What Gets Me Out of Bed in the Morning?

(obligatory cat picture)

Late last fall in a meeting with our CEO, she asked me what should have been a very simple question: “What gets you out of bed and into work in the morning?” Now, at the time I had been sick for several days (maybe weeks, I can’t remember) and my mind really wasn’t in a great place, and I didn’t have a good answer for her.

I didn’t really even have a bad answer.

Over Christmas, I became even more ill. By the new year, a major tragedy hit my family, something far worse than I ever imagined having to face. I then ended up needing surgery. All this to say, I was not feeling much better about how to answer this question.

Now, I am sure we have all been there at various times in our careers, times where we just weren’t quite sure why we work so hard. I have hit that point several times. Sometimes it is a signal that it is time to change (like when I left physics to work in the “real world”). Other times, it just means you have to remember the deeper purpose behind what you do.

As I often do when life threatens to become too much for me, I fall back on meditation as a way to cope. And as usually happens, through meditation I begin to see connections and patterns in my life.

Over the last month or so, I have been giving this question of purpose and motivation a lot of thought. In my career I have had the opportunity to work on a lot of interesting and just plain cool things, from astrophysics, to satellite operations and astrodynamics, to major military projects, to enterprise software start-ups. I am now at a point in my career, however, where working on things that matter is very important to me, more so than what is cool or just interesting.

So why does what I am doing now matter?

In conjunction with all of this introspection, at work the executive team (including me) was just finishing up on an extensive exercise to define (or at least articulate) the Vision, Mission, and Values of The Learning Bar. Very much the same “why are we here?” question I have been trying to answer personally.

As you will see if you follow the above link, our vision, mission, and values are all about helping children, specifically “giving all children the opportunity to thrive”. We do this through our values of inclusion, innovation, trustworthiness, social engagement, and leadership. We as an executive team worked very hard (and occasionally argued passionately!) to agree on these words, as these words represent who we are and why we are here.

As I meditated on life in general, it became more and more clear to me why I do what I do. It is so easy to get lost in the day-to-day details of your job, and lose site of the why. And whether you are an individual or an organization, it all has to start with why (yes, I know that is someone else’s phrase). When things are difficult, it becomes even more important to remember why.

In addition to being on the executive team and contributing in some small way to TLB’s strategy, as CTO I am of course very involved in the company’s technology (hence the title!). The problem with being on the technology side of a company like ours, is that it is easy feel somewhat removed from our end users, and even more so from the children those end users are helping. But it is important to remember the connection between what we do, and the children who are helped.

And this led me to my answer to the original question: “What gets you out of bed and in to work in the morning?” It was not until late last week (actually, driving home from Fredericton on Friday) that I was able to clearly articulate the answer in my mind, though I think it had been sort of congealing for some time. And here it is:

Any day where I do even one thing, whether it is strategy, execution, technological decision, or a casual conversation with a co-worker, that helps even one child improve their education and their life, it was worth getting out of bed that morning. And I am pretty sure that is true almost every day.

Of course, this is just for work, I have other reasons to get out of bed – first and foremost my family, but also just the fun of learning new things. But this is what gets me to the office.

So, what gets you out of bed and into work everyday?


NFA on Gun Control: Bad Taste, Bad Timing, and Bad Logic

I actually wrote this on the evening of Thursday, June 5, 2014 after reading the press release by the National Firearms Association. However, I refrained from posting it, as I felt that the timing was in appropriate.

After reading this article, I felt that I could now post it.

I (and others, it seems) were not particularly impressed with the NFA’s decision to make a political statement regarding gun control at the height of the recent crisis in Moncton. Many felt that the press release issued by the NFA demonstrated tremendously bad taste, bad timing, and bad judgement.

However, we do have free speech in Canada (unless you are a government scientist), so the NFA is free to say what they want to on the subject.

Free speech is a good thing. I like free speech. Especially because it also permits me to point out how horrendously, absurdly bad is the logic of both the NFA’s statement and their associated position.

The fundamental argument by the NFA (beyond “laws interfere with our fun”) is that even with all or Canada’s gun control efforts, someone with a gun has killed three RCMP officers. Thus, all gun control laws should be abandoned. The basic shape of this argument is this:

  1. We do X to prevent Y
  2. Sometimes, in spite of doing X, Y still happens
  3. Therefore, we should stop doing X because it is a waste of time

Lets try this argument in a few other situations, and see how it works…

We put locks on our doors, and install security systems in order to prevent our homes and business from being robbed. Sometimes, even with locks and security systems, we do get robbed. Therefore we should stop using locks and security systems.

Hmmmmm. That doesn’t seem quite right. Lets try another one…

We put in place traffic laws in order to prevent accidents and death. Sometimes, in spite of these laws, traffic accidents and deaths still occur. Therefore we should not bother with traffic laws.

Well, that doesn’t seem quite right either. How about one from personal health…

We eat healthy in order to prevent (among other things) heart disease. Sometimes, people who eat healthy still have heart attacks and die. Therefore, we should not bother eating healthy.

Still doesn’t sound right. Could it be that problem is that the structure of the argument is fundamentally flawed?

I had planned to go into the absurdity of the fact that people view gun ownership as some sort of “fundamental human right”, or the idea that the “right to bear arms” really means “the right to bear any kind of weapon (even those not invented yet) at any time in any situation without any rules or constraints”, or the silliness of believing that owners of dangerous weapons should be subject to lower licensing and registration requirements than car owners or ham radio operators.

Instead, I will just leave it at pointing out the bad timing, bad taste and bad logic of the NFA’s press release.

Deceptive Use of Statistics in Headlines

I was looking at the Apple stock chart on CNN.com, and saw two apparently contradictory headlines listed:


I knew that it was likely just a case of using different comparison time frames, but it still looked amusing!

As I looked at the two articles, my suspicions were validated. The article on the left was describing a Q4-Q1 drop of 33%, not all that surprising given the iPhone 5 launch and holiday season. The second article was describing year-over-year Q1 growth of 25%, which seems pretty good.

Isn’t it nice how you carefully select which stats to use in your headline, in order to drive the perception you want?

As Twain said: Lies, damned lies, and statistics!

The value of an education

The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

Image via Wikipedia

I see a great deal of debate recently about the value of higher education, and whether the high cost of university is worth it from a job market/earning power perspective. I have this debate myself recently, seeing the challenges my own children are facing, coming out of college and trying to enter the workforce.

I have a few thoughts on the topic that I would like to share.

The debate scares the hell out of me

We already live in a society that does not particularly respect or reward intelligence, certainly not the way it should. People are very rarely rewarded or recognized for academic success, except insofar as it might help them be financially successful.

Most parents would much more proudly proclaim their child’s talents as an athlete or entrepreneur than as a scientist or researcher.

In addition, we see a strong social trend towards active disrespect of scientific or research disciplines because the results might challenge religious dogma and political rhetoric.

I see the arguments against higher education as threatening the very future of our society. We already have far too few young people entering engineering or scientific disciplines.

You get what you pay for

Ok – so I am not referring specifically to what your higher education costs, in dollars. What I really mean is that you get out of a higher education pretty much what you put into it.

If you are studying something for which you have a passion, if you throw yourself into your studies heart and soul, if you embrace and enjoy the entire experience, then I have no doubt at all that you will see great value from your education both economically and personally.

If on the other hand, you are only there because your parents said you should be and they are paying for it, if you pick your program based on least difficulty or avoiding early morning classes, and if you only apply yourself to least extent necessary to get by, then you will probably get out of education exactly what you put – diddly squat.

So, like many things, what value you get out of higher education depends very much on what value you are looing for.

A good education is more valuable than a mediocre education

A few generations ago, higher education was available to a small enough segment of the population that getting a university degree, no matter in what field or from what school, gave you a significant competitive advantage when it came to the working world.

More recently, say in my generation or the one before it, higher education had become significantly more accessible, but it was still typically sufficient to have a good degree from a good school (and have had reasonably good marks) to have a high probability of long term success.

Now, however, having a degree is not in and of itself a strong differentiator when it comes to the job market. It is now more important that ever to invest in an education that matches your goals. If your goal is to be highly employable and make lots of money, you better be very careful to choose a discipline and a school that matches that goal. Otherwise, you will be one of those who sees your education as a waste.

Education does not guarantee success

This should be obvious, but an education does not in and of itself guarantee success. Actually, nothing guarantees success. All you can hope for is to follow a path and takes actions which improve the probability of success.

People often point examples of very successful individuals who did not finish university, and say “that proves that you do not need higher education to be successful”. That is very true, but remember that such cases statistical outliers, and are so rare as to be meaningless in planning you future. Others often use these examples to support statements like “higher education is a waste”.

Again, what is critical is to have some idea where you are going, and then choose a type and level of education which is appropriate to those goals.

But please, do not discount higher education completely based upon questionable, anecdotal evidence.

The end of physical books? I hope not!

I was just reading this article on CNN.com, in which author Nicholas Negroponte, founder of One Laptop per Child, foretells the demise of physical books.

I recognize the trend, and can see some reality in what he says. I am a big fan of digital books, and have been for far longer than those who have jumped on the bandwagon with the introduction of the Kindle, iPad, and other such devices. I have been using my slate tablets as ebook readers for 8 years now. The fact that I can carry several thousand books with me when I travel is really convenient (especially for an infomaniac like myself).

However, I absolutely do not advocate the end of physical books, for a number of reasons.

First of all, there is no standard distribution technology for ebooks. I do not want to have to drink Apple’s or Amazon’s koolaid just so I can read the books that I want. And when I have purchased material, I do not want that material tied to a specific device (especially if it is tied to iTunes or Apple in any way). Until there is some level of standardization (beyond PDF), then ebooks should not be the principal format for books.

Secondly, an ebook-only world introduces a 2-tier society – those who can afford ebook-readers, and those who cannot. While I applaud Mr. Negroponte’s efforts in the One Laptop per Child campaign, we are not there yet. Even if we were, laptops are not the optimal platform for reading books. There is no way I would want to read any book of any length on a laptop (tablet maybe, but not a laptop). Right now, people (in much of the world) need nothing more than a library card to have access to a wide variety of books. A switch to an entirely digital world takes that away. I recognize that in the third-world,this is not the case, but I am not convinced that a switch to digital media fixes that problem.

My biggest concern is actually more of a “doomsday” or “conspiracy theory” kind of thing. The strength of physical books is that they are just that – physical. I do not need any device to read them. I do not need electricity. I do not need DRM. I pick up a book, and I read it. What happens in situations of natural disaster, decline of society (for example in war – we are not that far removed from the threat of world war), or even zombie attacks ;-). I personally would prefer that most books continue to exist in a tangible form in addition to a digital one. Then again, I still have a slide rule, just in case all of the computers and calculators fail and I really  need to figure something out!

I am also concerned with the greater possibility of distortion and censorship of the written word once it is only digital. We already see some organizations which distribute digital content exerting inappropriate, heavy-handed control over content and “apps” that they will “allow” to be published on their devices. The potential for corporate or political censorship is great in the digital world, though as has been demonstrated in the past, it is extremely hard to completely suppress information on the Internet.

Finally, there is a distinct sensory pleasure to reading a book. It is one of the few escapes I have left from the digital, technological world. When I am reading digital books, I am unfortunately also subject to all of the distractions of the digital world (email, IM, Twitter, etc.) Physical books are an escape from that noise, and i need that.

Just because I can read everything digitally, does not mean that I should read everything that way.

Of Mosque’s and Book Burnings

When I started writing this post, it was to be somewhat of a rant. As it turns out, it came out more “preachy” than “ranty’. I hope will forgive me, and indulge me just a little 🙂 .

Unless you live under a rock (or are much smarter than me and ignore the mainstream news), you have no doubt heard about the plans to build a mosque new so-called Ground Zero in new York. You have also heard of the debate that has sprung up between proponents of the mosque, and those who oppose it.

At the same time, we have someone who calls himself a Christian, and a leader at that, proposing to hold an event to burn copies of the Quran, and encouraging others around the United States to do the same.

Although both of these controversies stem from very different motivations, they both illustrate the very clear difference between what is legal, and what is simply “the right thing to do”.

On the one hand, we have a group wanting to build a religious centre, with a stated goal of also reaching out to other communities in the interest of collaboration and understanding. While I know there are those who see more subversive goals behind the project, I am willing to take what they propose at face value.

It is very clear that the construction of this complex (if I understand correctly, it is more than a mosque) is legal. This has been made clear at many levels of government, up to and including the president. They own the land. What they want to do fits within the zoning for the land. To be clear, what they want to do is completely legal, and they are fully within their rights to proceed.

That said, it is also clear that a significant number of people (I hesitate to say a majority, as I do not believe any statistics published by the media) are upset and offended by this plan. Some are upset because they a paranoid, xenophobic extremists who are absolutely convinced that anything Islamic is inherently evil. There also many, however, who are normal, rational people who have an understandable sensitivity when it comes to the events of 9/11. It is this second group whose feelings should be considered in this matter. While I do not believe any of the rhetoric that the mosque complex is a conspiracy to infiltrate the US, or to be a slap in the face or “victory symbol” for the 9/11 attacks, it is very clear that the project is causing pain to many people.

So what does this mean? It means that the right thing to do here has nothing to do with what is legally allowed. The right thing to do is to recognize and embrace the people who are genuinely hurt by this proposal. The right thing to do is to tell them “while we know we have the legal right to build our mosque, and we will not be bullied or coerced into changing our plans, out of compassion for those for whom we are unintentionally causing pain, we will change our plans and move our project somewhere less sensitive.” This would go a long way towards improving the image of Islam in American, and disarming the extreme “Islamo-phobes” who are so vocal. Again, this is the right thing to do, as opposed to merely the legal.

Turning attention now to events in Florida and the Christian group planning to burn Qurans as a philosophical statement. As opposed to the supporters of the mosque project, this Christian group is wilfully and intentionally acting to cause pain and upset to Muslims around the world. It is their stated intent to offend Muslims. This event has been vocally opposed by religious leaders of every persuasion. It has been opposed by political leaders at all levels and of all philosophical leanings.

The unfortunate fact, however, is that as morally reprehensible as these actions are, they are perfectly legal. What they are doing is legal, and to force them to abandon their plans would definitely not be the right thing to do, as it would infringe upon their rights and only further fuel their hatred.

As what they are doing is perfectly legal, what should we do about it? Well, for one thing, stop giving them so much attention. Unfortunately, it is far too late for that as this has been publicized around the world. The only thing we can do is stand by and watch. And forgive them. We can also make sure that we use this as example to explain to our children why this type of hatred and intentional disrespect is wrong. Finally, we can embrace those who are hurt and offended by this action, those who are its targets, and try to make them understand that we share their pain and outrage. Even though the book-burners are doing what is legal, we can take it upon ourselves to do what is right.

If only we could spend more time focusing upon what is the right thing to do, versus simply what we are legally allowed to do, we might have some hope of moving forward.

Must love God to be CTO?

I just read a job ad for a CTO that listed the following as a requirement for the position:

“Must be committed to offering excellence to God in all you do”

I am not sure, but isn’t it illegal to discriminate based on religion when hiring?