Batch Parity

From several sources I’ve heard of this bizarre concept called “batch parity”, where you assume that everyone who joined a particular school or company in a particular year is identical. This leads to people passing up on opportunities because they are not given such parity.

I’ve been hearing of this from way too many sources nowadays so I wrote off a rant, on LinkedIn. Here is an extract:

So while it might be tough for people to stomach, this whole concept of batch parity is, to put it simply, nonsense. At its heart is the assumption that the world is linear, and that after a certain arbitrarily chosen point in time, people ought to all run at the same place.

 

Back to bachelorhood

Starting tonight I’ll be a bachelor once again. For the next nineteen months or so. No it’s not that I’m returning my post graduate diploma and hence getting this downgrade (it’s been a while since I cracked a bad joke here so I’m entitled). It’s that the wife is going away. To get herself an MBA (yes I know that after this she will be better qualified than me since she’ll be getting a proper MBA while i have a post graduate diploma only. Maybe I can retire soon? ).

She’ll be going off to Barcelona tonight. The original plan had me moving there too. But then classic old NED happened and I ended up not looking for a job or assignment there and since it’s not an inexpensive place to stay I’m staying back. Plan to visit her every once in a while. And even though tickets to Europe are prohibitively expensive I now have a place to go to in case I need a break.

But for that I need to first get myself a visa. I guess one of my chief tasks in the next few days will be to get this bit of business done. But then I have my own business.

Regulars on this blog might be aware that I haven’t had formal employment for close to three years now. I freelance as a quAnt consultant – helping companies figure out how to make use of the volumes of data they collect in improving their business decision making. It’s been doing quite okay but my plan is to use the next few months when I don’t have any domestic commitments to see if I can take it to the next level.

It might also be pertinent to mention here that the first bit if business I got for this particular venture was through this blog – the last time I put out a post like this one a long time reader who was looking for quant assistance left a comment here and that led to a rather fruitful assignment. Perhaps mentioning this here might result in a repeat?

Now that I’m blogging more than I used to in the recent past I’ll also be using these pages to keep you updated on the long distanceness. I’ve also noticed that since I last put the update on leaving twitter and Facebook that there’s some more activity here. Keep that flowing and I hope for some good conversations on the comment pages here.

Long mails

As you might have noticed from my blog posts over the years, I like writing long essays. By long, I mean blog post long. Somewhere of the length of 800-1000 words. I can’t write longer than that, because of which my attempts to write a book have come to nought.

Now, thanks to regular blogging for over nine years, I think I’ve become better at writing rather than speaking when I have to explain a complicated concept. Writing allows me to structure my thoughts better, whereas while speaking I sometimes tend to think ahead of what I’m talking, and end up making a mess of it (I had a major stammer when I was in school, by the way).

Given that I like explaining concepts in writing rather than in speech, I write long mails even when it comes to work. Writing long emails is like writing blog posts – you have the time and space to structure your thought well and present it to your readers. This especially helps if the thoughts you are to communicate are complex.

The problem, however, is that most people are not used to reading long emails in a work contexts. People prefer to do meetings instead. Or they just call you up. For whatever reason, the art of long emails has never really taken off in the corporate sphere, Maybe people just want to talk too much.

This, of course, has never deterred me from using my favourite means of communication. It didn’t stop me when I was an employee and the people I wrote to were colleagues. It still doesn’t stop me now, when I’m a consultant, writing to people who are paying me for a piece of work. If they are paying me, I should communicate things to them in a form they are most comfortable with, you might argue. If they are paying me, I should communicate things as well as I can, I argue back, and my best means of communication is writing long emails.

The problem with long emails, however, is that, like long-form articles you send to a Pocket or an Instapaper, you tend to bookmark these long mails for later, intending to read and digest them when you have the time. So, when you send a long email, you are unlikely to get a quick response (note that you can sometimes use it to your advantage). This means that when you write long mails, you might have to follow it up with an SMS or a phone call to the effect of “read and digest and let me know if you have any questions”.

In my last organization, I worked with a number of technical people, some of whom had PhDs. It was interesting to contrast the way they communicated with my long emails. They too would put complex thoughts in writing, except that they would use Latex and make a PDF out of it. It would be littered with equations and greek symbols, in a way that is extremely intuitive for an academic to read.

And here I was, eschewing all that Greek, preferring to write in plain text in the body of emails. No wonder some of my colleagues started terming my emails “blogposts”.

Mental Health: Update

It’s been over six months since I got off my medication for depression (venlafaxine) and ADHD (methylphenidate), so I thought I should just provide an update. The immediate trigger for this post is that I’m reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile, in which among other things he rants against excess medication, and explicitly picks on medication for depression and ADHD.

Overall, I must mention that I’ve managed pretty well these last six months. Yes, there are depressive bouts. Yes, there are times when I can’t concentrate and I get increasingly restless. Sometimes it is perhaps as bad as it used to be before I started seeing a psychiatrist. But it’s ok. The most important outcome of going to a psychiatrist for a year has been that I’ve gotten diagnosed.

You might have heard this in several places – that ninety percent (or maybe more, or less) of treatment of a disease is diagnosis. And in case of my mental health I find that to be absolutely true. Yes, I took medication for a year. Yes, it helped back then. Yes, as I’ve written before, having those medicines provided me the necessary stimulus to get myself out of the depths I’d gotten into over the last few years. However, I’m certain that I don’t need them any more. But the diagnosis helps.

Two years back my biggest concern was that I wasn’t able to explain my life. There was no story. I had done a lot of things that were seemingly disparate and there were a lot of things that I’d done which I would later regret. So I had a lot of regrets, and I would expend a lot of my idle processor time (in my head) dwelling on these regrets, and wondering why I did certain things the way I did, or why I took the decisions I took. Every time I tried to come up with an explanation for something, I would get the “but everyone deals with that, why can’t you” response.

The biggest advantage of having diagnosed is that it now all fits in. I now know why after getting into IIT with such a good rank I drifted away and completely lost interest. I now know why so many of my initial crushes didn’t work out (ADHD among other things makes you impulsive and blurt out things you aren’t supposed to). I now know why I chose to literally run away from my first job (that’s a long story in itself. Will save it for another day). And I precisely know why I went in and out of three more jobs in the five years after that.

Yes, I might be overfitting in some things (you can see that I’m doing that in the previous paragraph to explain why no relationships worked out). Nevertheless, after a long and ardous search for that one variable or set of variables that would explain a large part of who I am or what I did, when I all I found was noise, I think I’ve found the signal. Till I was close to thirty, I led my life without having fully understood myself. And trying to blame myself for being inferior to other people in certain ways, and constantly regretting my decisions. The diagnosis changed all that. Yes, after a discussion on a mailing list on ADHD some three years back I’d posited that I might have it. Yet, a formal diagnosis from a qualified psychiatrist helped.

So you may ask why I discontinued medication if I know that I have some problems. Two different reasons for the two medicines I was taking. As for Venlafaxine (which I used to take for anxiety and depression), I had a harrowing time in November of last year when I ran out of supplies of the drug and couldn’t find it in any store near my house for a couple of weeks. During this time I would feel weak, have a fever and feel extremely numb in the limbs, but had no clue why that was happening. Later, the psychiatrist told me that these were withdrawal symptoms for failing to take my drugs regularly. I panicked. i didn’t want to get addicted to mind-altering substances. More importantly, around this time I got the feeling that the drug wasn’t doing much help. I would still have the same old bouts of depression. The psychiatrist agreed that I had plateaued in response to the drug. So she recommended a rather slow taper off from the drug (to prevent withdrawal symptoms), which I followed and got off it.

Methylphenidate was useful, and wasn’t addictive (some literature has likened it to wearing spectacles. It affects you only when you’re taking it). Yet, I found that it changed me. Yes, I know that I’m attention deficit and possibly hyperactive, but I  refuse to believe now that it’s a ‘disorder’. The problem with the drug was that it was changing my mind. Yes, it made me concentrate so much better. Long strings of meetings when I would visit the client’s office were a breeze thanks to the drug. My concentration levels shot up. Yet,  I found that it had impaired my creative thinking. I’m extremely proud of my ability to connect disparate things, but I felt that this drug was impairing my ability to do so. I just wasn’t being myself. And I had found that on days when I would forget to take the drug  I would be more capable of creative non-linear thinking. And I figured that with the drug I wasn’t being myself.

So yes, I’ve been off the drugs for a while now and have adjusted to life with it. Yes there are days when I’m constantly fidgety and can’t concentrate to get work done. Yes, nowadays  work that takes long bouts of intense concentration gets delayed. But I’m back to being myself. And I’m back to being good at what I thought I was always good at – big picture thinking and making disparate connections.

Yes, one important factor that has helped me to deal with my condition (no, it’s NOT a disorder) is my work. As a freelance management consultant who mostly works from home (and visits client once every couple of weeks)  I can set my own pace. If i’m feeling particularly fidgety some day, I can take a break till I’m doing better. I don’t have daily or sub-daily deadlines to bother me (this was my biggest issue with most of my jobs). More importantly there’s no one looking over my shoulder to see what I’m doing, so I can freely switch between my work screen and twitter. And trust me, this helps. Immensely.

Since I visit my clients once in 2-3 weeks I end up having lots of meetings during these visits. But I simply draw up on my energy reserves during those times and buckle down and concentrate. Yes, last two or three times after I’ve visited the client I haven’t got much work done for the following three or four days – since I’d be recuperating from that intense expense of mental energy – but again I’m okay with that.

I plan to write on this again in the near future after I finish reading antifragile. I find this to be a rather important concept for me given that I’m prone to making errors (I’ve now accepted that). I think I’ve already started designing my life along antifragile principles. But more on that in another post.

Meanwhile, some other posts I’d written earlier about my mental condition.
1. How ADHD is like being perennially doped
2. On the importance of admitting mental illness and going to a specialist
3. On anti-depressants being like an economic stimulus
4. On mental illness in elite colleges in India
5. On anxiety being like a computer virus
6. On how ADHD can sometimes be advantageous

LinkedIn recos

LinkedIn in general is a useful site. It’s a good place to maintain an “online CV” and also track the careers of your peers and ex-peers and people you are interested in and people you are jealous of. If you are a headhunter, it is a good place to find heads to hunt, so that you can buzz them asking for their “current CTC; expected CTC; notice period” (that’s how most india-based headhunters work). It also helps you do “due diligence” (for a variety of reasons), and to even approximately figure out stuff like a person’s age, hometown, etc.

However, one thing that doesn’t make sense at all to me is the recommendations section. Point being that LinkedIn being a “formal” networking site, even a mildly negative sounding recommendation can cause much harm to a person’s career and so people don’t entertain them. Also, the formality of the site prevents one from writing cheesy recommendations – the thing that made orkut testimonials so much fun. And if you can’t be cheesy or be even mildly negative, you will be forced to write an extremely filtered recommendation.

Rhetorical question – have you ever seen a negative or even funny or even mildly unusual recommendation on LinkedIn? I haven’t, and I believe it’s for the reasons that I mentioned above. And if you think you are cool enough to write a nice recommendation for me, and that I’m cool enough to accept nice recommendations, I’m sure you and I have better places to bond than LinkedIn.

Anyway, so given that most recommendations on LinkedIn are filtered stuff, and are thus likely to be hiding much more than they reveal, isn’t it a wonder that people continue to write them, and ask for them? Isn’t it funny that “LinkedIn Experts” say that it’s an essential part of having a “good profile”? Isn’t it funny that some people will actually take these recommendations at face value?

I don’t really have an answer to this, and continue to be amazed that the market value for LinkedIn recommendations hasn’t plummetted. I must mention here that neither do I have any recommendations on LinkedIn nor have I written any. To those corporate whores who haven’t realized that LinkedIn Recommendations have no value, my sympathies.

Update

Commenting on facebook, my junior from college Shrinivas recommends http://www.endorser.org/ . Check it out for yourself. It seems like this cribbing about linkedin recommendations isn’t new. I realize I may be late, but then I’m latest.

Don’t use stud processes for fighter jobs and fighter processes for stud jobs

When people crib to other people that their job is not too exciting and that it’s too process-oriented and that there’s not muc scope for independend thinking, the usual response is that no job is inherently process-oriented or thinking-oriented, and that what matters is the way in which one perceives his job. People usually say that it doesn’t matter if a job is stud or fighter, and you can choose to do it the way you want to. This is wrong.

So there are two kinds of jobs – stud (i.e. insight-oriented) and fighter (i.e. process oriented). And you can do the job in either a stud manner (trying to “solve a problem” and looking for insights) or in a fighter manner (logically breaking down the problem, structuring it according to known formula and then applying known processes to each sub-problem). So this gives scope for a 2 by 2. I don’t want this to look like a BCG paper so I’m not actually drawing a 2 by 2.

Two of the four quadrants are “normal” and productive – doing stud jobs in a stud manner, and fighter jobs in a fighter manner. There is usually an expectancy match here in terms of the person doing the job and the “client” (client is defined loosely here as the person for whom this job is being done. in most cases it’s the boss). Both parties have a good idea about the time it will tak e  for the job to be done, the quality of the solution, and so on. If you are in either of these two quadrants you are good.

You can’t do a stud job (something that inherently requires insight) using a fighter process. A fighter process, by definition, looks out for known kind of solutions. When the nature of the solution is completely unknown, or if the problem is completely unstructured, the fighter behaves like a headless chicken. It is only in very rare and lucky conditions that the fighter will be able to do the stud job. As for “fighterization”, about which I’ve been talking so much on this blog, the problem definition is usually tweaked slightly in order to convert the stud problem to a fighter problem. So in effect, you should not try to solve a “stud problem” using a fighter process. Also, as an employer, it is unfair to expect a mostly fighter employee to come up with a good solution for a stud problem.

The fourth quadrant is what I started off this blog post with – studs doing fighter jobs. The point here is that there is no real harm in doing a fighter job in a stud manner, and the stud should be able to come up wiht a pretty good solution. The problem is wiht expectations, and with efficiency. Doing a fighter job in a stud manner creates inefficiency, since a large part of the “solution” involves reinventing the wheel. Yes, the stud might be able to come up with enhanced solutions – maybe solve the problem for a general case, or make the solution more scalable or sustainable, but unless the “client” understands that the problem was a stud problem, he is unlikely to care for these enhancements (unless he asked for them of course), and is likely to get pained because of lack of efficiency.

Before doing something it is important to figure out if the client expects a stud solution or a fighter solution. And tailor your working style according to that. Else there could be serious expectation mismatch which can lead to some level of dissatisfaction.

And when you are distributing work to subordinates, it might also help to classify them using stud nad fighter scales and give them jobs that take advantage of their stronger suits. I know you can’t do this completely – since transaction costs of having more than one person working on a small piece of work can be high – but if you do this to the extent possible it is likely that you will get superior results out of everyone.

Fighterization of food

One of the topics that I’d introduced on my blog not so long ago was “fighterization“. The funda was basically about how professions that are inherently stud are “fighterzied” so that a larger number of people can participate in it, and a larger number of people can be served. In the original post, I had written about how strategy consulting has completely changed based on fighterization.

After that, I pointed out about how processes are set – my hypothesis being that the “process” is something that some stud would have followed, and which some people liked because of which it became a process. And more recently, I wrote about the fighterization of Carnatic music, which is an exception to the general rule. Classical music has not been fighterized so as to enable more people to participate, or to serve a larger market. It has naturally evolved this way.

And even more recently, I had talked about how “stud instructions” (which are looser, and more ‘principles based’) are inherently different from “fighter instructions” (which are basically a set of rules). Ravi, in a comment on Mohit‘s google reader shared items, said it’s like rule-based versus principles-based regulation.

Today I was reading this Vir Sanghvi piece on Lucknowi cuisine, which among other things talks about the fact that it is pulao that is made in Lucknow, and now biryani; and about the general declining standards at the Taj Lucknow. However, the part that caught my eye, which has resulted in this post with an ultra-long introduction was this statement:

The secret of good Lucknowi cooking, he said, is not the recipe. It is the hand. A chef has to know when to add what and depending on the water, the quality of the meat etc, it’s never exactly the same process. A great chef will have the confidence to improvise and to extract the maximum flavour from the ingredients.

This basically states that high-end cooking is basically a stud process. That the top chefs are studs, and can adapt their cooking and methods and styles to the ingredients and the atmosphere in order to churn out the best possible product.You might notice that most good cooks are this way. There is some bit of randomness or flexibility in the process that allows them to give out a superior product. And a possible reason why they may not be willing to give out their recipes even if they are not worried about their copyright is that the process of cooking is a stud process, and is hence not easily explained.

Publishing recipes is the attempt at fighterization of cooking. Each step is laid down in stone. Each ingredient needs to be exactly measured (apart from salt which is usually “to taste”). Each part of the process needs to be followed properly in the correct order. And if you do everything perfectly,  you will get the perfect standardized product.

Confession time. I’ve been in Gurgaon for 8 months and have yet to go to Old Delhi to eat (maybe I should make amends this saturday. if you want to join me, or in fact lead me, leave a comment). The only choley-bhature that I’ve had has been at Haldiram’s. And however well they attempt to make it, all they can churn out is the standardized “perfect” product. The “magic” that is supposed to be there in the food of Old Delhi is nowhere to be seen.

Taking an example close to home, my mother’s cooking can be broadly classified into two. One is the stuff that she has learnt from watching her mother and sisters cook. And she is great at making all of these – Bisibelebhath and masala dosa being her trademark dishes (most guests usually ask her to make one of these whenever we invite them home for a meal). She has learnt to make these things by watching. By trying and erring. And putting her personal touch to it. And she makes them really well.

On the other hand, there are these things that she makes by looking at recipes published in Women’s Era. Usually she messes them up. When she doesn’t, it’s standardized fare. She has learnt to cook them by a fighter process. Though I must mention that the closer the “special dish” is to traditional Kannadiga cooking (which she specializes in), the better it turns out.

Another example close to home. My own cooking. Certain things I’ve learnt to make by watching my mother cook. Certain other things I’ve learnt from this cookbook that my parents wrote for me before I went to England four years ago. And the quality of the stuff that I make, the taste in either case, etc. is markedly different.

So much about food. Coming to work, my day job involves fighterization too. Stock trading is supposed to be a stud process. And by trying to implement algorithmic trading, my company is trying to fighterize it. The company is not willing to take any half-measures in fighterization, so it is recruiting the ultimate fighter of ‘em all – the computer – and teaching it to trade.

Preliminary reading on studs and fighters theory:

http://noenthuda.com/blog/2007/09/07/studs-and-fighters/

http://noenthuda.com/blog/2008/11/11/extending-the-studs-and-fighters-theory/