset

There’s a post on Seth Godin’s blog today called Do we value attention properly?

In it, he argues that we need to be careful not to discount the attention we get from our audience, i.e. anyone who pauses to listen to us, because attention is valuable.

He makes a good point: attention if leveraged properly can lead to more business and customers (for a for-profit) or more volunteers and donors (for a non-profit).

Spamming our audience burns trust, and sometimes we inadvertently do it. In order to “ensure the executives respond”, I’m sometimes compelled to send “reminder e-mails”. But what I find is that send too many of them and eventually those reminders go the route of spam: ignored.

Better to be silent and shout only when absolutely necessary, so when you do shout people know you’ve something important to say.

We might actually know more than we think we do

As I listened to the speaker of the webinar, a man who had tons of Sales Operations experience, something gnawed at me – something about what he was saying felt incongruent, felt wrong, but I didn’t just couldn’t put my finger on it.

I took notes, and then started connecting the dots. And before long I realised what was wrong: the assumptions he was using, and the analytics advice he was espousing, were questionable at best, and were most likely incorrect.

Despite his deep Sales Operations experience, and despite his air of authority, he was no analytics expert. 

It was actually the first time it became really clear to me that I was actually closer to an analytics expert than many other people were. And though I’ve felt like a newcomer/newbie for the longest time, it is a fact that I’ve been working in the data/analytics field for more than a decade now – it’s time I started thinking that way, and acting it as well.

(Just a casual observation, but I find that we Asians are most susceptible to  imposter syndrome, or at least a lack of belief in our abilities and influence. Or it might be a cultural thing – we know we know better, but out of humility or reverence we hold back our opinions. Problem is, when we hold back our own light everyone stays in the dark, and nobody benefits.

Come on people, let’s shine!

Tit for Tat

Pleasantries exchanged, we got down to business. 

Rather new to each other, we moved deliberately. The context of the meeting was potentially explosive. It had all the makings of “your word against mine” scenario.

But it started out well. Facts, or perspectives of the facts, were exchanged, and these facts turned out to be decently aligned. We were both professional but cordial. Probing; questioning.

If there was one thing I know about disagreements, having been on the wrong end far more times than I’d like to admit, when two people looking for the same ends disagree, more often than not one or both are missing the complete picture.

By putting aside early on what seem to be differences, and sharing information and perspectives, this can just as often be overcome.

Then his tone changed. Suddenly.

“Do you know what this means for us? Do you not know the implications?”

Jobs, he explained, were on the line.

As much as I had expected something like this before I had got on the call. But I did not expect it then. Not after the dispassionate exchanges since the start of the call.

And I felt offended at his statements – was he implying I wasn’t taking what we were doing seriously? Because it was anything but.

I knew how this work affected others I had gone through extra lengths to make sure it was as good as it could reasonably be. For someone to say otherwise was an insult.

It was at this point that I engaged my own rhetoric. I matched him in content; in tone of voice; in decibels. Two could play this game. 

But then I let up.

Maybe he was frustrated (he probably was). Maybe he was having a bad day (he probably was). Maybe he wanted to get this right, like me (he definitely was).

So I gave him an opening. He took it. 

No, we didn’t manage to settle everything then and there. There were many questions still left unanswered.

But we did manage to do was to return to civility, and an agreement on what we needed to do next.


What transpired above reminded me of the tit-for-tat strategy in game theory, which I first read about in a book on strategic decision making.

It was a rather old book and it didn’t mention the act of generously “being nice” again, which is actually now considered an important improvement to the strategy.

How to save time

Try one of the following:

  1. Learn how to programme the TV recorder in the quickest way. Two buttons, three steps. Take four minutes, not five.
  2. Use a TV recorder to save your favourite TV shows and skip through the ads. Save 30 minutes every two hours.

Or… stop watching the damn TV. Save two hours every two hours.

Don’t save time. If you choose your activities wisely, time saves itself.


See also: https://www.ted.com/talks/laura_vanderkam_how_to_gain_control_of_your_free_time/up-next

Seek feedback and iterate

As I sat there in front of my screen developing the spreadsheet/tool that was to be shared with the more than hundred salespeople in the company I realised I had doubts – would this really work? Was this an improvement to what they already had? Or was it more change for the sake of change?

I honestly felt that it was a genuine improvement, but I didn’t know. And having spent so much time already getting to where I was on its development, the last thing I wanted to hear was that I was on the wrong track, and that my work would come to nought.

Also, I was in a state of flow, and getting feedback was an overhead that would break that. Did I really want that?

I got up from my seat, walked over the coffee machine and made myself a coffee while mulling over this: to get feedback or not to get feedback – that was the question.


Development’s fun – I enjoy it. Solving technical problems and shipping something useful is one of the main reasons I entered the tech/data space. But having moved into a managerial role it’s something I do less and less – development’s now a team sport, one in which I’m no longer the star.

That sense of accomplishment when something you create goes out into the wild and receives accolades is something I really miss.

If this piece of development went live, I would well get back that high.


The steaming cup of coffee in my hand relaxed me and made things a little clearer: I made a mistake of having worked on the development as long as I had without getting feedback. I should have followed the same advice I always give my team: don’t work on something for too long without getting feedback, otherwise you may just find yourself spending days or even weeks on end working on something nobody wants to use.

(Thank goodness I also always drill it into them: “Do what I say; not what I do.”)

The longer I went without feedback, the harder it was psychologically to want to seek it. But I knew I had to do it.

I personally had doubts, and this was my baby here. I gritted my teeth, got up from my seat, and started seeking feedback. Like Sun Wukong (aka Monkey King), I reluctantly travelled to collect the sutras, during which I had to bear the pain of hearing things like “it won’t work” and having my “great” ideas turn bad.

It was emotionally draining, but it had to be done.


Hard as it was, I stopped development that day. The week (and weekend!) of frantic development came up to nothing.

Still, there was something I got out of it — like they say, there are no mistakes, only learning opportunities. And for me, it was a reminder to myself to seek feedback early, and iterate.


It was ironic that it was about this time that I was reading the Lean Startup by Eric Reis, one of the pioneering books on iteration and getting feedback. I leave you with this passage that I always use to remind myself before I go too deep into a development or process rabbit hole (text in bold mine):

From the point of view of individual efficiency, working in large batches makes sense. It also has other benefits: it promotes skill building, makes it easier to hold individual contributors accountable, and, most important, allows experts to work without interruption. At least that’s the theory. Unfortunately, reality seldom works out that way.

Consider our hypothetical example. After passing thirty design drawings to engineering, the designer is free to turn his or her attention to the next project. But remember the problems that came up during the envelope stuffing exercise. What happens when engineering has questions about how the drawings are supposed to work? What if some of the drawings are unclear? What if something goes wrong when engineering attempts to use the drawings?

These problems inevitably turn into interruptions for the designer, and how those interruptions are interfering with the next large batch the designer is supposed to be working on. If the drawings need to be redone, the engineers may become idle while they wait for the rework to be completed. If the designer is not available, the engineers may have to redo the designs themselves. This is why so few products are actually built the way they are designed.

On doing a great job, and not.

There’s this post on Seth Godin’s blog called “Avoiding the GIGO trap” that other than being brilliant as Godin’s posts so often are, also reminded me of what I’ve always felt differentiated the people I’ve worked on the spectrum of face-slappingly awful to walk-on-water great.

On the awful side of the spectrum, you have people who just don’t do anything beyond the bare minimum, and they don’t care that they’re doing that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for ‘XYZ’, we give her ‘xyz'”. It’s close enough, and with some semantic manipulation even meets the requirements.

On the great side of the spectrum, you have people who do all that they’re asked within their power, care tremendously about the product or service they’re looking to provide, and look to go even beyond that. They’re the ones who go, “she asked for XYZ, but we know that isn’t the best thing for us. What if we give her XXZ? Based on my experience, that’s likely to work better and allows us to deliver us even earlier than expected.”


But… let’s introduce context for a moment.

The phone rings. You pick it up. At the same time a nasty e-mail comes in from a colleague whom always seems to make it hard for you. The person on the phone asks where’s the report you promised him. You tell him you’d sent it two days ago only to realise it’s stuck in your Outbox – for some inexplicable reason it never went out, perhaps to do with the e-mail IT had sent earlier but which you didn’t have time to read. You apologise. As you listen to him say he’s “disappointed” you realise you’re at the start of a marathon list of back-to-back meetings.

Imagine that’s a typical day.

Now, to be on the “great side of the spectrum”… perhaps you could push yourself to give that bit more of emotional labour, and still come out on top, but what would that mean for you at the end of the day? What’s the post-work you like after you’ve given it your all? After mental fatigue sets in?


I hadn’t actually expected to write the passage on context above. I was going to end at the first section – “ra-ra great people do this and so should we”. But I realised that in our lives it’s not always easy to be on that “great” side of that spectrum because we have limits. Some less limited than others, but eventually we hit those limits. Just think of Elon Musk on a great day and Elon Musk on an awful day.

I know of people who, if they hadn’t had so much on their plate, would be great. But because of the nature of the job find it difficult to. Going “above-and-beyond” on second- and third-priorities is never a good idea when even “meeting spec” on first-priorities is a problem.


But in the end I am optimistic that it is possible. I personally like to think that we have more opportunities for great days than awful days.

Luck plays a part, surely, but there’s also an aspect of it that involves an investment of time and labour. The concept of “sharpening the saw” that I first read in 7 Habits was one that changed my life. Though I can’t remember exactly what I read, the one key takeaway for me was that despite the allure of “chopping wood”, where your results are instant, once in a while we need to step back and sharpen our proverbial saw, allowing us to chop more wood at a quicker rate in the future.

Sharpening the saw isn’t sexy, and the results can be quite indirect. For example, for me one of the things I did in school was read lots of books on psychology and management, which didn’t do much for me academically at that time.

But by the time I entered the workforce, many of the things I saw and experienced I could relate to because I had already gone through that in a “virtual” manner through books. And when I eventually took on a formal leadership role, the transition was relatively smooth because I knew what to look out for. Same goes with analytics – I was reading and playing around with scripting and data manipulation years before I formally took up a Masters degree and started working professionally with data.

(As an aside, I also read books on Alzheimer’s, Autism, post-retirement activities, and coping with the loss of loved ones because I know one day I’ll be in a situation in which I may have to face these things – even if not directly, through friends or family. My way of sharpening the saw, in the context of life as a whole.)


Awful people aren’t always awful. They could just be great people in awful days. But whom, perhaps, are working diligently in the background sharpening their proverbial saws, so they may one day come out of their chrysalis and show their walk-on-water greatness to us, positively changing the world.

The passionate introvert

This TED talk really surprised me.

The content was great, but it was Brian Little’s delivery that really made me go “wow!”

So many times during the talk it felt I wasn’t listening to him talk on the subject of “personality” but rather his grandchildren. His passion was evident, and his joy contagious. I couldn’t help but give him a personal standing ovation at the end.

It is with this sort of passion that we should approach our careers; our lives.