I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m a challenge addict, always seeking out new technology or platforms that has new problems which I can solve. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I enjoyed it as diving deep into an unknown area is something that always gives me a thrill and is arguably what keeps me coming back. This addiction to challenge however is its own worst enemy as whilst I might have dabbled in nearly every piece of technology imaginable I really only know them to a certain point before they bore me after which I’ll dump them for the next intriguing challenge. For someone who’s spent the better part of 2 years dreaming about starting his own technology based company this addiction to challenge is highly counter productive, something which I need to work on.
Like many of my ilk I’ve been trained in the art of pattern recognition, mostly for identifying when something can be automated or a process solidified in order to make it more efficient or reliable. My addiction to challenge hadn’t managed to slip past this process and after thinking about it for a while I realised that I had a kind of response curve to challenges. Initially there’s an overwhelming sense of progress as problems are overcome at a rapid pace, you’ve got momentum and you feel like the idea you’re working on has a lot of merit. Then, after a while, the challenges start to become routine and you start question your motives. It’s at this point where I find myself looking for something new and exciting, usually finding it without too much hassle.
I’ve come to learn that I’m not alone in this kind of response, it’s called the dip:
The idea comes from a book by Seth Godin, a serial entrepreneur and author who penned a whole book about this idea 5 years ago. I’d love to say that I’ve read it but I haven’t and all the credit goes to Matt Aimonetti’s post about how us engineers typically suck at choosing jobs (which I totally agree with, if I don’t wholly agree with the reasons why we suck) for introducing me to the concept from that book. I’d been thinking about writing a post about my challenge response curve for a while now but I hadn’t really figured out how to visualize the idea and the graph above is pretty much exactly what I was picturing in my head, even if I didn’t have the axis labelled (I had no idea what they were, honestly).
This is not to say that putting endless amounts of effort behind something will always yield results though. One of the tricks I’ve learnt since discovering my addiction to challenge is that once you’re in that dip area it’s all too easy to doing “work” on something and really not get anywhere, which adds to the frustration. Typically I found this was when I would just stare at bits of code for ages, thinking about how best to optimize them. Routinely this ended with me being stuck in a loop just thinking about the same ideas over and over again without taking the dive and trying them out for fear of wasting the effort. At that point you either need to break away from that task or simply slug through and try it out. Sure you might waste some time or effort by doing something that wasn’t worth doing or not spending time on the project but that’s far better than wasting time that ultimately results in nothing.
I’m currently working yet another idea (yeah I know, I’m terrible) where I was implementing a search function so that users could discover information without having to trudge through pages of stuff they weren’t interested in. Now for small scale data sets, like the one I have for development, this is pretty easy however for larger sets, like the one I have in production, they simply take too long to run. I had mulled over the idea of how to solve this for quite a while and implemented a solution over the weekend. This solution, whilst better than the original, was still performing unacceptably and forced me to rethink my approach to the issue. That time I spent on the current solution is now technically wasted but had I not spent that effort I would still be sitting here now thinking that it was the best course of action. I guess that realisation that even “wasted” effort has value was something I hadn’t really come to grips with and I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that.
Thankfully this is one of those things that once you’re aware of the issue there’s many things you can do about it in order to overcome it. I’m not saying that my particular coping strategy will work for everyone, I know it won’t, but I do feel that the dip applies almost universally even if the curve varies from person to person. How you recognize that you’re in the dip and how you get out of it is something that I’m not sure that I can help with but I know that simply being aware of it has helped me immensely and it’s for that exact reason that I’m pretty excited about my most recent projects.
My last two years have seen me dabble in a whole swath of things I never thought I’d dip my toes into. The first was web development, arguably inspired by this blog and the trials and tribulations that went into making it what it is today. Having been out of the development game for quite a long time before that (3 years or so) I had forgotten the thrill of solving some complex problem or finding an elegant solution to replace my overly complicated one. This then led me to try a cascade of different technologies, platforms and frameworks as ideas started to percolate through my head and success stories of overseas start ups left me lusting for a better life that I could create for myself.
For each of these new technologies I pursued I always had, at least in my mind, a good reason for doing so. Web development was the first step in the door and a step towards modernizing the skills I had let decay for too long. Even though my first foray into this was with ASP.NET, widely regarded as the stepping stone to the web for Windows desktop devs like myself, I still struggled with many of the web concepts. Enter then Silverlight, a framework which is arguably more capable than but has the horrible dependency of relying on an external framework. Still it was enough to get me past the hurdle of giving up before I had started and I spent much of the next year getting very familiar with it.
Of course the time then came when I believed that I needed to take a stab at the mobile world and promptly got myself involved in all things Apple and iOS. For someone who’d never really dared venture outside the comfortable Microsoft world it was a daunting experience, especially when my usual approach of “Attempt to do X, if can’t Google until you can” had me hitting multiple brick walls daily. Eventually however I broke through to the other side and I feel it taught me as much as my transition from desktop to web did. Not long after hitting my stride however did I find myself deep in yet another challenge.
Maybe it was the year+ I had spent on Lobaco without launching anything or maybe it was the (should have been highly expected) Y-Combinator rejection but I had found myself looking for ideas for another project that could free me from the shackles of my day job. Part me also blamed the frameworks I had been using up until that point, cursing them for making it so hard to make a well rounded product (neglecting the fact that I only worked on weekends). So of course I tried all sorts of other things like Ruby on Rails, PHP and even flirted with the idea of trying some of those new fangled esoteric frameworks like Node.js. In the end I opted for ASP.NET MVC which was familiar enough for me to be able to understand it clearly without too much effort and modern enough that it didn’t feel like I’d need to require IE6 as the browser.
You’re probably starting to notice a pattern here. I have a lot of ideas, many of which I’ve actually put some serious effort into, but there always comes a point when I dump both the idea and the technology it rests on for something newer and sexier. It dawned on me recently that the ideas and technology are just mediums for me to pursue a challenge and once I’ve conquered them (to a certain point) they’re no longer challenge I idolized, sending me off to newer pastures. You could write off much of this off to coincidence (or other external factors) except that I’ve done it yet again with the last project I mentioned I’m working on. I’m still dedicated to it (since I’m not the only one working on it) but I’ve had yet another sexy idea that’s already taken me down the fresh challenge path, and it’s oh so tempting to drop everything for it.
I managed to keep my inner junkie at bay for a good year while working on Lobaco so it might just be a phase I’m going through, but the trend is definitely a worrying one. I’d hate to think that my interest only lasts as long as it takes to master (well, get competent with) and it would be a killer for any potential project. I don’t think I’m alone in this boat either, us geeks tend to get caught up in the latest technology and want to apply it where ever we can. I guess I’ll just have to keep my blinkers on and keep at my current ideas for a while before I let myself get distracted by new and shiny things again. Hopefully that will give me enough momentum to overcome my inner challenge junkie.
As I’ve confessed to previously I’m a notorious Sony fanboy. Whilst this was done initially out of a boy love that grew from the hours that I spent playing on my trusty old Playstation it soon took a turn in another direction. What I’ve come to notice from many companies is that they will release their initial product and then revise as it matures. Typically this means nothing but good things for the consumer, but more recently it’s taken a much darker turn.
I guess the first piece of kit that I bought as an early adopter would have to have been the Playstation 2. I remember eagerly waking up at an extraordinary hour to rush out to grab one as soon as the stores had opened. I wasn’t the first one there by a long shot and the price had even dropped from the ludicrous height of $750 to $720. After convincing my parents that I could afford to pay them back I picked my shiny new PS2 and a single game whilst parting with my debit card until it was all paid back. I had justified the purchase to myself because of the backwards compatibility, but the possibility of turning it into a fully fledged computer as well sealed the deal. Whilst I never got the kit (since it cost more than the console itself even after it had been released for over 3 years) I did work with people who had got them, and by all accounts it was a great platform to learn game development on.
My early adoption of Sony’s products paid dividends more recently when I purchased my PSP and PS3. The PSP came riddled with security holes that allowed me to run all sorts of homebrew applications on it (video streaming over WiFi being my favourite) and the PS3 came with backwards compatibility and card readers. It’s up for debated whether or not the premium I paid for these products, about $100 on the PSP and $400 on the PS3, are worth it but since I was going to make the plunge anyway they’re just value-adds for me, which is always nice.
This is not to say that my habit of early adoption for new tech hasn’t been without its pitfalls. A few years ago I was in the market for a new phone and it just so happened that Motorola had released their new slim RAZR phone. Since I had worked in retail for 6 years selling mobile phones I knew Motorola was pretty good at making your basic phones and with it being so slim it was an instant sell for me. The writing was on the wall when the first one I received didn’t recognise my sim card, and had to be replaced that day. The second handset did its job admirably but it was plagued with meta-problems like the sync software only ever working once and certain features, like the predictive text, going awry shortly after.
I remember one of my university lecturers showing me an image similar to this:
Image used under the GNU Free Documentation License 1.2
Although this one has been trimmed to fit a traditional bell curve it still demonstrates the idea that around 16% of people are what you could call early adopters. What really got to me was the demographics that came with these percentages with the youngsters like myself filling the Early Adopters and Early Majority categories but rarely in the Innovators. It would seem that the big risk takers are in fact established firms and make their business from being on the cutting edge.
The pace of innovation that the IT industry continues to set is probably what keeps me in this industry. Anyone who knows me will tell you that if I’m not challenged for long enough I’ll start to shift my gaze elsewhere, something that has left me with an interest trail of jobs on my resume. Realistically IT is the only industry I could get away with doing something like this since the standards are always shifting, heavens help me if I tried this in accounting.
Not that I have anything against accountants…… 🙂
The government department I’m currently working for recently embarked on buying a new HP Blade environment to upgrade their VMware cluster, something which I had a big hand in getting done. It was great to see after 5 months of planning, talking and schmoozing management that the hardware had arrived and was ready to be installed. My boss insisted that we buy services from HP to get it set up and installed, something which I felt went against my skills as an IT professional. I mean, it’s just a big server, how hard could it be to set up?
The whole kit arrived in around 27 boxes, 2 of them requiring a pallet jack to get them up to our build area. This was clearly our fault for not ordering them pre-assembled and was an extraordinary tease for an engineer like myself. I begrudgingly called up HP to arrange for the technician to come out and get the whole set up and installed. This is where the fun began.
After chasing our reseller and our account executive I finally got put onto the technician who would be coming out. At first I thought I was just going to get someone who knew how to build and install these things in a rack, something I was a bit miffed about spending $14,000 on. Upon his arrival I discovered he was not only a blade technician but one of the lead solution architects for HP in Canberra, and had extensive experience in core switches (the stuff that forms the backbone of the Internet). Needless to say this guy was not your run of the mill technician, something I’d discover more of over the coming days.
The next week was spent elbow deep in building, installing and configuring the blade system. Whilst this was a mentally exhausting time for myself I’m glad he was there. When we were configuring any part of the system he’d take us a step back to consider the strategic implications of the technology we were installing. I made no secret that I barely knew anything about networks apart from the rudimentary stuff and he did his best to educate me whilst he was here. After spending a week talking about VLANs, trunks and LACP I firmly understood where this technology was taking us, and how we could leverage it to our advantage.
Initially I felt very uncomfortable having someone constantly question and probe me about all the principles and practicies of our network. I’m not one to like being out of control, and having someone who is leaps and bounds smarter then you doing your work makes you seem redundant. However this all changed after I got up to speed and starting asking the right questions. It began to feel less like I was being lectured and more I was being led down the right path. Overall I’m extremely happy with my boss’ decision to bring this guy in, as the setup I would have done without his help would have been no where near the level that it is today.
In any workplace it’s always hard to work with someone who’s a lot smarter then you, especially if they’re your subordinate. Whilst I can’t find the original source for this quote (paraphrased) I’ll attribute it to my good friend, Nick:
A bad manager will surround themselves with people who either agree with everything they say or aren’t as smart as them. A good manager will have a team of people who are much smarter in their respective fields then them and use their advice to influence their business decisions.
So whilst I felt inferior because my boss didn’t believe I was capable and the architect was leaps and bounds above my skill level in the end it turned out to be a great benefit to everyone involved. From now on I’ll be looking at decisions like this in a new light, and hope this is a lesson that all the managers out there can take to heart.