Hey there, I'm Shanif! I'm working in the tech field and have a background in technology, analytics, startups, and even options trading. I've been developing software since 1997, working in startups since '08, and started trading options in '09.
I have a BS in Computer Science and Information Systems Engineering, and an MBA (specializing in Quantitative Finance and Entrepreneurship & Innovation). These days, I'm working on product analytics at Twitter after they acquired a mobile ad company I helped build after b-school. Come say hello!
People, Places, Things - My Best Shots
Hustle vs. Handouts
This morning I got into a bit of a heated discussion with a couple of co-workers with respect to taxes. The meat of the discussion was unrelated to what I want to talk about here, but it did get me thinking about this topic. Specifically, during the course of the discussion, one person brought up the point that he thought we (the government) could be doing a lot more for the poorer parts of our population. He and another colleague started poking fun at how a lot of conservatives out there think that poor people can be doing more for themselves, that they’re poor because they “want to be”, because they aren’t hard-working enough, etc. It was pretty clear what their stance was on the whole matter.
After I had a bit of time to get a cool head, I started thinking specifically about that point – whether the government should be doing more to help poor people. Now, I’m not one to pontificate. I hate it when people talk about things when they have no first hand experience about those things, and I try very hard not to do this myself. I like to focus much more on the practical, pragmatic parts of life.
Now, fortunately, I’m not poor, nor did I grow up poor, but I will say that money has always been an issue for me, and there was certainly a time in my life where I wasn’t able to cover rent or pay for food (at least not on my own, but I’ve discussed that before). So ultimately, this isn’t an area where I’ve developed any strong views, but it is an area where I have some personal experience that has shaped my beliefs. On top of that, I come from a family that grew up in some of the poorest slums in the world and has been able to achieve amazing success and climb to levels that they could never have imagined, so that’s what I’d like to think about today.
Going back to my colleagues’ arguments, it seems that the crux of their contention is that there seems to be systematic, almost intractable, natural pressure against the poor. It almost seemed like my colleagues believed that when someone is born without money, they’re unable to get out of the inevitable cycle of poverty. They keep feeding their kids junk food because it’s cheaper and easier. They work two jobs that both pay less than an office worker’s 9-5. They can’t get enough education to escape their situation because they haven’t been taught about how to think about education and money themselves. I can certainly understand the argument. One of the worst truths of life is that who your parents are and where you’re born play a huge role in your future success and your overall lifestyle. The cycle of poverty is self-propelling, and it’s extremely difficult to get out of it.
To help out those that were unfortunate enough to be born into those circumstances is to have empathy for our fellow humans. It’s a sign that we’re more than animals. It shows that we as a species can strive to improve the future condition of our species as a whole. I find that extremely admirable. Honestly, I wish I had more of that. That’s a trait that I’ve been trying to develop in myself for a long time, and though I’ve certainly come a long way, I’ll be the first to say that there’s a lot more that I need to do in order to develop true empathy for others.
But with all that said, I can’t help but ask myself to what extent we need to help out others in poverty. Specifically, how much help does someone who wants to gain wealth need from the government? I only have anecdotal evidence here, but I can’t help but think that if someone worked inhumanly hard for an extended amount of time, if they hustled like crazy, and if they helped themselves, they could do much more to improve their lot than anyone else, including the government, could.
I know this because I’ve seen it happen. It’s true that there was one time in my life for about 6 months where I literally had nothing (a backpack, a laptop, some spare money for emergencies, and a bunch of clothes) and I was able to pull myself up by working extremely hard, doing a lot of hustling to cut down on expenses and be able to survive, and sacrificing a lot of my sanity and happiness. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was perhaps one of the two toughest, lowest, most stressful times of my life. But let’s disregard that time for now, since I knew that ultimately, if I really needed it, I could fall back on family.
Let’s talk about those people who never had the support of their family and were able to rise to an extremely successful position in life. I’ve seen a large grouping of these people in the immigrants, specifically Asian and South Asian immigrants, that are first generation Americans. I’m sure there are vast swaths of other ethnic and racial groups who have also been able to bootstrap their way out of poverty, but I specifically have the most amount of exposure to the Asian immigration population, so that’s where I’ll focus.
The most quintessential group of people that I know who literally pulled themselves out of poverty with little, if any, support from the government are my parents and aunts/uncles. There have been a few posts where I’ve touched on their upbringing before, but in summary they basically lived on a dollar a day in the slums of Pakistan, sharing one room for a family of 8 or 9. They literally grew up with nothing – couldn’t afford food, much less shoes. They were what you’d think of when you think of third world poverty. I’ve actually been fortunate enough to go back to where they grew up, both the city and the actual room where they lived, and have seen it for myself.
Their story involves an almost human amount of work and struggle to improve their situations. As kids, my aunts/uncles/dad could go without food for days, but my dad made sure to never miss an opportunity to study, prepare for a test, or work. He was able to take what minimal resources he had and rise to close to the top of his class, just by pure willpower. He was able to leverage that to get into one of the only prestigious universities in his country. He was able to hustle his way into a green card that brought him to the states, where he was then able to hustle his way into work and earning a degree in Computer Science after only a year and a half (because he literally could not pay for another semester in the US). Oh, he also hated computer science, but he did it because he knew that’s where the future was heading.
He worked his way up through factories, to programming jobs, to general management positions, to president/owner/exited business owner. As impressive as this sounds, I cannot even begin to detail how hard he worked to do all this.
And you know what happened as he was doing this? His brothers, my uncles came to the states, they also had nothing, they eventually bought and operated small convenience stores, then gas stations, now motels and storage businesses. His sister, my aunt, came to the US and expanded her medical knowledge to become a physician. Her husband became a gastroenterologist, started his own practice, and is now looking to break into healthtech. His other sisters hustled their way into the US and got full-time jobs.
Know where everyone is now? Multi-story houses. Owning businesses. Taking vacations. Retired. Starting new businesses.
How many handouts did they get from the government?
This story plays itself out a million times across the American immigrant community. Another one of my friends’ dad’s started a real estate business. Another became a small business owner. Others got full time jobs at huge companies and worked their way up through management. Others started their own practices.
These people grew up outside of the US, in some of the poorest parts of the world. Forget the slums in the US, these people were lucky to have floors. The US government really didn’t do much for them during their formative periods.
None of this is to say that the government doesn’t help its people. Quite the contrary, actually. I’d argue that the US is the best country for achieving success. The system of regulated capitalism that has been built has, and will continue to churn out economic success stories, and the US government has a lot to do with that.
But my point is that it provides a framework for people to succeed if they are willing to work. It’s not easy, many of the people who achieve moderate to substantial success have essentially sacrificed a large portion of lives for their success. But they did it. They worked for 15 hours a day, 10 years in a row, to get to where they were. They had the willpower to overcome their obstacles. They took whatever minuscule opportunity came their way and made the most of it.
I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that with enough work and sacrifice, an individual, a couple, a family, a child, anyone, can pull themselves out of the worst imaginable situations in the world. But they have to want it. And if someone doesn’t want it, I’m not sure what handouts would do for them.
So that brings me full circle. How do we help the poor in this country, and what do we do to enable those individuals with a mindset for success? My thoughts now are that we probably need to spend a bit to eliminate any systematic downward pressure that does exist, but we need to do a better job of identifying those individuals who are willing to pull themselves up and target them with whatever funds we’re allocating to “help the poor,” and cut down on any waste that goes towards anyone else that isn’t willing to work.
What are your thoughts?View comments →
Trip to southern Africa
Whenever I go on a trip, I like to write up a short article describing how it went. As of late, these articles have been few and far between, which is unfortunate, because I love to travel. Over the past few years, my entire life has revolved around work, and for a variety of reasons, I haven’t been able to travel like I’ve wanted.
For that exact reason, though, I was dead set on taking a trip somewhere new during this past winter. After years of startup life, having to move, and concentrating on money, I needed a break. I was burnt out. I knew that if I didn’t disconnect and reset a bit, I wouldn’t make it through the next year.
So I reached out to everyone that I thought might be interested in taking a trip, and as always, Leo came through. We started talking about where we could go and put together a Google Doc with some possibilities and logistics. Antarctica was actually a leading candidate for a while, since we’ve both always wanted to go there, but the timing and the pricing weren’t quite right for this year, so that’s when we started looking at Africa.
Leo had been to South Africa before and loved it. He actually said he would love to go back to visit the dunes of Namibia, which sounded awesome to me, so we started planning for a trip to the southern edge of Africa. We quickly realized that we weren’t going to be able to take care of all the logistics ourselves, so we found a tour from Acacia Africa and booked through them. Probably the smartest thing we could have done.
My trip with Acacia was an “overland tour”, which consisted of a giant truck with space for about 25 people (less than that, comfortably) and overhead and undercarriage compartments for carrying all sorts of camping and travel gear. The trip itself consisted of driving to a variety of cities and campsites, setting up tents there, making our own food, cleaning up our own dishes, sweeping the truck, and visiting the attractions in the area.
Over the course of 3.5 weeks, I visited 5 different countries and tens of cities/towns, each of which had some fantastic attractions. But perhaps more than any other travel experience I’ve had (save for my study abroad experience in Milan), the people on this trip made it what it was.
For the first 2.5 weeks, I traveled from Cape Town, South Africa to Livingstone, Zambia with an incredible group of people. Driving days were long and far, we had to put up and take down tents every day in the hot desert sun, there were very few days where I had a hot shower, and I was physically exhausted on almost every day of the trip. These things can take their toll. But they were all manageable because I was with a group of people who just fit.
There were about 18-22 of us (depending on the leg of the trip) that all came together very quickly. A lot of good friendships were formed (as they always are on travel). The group as a whole gelled. We bonded over card games, mafia games, and a lot of drinking. We got to know each other. We talked, hung out, helped out, and relied on each other to get through 3.5 weeks of roughing it in Africa. And to top it all off, I had my partner in crime with me the whole time. It’s always fun to hang out with Leo.
Day 19 was the last day of the trip for a lot of folks from the original truck. It was a day for us to say goodbye. For those of us that were carrying on to Johannesburg via Zimbabwe, it was also a day for us to move all of our stuff over to a new truck, trying to get to know a new group of travelers while dealing with the loss of our previous group of friends.
On the new truck, much of the day-to-day was the same. We had long driving days, camping, chores, and activities. The difference was that we were now with a new group of travelers. It’s always tough to get to know a new group of people, especially when you know that you only have 5-6 days with them. With that said, though, I hit it off with a few really awesome folks. I wish I had more time to get to know them all. Even with some of the people that I was just getting to know, I think a few more days would have resulted in a lot of new friendships and good times.
Overall, it was a fantastic trip – exhausting, physically exerting, and trying for sure, forcing me to do a lot of things I would never have had to do before (which was great, since now I know I have the capacity to do those things), but also enlightening, extremely enjoyable, and mind opening. Exactly what I needed from this trip at this point in life.
With respect to the activities themselves, I’ve attached an abridged itinerary to the bottom of this post, though I should probably call out some of the highlights here:
- Playing mafia over and over again in the truck
- Walking side-by-side with lions in the open brush
- Getting up close to cheetahs, having one lick my arm with its sandpaper-like tongue
- Seeing Victoria Falls from the Zimbabwe side
- Finishing the climb up Dune 45 in Namibia’s desert
- Getting incredible close-ups of hippos during the safari cruise and a rhino in Etosha
- Walking in the bush and coming across elephants, zebras, and wildebeest closer than I ever thought I’d get
- The food. Oh man we ate well on this trip.
- Seeing life in Zimbabwe
- Not having wifi or power and having to learn how to enjoy life and ignore the worries and stress that come from not being constantly connected
And some of the most trying things on the trip, which will have hopefully made me a stronger person:
- Having to canoe for hours in the fish river long after my exhaustion level was reached, during the mid-day sun
- Having to walk over ridiculously sharp and slipper rocks barefoot to reach Devil’s Pools because the boat ride there had been booked up beforehand
- Sleeping on a flimsy mattress on the ground for several weeks
- The absolutely inane and ridiculous 8 hour border crossing between Zimbabwe and South Africa. Literally standing in line outside in the hot sun for hours just to get a passport stamp.
- Not having wifi or power and not being able to contact family or friends, manage affairs at home, or being constantly connected
Fantastic trip overall. Here’s a brief itinerary of what we did:
– Day 1: Township tour in Cape Town
– Day 2: Driving to the Orange River campsite
– Day 3: Canoeing and Fish River Canyon
– Day 4: Driving to Sesriem in Namibia
– Day 5: Hiking Dune 45 early morning, trekking across the Namibian desert, visiting Deadvlei, and driving to Solitaire
– Day 6: Driving to Swakopmund, dinner and party with the group
– Day 7: Relaxing day in Swakopmund
– Day 8: Driving to Spitzkoppe and viewing ancient bushman paintings
– Day 9: Cheetah Park, getting up close with tame cheetahs and going on a cheetah feeding/viewing drive for wild cheetahs
– Day 10: Driving to Etosha National Park
– Day 11: Safari in Etosha (seeing a rhino cross right behind our truck)
– Day 12: Driving to Windhoek
– Day 13: Bush camping in Botswana, celebrating on New Year’s Eve
– Day 14: Driving to Maun, Botswana
– Day 15: Scenic flight over the Delta, riding in a dugout canoe in the shallow Delta to reach our bush camp, going on a safari walk and seeing elephants, zebras, and other animals up close
– Day 16: Elephant Sands – a camp where the elephants drink out of a watering hole that is right outside of the bar area
– Day 17: Driving to Kasanae and the Chobe River
– Day 18: Driving to Zambia, viewing Victoria Falls
– Day 19: Treacherous walk over rocks to Devil’s Pools in Victoria Falls
– Day 20: Changing trucks and meeting a new group, driving to Zimbabwe, vieiwng Victoria Falls from the other side, heading to Hwange park where we do an afternoon safari
– Day 21: Antelope Park – night excursion with hunting lions
– Day 22: Morning walk with two lions, crossing into South Africa after an 8 hour wait at the border
– Day 23: Driving to Kruger National Park
– Day 24: Safari in Kruger
– Day 25: Meeting up with some of the travelers from the old truck, driving to Johannesburg, ending the trip
How My Startup Experience Has Changed Me As A Person
Last year, I wrapped up a series of posts I had written on all of the things I learned while working in my previous startup. Every article in that series focused on some strategy, tactic, or professional insight that I gained, but I failed to write about the most important thing that happened to me during my time at a startup – how I changed as a human being.
Above all else, a startup that lasts for any duration of time is an endeavor that inevitably alters the course of someone’s life. You can’t get out of that without at least some changes to who you are. So in this post (and perhaps future posts as well), I’m going to do my best to talk about just how I became a different person through the few years that I worked at a startup.
Be kind and caring
One of the first things that strikes me is how I’ve been able to change the way I deal with frustration and disappointment. I was talking to a couple of the guys that do some software development as part of my team and asked them for feedback on how I was doing and what they would do differently. The one thing they mentioned was that they noticed I start to get into “panic mode” when things are going particularly poorly, but that they appreciated how I didn’t take my panic out on anyone.
Thinking about this made me realize just how different I am these days. There was a time when I would have overreacted to things that people did which would ultimately lead to problems, or simply to the problems themselves. I didn’t really know how to keep my cool. In fact, that’s something that I’ve always tried to address, through meditation, exercise, and introspection. But in working at a startup, hurdles and disappointments (and broken servers!) are inevitable. One of the best things that happened to me was learning how to deal with people.
Nearly everything that I learned, I owe to a great friend – the friend that originally got me into his startup. This guy is perhaps the most genuinely caring, good-hearted, cool-headed people I’ve ever known. When there’s an issue, his first thought goes to how to make sure everyone’s feeling good and taken care of. He has solved a myriad of problems by first thinking of people’s intentions and feelings, and then addressing how those feelings and intentions resulted in actions.
Before my time in startup land, his approach would have been completely foreign to me. I was never great with dealing with people’s internal motivations, worries, and fears. But working with him has shown me that ultimately, the way you care about and treat people is the most important thing, both for your relationship with them and, believe it or not, for their productivity at work. Instead of lashing out or getting frustrated, talking to people and genuinely involving them in the process for solving a problem can yield wonders, and it makes the work environment that much better and more trusting.
I think that in working with him, and, of course, everyone else in the startup that had the same mindset, I’ve become a much more tolerant and patient person. I’ve gotten better at coolly analyzing problems and coming up with solutions, rather than letting my emotions get the best of me. I will forever be grateful for that, since that’s not only a good professional skill to have, but it’s something that can improve the quality of all relationships in my life.
One of the things that makes it easier to treat people well is to hold back the urge to immediately do or say something when things go south. I think that I’m much more cool-headed now than I was before startup life. I’ve learned that you rarely get things accomplished when you’re reacting. It’s usually worth it to take some time (whether it’s a few minutes, a few days, or even a few weeks, depending on the scenario) to think about a problem and reason about why it arose and how to solve it.
There have been many times where being reactionary failed to solve a problem I was having, but after having consulted colleagues and given a problem some time to soak in, I was able to figure out an effective solution. I think that startup life has turned me into a person that’s able to analyze and think critically about tough scenarios much more effectively than I could before.
Look on the bright side
Our old CEO has an uncanny ability to make people feel good about anything when he’s talking to them. He’s an unbelievable salesman and has a great way with people. That’s something that I’ve always lacked myself, and in trying to figure out what it is that makes him so effective, one of the main takeaways I had was that it’s always better to highlight the positives rather than focus on the negatives.
I know that’s quite the vague statement, but the reason it’s vague is because it can apply to so many areas of life that it’s hard to narrow down. Here’s what I mean: when you’re facing a problem or trying to sell a vision or make a deal, it’s easy to focus on the things that won’t work or that are going wrong. However, nobody likes being down or depressed. When you’re trying to convince someone to do something, it’s much more effective to highlight the positive aspects of whatever it is you’re discussing. Talking about the benefits of something gives people hope and excitement. It puts them in a better mood. It endears you to them more. People like to be liked. They like to be excited and hopeful and happy.
I’ve started to try to look more on the bright side of things. By nature I’m someone that tends to focus on the negative, the hurdles, the roadblocks. I think that since my time during the first few days of the startup, I’ve started to have more faith in my (and others’) abilities to overcome issues, allowing me to not worry about them as much as I used to. I’ve learned to focus on good things and ideas when talking with others. I still have a long way to go before this becomes second nature, but I have certainly changed for the better here.
I’m the type of person that needs to be the best at everything. On top of that, I used to need to be validated that I was the best at everything, and I used to get upset or disappointed when someone was better than me. I was pretty dumb.
When working with such a great team, I realized that I was actually pretty mediocre at a lot of things. There are some people out there that have talents in some areas that I could never hope to achieve. I used to get pretty jealous about those things, but the past few years have really helped me reshape the way that I perceive these situations.
These days I’m able to appreciate people’s abilities and talents without getting jealous that they’re better than me in some areas. On top of that, I’ve learned to show gratitude and praise for those talents. Nobody can be good at everything. Nobody can be great at more than a few things. But when a great group of people join together to work on a common goal, that group can do some incredible things, and not every individual in that group has to do everything that everyone else does. I’ve finally come to appreciate and internalize that fact. I’ve learned that I’m not, and never will be, the best at a lot of things, but I’ve also learned that that’s ok. I don’t need to be the best anymore, and more importantly, I don’t need to prove, or try to prove, that I’m the best at something. Humility means much more to me now than it used to. Being humble and showing others that you value them goes such a long way.
Be grateful and show gratitude
I’ve always known it was important to be thankful, but it’s easy to start to see your success as a result of your own actions rather than the result of a combination of pure dumb luck, the hard work and dedication of those that surround you, and the result of your own actions. Many people start to forget what it was that actually led to their successes. In fact, if you haven’t seen this comic on how privilege and luck can change your outlook on life, I’d highly recommend reading it. It’s akin to the how people’s mindset can start to change when it comes to attributing their success to a cause. I’ve come to learn that where I am now is only tangentially the result of my own work. There have been so many sacrifices from not only myself, but so many others around me, that have led, and will hopefully lead, to my success. I think that my time at the startup helped me to see this more clearly, and as a result I hope, and indeed, believe, that I’m more grateful and appreciative of those around me than I was before.
Having gone through the significant ups and downs of startup life has made me tougher. It’s shown me the value of perseverance. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m tougher and have more grit now than I did three years ago. Being able to get through some incredibly tough times has provided me with the knowledge that I did something extremely tough, and that I can do anything that I can get through a lot. That knowledge intrinsically makes me more confident. I know now that I can tackle the hardest problems and uncertainties. That, hopefully, shows through, and translates into a silent strength that I know can help me get through anything.
Startup life is a great learning experience. Prior to my working on a startup, I knew very little about how business deals are closed, or what it takes to gain a client, or how businesses actually work and make money. I knew very little about the value of person-to-person relationships in business. I knew very little about very much. I still know very little about a lot, but at least I know more now than I did before. These days, I’m less naive about things in general, and a bit more knowledgable about how the world works.
Ultimately, I think that I’m just a bit wiser now than I was before, and that’s not due to just getting older. I’m just more informed about life in general, and have a better understanding of things in general. I hope that that has made me a better person. The gains I’ve made in experience and knowledge, in my mind, are just as important as the professional and financial gains that have come from startup life, and I’m thankful to have acquired them.
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Evolution Of A Coder
It’s been a while since I’ve written about anything technical in nature. It’s just that I’ve been coding for such a long time that I don’t really consider it a thing of novelty or interest anymore. For a while now, it has been “just there”. Something that has been a residual part of my life. Because of that, I tend to focus on newer and more unfamiliar things. I focus on learning about new areas where I have little to no experience. I tend to be more challenged and interested in things that I don’t quite understand yet.
But with all that said, today I’m returning to my roots and wanted to write about an interesting observation I’ve made with respect to how life and perspective change when working on a simple “new developer” type of project vs. something that’s considered to be “enterprise” grade.
For the non-developers out there, this may sound like complete gibberish. Coding is coding. Actually, that’s what I thought for a while too. When I was first starting out with side projects and my first couple of efforts at startup life, I was mostly just creating simple websites. Generalist projects like web or simple mobile apps are actually quite straightforward. The majority of technical work comes from creating new features in a familiar programming language. The challenge is in writing good, clean code. That’s mostly because simple apps don’t have very many specialized needs. They usually aren’t dealing with large scale or predictive modeling. When I first started out, this was very much the environment I was operating in.
As time went on, though, I became exposed to more and more requirements that required very specialized technologies. The idea of big data, alone, requires a slew of new ways of thinking and a level of scale, and cost, that I couldn’t comprehend before I became accustomed to it. But there are other requirements that come from writing applications that are a bit more sophisticated than your run-of-the-mill database-backed website that have opened my eyes to the need for certain niche, yet highly-useful, technologies. Things like having to deal with inter-network communications in a scalable queue, or having to predict an unknown value given a variety of possibly predictive data, or having to deal with a messaging paradigm that isn’t straight request-response have made me appreciate the value of a variety of “enterprise” level technologies like JMS, queueing technologies, and large scale online learning models.
Technologies like these are so far out of the realm of what your normal 6-month old new consumer app are doing that they require a new way of thinking about technology, and a new way of creating specialized applications. When working on projects like these, a developer needs to start thinking in terms of distributed systems. Your app is no longer just a standalone product, it’s actually a component of a variety of different systems, each of which have highly specific requirements that usually require you to plug in a third-party product since developing something yourself would be a waste of time and a terrible idea.
Things that I used to consider too “heavy” and bloated, like an entire Spring framework or JMS or JVMs or containers or frameworks are now invaluable tools that help me reduce the amount of time I need to spend on non-core tasks. When I think back to how I used to value Ruby and Capistrano, I look at those tools now and think about how many problems they’d have in handling some of the insane workloads and tasks that I have to handle now.
Java, in particular, has a huge variety of tools for nearly every conceivable task. I’ve found it extremely interesting to observe the evolution in my perception of Java, going from, what I considered, an antiquated programming language in college, to an overly verbose and unnecessarily complicated framework in my first job, to a good, albeit still overly-bloated workhorse for an ad tech platform when I first started TapCommerce, to what I see it as now, which is an ecosystem of rather well-thought out combination of highly-specialized and generic tools to help address both the simplest and toughest technical problems out there.
To me, it’s surprising to see just how much I’ve come to appreciate various parts of the Java ecosystem. It has a thriving ecosystem and a huge set of open source tools to handle everything I’ve needed so far. Things like message brokers that can be embedded but later extracted and distributed, or the entire MapReduce framework, or the ability to monitor and tweak live running apps via JMX, or the ability to extend the JVM to other languages have all blown me away. It’s funny, these days, I’ll actually tend to choose Java as the language of choice for a new platform unless there’s a really good reason not to, which is a complete 180 from where I was a few years ago. It’s been great. With all that said, though, I still think it’s too verbose. One day, I may try JRuby.
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I’ve always hated the winter. There’s just very little that’s good about it. Being in New York, despite the extra harshness, made it a bit easier, but it was still pretty miserable.
That’s why, as I sit here in San Francisco, now, at quite the view in quite the weather, I can’t help but be in awe at how incredibly fortunate I’ve been throughout my life.
Clearly, that statement would be a bit of hyperbole if all I was talking about was the weather. But the weather is just the latest in a string of good fortunate I’ve had throughout my life.
There could have been any of a multitude of things that could have gone the other way for me throughout my life. And though things have certainly gone wrong before, the general trend has been up and to the right.
I can’t help but get chills at how unlikely it has been that I’m here now. I could have easily been born in a country full of poverty and hunger, with no education and little opportunity. I could have easily decided that doing two engineering degrees would have been too had and dropped out of school. I could have easily been rejected from all my business school applications. We could have easily missed getting through the acquisition.
But I was born in the richest part of the richest country the world has ever seen. And though it was tough, I got through a double major in engineering. And I was lucky enough to get into NYU Stern. And I was also lucky enough to meet the founders of our previous startup. I live in a part of the world where there are very few concerns, where life is generally easy and relaxing, where the weather is rarely a trouble, and am fortunate enough to no longer have to worry about how how I’ll pay for a house, much less being able to go on a vacation or even pay for food. Those, among a hundred other things that have gone well for me, leave me in a feeling of wonder. My guess is that this is how the truly devout feel when they’re in a religious setting.
There’s no doubt that I’ve got a small handful of people to truly thank for my situation; far and away the most of which would be my parents, particularly my dad, who was able to accomplish some things in life that were truly extraordinary.
It’s hard to describe the amount of gratitude and humility I feel when looking back on my situation.
But what I can do is avoid reacting to my situation that the vast majority of people in the same situation react. I can avoid getting lazy. I can avoid accepting what I have as being “good enough.” I can avoid complacency.
And that’s what I’ve always done.
This isn’t the first time I’ve felt a great sense of being extremely lucky. Every time I reflect on where I’ve been and where I’ve gotten, I’m motivated to further. My drive gets bigger. I see my position in life as a gift, and for me to get lazy or to abuse that gift would be a deplorable repudiation of everyone and everything that has gotten me this far.
Every success I earn drives me to earn more.
My only hope is that some of that hard work that I put in ultimately comes back around and helps me to achieve even more, so that it’s not all due to pure chance.
In any case, I’ve got an opportunity that I won’t waste.
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The Dreaded Comfort Zone
There is nothing like working in Silicon Valley (and when I say Silicon Valley, I’m also including the city of San Francisc0). The perks you get here are incredible. It certainly wasn’t like this when I was working for “Big Consulting.” In fact, within a few months, I’ve already gotten into a comfort zone. It’s quite easy to do that here, actually.
Tech companies in this area put a lot of effort into making sure they give their employees the good life. Free gourmet food, free gyms, outdoor spaces, game rooms, good coffee, and a variety of other perks all keep tech employees happy and chugging along. If you’re like a lot of people and don’t particularly want to start your own company, living and working in a tech company in this area is a godsend.
But there’s a problem. At least, there is if you share my point of view on life.
The problem is that I don’t think life’s about getting free food and playing foosball at 2 PM. I don’t think life’s about working nice hours in a big office. I don’t think life’s about having reimbursed gym memberships (though, I will say, that’s damn nice to have).
In my mind, my life is about achieving. It’s about making an impact. It’s about personal growth and working on things I really care about and feeling excitement when I do something big and feeling down-but-not-out when I come up short. It’s about feeling alive.
My problem has always been that I don’t satisfy easily. When I see a nice salary and free food, I know that I’m lucky and privileged, and yet, I still think that at at any given moment, instead of having to go to work, I that I could be working on creating world-changing software, or that I could be exploring the glaciers of Antarctica, or experimenting with new algorithms for predicting quantifiable events.
For me, the comfort zone that most people strive for is an enemy. It’s something to be dramatically avoided. To be placed on a dart board, hung up on a wall, and aimed at with sharp projectiles. To me, comfort is the thing that must be avoided if it comes at the cost of feeling a purpose.
It’s too easy to get comfortable here.
Stay hungry, stay foolish.
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A Better Way To Teach Math and Stats
I remember back in 3rd grade we used to have these math quizzes, mostly multiplication problems, I think. For whatever reason (probably because I’m super-competitive, or that I’m always trying to be better), I always prided myself on being one of the first, if not the first, kid, to finish. At the time, I was probably a little too confident – I didn’t take put in the effort to double check my answers. I just wanted to be the first one to get up out of my seat and turn in my paper.
My dad hated that. He didn’t care if I finished first, he wanted me to get every single question right. So many times, he’d tell me to go back and double check my work. Eventually I learned to listen to him, at least to an extent. In high school I’d review my answers once, and then I’d try to be the first one to finish. In any case, I’d always pride myself on being able to go through the mechanics of a math problem with ease.
When I got to college, things got tougher. The math rules changed. Calculus and stats seemed to have all sorts of arcane Greek letters and formulas to memorize. Linear algebra was just a bunch of numbers in a list that I had to multiply and add together. It wasn’t pretty, but I got through it all, again, doing my best to memorize the formulas and steps needed to get to a final number.
I went through a lot of math by the time I was 22.
In the end, I see it as a wasted opportunity. For myself, to a certain extent, sure, but more for the schools and universities that had a chance to educate me while I was still a young and impressionable youth. Now that I’m older, grayer, meeker, I can reflect on such things, and I can make broad, generalizing statements about entire subject areas.
Back to the point, though.
Why, after all that studying, and after having made my career on the basics of programming and analytics, do I say that that was a wasted opportunity?
Well, it’s not for the lack of an education. I certainly learned how to go through the motions of a variety of math problems. No, it’s because nearly everyone that tried to teach me about a new methodology and theorem or formula missed the point.
They failed to realize that math, at its core, is a generalized way to solve a real world problem.
My schools and universities missed the opportunity to give me the insight into why a particular area of math or stats or modeling was needed. Not until I got to business school did I finally have a chance to interact with professors who saw math as a means to an end, instead of merely a set of formulas and theory.
And if you look at math as a tool for solving problems, suddenly, it makes a lot more sense.
So, instead of waxing poetic, let me give you an example.
Most people who go through college end up taking a statistics course. Most people hate it. In Stats 101, they usually drone endlessly on about p-values and Z-scores and t-tests and all sorts of nonsense that, to most people, sounds like a different language. So students grin and bear it. They do just enough to memorize a few procedures to pass their tests, and then the next semester they forget everything they memorized.
What a shame.
University statistics courses missed the point. They failed to show why statistics could be important. They failed to show that the reason p-values and t-tests and Z-scores are needed is because they help us understand if the result of a test that we for a client can definitely be used to make more money, or if those results were just random. They failed to show that, depending on the type of test we ran, we can use a variety of different tools to measure how likely it was that results were due to chance. They failed to provide the insight into why statistics exists in the first place. And in doing so, they turned off an entire generation of all but the most mathematically and formulaically-inclined folks to a world of new tools that they can use.
If it were me, I’d do things differently.
I’d turn high school and undergrad math courses into a forum for teaching students about the reasons and uses for the different types of mathematical methodologies that exist. I’d make it a process of gaining insight. Of understanding when and how to use various mathematical tools. Sure, I’d probably talk a little bit about the formulas and set of rules that would be needed to solve different types of math problems, but that would come after I’ve discussed why a particular methodology exists in the first place.
By providing students with insight into what certain mathematical tools can be used for, I think that when those students reach the working world, they’d be better equipped to know when certain math tools would be the most useful. And that would enable them to make better business decisions, which would then enable them to make more money, and it would prevent situations where entire statistics, or data science, or predictive modeling departments within an organization were looked upon with awe and unquestioning deferral.
By providing more people with the basic insights into what, where, when, and how math can be used, we can avoid situations where everybody defers to the company’s data modeling team when trying to work with a supplier. We can provide managers with the judgment to know when a two-sample study truly needs to have a perfectly even 50/50 split, or when a slight imbalance is okay, since the size of the study is so large. We can prevent delays and hangups in every day business because people can use their own judgment and knowledge about when it’s appropriate to use a clustering algorithm vs. a decision tree vs. a regression.
By giving people more insight into why math exists, we give them insight into when to use it.
That makes the whole world smarter.
And it all starts with the schools.
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Over the past two years, I’ve run the gamut of work-related stress. I’ve been everywhere from experiencing pure joy and euphoria to experiencing health-affecting stress. Great experience. Looking forward to doing it again in the future.
Throughout that process, I was able to get an understanding of where I’m happiest, which, incidentally, coincides with when I’m most productive.
You might think that that point would be on least extreme end of the spectrum, where all is well and I’m completely relaxed. Of course, with that leadup and the title of this post, you’d be embarrassingly wrong. I actually don’t prefer to be completely relaxed and de-stressed, at least not when it comes to a working environment. Being totally relaxed, without stress, usually corresponds to me feeling like I’m not doing anything of value. It means that I feel like I’m not making an impact. It also means I’m bored.
I hate being bored.
No, not being stressed at all is actually one of the least interesting, least productive states of mind.
Given a choice, and again, we’re talking about the working environment here, I’d actually prefer to be just slightly over-stressed. There’s a point where I feel just a bit of pressure – whether that’s to meet a deadline, to perform well as a coder/manager/analyst, to learn a new task and implement what I’ve learned to create value, whatever it may be, there’s a point where I’m just stressed enough where I’m actually happiest and most productive.
That level of stress usually implies I’m working on something I care about, something that I think will make an impact, and that, for me, is a huge motivator. Feeling like I’m doing something that actually matters gives me a sense of purpose, and it drives me to be better. It makes me work harder. It makes me feel as if I’m using my time well. And we all know time is precious.
Given what I said above, though, you might say that it’s not really the stress level that makes me happiest/most productive, but rather, the task (or obstacle) that I’m attacking. That may be true, to a certain extent, but my argument there would be that if I’m so stressed that it affects my state of mind and makes me unproductive, it doesn’t matter how important or impactful the task at hand is.
With that insight, it’s on me now to try to reach that optimal level of stress.
Going forward, when I do my next startup, I’ll hopefully have the ability to control that (most of the time). Until then, I’ll try to adapt to my environment as well as possible. Wish me luck.
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My MBA ROI
On July 8, 2012, I wrote the final blog post in a series of posts where I outlined the true, total cost of an MBA. At the time, I had just graduated, had “closed my books” on my last few business-school related expenses, and was just getting ready to go back to work full time. When I signed off on that last post, I mentioned that I may, at some later date, follow up with a post to describe the gains I was able to realize from business school.
After two and a half years, I’m now in a position to reflect on those gains.
For those of you that followed my previous series of postings, you’ll know that the biggest contributor to the true cost of business school was lost wages. Not working for 2+ years presents an enormous opportunity cost, one that cannot be ignored, and one that does indeed reflect an actual cost (I learned that much in my introductory economics class in b-school). The second largest cost was tuition.
All told, the total approximate cost for me to attend business school full time for two years was just under $300,000.
That’s a lot of money.
Seriously, you can buy a house in some parts of the country for that amount of cash.
With that said, though, I always made it a point to emphasize that the decision to go to business school was about more than just money. It was a life changing experience, and for everyone who decides to attend, it is what you make it.
Since I decided to go the startup route after business school, I always knew that there was a huge possibility that I would never recoup any of those costs. However, I also knew that business school afforded me the opportunity to get better at learning how to get out of the “techie” mindset, and think about more than just programming languages and databases. It afforded me the opportunity to meet highly ambitious, ultra hard working people, and I knew that that opportunity could lead to a financial gain that would outweigh years of salary, among other things. I was fortunate. I met those people. As a direct result of going to business school, I met the talented, brilliant, and unbelievably hard working guys that I would work with to help build a company.
The ROI that I’ve seen as a result of my decision to attend business school is assuredly positive. The financial return has finally caught up to the enormous financial outlay. I was fortunate enough to be around an incredibly talented, incredibly hard-working group of people who consistently pushed me to be better, and I hope I did the same for them. The incredible amount of hard work that everyone put into the past couple of years, coupled with some luck and good timing, resulted in a good financial decision.
But I’m weird. I knew I would always go the startup route. Heck, that’s why I went to business school in the first place. Very few MBAs go in that direction. My result is not the norm. For those of you out there that may be debating the decision to attend business school, you’d be prudent to carefully weigh the costs. But like I’ve said before, it’s about more than just the money, and if you do end up going, your life will be significantly changed, in my opinion, for the better.
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Email Is Still The Killer App
I have a habit of reading. Not books, mind you, but articles, online, and on a variety of topics. I have a lot of interests, and I like keeping abreast of what’s happening in the world. But because I have so many interests, combined with the fact that I don’t have a lot of time nor do I have the desire to actively keep up with all those interests, I find myself subscribing to a lot of newsletters.
As I typed in my email address for my latest subscription (this time on user behavior and product psychology), I found myself reflecting on how I’m still using email as my primary means for consuming information. Even in today’s world of push notifications, content feeds, and mobile apps, my go-to method is one of the most ancient Internet technologies.
It makes sense, when you really think about it. Email is one of the few pervasive things in our lives today. I always have my inbox open, and getting things sent to me as opposed to me having to actively go out and seek things out makes my life significantly easier. All I have to do is switch to the tab on my browser (the first tab, pinned, of course) or hold down the home button on my iPhone (using the jailbroken iPhone app “Activator”) to get my latest content. Email makes it easier for me to obtain content.
I’ll be curious to see if there are any other new forms of technology that even come remotely close to obtaining the pervasiveness and ease that email has brought into my life. It truly is the killer app for the Internet.
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- Name: Shanif Dhanani
- Address: New York, NY, USA
- E-mail: email@example.com