Monday, May 31, 2010

Review: Astro City Vol 1-5

Someone borrowed my entire Fables collection, and asked me if there was more. I thought of Astro City, but didn't think she'd be terribly interested in it. Then I read the first book again and got sucked in all over again. The series volume are:
  1. Life in the Big City (Astro City, Vol. 1)
  2. Astro City Vol. 2: Confession
  3. Astro City Vol. 3: Family Album
  4. Astro City Vol. 4: The Tarnished Angel
  5. Astro City Vol. 5: Local Heroes
  6. Astro City: The Dark Age Book One SC (Kurt Busiek's Astro City)
  7. Astro City: The Dark Age Book Two
I've only read Volumes #1 to 5. The conceit behind Astro-City is subtle but a lot of fun: rather than tell stories directly about men (and women) in tights using them as the protagonists, let's look at them a little sideways: we'll tell the stories either from the point of view of the common man who lives in the city, or we'll tell the little side stories that you've always wondered about, like why the heck does a super-villain keep doing the same thing over and over if he keeps getting caught by the super-heroes? What's really great is that Kurt Busiek creates all the heroes in Astro-City out of whole cloth, but he taps into the knowledge of super-heroes that nearly everyone has had, built up into mythology by comic books over the last 60 years or so. That lends all his "super" characters some familiarity, but keeps them somewhat interesting still by not over-explaining everything about them, which is what tends to happen with the regular comics industry. Book 1 is exuberant, introducing the city to everyone and asking you to take nothing at face value, not the history, not even the heroes themselves. Book 2 is probably one of my favorite takes on the Batman character I've read, and even reading it today is still fresh. What I love is the layered approach. In many ways, the Batman has always been about overcoming your past, and this version takes that to an extreme. The next two volumes are weaker, but still work through the concepts well. In particular, The Tarnished Angel spends almost the entire volume on villainy, and manages to be tongue-in-cheek about it.

Having read all of these in a couple of nights, I have to say I still recommend the books highly. I still don't know whether to lend them to my friend. Maybe I'll just drop in the first couple of volumes and see if she gets hooked...

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Under-estimating the impact of incentives

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. As far as organizational structures are concerned, I'm a man with a hammer. That hammer is none other than #1 on Charlie Munger's list of causes of human misjudgment : Under-recognition of the power of incentives.

Take for instance, Jean Louis Gassee's criticism of Microsoft's Steve Ballmer. Setting aside that Gassee failed to sell to Apple at a good price, and BeOS never did very well in the market, it's not clear that any of the things Gassee would have Ballmer do was really actionable.

Microsoft is a 60,000 person company. There's a very strict limit to how much one man, even a CEO can do to move a 60,000 person company. The reality is, when you're at the stratosphere at such a company, the only thing you can do is to really set up incentives so that people do what's good for the company by doing what's good for them.

Take Vista, for example. Vista broke one of the most important rules of Microsoft Windows development: it broke backwards compatibility. Now you can rationalize that Windows' code base is better as a result. But the whole rationale behind Windows was that you can buy any $25 piece of hardware at Fry's and it would work. Windows XP, for instance did that marvelously, and I still have Windows XP boxes attached to various pieces of hardware that won't work on any other operating system. The minute Vista broke that compatibility, a customer would have to buy all new hardware for his new computer. At which point, Apple could (and did!) come along and say, "Hey, why don't you buy my shiny machine? It looks cool, it scores points with members of the opposite sex, and it can also run Windows if you have to."

But presumably Microsoft knew all that! Why despite knowing that Vista's lack of compatibility would screw with Microsoft's revenue and dominance, did it do so? I asked a current Googler who was an ex-Microsoftie this question in 2006. His response was: "The new driver model? The one that broke all your devices? Well, you don't get your promotion to Staff Engineer for being someone who keeps it compatible with the old cruft. You get your promotion for designing a whole new piece of infrastructure that has huge impact on the world. Well, whoever did that got his promotion, and who cares if it tanked the company!" Ouch. People have argued that the new model is indeed more stable, but other techniques such as MicroReboots were also available. There really was no reason for Microsoft to take the risk of defection of customers to other operating systems.

One would think that such perverse incentive systems that can cause companies billions would be fixed, but my guess is that these incentive systems lie deep in the heart of the corporate culture: inventing new things will always be better rewarded than either making existing things run faster, or keeping things compatible, despite the latter two jobs usually being far harder than inventing a new subsystem out of whole cloth. And executives, even C level executives frequently still under-estimate the power of such incentive systems. As an example in late 2008, I had a conversation with a top executive at a well-known Silicon Valley company about what these perverse incentives were doing to his company. His response? "I don't believe it all comes down to incentives. After all, if you do good work and do good things, when you leave and work for other companies or when your friends leave and work for other companies, they'll remember you and bring you new opportunities, so you always have an incentive to do good work." When I heard that response I did not know what to say.

Months later, the company unveiled a "good citizenship award" internally. It was driven by the same popularity-contest-based incentive system that had already failed to promote good behavior. Not surprisingly, things have not changed as a result. When you see repeated examples of such behavior, it becomes much less of a surprise that startups without an incentive system other than handing out stock to everyone will continue to outperform the large organizations. Which again begs the question: Why the rush to get big?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Review: Keen Cycling Sandals

One of my fellow bike club members, Harvey Wong rode around in cycling sandals all the time. The shoes looked very cool (well, Harvey's a pretty cool looking dude anyway), and so I was very excited a few years ago when the local bike shop had a sale on Shimano Men's Cycling Sandal - SH-SD66 (45-46). When I went to the store, however, I was disappointed. I found the sandals too uncomfortable for me to contemplate even wearing. Lisa found that the sandals fit her much better (no, we didn't try the same size sandals), however, so she got a pair.

When Lisa sent her cycling shoes in to get fitted for some orthotics, she rode the sandals full time. At first she raved about how nice her sandals were, and she clearly thought they were cooler and more comfortable, which was the point. But the sandal was so flexy that she had trouble clipping out, which meant that she wouldn't even contemplate riding her single, and it definitely made her decide that she did not want to wear them on the upcoming tour. She first had to flex her ankle to the point where the shoe itself would move, then she'd have to flex the sole to the point where the cleat would dis-engage.

When I saw the REI had a sale on the Keen cycling sandals, I got very excited. We went to the store and I tried on the various different sizes (they come in half size variants, which makes it critical to go to a store to try things on to get a perfect fit). They were very comfortable in the store, but since the store didn't let me stick on SPD cleats to find out how they would engage or dis-engage from the pedal, I had no way to find out except to buy a pair. Except that we were one day too early for the sale. Nevermind, I'll just bring the coupon with me and show the cashier, and maybe she'd let me have it at the sale price anyway. No dice. Well, an IM to a savvy-shopper friend brought me an on-line link (now expired, so here's the shoe with Amazon pricing) that was even cheaper than the REI sale, so there was no way I'd make a special trip just to pick up the sandals. I would have been willing to pay the REI sale price in exchange for the privilege of trying out the shoe in the store, but not full price.

The shoe arrived yesterday, and the first thing I did was to weigh it. It came in at 436g per shoe (with cleats), which is 20g heavier than my SIDI Giau Cycling Shoes! But they are incredibly comfortable, with the straps guaranteeing that I wouldn't have any hot spots on the uppers (I have a couple of bunions that make regular cycling shoes chafe a bit there).

I took them out for a longer test ride today, and the shoes are just about perfect. There's no problem engaging or dis-engaging cleats, and when I get off the bike they are perfectly walkable (though the cleat does still click on pavement). One interesting problem is that the little grooves in the sole actually grab rocks and trap them, so they're not very good for walking on gravel --- after walking through gravel, you'll have a bunch of tiny stones in your sole that you'd have to work off. There's just the barest hint of flex (much less than expected from a sandal, though now that I know the weight I'm just the slightest bit disappointed), though on the upstroke unless you cinch down the sandals really tight you'll get a bit of loose bounce, which should go away as the weather gets warmer. The sandals are easy on and easy off, but by choosing to use a draw-cord as the closure rather than velcro, you still need care: you must tuck the draw cord back into the laces or your chainrings will chew up your draw-cord like nobody's business.

I'll still wear my SIDIs for touring the alps (open toes in cold rain is no fun!), but for casual riding to the store, library, or the occasional ride to the doctor's office will be all done with these. In fact, maybe as I get used to them, I'll be encouraged to ride all over the place and even do long rides with them like Harvey does with his sandals. They certainly aren't losing much in the stiffness department. Recommended.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Review: Insomnia

I am slowly working through Christopher Nolan's movies. Insomnia [Blu-ray] was his first major film after Memento. It is so far my favorite Christopher Nolan movie.

The movie is a remake of a 1998 Norwegian film of the same name. However, the plot and characters were apparently substantially changed, so I feel justified in treating it as a completely original movie. The film features an all-star cast, with Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank headlining the film.

The plot revolves around a girl who was beaten to death in the small Alaskan town of Nightmute. Two policemen are sent up to town from Los Angeles to assist in the investigation: Dormer (Pacino) and Eckhart. Swank plays Ellie Burr, who is the bright-eyed young cop who hero-worships Dormer.

I love the way the cops are portrayed: these aren't incompetent bumbling cops who blow the investigation and have a hard time figuring out who did it. They figure it out, and they figure it out fast. However, Dormer and Eckhart come with a history of their own, and there's definitely tension between them. In a particularly intense moment, things start to go wrong and it feels like Dormer starts to fall apart, not just from the tensions carried over from LA, but also from Insomnia from the midnight sun. I won't spoil the plot for you here, but yes, Robin Williams does play a very important role, and it is played completely against type for him, which I quite enjoyed.

The DVD by the way has a short feature about insomnia featuring William C. Dement, who wrote The Promise of Sleep. It's good to be able to attach a face to a name. Dement says that the movie is accurate in its portrayal of insomnia and its effects.

Needless to say, this movie comes highly recommended. It is rated R (mostly for language), however, so parents take note.

Review: Ash

Ash is Malinda Lo's re-telling of the Cinderella. Re-telling is too weak to describe what Lo does with the story. Eviscerated re-imagination might be about right.

This Cinderella did go to a couple of balls, did dance with a prince, and did have a wicked step-mother as well as horrible step-sisters, and there are some fairies and fairy-tales involved, but that's about all she shares with the fairy-tale you probably remember. The faeries are also the darker sort, coming out of stories like Ellen Kushner's Thomas the Rhymer., rather than Enid Blyton

The plot is fine, the story is fine, and even the characters are fine. Unfortunately, the writing doesn't line up. There's no soul there, no lyricism. Everything is written in a matter-of-fact post-modern fashion, which isn't what fairy tales should be about. Part of it is that Malinda Lo is probably trying to distance the reader from the traditional story, but another part is almost certainly because Lo just can't write that well, and is perhaps relying on a crutch of the Gay and Lesbian culture's almost certain support of this book.

Not recommended.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Organizational Thinking

I read somewhere that Google is apparently looking for a head of social. I don't know how much of the press around this is real, and whether the reports on the experience were from highly qualified candidates who were treated badly. My book, An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups described the situation when I joined Google, which was that the engineering organization not only couldn't figure out how to hire release engineers, but didn't know what it didn't know about how to hire appropriate release engineers, leading to a logjam and deadlock (not to mention some unhappy auditors).

When I gave my talk at LOLapps.com and mentioned this, someone from the audience asked me this insightful question: "How do you learn to recognize these deadlock situations? How do you hire or train someone to recognize these types of situation?" My initial response was that if the founder/executive team doesn't recognize these, you have a problem. My next response was to point him at one of my favorite organizational analysis textbooks: The Fifth Discipline. One of my favorite chapters of that book is the one on The Beer Game. It shows how given a long enough supply chain (3 tiers was enough), and a long enough feedback loop (it turns out that even 1.5 hours was enough to demonstrate this), smart, intelligent people put into a structurally untenable situation would make a hash of things, even as they were doing their darnedest to optimize their individual roles and react to the environment. The minute you see this in action you will learn to stop blaming the individuals who are acting in their roles, and start analyzing structure and decision making in organizations from a feedback/information perspective.

The Beer Game also taught me to see how important open-ness and widespread dissemination of information was inside organizations, and I think Google in particular was very good at staying open despite all the pressures to do otherwise. Everyone I spoke to knew that we had a problem, and everyone was aware that the person responsible for trying to solve the problem was trying to do their best. This made organizational change much easier than it would have been otherwise (though it still wasn't easy). When confronted with situations like this, organizations tend to want to find an outside savior: someone who can ride in on a white horse from outside the company to save it. However, this is precisely the wrong approach, because the real problem usually has to do with the organization's approach to the problem, and that's much more easily changed by an insider.

By far the thing that impressed me the most was what a skilled organizational hacker Wayne Rosing was. When he saw that the previous approaches wasn't working, Rosing decided to take the problem and hand it to an engineer with previous experience in the domain! In other words, everyone knew that if Ron Dolin came and asked you for help, this was an important situation and critical for the IPO. If Wayne Rosing was at Google today, I'm convinced he would take that approach again with respect to a "Head of Social" position, which is to take an engineer well-versed in the social world and ask him to fix the problem. I don't know who that would be (my nomination would be Matt Cutts) but I'm positive it would be a better solution than a search for an outside Head of Social. The need in this case isn't for someone with external credibility, but for someone who can hack the organization from the inside to recognize that the important problems are the unknown unknowns.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Review: Iconoclaust

I really wanted to like the book Iconoclast. It promised to explain in a neuro-scientific manner how certain people can achieve what others thought could not be done, and then show you how you can do the same for yourself.

Unfortunately, the book falls far short of the goals. Each chapter begins with a few stories about famous iconoclasts and describes in less than a page what he or she did and what brilliant insight they had, or what obstacles they overcame. Then the book goes into the neurobiology of what's going on in your brain when discovering a new idea, or confront opposition to your ideas. There's no actionable component about what you can do to make it more likely that you'll have a great idea ,though some are pretty obvious: one of the most important things to do is to learn to ignore what other people say or do, and another one is to actively seek out new experiences. Unfortunately, such topics are far better covered by Richard Wiseman's The Luck Factor.

The last chapter in particular is pretty lame. It describes various mind-enhancing drugs and what they can do for you. Someone once told me that he thought a significant percentage of Google engineers was already on Ritalin or other such medication in an attempt to get such an advantage. However, there are no studies at all to back such use of drugs, and even the author admits that many of these drugs have side-effects that can have dire health consequences.

All in all, I thought the book was barely worth the time spent reading it. Not recommended.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Review: Miracle Exclusives ME81 Stainless Steel Rice Cooker/Steamer

Lisa's been very picky about rice cooker, since she didn't like any of the ones with the non-stick coatings, which she thinks will cause poisoning as they come off and gets into the food. So she bought a VitaClay Claypot/Rice Cooker, which is a rice cooker with an inner pot made from clay, rather than aluminum. I didn't like this rice cooker: it's slow, and furthermore, fragile. As a ham-fisted engineer and chef, I tend to just fill the pot with rice, dump it into the rice cooker, and then once in a while the pot will crack and all the water will spill out.

After breaking the expensive rice cooker this way, I went on-line to look for something better that would still satisfy Lisa. I eventually found the Miracle Stainless Steel Rice cooker. A Chinese person cannot bear to live without a rice cooker for more than a day or so, so I paid the $4 rush fee to get it right away. For $74, what I got didn't look like much: the usual badly written manual, a stainless steel pot, a steamer with lid, a rice paddle, and a plastic measuring cup for rice.

I had originally planned to make something else that day, but once I saw the steamer I decided to buy some salmon and steam it. I rubbed the salmon with salt, encrusted it with pepper, stuck some ginger slices on it and then stuck a few pieces of tomatoes on it. I then stuck the whole thing into the rice cooker, with some rice and water in the pot. 25 minutes later, everything was done, which makes this the easiest cooking I've ever done! The rice was a bit soggy because I used a bit too much rice, but that got corrected the very next time I made rice. The fish was nothing short of delicious!

The Amazon reviews point out that the pot was hard to clean. That's not true. Just soak the pot in water and leave it for a bit and everything will work correctly. You can also use the rice cooker without the steamer, which is great. There are no complicated settings, just "cook" and "warm." The instructions just say to let brown rice steam for an extra 15 minutes for it to be correctly cooked. The price seemed steep for what you got, but on the other hand, nobody else seems to sell stainless steel inner pots without non-stick coatings.

Hang, by the way, told Lisa that Teflon is the most inert material out there, so even if you did ingest it, it would pass harmlessly through your body! So next time I'll buy one of the $30 non-stick coated rice cookers. In any case, if you buy into Teflon poisoning/aluminum poisoning, then I can recommend this rice cooker.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Compensation Thought Experiment

Pop Quiz to see if you've been paying attention to the past few blog posts (or better yet, read my book): Supposed you had a $250K equity offer from Google, and a $250K equity offer from Facebook, which one is more valuable? Under what circumstances would one offer be much better than the other? (These are purely hypothetical numbers and have no relation to offers being handed out at either companies today --- I just picked a nice round number out of thin air)

Both companies are handing out RSUs (Restricted Stock), so you can't play any of the tax planning games I discussed in my book. Facebook is currently valued at around $25B. Google is valued at $151B. If Facebook really succeeds in its quest to dominate social networking, monetizes it, and dominates the web, it's not inconceivable that it becomes worth $50B or $100B (which would make the final compensation $500K or $1M). What would Google have to do in order to double or quadruple? The largest market cap company in the US is Exxon Mobile at $283B. So if Google were to double it would be bigger than Exxon-Mobile. That sounds unlikely. It's not impossible, but it's unlikely. For instance, if YouTube were to dominate all of TV, we could model that by say, taking TV network market caps and adding that to Google. CBS is only worth $10B, so my guess is even if YouTube wiped out CBS/ABC/NBC, it would only add $50B to Google's market cap. This is the price of success: it takes a lot of dollars to move Google's market cap!

Now, Facebook is also much more likely to be worth $0 than Google is, so in market parlance, we say that Facebook is higher risk. Under what circumstance is the higher risk stock (represented by Facebook in this case) a better bet? Well, if you're a young engineer (fresh out of school, for instance), then you have plenty of time to recover from Facebook going to $0. If you're in your 50s or 60s and haven't saved enough to retire, you might as well roll the dice and shoot the moon, since the extra $250K wouldn't support your lifestyle anyway in retirement.

The person who should take the Google offer is someone right on the cusp of achieving his financial goals: that last $250K is much more valuable than rolling the dice and getting $2M or $0. Note that I'm making all this computation based on not knowing anything about Facebook's revenues or potential growth. In practice, the risk of taking the pre-IPO company's offer is much lower if you manage to deduce their revenue/profit/growth situation during the interview process, and the offers rarely end up being equal.

Now that you've had the chance to think about this, stories like these make a lot of sense, right? Or at least, I hope it does.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Review: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

I somehow forgot to review the first season of The Sarah Connor Chronicles, so I'll do both Seasons of The Sarah Connor Chronicles at once.

The premise behind the series should be familiar to everyone. Robots are sent back through time to kill John Connor, the future leader of the human resistance after SkyNet takes over the world. In the first two movies (I haven't seen any of the rest), robots known as Terminators are sent back to kill first Sarah Connor (so that John Connor wouldn't have been born), and then both Sarah and John.

Once you throw in time travel into the mix, plots become highly improbable and unless the writers are very very good, keeping consistency even within the TV series becomes very difficult. The first season focuses very much on Sarah Connor, played by Lena Heady, who manages to convey determination, but also looks too often as though she wishes she could be a soccer mom instead. Nearly every episode begins with a voice-over and some narration by Sarah, and we get a summation at the end as well. The problem was that the first season was almost all about flight and survival, with an occasional robot of the week or "possible-skynet" of the week. Nevertheless, the plots were believable and the characters were interesting, though John Connor just comes across too often as just another sullen teenager who doesn't do much of anything.

The second season complicated the plot somewhat, introducing more characters (yet another relatives of John, for instance), but felt very disjoint: episodes were frequently disconnected, and it seems as though the characters were often sent on wild chases that led nowhere, which is very frustrating. We are also led to believe that the main villain of the arc would be someone who would be dealt with, but the plot throws us for a loop that's not very believable, given the character's prior behavior. Towards the end of the season it looked like the writers finally found some courage (whether that was driven by the series cancellation), and started killing off major characters to lend a sense of devastation. The ending did seem very pat, however, so I'm not sure I was satisfied by the series.

Not recommended.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Money Doesn't Matter Myth

In between bouts of learning Adobe InDesign, I've been helping a few engineers negotiate compensation. One of the strangest things I ran into at Google was a number of people telling me that they didn't care about their career path, their compensation, or something like that. This was usually used to justify their apathy towards promotion systems, or to justify taking on an assignment that they knew would not help their career.

Coming from an engineer towards the end of that career, I can understand that attitude. If you're in your 50s or 60s, an extra promotion might not matter very much: after all, any additional compounding effect on your income will be dwarfed by matters such as job-satisfaction, or even such fringe benefits as health insurance.

For young engineers, however, that attitude is ridiculous and stupid. First off, an incremental 15% raise at this point in your career will compound over the next 4 decades if you're in your 20s. This makes a difference of a few million dollars. Secondly, as anyone who has bought an expensive luxury item knows, spending more on something makes you value it more. There are very few people who would bad-mouth their recently-bought expensive BMW or MacBook, for instance. (Yes, and I'm aware that I am one of those who would bad-mouth something I just bought, but I'm weird that way)

One engineer I advised got a substantial counter-offer from his current employer. After the counter-offer (but before he accepted it), he mentioned that his manager and tech-lead started treating him differently. This was a natural effect: once he got his counter, he started being too valuable to spend doing crappy work and writing unit tests: he'd have to be put to work doing more highly leveraged activities. A few more cycles of this, and he'd have enough work to justify a promotion, and a virtuous cycle will start.

So even if my book doesn't make you want to work at a startup, interviewing around to seek your market value is very likely to pay off, not just in terms of compensation, but in other intangibles as well, such as job satisfaction, or just getting out from doing work you don't want to do. It always surprises me that talented engineers put up with an unsatisfying job: the Valley is as hot as I've ever seen it, and it's currently a seller's market for engineering talent. If you don't take advantage of the situation now, another such situation may not arise for another 5 years.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Review: The Big Short

The Big Short is Michael Lewis' book about the financial crisis. The book rolled out without a Kindle edition, prompting me to borrow it from the library and costing W.W. Nortin as well as the author a sale.

The book is a quick and easy read, and tells several compelling stories, mostly from the point of view of the people who saw it coming and found ways to profit from the sub-prime mortgage disaster. His ability to get into the heads of folks like Steve Eisman, Michael Burry, and several other traders makes for a fun read, and provides a way to explain the financial crisis without several chapters of what would have been boring exposition.

We really do get to see how incompetent the big investment banks were, in some cases willfully so, because the incentive structure was completely messed up: in many cases (and in the case of Wing Chau, what was good for the individual (Chau made millions running his sub-prime trades) was decidedly not good at all for the market or for the corporate sponsors (Merril Lynch) in this case. There were basic fundamental flaws in the ways the big banks viewed mortgages (such as assuming an extremely low default rate in the face of insufficient history) that makes you realized that Krugman was right in that nationalizing these institutions couldn't possibly hurt: they were so incompetently run that they did not deserve to live, and sad as the government was, it could probably have run those banks better, even if simply by liquidating them. By the way, I once brought up similar incentive problems at an employer, and the VP of Engineering dismissed my concerns, claiming that incentives were no big deal since "people would do the right thing anyway, since when they move on to other companies they'd want their reputation to stay intact. That's the kind of stupidity that hit the big investment banks, apparently simultaneously. Which begs the question, Why the Rush to get Big?

Lewis points out something sad: everyone involved in the sub-prime crisis at the financial level made huge amounts of money. The CEOs (and Wing Chau) made millions, as did Eisman and Burry. But the press did not glorify Eisman and Burry, and did not vilify the CEOs of Merril Lynch, Bear Stearns or AIG for being complete idiots. In many cases, the same guys just went ahead and started new businesses to screw people all over again. Lewis also points out what sweetheart deals Hank Paulson and other government officials offered the various investment banks with the TARP money: they were essential giveaways with no strings attached!

I definitely think that going back to strong financial regulation and making banking an extremely boring and sedate occupation is the right thing to do. The same people would probably cause a lot of social damage at other big companies, but I can't think of any other situation in which they could have caused so much misery.

This book is highly recommended for a unique perspective on the financial crisis. If enough people read it, maybe politicians wouldn't be so willing to bail out big investment banks during the next financial crisis. Or maybe I'm just being too optimistic this morning.

Canon S90 Review

Cazedero LDT 2010


I ordered a Canon S90 for this weekend's trip, hoping that Lisa would be able to capture Myers Grade, one of the prettiest roads in the area, but one that's impossible to do justice to because descending on an 18% grade is challenging enough without thinking about taking pictures.

Well, that didn't work out, but the camera did! First, I was impressed by how much control the camera gave me. You really do get to set aperture, shutter speed, etc., and the manual focus option is even useful (the display zooms in so you can tell whether or not you're out of focus).

Others complained that the control ring at the back of the camera is loose and easy to turn by accident. In practice, that's not an issue for us. Neither Lisa nor I tripped it over the weekend. The RAW mode is very nice, but I've noticed that in full Auto mode (which Lisa uses), it doesn't shoot in RAW. Nevertheless, that's a minor issue. RAW files are huge (8GB only stores 540 RAWs), so for shooting off the bike (which is what Lisa does), I doubt if we'll use RAW: there are too many bad pictures to be thrown away!

In any case, the camera is great, so I expect that we'll keep it past the trial period and rely on it for the upcoming tour of the German Speaking alps.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Hoisted from my Buzz

This started off as a post on Buzz, but then I realized that most people probably neither read nor follow my Buzz/Reader feeds (which is admitted a torrent of information that more than one person has complained about not being able to follow).

Google has just handed out a Founders' Award to the Android team. By all accounts it was substantial, ranging from a pat on the back to millions of dollars in restricted stock (vested over 4 years, of course --- Google is not stupid). Yet Google has seen two recent departures (neither of which I know well, so this is all outside information) from the Android team. Presumably, if the stock was vesting and it was substantial, people wouldn't leave now, yet precisely that's what's been happening! Why is that?

One possibility is that the people who left didn't get to take part in the substantial stock awards. If Google handed out a million bucks to your cube-mate and not to you, that's a pretty strong signal that you should leave right now. This obviously applies to you if all you were was a Senior Software Engineer who has next to no prospects of promotion under the current regime. I find that hard to believe, however, of the Senior Product Manager. There are a lot fewer PMs than there are Engineers, so the chances of a low payout is less likely there (but it could still happen!).

The deeper possibility is that not all $1M awards are the same. A $1M award out of Google vested over four years is the same as a $250k/year increase in salary. But that's going to be taxed at your highest marginal tax rate, somewhere around 45% in California. To make things simple and to account for the possibility of a tax hike, I'll call that 50%. That's a $125k/year increase in salary. That's great, but let's take a look at the alternative if you were getting $1M from LinkedIn. (My sources say that LinkedIn is worth about $4b-$5b today)

If you've read my book, you'll do the right thing and immediately pre-exercise all your LinkedIn options. 4 years later (or whenever you can), you could sell the stock for $1M. However, that's all taxed at Long Term Capital Gains tax rates, which are currently at 15%. Tack on another 10% California taxes, and now you're at 25% tax rates. So that nets $750,000 over 4 years. (Note: tax rates can change) Compare this with $500,000 over 4 years, and the person who joined the startup gets $250,000 more. That's 30% more money!

But that's assuming that the startup's package is worth $1M as well. The startup options carry a lot more uncertainty, and LinkedIn is much more likely to double over the next four years than Google. It's also much more likely to go to $0 (No risk, no reward!). Furthermore, you can control when you extract income out of your LinkedIn stock (through an 83b election as described in the book), whereas Google's Restricted Stock gets taxed as you vest.

Of course, the best deal is to do what these gentlemen probably did, which is to use the founder's award to extract more equity from the respective companies they joined, as well as promotions, salary increases, and other benefits. On top of that, the bigger impact you make as a person in a smaller company also makes the potential career path there much more satisfying, provided you did your homework when you selected the startup. Note that you can also have a very satisfying career at Google by being on the fast track and getting promoted every year --- Andy Rubin wouldn't join Facebook any time soon. But if you're not one of those, then Beust's and Tseng's approach makes a lot of sense.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Review: The Prestige

I first read the novel The Prestige some time around 1998 or 1999 through a friend I met on the train. When I heard that Christopher Nolan had made The Prestige [Blu-ray]into a movie, I made up my mind that I would like to see it. But things being what they were, I didn't get around it until now.

Most movie adaptations of novels are lackluster. I wondered how the movie would do in this case, partly because the prose of the novel was turgid because the novel also aimed to pull one over the reader's eyes as well, while remaining fair enough an intelligent reader could figure out what the Prestige was. (The prestige is the final act of a magic show, where the magician produces whatever he made disappear) And yes, I did figure out what the prestige was, so it was fair.

Well, the movie does reproduce the novel remarkably well, and once again, an intelligent viewer who pays attention will definitely has all the clues he or she needs in order to figure out the trick. The actors are great, and I definitely loved the portrayal of the rivalry between Jackman and Bale's characters. There are a few changes from the novel, but none of them are outrageous.

I think the biggest problem deciding between the novel or the movie is that you can only experience the reveal once, in whatever form. Once you've read the novel, then the movie won't hold any mysteries for you, and vice-versa, so you have to be very careful in deciding which you should sample first. Given that the prose of the novel was deliberately turgid, in this case I recommend that you watch the movie first, which will likely motivate you to spend the extra time required to read the novel. If you think that means that I have high praise for the movie, you're right. I'm quickly becoming a Christopher Nolan fan!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Review: The Hunger Games

I started The Hunger Games this morning and finished it in a day. It was an incredibly compelling read for me, making me understand why my mom found reality TV so compelling.

The story is about a girl, Katniss, who volunteers to take the place of her beloved sister for The Hunger Games, an annual event at the Capital of her country (set in a future North America) where 24 children are brought together to fight to the death on TV in a Survivor-like environment. Suzanne Collins throws in twists like sponsors of the various contestants being able to send gifts to the participants in time of need, and the game-masters being able to control the environment to some extent.

The protagonist is what you would expect a heroine to be: resourceful, talented, strong, and smart. The action is fast-moving and quick: at no point is the reader even left time to be bored, contemplative, or able to question the premise. This could easily be turned into a movie, though perhaps one that's a bit too brutal to watch if depicted in all its glory. You really do feel like you're watching as the protagonist manipulates the environment, her opponents, and even her audience to survive challenge after challenge.

All in all, a good read, and I guess I'll be checking out the next book from the library.

Guide to Startups Presentation Gets Audio Presentation

Unfortunately, I did not record the talk at LOLapps last week, so I've recorded a separate talk to go with this. Unfortunately, the best part of talks is in the questions, so that's entirely missing. But if you do want to ask questions, you can always join the book's mailing list.



Download MP3


I hope the audio is listenable!

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Review: The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl(DRM-free ebook) is Paolo Baciagalupi's novel about a post-fossil fuel economy and dystopia. I stumbled across it by reading two short stories set in the same world (free download).

Set in Thailand, the novel poses an energy poor future, one in which fossil fuels are expensive and almost non-existent, where elephants wind giant springs to store energy, and bio-plagues released by corporations have swept the world, wiping out any sources of food not genetically engineered to resist the plagues. Genetic engineering has become far advanced, enabling the creation of beings who are subservient to humans. These new breed of slaves are called windups, since they have jerky motions genetically engineered into them to make them distinguishable.

The plot itself is complicated, and seem designed more to show off the milieu than anything else. The characters themselves are not, with fairly simple motivations to drive them: many are even caricatures that you would expect.

What shines in the novel, however is the world-building and the verisimilitude. Most novels set in South-East Asia are terrible, poorly researched and with no regard for the culture and interactions between the mix of races. Liz William's Snake Agent was the most horrible offender, but most aren't much better. Bacigalupi, however, must either have really lived in South-East Asia, or has done such meticulous research that no one else has done before. An early MacGuffin, for instance, is easily identified by a South East Asian as the Rambutan, but few non-Asians have heard of the fruit, let alone think to use it as a MacGuffin.

Another sign of the incredible work Bacigalupi has done is to note the tension between the local Chinese and the native races. It's accurate, intelligent, and very believable. Even the names of the characters (one of them is called Tan Hock Seng, something you'll only find in South East Asian names) correctly indicate where they are from and what their likely cultural attitudes are. The language, when it switches to Mandarin or Hokkien, is also recognizable and correct. This novel was clearly written by someone who respects South East Asian culture well enough to get things right, and that in itself is highly commendable.

At the very least, I think you should read the short stories, and then decide for yourself whether or not you want more Bacigalupi. My big disappointment is that I don't think the novel is as great as the short stories are (the short stories aren't all set in Thailand, but do have elements also found in the novel). On the other hand, the exploration of the themes, and the accuracy of the novel with respect to its depiction of South-East Asia compels me to recommend it. Well worth your time, if you've got any interest at all in these topics.

[Update: The Windup Girl has won this year's Nebula Award for best novel]

Friday, May 07, 2010

Review: Garmin GSC10

After almost a month with the Garmin Edge 500, I noticed that even the high sensitivity GPS chip tended to have odd spikes. For instance, it claimed that we hit 55 mph on Skyline, when my same bike computer said we did not exceed 45mph. On my single, I would not care, since I'm hardly the kind of person who sets speed records anyway, but on the tandem, we've hit freeway speeds, so I found myself wanting some precision, especially for the upcoming Tour of the German Speaking Alps.

Now, even regular bike computers don't stay accurate because of tire inflation variation, air temperature, and just plain inaccuracies while calibrating the wheel size. However, the Garmin GSC 10 Speed/Cadence Bike Sensor does the right thing, which is to calibrate the wheel size using the GPS unit, and then use the spinning wheel as a check against GPS jitter. On top of this you get a cadence sensor as well, which produces nice charts telling me that keeping my cadence on the tandem up on Redwood Gulch would be a problem. [Update: Our Mt. Charlie Ride showed us doing 79.1mph. I don't find that believable at all, so there's still some jitter!]

Mounting and setting up the unit was a cinch. The unit cleverly has both the cadence and the speed magnet arm on the same sensor. The arm is designed in such a way that you can twist it up and down without needing a screw driver to loosen it up. This is a big feature, since if things get twisted around on a ride somewhere you can fix it without getting out the tool. Checking to make sure that you got everything lined up is straight forward: you push a reset button and the LED blinks every time a magnet crosses the sensor arm, so you can tell whether or not you've got it right. The unit uses CR2032 batteries Pack, which I had a stash of back when I had an operational Sigma MHR 2006. A search on the web indicates that the battery should last about 2500 miles, which sounds kind of low to me, but given that everything is wireless is perhaps understandable.

My biggest complaint is that mounting the unit uses zip-ties, instead of rubber bands or something less permanent. My experience is that zip-ties are prone to breaking off from fatigue, and of course getting snapped through abuse, and I'm unlikely to carry zip ties on tour. The battery cover is also in an awkward place and might require removing the rear wheel to replace. No big deal if you're not a cycle tourist, but still a pain.

All in all, it's a nice package, and I'm even tempted to get one for my single. I'll probably wait to see whether this thing survives the upcoming tour before I buy a second one for the single bike. Otherwise, first impressions are: recommended.
[Update: I just switched the battery, and it's been about 1500 mile per CR 2032]

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Review: The Other Lands

The Other Lands (Acacia, Book 2) is David Anthony Durham's sequel to Acacia, which I reviewed 3 years ago.

Acacia ended with a war over, and Corinn, the most morally ambiguous of the Akaran children Queen. We see the aftermath of the war, and Corinn's rule resume everything that her other siblings considered wrong about the rule of Accacia: slavery.

The plot then broadens to include the rest of the world we had seen merely a glimpse of in the first book, the land of the Numreks. Books that in the middle of a trilogy tend to suffer, since the novel typically tries to set up the finale, and not much happens. While this book does end with a cliff-hanger that the long story arc sets up, you can't accuse Durham of making nothing happen in this book. Lots happen in this book, and we see many mysteries resolved. For instance, why was a seemingly endless supply of slaves needed? What were the Numreks running from?

My only possible complaint is that the prose while still very readable, isn't as sparkling as Acacia was. Nevertheless, I found it a good read, and the first fiction book I'd finished for quite some time. Recommended.

While doing research for this blog entry, I discovered that David Anthony Durham won the 2009 Campbell Award for best new writer of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Congratulations. And yes, Scarlet, I still think you're wrong about Acacia.

Promotion Systems Redux

My spies at Google tell me that my essay on promotion systems drew a reaction on a Google mailing list that I didn't read even back when I was employed at Google.

I did get a few interesting responses. I won't post them here, but I'll address what a few points: The first was that the system isn't actually the worst of all systems. An even worse system would have all the characteristics I pointed at, and add one more feature, which is to have promotions be cut-throat (i.e., for you to win, someone else would have to lose). The peer review feature does make people nicer to each other, though what I found as time went on was that if you were too low on the hierarchy, your opinions didn't matter to the promotion committees anyway, so more cynical senior people would feel free to ignore your requests for help.

Someone else pointed out that the real compensation at Google was much more dependent on raises, stock and bonuses, so the promotion system didn't matter. But that's not true at all! First of all, there was a level-based salary cap, and people did hit them. So at some point, you have to get promoted if you want your salary to keep going up. Bonuses were based on salaries, so those don't go up if your salary doesn't go up. Secondly, even if it was true that options and bonuses was all that mattered, then you just validated the claim that eliminating the engineering ladder wouldn't hurt productivity at all!

Finally, people seem to have an inordinate amount of faith in a process executed by humans who had limited amount of time to read and evaluate a person's work. When I sat on intern hiring committees, I would dig through change lists and discover all sorts of nasty things about an intern's projects (the intern was rarely to blame, but his/her mentor was definitely at fault) that would lead to a "no hire." Yet I was usually the only person who bothered to do that kind of digging. Most people on the committee just read the person's packet and took everything at face value because it was way too much work otherwise. I've sat in on promotion committees where the director moderating the discussion (remember, the managers weren't supposed to influence the process) would provide out-of-band commentary by murmuring about how good a candidate was. I also saw cases where someone working on an un-sexy project was denied promotion just because the rest of the committee hadn't heard of it, and had no understanding of what the work was. I've even seen sympathy promotions, so I have no illusions about whether or not the system was fair.

Now, a traditional management/promotion system might not do any better, but you bet the heck that at least the employee would be confronting his/her manager and at least demand clear guidance about what he had to do to get promoted. An employee denied promotion by a faceless committee can't do that. This was what was on Reed's mind when he said he still favored a traditional system executed well.

In any case, I think it's very healthy for Google to have an internal discussion about this. But do I expect the system to change? No. The super-star rule I referred to in that previous post would prevent that. I did have a discussion with a VP about this. He told me that when he first joined Google, he tried to change the promotion criteria to better formally recognize leadership, mentoring, and the importance of spreading knowledge (technical or otherwise) throughout the organization. The result? A bunch of very senior engineers (who had all benefited under the current regime, and were understandably worried about their career prospects under a different system) shouted him down. If a VP can't change the system, no amount of blogging from outside or inside the company will, so these will be my last words about the topic.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

San Francisco Startup Tour


I gave a talk today at LOLapps.com, which is in a lovely location in downtown San Francisco: this is clearly a startup that believes in planning ahead: the entire 7th floor was theirs, and they looked like they had enough room to double or triple while staying in the same space. Folks look excited and asked intelligent (and sometimes difficult) questions, which is great, because that's really what makes the talk (otherwise, you could just read the book)

Unfortunately, the talk wasn't recorded, so I'll just have to do it on a microphone at home one of these days and put up an audio to accompany those slides.

I didn't intend to, but afterwards I met with a friend who had just taken an offer from another startup, and then headed over to visit NextStop, which is a 6 person startup down near the Caltrain station. I was surprised by how empty their building was: the downturn seems to have decimated office space occupancy in San Francisco, but that just means it's a great time for startups, though I'm seeing signs now that the Bay Area is heating up again.

All in all, a busy day, with lots of ideas to ponder.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Engineer's Guide to Startups back in stock!

The second printing of An Engineer's Guide to Silicon Valley Startups is now available. I've also updated the book's web-page to point to some of the recent blog posts that some may find interesting. If you've been holding off because you wanted a paper copy, you can now place your orders.

Thanks again to everyone who's helped make this book a success!

Monday, May 03, 2010

Leadership Training

After I was done with the Edge workshop, one of the organizers asked me if I would be interested in follow-on workshops. Hoping that it would be more practical than the usual executive team building type off-site, I agreed and decided to go.

Well, it turned out to be less of the typical executive team building offsite. For one thing, it was entirely indoors, and for another, it was focused on achieving your goals. Now, I'm the kind of person for whom achieving my goals is actually easier than defining them, but I was curious as to what value the person had to add.

It turned out to be a peer-based setup. And the group was filled with Google old-timers, each of whom would stand up and talk about their goals, many of whom weren't at all related to business objectives. For instance, Patri Friedman talked about Sea Steading.

The saddest thing I ever heard at Google, however, came out of this workshop. One of the participants stepped forward and said, "I've now been at Google for 7 years now, and I have all the money I ever need to never work a day job again for the rest of my life. I would like to quit and work on *charity redacted* full time, but I'm too afraid to to do this. You see, I've leaned on having engineers around to help with my projects my entire career at Google, which was my first job out of school, and I don't know how to get things done without them."

I was first stunned by the honesty and humility behind this statement. Most businessmen, sales people, and non-engineers cannot admit that without the ability of engineers to create products and maintain them, any business simply will not exist. In the console universe, you ship products built to a fixed platform (though on PS3 games, you frequently get loads of patches as well), you might be able to dismantle the engineering team behind the product after shipping. But in the new Software As A Service model? No freaking way. No engineer, no product.

The saddest thing about this is that this person could not conceive that with all the resources at his/her disposal, (s)he might be able to just learn how to think like an engineer and apply that to the problem that (s)he would like to solve. The thought just filled me with sadness.

I recently read John T Reed's Self Publishing, and he pointed out that most of his books were just about applying the engineering mind-set to the subjects at hand:
It's like the astronomer who wows aborigines by accurately predicting an eclipse. It's easy to do if you have an almanac. But the aborigines not only have no almanac, they did not know there was such a thing as an almanac... By taking my engineering training to various lands of the blind, like real estate, I become king--or at least a successful how-to writer.

I think very few engineers realize how rare this mentality and capability is, and how valuable it is (by the way, Google does realize how rare it is, and does hand out million dollar bonuses for that rare ability). And I guess that's a good thing. Otherwise, corporations would have to pay real engineers as though they were worth as much as the "financial engineers" on wall street. After all, a war for talent should be prevented.