A Letter to My Younger Self - 2021
31st Dec 2021
Every year end I take some time out to look back and reflect on my work and relationships. This helps me become a more effective person as I am able to judge myself more objectively.
Following are a few things I learned, found, discovered, realized that I would like to pass on to my younger self -
Managing High Performance Teams - Not what you think it is.
Being Kind - Should you?
Doing Hard Things - How?
Looking like a fool - Always but never.
Caring - When?
About Time - and being kind, again!
Avi - and understanding what Howard Stark meant.
Managing High Performance Teams
I am using the term ‘High Performance Team’ (HPT) in a very specific context.
An HPT, in the context I am talking about, is a team responsible for taking care of some highly critical and very time-sensitive missions. The value addition of getting these mission-critical tasks done in a timely manner is so high that some of the best practices in management and technology need to be overridden to make up for the required time. This is one way of saying that we need a new management style to run such teams which is not much talked about.
Being an HPT is not something to aspire for, there are adverse impacts. In fact, most of the teams don't need to be HPTs in the work they do to maximize the value addition. And for the ones who do, they shouldn’t (or can’t) work in this mode for very long. The ideal behavior is to work as a normal team and have bursts of brief duration working as an HPT.
I don’t have much exposure to being part of such teams, but I do understand a few things from my observation that need to be done differently.
Core principles -
Be okay with some tech debt, unless there is a possibility of it bringing down everything. You need to have a system in place to keep a track of all of the tech debt you are introducing. This eventually should be addressed when you are out of your HPT mode.
People will burn out and will have very little personal life - and you would not be able to do anything about it, at least while you are in HPT mode. Self-sacrifice is a scarce resource, and you will need it.
Even a single B player in the team could put you out of business very fast. Everyone knows mixing B players with A players is a recipe for disaster in general. This effect is only magnified here and it's very difficult to handle this with lagging indicators. Any team member being lazy or optimizing for personal gain will absorb the trust out of every other team member.
You cannot run an HPT unless you have a vision statement so clear that the team lives and breathes it. By vision, I don’t mean you need to stick a charter document on the wall every 5 feet. The team should be clear about what and why they are there for, just like astronauts are in a rocket ship at the launch.
An insecure boss is not capable to run it. If you are the kind of manager who holds things up from team members for your personal advantage or wants to 'stay ahead' of the team or indulge in favoritism, you are incapable of running this kind of team.
Adding redundancies, if you can, is good to avoid a single point of failure. But they should be added intelligently. The best way to starve a dog is to assign 2 people the job to feed it.
People are more than everything. You won’t find people who can work in such teams very often, so you got to hold on to the ones you have by taking care of them. Surprisingly, it's comparatively easier to hold people in such teams if you don’t mess things up on purpose (see 5).
The focus should be on speed rather than efficiency in this mode. Many times the latter leads to the former, sometimes it doesn't.
You need to learn how to use failures and catastrophes to introduce changes that otherwise would be rejected.
It's your job as a manager to make sure that your team members have high leverage, are empowered and trusted to take risks without worrying about the consequences too much. On the contrary, you also need to create an atmosphere where people don't say "but we followed the procedure.." after failing.
My observation is more often than not, people start idolizing the rude behavior of influential people. And then they start confusing kindness with naivety. They think that people who are kind are not smart enough to demand attention or loyalty and have to resort to kindness to do so. Kindness is not cool anymore to most.
A lot of people also have trust issues. What if we are kind and others are not?
It is true that the world is not all sunshine and rainbows, and there are people always there to take advantage of you, rip you off of your work, money, and whatnot. There is always this possibility that the people next to you will take advantage of your kindness to fulfill their own agenda.
So why should you be kind at all? Why should you expose yourself to this threat? Wouldn’t it be best if individuals always work in their self-interest, even if that means taking advantage of everyone else? (sound like real life? :D ) Maybe you should not be kind after all.
But I don’t like the version of the world where the only people who are kind are the ones who cannot afford not to be. And in order for this to not happen, we need to make kindness cool again. The more people see kindness around them, the more they will realize that there is a way to be kind and to be smart, profitable, and competitive - all at once.
So, for the people who think kind people are not intelligent, street smart, capable enough - the joke is on you. If you are smart enough, find a way to be kind and get all the things you want.
Doing Hard Things
Alternate perspective - There are not many hard things to do out there (proportionately). Most of the time we are confused between hard things and too many things. Hard things are so rare that a major chunk of the human population in today’s world will never work on any hard thing ever in their lifetime.
What we need to learn is how to manage too many things, that are relatively and individually easy to do. We need to learn how to efficiently keep multiple balls in the air at the same time, and that is it.
These supposedly hard things can be broken down into many small things. All of these small things can be arranged to create a map or a tree. Your ability to transverse this tree makes you intelligent. And doing it more efficiently makes you fast. In simple language, it all comes down to noting down and retrieving a bunch of stuff efficiently and repetitively.
Suppose, I want to understand a very complex, state of the art research paper about a new AI system developed recently. Now, I don’t understand what AI is, so this is supposed to be pretty hard for me. But it's not that difficult.
It could be time-consuming, as there would be many things I need to get myself familiar with. But if I just pick the paper up, read the first paragraph, note down the topics I did not understand, I am up to a good start. Now, I have to spend time understanding the topics I noted down in the previous step and move on to the next paragraphs. There will be more unknown terms coming up while researching, obviously. I need to keep a track of everything that is coming up, get a reasonable understanding, note down relevant things for future reference, and move on to the next one. Once the pace is set, this may not be as time-consuming as you assumed it would.
All I have to do is, break down a seemingly complex task, read about the individual relatively simple items, save the information for future reference, and keep moving on. There might be some variations, like instead of writing down the information, I may try to verify it first via some experiments, or code up a small system to make further conclusions using that and save those conclusions instead. But the idea remains the same.
And that, my friends, is how some famous people did their research in the most advanced AI Labs.
Looking like a fool
If we look back carefully, we will realize that things generally tend to work out no matter what. This, along with the confident faces we see all around, makes us believe into thinking everyone else has got their shit together. We don’t have the tools to differentiate between the two - things working out and unreasonable confidence. People can do things wrong and still succeed, the technical term here being dumb luck.
So we should not be afraid if we look like a fool because far too few people have their shit together. But we should always strive towards being less of a fool than we were yesterday.
We all care about getting better and healthier. And we also care about the relationships that matter to us, about friends, getting wealthy, and about our career. But we also care about what is happening in US politics, the oil, climate change, about daily changes in cryptocurrency prices, and about that fancy latest tv series out there with millions of hits, and about the actors and their personal lives, and of course about religion.
We run out of time very quickly to care about the things we care about.
I am not arguing against caring about these things. Caring and understanding diverse topics make you smarter. But we spread our attention too thin to be good at anything. Something I learned (and still trying to implement) the hard way - we could be much faster by caring about a smaller set of things at a time, taking actions about it, and then moving on to care for different sets of things.
If you care about something, you will find time for it.
No other statement has caused more damage to me than this.
You have a fixed amount of time in a day to be allocated. That's a fact. No one can change that. And you have different no of things that come along the way, which you have very limited control over. Given this, it is so natural to even miss the things that are important to you.
Not having time for something does not equate to that thing not being important.
So please be kind to your parents, your kids, your partner, and your friends. Be rational and be excessively patient when you judge people on their time allocation.
Kids are machines to turn the structure into chaos. When I am with Avi, every piece of structured work and perfectly scheduled meetings make me nervous. Because I don’t know what would be happening in my life at 5 pm.
Kids think different, sometimes shallow, sometimes very deep. But every once in a while, I have moments where I stop and think why did I not think like that? He often gifts us the awareness of the child that lives inside us.
Avi learns a lot from us. He copies me all the time even to do the most simple things. Once I did an experiment and observed how he, every single time, subconsciously copied my style of clapping.
But this learning happens both ways in a sense that I learn a lot from Avi too. One of the most profound things I learned from Avi this year is to Choose joy. Choose it like how he chooses the shoe to put on to go for a run every other hour, the crayons and pencils to paint the walls, and chocolates over food. Choose it at first consciously, effortfully, pressing against the weight of a world heavy with reasons for sorrow, restless with need for action. Choose it until it becomes mindless, automated, like gravity pulling the river down its course.
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
After spending the last two years with Avi, I think I finally have begun to understand what Howard Stark meant.
I love you.