Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Privileged? Oh, Let Me Count the Ways!

I am a straight, white, Protestant male.

I didn't choose any of that -- except, sort of, the next-to-last one -- but I benefit from unearned privilege in an immeasurable number of ways, large and small.  I could write a lot more about these ways, but here are two specifics for you, for the sake of brevity and for the sake of the students whose exams I need to grade en masse, pronto:

(1) I often walk home late at night from Gallagher terminal to Canal Place.  It's a pretty easy jaunt and there's a pretty direct way to do it.  Sometimes I'm not the only one taking that walk.  Whenever the temperature finds its way above the freezing mark, I wear flip-flops.  These flip-flops make a distinct 'clackety-clack' sound as I traipse uphill on Thorndike...err, Dutton...or whatever you call the uphill portion of the sidewalk I'd be on if the South Common were to my immediate right. Sometimes there is someone walking in front of me -- and bear in mind it's VERY late at night and there are very few people out.  Sometimes the person hearing that 'clackety-clack' getting closer turns around, sees me, and expresses relief.  Why?  What is about me that caused that?  How might they react to a 'me' that wasn't quite so pale?  

(2) Three of my jobs involve some sort of transfer or explanation of technical or mathematical knowledge that I might be qualified to actually present.  That's not some awkwardly insincere self-effacement, that's just the truth.  With each semester, I get better at CS101.  With each seminar on Big Data, Online Tracking, or Trends in Tech, I get stronger on the material.  But getting to this point has certainly had a significant 'fake-it-til-you-make-it' component.  You think my gender and race helped me do that?  I do.  I think that when people close their eyes and imagine who might be teaching them GRE combinatorics problems, or who might be teaching them about binary number systems, or demystifying PageRank, they picture someone like me.  So how does this help me?  It means I start with the benefit of the doubt.  If I confuse 'bit' with 'byte', I won't be treated like the female sideline reporter who asked Jerry Rice about his many interceptions and never lived it down...instead, people would just think, "He must be mixed up right now."  

And believe me, from where I started to where I am now, I've gotten plenty of benefit of the doubt.  

When I see the way people react to the Baltimore riots, I am reminded of two much more important ways that I benefit from unearned privilege:

(1) No one is ever going to pity me or excuse my behavior.  Every time I see a well-meaning left-winger write something on Facebook about it being 'understandable' or 'natural' for certain people to throw bricks through windows, or to stomp on windshields, or steal toiletries from CVS, I cringe. And I cringe because I know that MOST people in West Baltimore don't, and won't, do any of those things.  A tiny subset of a tiny subset (mostly young males) might commit heinous acts like that, though.  And I also cringe because I know the people writing that would NEVER make such apologies for me.  If I were to go out and commit seriously antisocial acts of aggression, people would rationalize it in ways that were individualized to me, and to me alone.  "He must have gone crazy," or "What a privileged ass-hat."  What they're really saying is that I'm accountable for my actions, but some poor kid from West Baltimore is not. And what does that tell me?  It tells me that the power structure that currently works in my favor -- and very much AGAINST that kid whose image is on the news -- will remain just as it currently is.  

(2) I'm never going to see myself as a victim.  Even the one protected class to which I do belong (veterans) is not really something *bad* societally.  Yes, there might be isolated instances of anti-veteran statements, like when that CNN reporter implied veterans might be starting violence in cities, but that gets shouted down pretty quickly.  But the flip side of the above paragraph is that I believe I'm fully in control of my destiny.  That doesn't mean it's all easy street -- just ask my wife, the only other person who really knows about my schedule.  But it does mean that I honestly believe tomorrow will be better than today, and the day after will be better than tomorrow, and so on. Why do I think this way?  Some of it may just be natural disposition, but my life experiences tell me that hard work is rewarded and that a seed planted today will be worth more in the future.  Not everyone who is born and raised in West Baltimore is shaped by similar experiences, to put it mildly.  If it means that I don't make excuses, then even my legendarily endless days are just a reflection of that shaping...kinda like the way a privileged kid from San Mateo outworks everyone else in his field, year after year, and still shows up first to camp after ring #4.  

But anyway, back to Baltimore for a second.  Watching the way various people have reacted just reminds me that anyone who thinks one side of the political spectrum is "Correct" when it comes to issues of racial injustice and poverty, while another side is "Incorrect" needs to look at things a bit more closely.  

Even putting aside the issues of the Freddy Gray case, I think all sides can admit that the issues that lead to intergenerational poverty are complex. 

The solutions aren't simple either.  Just look at how many billions (trillions?) of dollars have been funneled through the Great Society programs intended to 'fix' places like West Baltimore, or East St. Louis, or the South Side of Chicago.  

I'm not saying I have the answers, but I do have a strong hunch that any 'solution' that doesn't come with buy-in from the community in question itself is just going to lead to more status quo.  If it's simply "give them more stuff" or "we should stop using words that offended a Baltimore City Councilman" or "we should pay urban school administrators more," the problem is that none of those assume efficacy or agency on the part of the people being 'helped.'  

The more the solutions can come from within that community, and the more that people can benefit from the privilege that come with high expectations (of oneself and for oneself), the faster we'll be able to fix the structural problems that are on display right now in one of our major East Coast cities. 

But the more the American political intelligentsia, or the elite 'leaders' in Baltimore, want to have discussions that de-emphasize the power and responsibility of the people in the community -- who, by the way, can make the choice NOT to throw bricks through windows, or to take Oreos and Pampers from CVS -- the more we'll ensure that people who look like me continue to enjoy their unearned privilege, and that most of the people in West Baltimore will not.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Adjuncts, Wages, and Poverty

I've read a few articles lately about adjunct salaries.

Some have quoted adjuncts at various universities who talk about how they earn a poverty wage, how they're on food stamps, how they're considered expendable, etc.

Some of the quotes have been pretty misleading.  I won't even try to delve into the bigger-picture issues here about who should -- or shouldn't -- be teaching at universities, but I will say this:  I teach six courses a year (two per term, including summers), so I'm familiar with some of the general issues and arguments that are swirling around about this.

In exchange for teaching these courses, I receive what I consider to be a fair supplement to my annual household income.

By itself, it would qualify me as poor.  By itself, it would leave me without health insurance.

But I never understood full-time wage and benefits to be part of the deal when I agreed to a part-time job.  As it happens, the supplement that teaching gives me helps put me over the hurdle I need to clear each month to get by -- truly, it's a wonderful thing, and I'm quite grateful to have received the opportunity to do it.  

Some of the articles I've seen have included quotes that implied that a courseload like this (2 per term) is a full-time job.  It isn't.  It's demanding, it's important, it's taken seriously...but it's not full-time.

Other models may be far better than the one currently in place.  In a perfect world, universities would find ways to hire more adjuncts as full-time teachers -- pay them a *real* wage, and let them *really* teach.  Hire and retain only the best teachers.  While you're at it, keep fewer six-figure administrators with amorphous job descriptions on staff.

Maybe we'll eventually get there.

In the meantime, anyone who wants to basically write his or her ticket as a full-time adjunct can do so by affiliating himself/herself with several schools, really teaching full-time, and really pulling down a wage that will allow this lifestyle, for all its pros and cons.

I realize how frantic and hectic that would be, as well as the quandary it would still leave people in, benefits-wise.   But I also realize there's another, albeit possibly equally unpalatable option to take -- they could always get a day job. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Hello (Again), World

I'm not sure what motivated me to think about blogging today, but here are three quick bullet points before I head back to grading and preparing for tonight's class:

  • No Bushes, No Clintons. I don't necessarily support or even *like* any particular candidate who is or who might be running for President in 2016.  What I do know, though, is that it honestly worries me a bit that the front-runners, or at least near front-runners, for our two major parties are a Bush and a Clinton.  I hope the nomination process brings us someone ELSE for at least one, if not both, parties.
  • Being slightly more rational.  Subscription-based business models are wonderful...if you're the business.  For longer than I care to say, I've steadily maintained my "Y" membership despite not having actually used it.  Why be so irrational?  Well, you see, although I may not use it in practice, I use this membership in theory.  Actually cancelling the membership would force me to say that I don't use it in either sense.  Well, finally my credit card expired and I thought, "Well, okay, that sort of did it for me."  But apparently not.  Even after the card expired -- and suffice to say I had not entered the joint since said occurrence -- the Y continued to send me statements w/increasing "amounts due" at the bottom.  This got me to FINALLY say, "Okay, the jig's up. Time to stop pretending that I swim there, or whatever it is I think I do, and just cancel this thing."  I went in this morning, knocked out all the paperwork, and learned that they have one-day passes for military members for $3.  So the story ends quite well -- no more $38/mo charged to my card, and whenever I decide to do the *actual* kind of swimming, as opposed to the theoretical kind, I can do it at a solid 12 times a month before I even hit the break-even point.
  • Perma-working.  Only because I looked, I know this was the last entry I did before this.  I still perma-work, and will continue to do so until my passive income hits the right threshold.  I sometimes wonder how many people perma-work (I bet it's a sizable chunk of people; I'm not trying to sound special or play a woe-is-me card here).  I'm nowhere near a one percenter (believe me, I just filed my return, I know this).  But things are trending in the right directions, and I eventually plan to get there. When I do, no one else -- except my wife -- will really know what it was like during this part the climb.  I have no idea what I'll be like when I'm on that side of the table -- I hope I don't become a pompous jerk -- but the more I see and learn about the world, the surer I am that very few of those bashing the one-percent would be game for the 4 a.m. wakeups on days that end with the last train home.  

Monday, December 8, 2014


Lots of time has elapsed between entries, so thanks for coming back.

Things are good.  I'd say things are 'busy' but as I've written about before, the word 'busy' doesn't seem to have much meaning today. 

I would say that I exist in a steady state of 'perma-work.'  That's not necessarily a good or a bad thing.  I'm pursuing an entrepreneurial dream -- and yes, there's some Skunk Work-ish type stuff up the sleeve -- but in the meantime I'm basically 'working to support my entrepreneurial habit.' 

When the sideshow stuff crowds out the main effort, it can seem frustrating...but the seasonality to it all is that Labor-to-Turkey is always going to be the nuttiest time of year.  So things are easing up a bit now. 

In many ways, I've learned as much or more about business in the past few months actually running one than I learned in four semesters of b-school.  I've learned that costs tend to be steadier than revenues.  I've learned that any business model that relies on the specific effort/time of a particular person or group of people (basically, anything non-scalable) is quite, quite limited. 

I've learned that the FICO score of a principal in a business is very important, at least until the business establishes its own credit.  Then, in turn, I've learned that I need to retire a great deal of personal debt before I can make the kind of deal that would vault the business to the point where I didn't need to be doing quite so much on the outside.  To do so, I've got to put even more of the outside work...which crowds out even more time that would otherwise go towards the main effort. 

Sometimes that all makes me think of the kids' story "I Don't Know Why I Swallowed a Fly," in which the protagonist swallows a series of increasingly-large animals to solve her initial problem (swallowing a fly, which in turn needed to be swallowed). 

At some point, you might rationally ask, "How does any of this even make any sense?  Why not shave, put on a nice suit, and go knock on the door at State St. to see if they'd take you?" 

As well-intentioned as that question is, there's an information asymmetry between me and the person asking it.  There are some neat trends that have been set in motion, and some (very delayed) payoffs that will result.  There are some corporations and institutions involved that you've heard of.  But for today, it's dirt-under-the-fingernails and an obscene setting on my alarm clock. 

To paraphrase Robert Duvall speaking to Sean Penn in Colors, it's all about the bull walking down the side of the valley to [fraternize with] all of the cows.

There's a seemingly-minor note in Walter Isaacson's bio of Steve Jobs, in which he describes a condition Mike Markkula made before writing the first big check that Apple ever received (at the time, the only Apple peeps were Jobs and Wozniak).

To paraphrase, "Woz has to quit H-P" was the demand. 

Woz said, "But no, I can just keep doing H-P full time, but do this Apple thing on the side in Steve's garage."

To which Markkula said -- again paraphrasing -- "The hell you will." 

Eventually, they had to get Wozniak's Dad involved, but the ultimate result was Woz leaving H-P and then Markkula cutting the check. 

Markkula was no dummy. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Why Quarterly Goals Matter... A Lot

Yes, it's been quite some time.  Thanks for coming back.

I love to write, and I don't care how many times I've said it -- I love the way this blog sort of passively keeps me in touch with a small group of friends I don't see that often.  So now back to the blogging...

Here's a quick thought before I turn in for the night:  Quarterly goals are hugely important.  Without them, any fledgling venture can fall victim to what I'll call the "roadside litter" problem.

Here's what I mean by that:  The world is full of shiny objects.  It's easy to let them distract you.  It's easy to say, "No, no, no THIS is the THING!"  and thereby let a shiny object rope you in.  It occupies you until you see another, and then you abandon that last thing for the latest the previous thing becomes a piece of discarded, roadside litter.  Rinse, repeat.

So that's why the quarterly goal thing is so critical.  Assuming you're on calendar year quarters, this is the halfway point for Q3.  Whatever your team said mattered in late June MUST still matter (c'mon, it was practically yesterday), so the important thing to do is execute.

Got good ideas?  Save 'em for the review at the end of September.  Ice 'em until Q4.

Oh, and to the degree you can, formulate your goals in ways that quantifiable and clearly measurable.  If you say, "Do more business development" then it's just too much of a softball to check the box, or turn that part of your spreadsheet green.

Instead, say something like, "Make 200 more cold calls," or "Complete __ % of project," etc.  You'll know you either did it, or didn't.  At that point, it's not always about meeting everything 100%.  If your entire spreadsheet is green, maybe it means you didn't push yourself enough -- supposedly even Google only expects 70 percent completion of its OKRs (Objectives and Key Results).

But more important than the issue of where to set the bar, just be sure to set it in a clearly measurable way. To take it away from business for a second, say "Lose 10 pounds" instead of "take the stairs more."  With the former, you might *miss* your goal but still come away better for it...maybe you dropped 7.  But with the latter, it's too easy to just sort of shrug your shoulders and say, "Yeah, I guess that happened."  

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

That 'B' Word

I thoroughly enjoyed this New Yorker article about the role of "busy" in modern American life.

I laughed out loud at a few points along the way, and wasn't shocked to see that a contributing factor to our usage of the term is that "busy" has become a status badge in 21st-century American life.  Sure enough, a study cited in the article showed that over the past five decades, Americans' holiday cards have made more and more references to the "busy-ness" of the writer, at the expense of general references to the blessings of the season.

I have a confession to make:  At times, over the past five or so months, I've grown to loathe this word -- so much so, in fact, that I've tried to stop using it altogether.                      
The whole issue of how I came to strongly dislike this 'b' word is hard to even broach, without either a) sounding like a whiner, (which I am, for complaining about events that were largely under my control); or b) sounding like I'm playing the 'busier-than-thou' card (which I probably AM doing, btw), and which the article makes fun of (and rightly so!) I tried to stab at it a couple entries ago; basically, the long and the short of it is that several opportunities came together a la fois. The result was a long string of days that never really started or ended. Lots of LRTA-at-it's-not-quite-six-eh on the front end, tailed in by a jaunt past the Swamp Locks at 2300 and change -- rinse, repeat.

Hence my confession -- I got tired of hearing people talk about how 'busy' they were all the time.  I got tired of smiling politely every time someone said 'must be nice' in reference to my laid-back attire on a 'workday.' And somehow, dropping the word entirely seemed like the only way to swim against the cultural tide of 'busy' as default status.

But enough about me -- if you're thinking about dropping this word from your vocabulary, one upshot is this -- when you stop using it as your reflexive response to the question, "How are you?" then you can simultaneously save yourself from a knee-jerk bout of one-upsmanship from someone you suspect might not be quite sustaining the same daily regime.

And that in turn spares you from some inevitable inner-monologue round of 'two-upsmanship.'

...and why is the 'two-upsmanship' so certain to occur?  Because unlike the person you're speaking with, you really mean it.

No, really.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Two That I'd Avoid

I love working in the Sandbox collaborative space.  It's very close to home, I've got 24/7 access, and I'm infinitely more productive in a professional environment than I would be back at the ranch.  Plus, being around other entrepreneurs is a good thing...usually.  It's a great way to trade stories about things have worked well, or gone badly, and to get truly important information, like knowledge about the all-you-can-eat buffet at Fox Hall.

Even though I'm not an angel investor, it's possible that someday I could be. Much more likely, I'll be in some other sort of position through which I can mentor others along, and at times I'll be able to act as a gatekeeper, or at least a gatekeeper's assistant (recently, I got to help read some of the Summer 2014 Accelerator applications, which I loved doing).  

Here are two things I'd advise entrepreneurs to ditch:

(1) Using "I don't pay myself a salary" as a badge of honor.  In so many pitch contests, business plans, and other applications, this gets thrown around like it's some sort of noble statement worthy of bragging rights.  It's not.  If your business doesn't generate enough revenue to allow you to pay yourself, then fine, but that's not a sustainable endstate.  If that's the case, you need to be thinking -- urgently -- about how to fix it. Either find an investor, cut your costs, raise your prices, or cut bait.  

You might imagine that a statement like that conjures up thoughts of "dedication" and "forbearance" among the people hearing it, but on the other side of the table, people are asking whether you're describing a business or a hobby.  Even if it's just a small initial amount that you'll peg as a percentage of top-line revenue, or even if it's a draw on your LOC that you can sustain the interest/principal on via your revenue, or whatever other structure you can cook up, don't neglect the fact that you have personal costs.  And if you really can get by for the time being without seeking outside funding (which could trigger a loss of control), or improving bottom line (maybe your prototype is still in development) then your salary-less state is a fact of life.  It's not an indefinitely-sustainable one, though, so be careful about framing this as some kind of a's not.

(2) "I could tell what I do, but then I'd have to..."  This really just happened.  I really just heard this nonsense.  It's like, hey Bro Namath -- if I ask you what your start-up does out of basic, conversational politeness, just be vague: "..We're a B2C app developer.." "We're trying to build anti-spam protection into smart refrigerators."  "We use Pinterest to enable predictive analytics for the Mercantile Exchange."  

If the questions get too hot and heavy, just demur.  Say it's still in development.  Say you're still figuring it out. Say you won't know until you beta test in August. 

Say ANYTHING.  But don't say, "Sorry, Broseph Stalin, but it's totally secret.  I can't talk about it, but it's going to be really cool when it launches."  You might've muttered something about a non-disclosure agreement, or said something else about the generalities, but honestly, I stopped listening once you dropped the 'secret' bomb.  

And guess what, buddy?  A real secret squirrel is so secret....that he doesn't tell you he's a secret squirrel.  

The cousin at the Thanksgiving table who says "State Department" when your grandmother asks about work, and then follows that with some generalities about overseas postings might really be doing something high-speed.  But the one who says, "I do government stuff at Langley...and I can't talk about it," is ANYTHING BUT.  Trust me on this one.