Capitalism is Freedom

Capitalism is Freedom

This is part of a series called Capitalism Is. It is not meant to be persuasive; I just want to look at how capitalism in practice works and affects society.

I was born a few months after the violent revolution in Romania in 1989. My birth certificate is a scribbled out form from the previous regime. It still says “Socialist Republic of Romania” but a nurse crossed out “socialist” everywhere she could see it.

My parents didn’t remember much before communism. They grew up and lived most of their lives in a world few of us can imagine. Religion was banned, commerce was controlled and state-owned. My mother notes to me, there were a few good things: Blind people could get jobs sewing the bindings of books. Those with disabilities were no longer ignored or abandoned. Industries popped up very quickly in the beginning. The good things end here.

I can’t imagine what it must have been for my parents to see their second child born in a free world. My father’s life was constantly under threat because he smuggled books – believing the power of the written word could free others. My parents conspired and fought to bring and end to communism. And they won. Winning, after a life of trauma and abuse, was not as sweet as they had hoped.

I grew up in a confusing, lost world. Despite minor recoveries, there were still times when food was hard to come by. Because of this, most of my childhood was gray and I don’t think back to it often. The best moments were spent in rural Romania where I herded sheep and chased cats. I could forage food and catch fish. I was the master of my destiny. When I’d go back to the city, the world became a little gray again. After an entire generation living only in communism, people do not naturally spring back up, recover, and start businesses.

But as early as I can think back to, I remember that there was always a glimmer of hope. That hope was called America. For others it was Germany. Still, others wanted to go to Austria or France. My father always told me that America was the land of opportunity. He told me in America anyone can succeed. He was a fan of American self-help get rich quick type books. My parents encouraged me to have dreams and dream big because they believed there was a a place in the world where my dreams wouldn’t be a disappointment like theirs had been. They believed – more than you can imagine, in the most naive way – in the promise of America. They believed it so much they risked their lives to come here.

At that time, I believed America was a store. I had seen pictures of stores where you couldn’t see the end – WalMart – and believed this was America. I was impressed.

I know many people think America being the land of opportunity is a farce or exaggeration. I can guarantee you, it is not. Twenty years after my mother and father made good on their promise and brought me here, I am still enamored with the freedom I have to create value and sell it. I can turn my creativity into a nice house, or food, or anything I want. No, America isn’t perfect. But it is free, in a way many other places are not. A famine could happen, but I wouldn’t feel helpless. It is a very very different experience and approach to life.

One last point I want to make. My mother was a child laborer in a rural village. She picked plants on a farm as a child. She had no toys growing up – she would make dolls out of corn husks. She can remember in detail every single time she got new fabric to make herself and her sisters new clothes. My mother worked very hard in Romania to be educated. She would have been a doctor but was not accepted to the school because she was pregnant – despite being top in her class. She then worked tenfold in America to build a life for her family. There is no other country on earth where she could have had this type of social mobility. Every time I feel like complaining, I think back to my mother showing me her corn-husk dolls. Every time I think there’s too much work to do, I remember that I was raised by a woman who increased her net worth more than a million-fold by sheer will and positivity. When we first moved to America, things were hard, so my mom always tried to keep things positive. She hung up posters around the house that would say stuff like “Success is 1% luck and 99% attitude.”

Stuff like this makes me feel like my mother, accent and all, is one of the most American people you will ever meet. The freedom a capitalist system gives its members should not be ignored. Sometimes you need to hear the story from the other side to really feel the gratitude and the freedom.

Capitalism is Isolation

Capitalism is Isolation

This is part of a series called Capitalism Is. It is not meant to be persuasive; I just want to look at how capitalism in practice works and affects society.

If you have the pleasure of working for startups, at some point you will be told that you’re family. I didn’t notice the inaneness of this statement when I first heard it. I genuinely thought, “How nice.” Sometimes a job can feel like family. Your co-workers are your friends – you laugh together. Your company gives you a good deal on health insurance and gives you time off when you need it. You might even lower your salary because the company seems nice to work for. This is pretty cool. But wait – what does this have to do with family?

Family is a social unit consisting of people related by blood or the choice to permanently be part of the same group. Nobody pays you to be in a family. You help out your family members, then they help you out, and we don’t keep tabs. I’m honest with my family members. I make sacrifices for them. We all want each other to be happy and fulfilled – whatever that means to us. We judge each others decisions for the other’s benefit. We know each other deeply. We might disagree, but always have each other’s back. I hope you see how a company can never be family. But for people without families, this false promise from a capitalist entity can trap them in psychologically manipulated servitude.

The truth is, capitalism is isolation. You are a sole entity, and you have to protect your own interests. For a time, you will work for the interests of your firm, if in turn the firm supports your interests. When that firm no longer provides what you want, loyalty is up for sale. This is not a bad thing – this is just how the free market works. Are you disloyal if you found a brand of toothpaste you like better than what you previously purchased? Not at all. Companies, even those who might call you family, are buying your services like you buy toothpaste. It is completely reasonable that at some point they might find a better way to do business than with your services. You should expect this. Business relationships are temporary. They are nothing like family.

This isolation is perhaps why strong family structures are crucial to capitalism. In a dog-eat-dog world, your pack is your greatest asset. 🐺

Capitalism is Addiction

Capitalism is Addiction

This is part of a new series I will do called Capitalism Is. It is not meant to be persuasive; I just want to look at how capitalism in practice works and affects society. I realize the title is a bit clickbaity, but it’s 2018 and this is the internet.

Smoking kills. We all know this. Even people who smoke know this. There are some misconceptions as to how smoking kills – the public service announcements focus on lung cancer even though most smoking deaths occur because of vascular diseases. But I digress, smoking kills about half of its users early and unpleasantly and therefore is excise taxed and banned in certain public places.

Most capitalist societies enact regulations like the ones above to protect its citizens. This is good.

If we look deeper at this issue, we see a pretty big problem. If smoking kills, and the information about how smoking kills and at what rates is easily available online, why do people still smoke, especially those in high-risk groups?

Because humans are very bad at making decisions that benefit them. Now, just because I don’t smoke doesn’t mean I’m smarter than smokers, or any better at making decisions. I went to a school with a smoke-free campus, lived in Santa Monica for a while, with its very strict smoking laws, and live in California, where everyone shames smokers. Plus, my family would have a cow if I was a smoker. Therefore, I have enough pressure not to smoke.

I’m still a human and more specifically an animal. I am still terrible at making decisions. I like short-term gains like delicious meals. Social pressure (again) has caused me to start running for 20 minutes daily.

Okay – so where does capitalism come into play? Well, when selling a product or service on the free market, you want it to be as addictive as possible. You want repeat purchases and customer advocates. Do people talk more about their favorite ice cream or their health insurance plan? Short term gains have higher NPS. I’ve been in many meetings where we brainstormed how to make our product or service more addictive. This is not a nefarious thing. We looked at the customer needs, the benefits, how we could make their life easier, save them money, or give them delight.

Sometimes, in these meetings, I think about the long-term benefit of what we’re doing. Is this serving the customer long-term? Could there be a better choice for them? The answers vary, because the products and services vary. I’ve definitely worked on fantastic products where we were providing very clear short- and long-term benefit to our customers. This way, we could make it both addictive and beneficial. But it takes thoughtfulness, and providing real benefit is not always profitable and even more often not knowable. Because even I, your thoughtful internet guide, am wrong. A lot.

Capitalism evolves based on human decisions, which are often bad. Regulatory bodies try to prevent abuses, but regulatory bodies are also run by humans, who also make bad decisions, no matter how educated or informed they are. For example, the misleading marketing that smoking causes lung cancer. People know way less lung cancer sufferers than vascular disease sufferers. Lung cancer might be more visual, but it also gives people the illusion that the danger of smoking is overblown or exaggerated. This is just a theory I have – I have no evidence that more accurate marketing would cause people to smoke less and increase their lifespan.

I know I sound a little cynical in saying all humans suck at decision-making. But hear me out – It’s more helpful to be aware of your innate inabilities than to convince yourself you got it because you read a book about it. Simply put, you are a human driven largely by emotion just like all your mammal ancestors. I am always fascinated by how similar dogs are to us – self-centered in a silly, endearing way; jealous; passionate; curious; playful; communicative; easily distracted; uncontrollably focused on food and gain. I think less confidence in our abilities would yield better results. Yes, x might feel good, and you might keep wanting to do it or spend money on it, but remind yourself every now and then, that you have uncontrollable urges to fulfill ancient emotional needs and they might not benefit you long-term. Additionally, most industries are sold and marketed to appeal to them, even if unwittingly.

Food for thought. 🍔

Doing your job is not an excuse to not point out the problems in your organization.

Stop doing your job. Start doing you.

I once had a co-worker that hated his boss. It wasn’t a strong personality clash – it was a work-style clash. The boss was kind of new to “being a boss” and tried his best, but often fell short by being late to meetings, demotivating the team, not being clear with priorities, and blowing up when things went wrong. My co-worker, we’ll call him Tyler, could point out all of the boss’ shortcomings and in fact had really great suggestions for the boss to do better.

The problem is Tyler never told his boss what he really thought.

His reasoning is that he needed to know his place and respect hierarchy. Speaking out was a risk.

This is a problem.

The hierarchy in your job is constructed. Your boss is by no means superior to you in thought or performance. People become bosses because there was a vacuum of power, they got lucky, they performed well as an individual contributor, or they handled managing some important project very well. Sometimes this translates to being a good model and manager for other employees, sometimes it doesn’t.

It’s one thing to not vibe with your boss because of personality or even politics – but those issues are generally not a big deal, from what I’ve seen. People bond over getting things done and reaching goals together, no matter their differences.

What really irks me is the emphasis on hierarchy. As I stated in previous blogs, the start of my career was in startups, incubators, and in generally horizontal hierarchies. I didn’t know how to function in other types of organizations, but I learned quickly. My first week at an agency – I received a handful of meeting invitations. I thought a few of them were not relevant to my work, so I declined.

I was then taken into an empty conference room and several managers explained to me that it was not appropriate for me to decline a meeting invite. Through the months I had other such meetings, informing me that I could not criticize others’ work since they were not “below” me. On and on, I learned to “know my place” and “respect hierarchy.”

How did this provide value to the organization? I was a skilled expert with experience, and I slowly started keeping my experience to myself. I stopped trying to improve the organization. This is what Tyler was doing, too.

It’s clear that this is bad for the organization, but I believe it’s bad for you too. You are learning to be useless.

One of the best jobs out there is “consulting.” You go into an org, and you use your experience to give them a couple pieces of advice. This is the direct opposite of what most orgs teach to to do. Strange, isn’t it?

No, there’s no conspiracy. Honestly, most people don’t know how to run businesses. They think hierarchies work, and believe that employees are single skilled output machines, instead of thoughtful contributors to collaborative goals.

While it may seem obvious that the best thing Tyler can do is tell his boss what he really thinks, when we find ourselves in those types of situations, we falter. That initial “training” kicks in. It’s not my place. It’s not my job.

Well, maybe you should stop doing a “job”, and start being you. Your opinions are valid, useful, and contribute to the larger success of your organization. Silence contributes to all the “communication issues” people like Tyler find themselves dealing with.

If you want to work in a good, positive, dream work environment, it starts with you choosing to leave your job behind for a higher calling: being you.

Even if you are paycheck to paycheck, but don’t have a lot of bills, you can handle getting fired every now and then. Getting fired is good for the soul, especially if it’s because you stood up for how you think business should work. If you have a lot of bills/dependents, working contract might be the only path to a better type of work environment.

Stop encouraging girls to code for a living

Stop encouraging girls to code for a living

Some people argue that women lack the intelligence, are too emotional, or don’t handle stress well enough to be engineers. Yeah, no. That’s not what this is about.

There’s groups out there who are driven by the idea that we need to get more women in engineering in America. I don’t get why. Women should do whatever they want, but why specifically push them to engineering?

To start, women in engineering (in Coastal America) are paid less, especially at the start of their careers. Women in their early 20s can be paid as little as 50% of what their male counterparts are paid. There’s a lot of reasons for this. My former professor Miriam Posner wrote an insightful article in The Guardian about this issue. All the while, the pay gap is closing in other industries, and in some, women are making more than men.

Engineering teams are hit and miss. No one wants to start a job anticipating they will have to talk to HR. I’ve worked on great engineering teams with amazing energy and lots of laughs, but I’ve also found myself in a handful of uncomfortable situations that don’t happen in marketing.

To get paid more – you have to switch jobs. This is pretty standard for everyone who codes. But switching jobs comes with a lot of questions for girls.

What kind of career can you have when you’re not really quite sure if you’ll be accepted at your next team? Along with the risk of being paid less, passed on for promotions, and generally tokenized – it ain’t a fun ride.

Jobs that have been traditionally done by men – construction, lifting heavy objects, repetitive tasks – are all at risk of automation. Women’s work – traditionally more empathy-based and requiring softer skills – will rise in demand in the next 5-10 years and will not be automated for a while longer. It is important for women to focus on their soft skills, especially leadership, listening, and people management. These skills are important to every field, even technical ones. Learning a specific technical skill is not as helpful long-term as, say, learning how to effectively communicate about technical problems with non-technical listeners.

So my advice to other women is: do 👏 literally 👏 anything else other than engineering. Be a youtube beauty guru. Start a for-profit career counseling firm for high schoolers. Go to clown school. Be an instagram model. I believe groups and organizations that heavily promote females in engineering are doing more to hurt women than to help them.

Keep in mind – I started coding as a child for fun. I had no idea what I was getting into and my parents were thrilled I was teaching myself stuff. To be fair, I come from a country where STEM is not male-dominated. I did not grow up with negative self-perception about my gender and technical careers, and I still don’t have any. I love building stuff with code! But I don’t really wanna work in engineering in the US, and I think it’s a fair choice.

Yes, if you want to code, definitely do it, but if you want to code for work, be fully aware of the risk you are taking every single time you accept a new gig. Engineering teams can be very aggressive, 4chan-like boys clubs, or they can be welcoming and supportive learning environments! I don’t think we should sugar-coat the gamble.

The Agile Conspiracy

There’s no conspiracy. But agile is a silly process for n00bs. So why are established companies who hire the best of the best still doing it?

Agile Software Development is a “set of principles” according to Wikipedia. I prefer to call it a productivity system. People don’t implement Agile because they are swayed to new principles in general, they implement it because they want their teams to ship more and better code, and hopefully, make more money.

I was introduced to Agile in 2014 when I came back to coding after getting my degree. I had previously worked on my own projects, a startup in San Jose, and the incubator Science. I also had contract work here and there – but these startup experiences formed my approach to coding and building web technology products. Of course, we didn’t use Agile. We didn’t use anything. There were no buzzwords and no meetings. If you had a question, you went and bothered the person if they were within walking distance, and texted, emailed, or called if otherwise. We simply gathered, discussed, planned, and everyone who was involved in creating was involved in planning. Every person was involved in asking questions. I would ask a lot of questions, I like to keep things written down, and I’ve never had a problem with this very simple system that everyone basically learns in school. Listening – Asking – Writing Down. I’m gonna call it LAWD and then charge $3,000 for seminars on how to implement it. Lawwwwwd, help us.

Why is Agile a “conspiracy?” Well, for one, it promises that it will save us from waterfall projects. Of course, I have never in my life worked on a waterfall project, because I’ve worked at startups mostly. I am not in danger of waterfall. Waterfall is Agile’s straw man.

Another thing Agile does is add layers of people between people by creating “Product Managers”.

Full disclosure: I am, ironically, a product manager.

I don’t think this role always fosters efficiency. I think the job that “Project Managers” do should be done by everyone on the team. Everyone should listen, ask questions, do research and be involved in planning the specific work that they are involved in. Product design decisions about a technical product should be made by whoever implements. For the following reasons:

  1.  The classic principle of “skin in the game.” If something goes wrong, a developer has to get on late and fix it. That developer may not have had a choice in designing the product in a way that would be better technically and better for his schedule. Not giving them the choice is the worst use of a technically skilled person. They, after all, are the expert on the topic. And they have the most to lose from a bad call – they have to lose the work they already did.
  2. Technical products need technical designers. If you decide how a technical product is built, you should know how to build one, and you should actually go through and build it. Even as a former engineer, the fact that I don’t actually build the products I plan and design give me a huge disadvantage. I find myself guessing when I shouldn’t be.
  3. In theory, a product owner would filter out information from stakeholders and pass it on. In practice, it becomes a game of telephone. Agile fosters misinformation just as much as when you build the mythical waterfall projects.

I believe Agile is a reaction to bad developers. Bad developers only care about code, have no interest in the product they are building or the goals of the business even though the code they are writing directly impacts it. Agile seems to push developers out of most of the process – and focus them on writing code. This is inefficient and boring for good developers. The skills web developers have give them a lot of power over the companies they work for. A good developer can assess the strengths and weaknesses of an implementation. They can spot areas for opportunity. By having nontechnical people plan technical products, we are throwing out most of the fun of development – which is being able to make a big difference with a small amount of work.

In the end, Agile is trying to simulate the experience of a small startup where a few people get together to build something by hand. It is a decent attempt, but not a great one. As someone new to product management, I have challenged myself to think about how to solve these problems. My first reaction has been to look at the team as a sports team, and dictate as little as possible. This requires that I’m a channel of communication. No matter how you look at it, the solution is clear from the start – the engineer needs to be in control of his work. How we get there with stakeholders on board is a process I am trying to figure out. Right now, I’m starting to think my role should be centered around talking to customers and users and not product design.

Agile is about productivity, output, and business outcome. I think business outcome should be the only goal. I think people should sit around and think about stuff. I think meetings should be random. Sometimes no output could mean better long-term outcome.* This is why Agile can be a trap.

*I’ve heard this concept referred to as sharpening the axe.