Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Open letter to Amit

The other day, someone at work asked me if I had regrets over choosing a career in tech. Here's my response.
Updates 2016-08-11:
  1. Last night, Kesavan (the unnamed guy below) said it was fine to name him.
  2. This morning, I realized that I'd forgotten to mention something really important, perhaps the most important fact about me: I've been extremely lucky. More on this is in the addendum.


Thank you for asking about regrets over choosing a career in tech; your question honors me, and I hope my answer doesn't disappoint.

I think I mentioned that my career began over forty (40) years ago, which is a source of great amusement and sometimes astonishment. A few years back I was in a hackathon with Mohit and Katiyar and Narver and one other guy who I won't name… trying to do something in javascript, which I still don't know. And I was mumbling about how I wish I'd learned it in grad school. "But wait," I said, "when I was in grad school, javascript hadn't been invented yet."

The unnamed guy in our hackathon team said, "I wonder how many of us were even born when Collin was in grad school?" and it turned out he was the only one... which is why I don't include his name here :)

But to your question: do I regret my career choice? Well, after my bachelor's degree I needed to do something to pay for rent and groceries. I wasn't good at anything in school except math and circuits and programming. Maybe I could have gone into statistics or become an actuary or something, but frankly the path into a tech career seemed more straightforward.

I have been thinking recently about something Garrison Keillor said in one of his "Lake Wobegon" monologues: "I wonder if perhaps we are less than our parents, and have given less to our children." I think of my dad, who ran out of money and didn't finish college. He got drafted and taught electronics for a while. He got a radiotelephone license and was engineer at a radio station. He was a sales/support guy for IBM and worked under some pretty unpleasant conditions. He switched to working for the FAA, and had to spend months at a time away from home for training. He went out and found work to do on the side: he fixed and built and invented things. He knew how to learn stuff and made the effort to do it. Car repair, electronic equipment repair, remodeling—he did it all. One day when he was in his 60s, he called a plumber for the first time in his life.

In contrast, I've had an easy life. I've had two professional employers—essentially two professional jobs since college. I haven't had to reinvent myself, I haven't had to take a lot of initiative. Have I had to work long hours debugging something? Sure; everybody has. But that's not the same thing as having to invent myself or figure out my next step in life.

I think what I'd say is that I did the best with what I had and with who I was. Sure, sometimes these days when I speak with our friends who go to Mexico and do medical work, I wish I had gone into that field so that I could help people in a more direct, intense, meaningful way. Given my constraints at the time (private college was expensive, even in the 1970s), I needed to finish quickly and start making money soon.

Could I have switched at some point? Maybe, but things got a lot more complicated with a mortgage and children. Shoulda, coulda, woulda—but I'm no hero or sage; it was enough effort to keep all the balls in the air, without also thinking about making a major change. Like many, I never got dissatisfied enough to consider a career change seriously, until getting laid off in 2002.

At that point, I briefly considered becoming a teacher. However, as I have since learned (from teaching Eng101), it would be a YUGE effort for me to become suited to classroom instruction. Also, with two college educations still ahead, it just didn't seem practical to take a significant drop in income.

So as I think back, my career in tech has been a good fit for me. It's a good fit for my personality and my talents. and has enabled my kids to graduate from college with no loans. My wife has been able to spend a lot of time at home when the kids were growing up, and she's now working on a novel and a collection of poetry. We've had some extra money to give to those less fortunate than ourselves.

Now the content of the work hasn't been really significant in itself. It's not like inventing dwarf wheat (Norman Borlaug did that and saved literally over a billion people from starvation); it's just solving problems and writing stuff.

What has been rewarding in my view is learning stuff and helping others. It's like what does a plant do? It grows, it reaches for the sun, it pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, it drops seeds, it provides shade. In doing that stuff, it brings glory to its maker. I don't know if plants know they're created by God, or if when they do what they do they "feel his pleasure," but I certainly do. Feel God's pleasure I mean. The stuff I do isn't grand or terribly significant in a dwarf wheat kind of way, but when my code works, or when I can help somebody learn something, or encourage someone to try one more time, that's a good feeling.

You're near the beginning of your career, a career that I hope will bring you as much stimulation and challenge and learning and joy as mine has. I suppose I could try to tell you to take more risks than I did, or try more new things, or push yourself upward, but I obviously didn't follow that advice, and I'm not sure it's good advice anyway.

No, what's really important in life, in my view anyway, is to be home for dinner, to play with your kids, to manage your boss's expectations so you can live a balanced life. Because really, who's gonna hold your hand when you die? It's not gonna be your boss, or if you're a manager/director/VP, any of the dozens or hundreds of people below you in the org chart. It's your family and your close friends. The patents, the certificates, the quarterly recognition awards, etc. will be forgotten.

OK, that's way too long. Thanks for reading this far. I'd love to hear your story and your thoughts on all this.


Addendum: the role of luck in my story
If when you read the above, you think, "he sure was lucky," I'm here to tell you that you are 100% right. Did I work hard? Sometimes. Did I get good genes from my parents? The smartest thing I ever did was to pick the right parents at the right time in history.

Because all the talent and grit and determination and hard work in the world won't get you far if bombs are constantly falling outside your house, or if there's no electricity and you can't go to school because you need to help your parents gather food, or if your parents died in their 20s from AIDS or ebola or something. Robert Frank made a terrific case for the role of luck in this article in the Atlantic. And in the latest Hedgehog Review, Frank quotes David Brooks:

You should regard yourself as the sole author of all your future achievements and as the grateful beneficiary of all your past successes.... As you go through life, you should pass through different phases in thinking about how much credit you deserve. You should start your life with the illusion that you are completely in control of what you do. You should finish life with the recognition that, all in all, you got better than you deserved.... As an ambitious executive, it's important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it's important for you to know that's nonsense.
The Credit Illusion NY Times 2012-08-02 link

Monday, August 08, 2016

Corporate Benevolence and Investment Strategies?

In the 1970s, a company called Merck discovered a cure for "river blindness," a disease that afflicted thousands (millions?) of people in the developing world. The disease was carried by a certain fly, which bites people, introducing bacteria that create tremendous itching and, in severe cases, blindness.

This wasn't an accidental discovery; Merck had another medication that they thought might work if suitably modified. Long story short, they had to spend millions of dollars to develop and test the medicine and prove it safe and effective on humans. There had been some hope that someone (charities, the World Health Organization, somebody like that) might help defray the costs of manufacture and distribution, but it never happened. Merck has given out some hundreds of millions of doses and impacted millions of lives, and never received a penny for this miracle drug.

It wasn't just this one drug, either—that was an extreme example, but Merck were not in the habit of maximizing income to the detriment of patients. In an interview on American Public Media's Marketplace radio program, a former CEO commented that the purpose of Merck was to relieve suffering and cure disease; if they did that, they'd get some money. This CEO did not think it reasonable to raise the price of any medicine any more than the rate of inflation. In his view, it was okay to "leave money on the table," since Merck could get a reasonable return while fulfilling their mission.

What would happen to such a CEO today? Would activist investors take over the board and replace the CEO with someone that would raise prices and stop the giveaways? How can Merck continue to give away medicines in today's climate of fear and greed?

And what, if anything, can I do as an investor to help companies like Merck continue to do acts of benevolence?

One theory of investing says to forget about benevolence and invest for maximum return. But wouldn't that tend to discourage, even extinguish, corporate benevolence of the "river blindness" variety?

One could imagine creating a stock fund concentrating on socially responsible investments, but if the returns aren't there, there won't be enough investors. The system of capitalism tends to concentrate wealth, as many have pointed out—perhaps most notably Professor Piketty in his Capital in the 21st Century; trying to counteract this tendency is like trying to fight the laws of physics.

Yet we must at least think about trying. Philanthropy on the scale of Merck's giveaway of the "river blindness" drug would be exceedingly difficult to get with individual donations or government subsidies. If Merck were of a mind to make money on the drug, no amount of government subsidies would be enough to supply the drug to all who need it. (Government subsidies can barely keep our 20th-century Caltrain system afloat financially.)

So I'm stumped, at least for the moment. I'm sure others have given a lot more thought to this, and from my understanding, Merck are still giving away the "river blindness" medication. So it appears that there's still hope. But a comprehensive answer? I've no idea.