Travelling Like Spam Poetry

We have an anniversary.

In the summer of 2005,
the Chief Engineer and I set out to visit every Austrian village
whose names started with the letter Z.

It was a straight-forward idea given that we lived in a z-village. Our universe of websites contains the virtual equivalent – z-village.net, a German website chronicling the adventures and musings of two fearless settlers – calling themselves Subversive Element and Irgendwer (Somebody Doing Anything Nobody Wants to Do). These setters are on a mission to discover myth-enshrouded z-village. Today the z-village website is an epic tomb, but we link to it on our blog: punktwissen – Professional Tinkerers and Restless Settlers, tagging it with How it all got started. Perhaps that’s why not every reader recognizes this blog’s business-y nature.

Now, after I have scared everybody off with weird links (…. wait, I forgot to mention that it was the other members of our EPSI circle that suggested this trip!), here is the story:

We used the official list of z-villages from Austria’s statistical service – 247 places in total in a manual approach to optimization: Trying to visit as many as possible in one round trip. In the end, we managed to see 100 z-villages, driving 2000 km in about 10 days.

So the process was:

Try to find the next z-village shown in your print-out of Google maps or referred to in other sources. Most of these villages were small settlements rather than political entities, comprised of houses with addresses like z-village 7, and finding those was like trying to follow a yellowed old treasure map.

z-tripz-tripFind a place-name sign.

z-trip, found sign.Take a weird photo of the sign (Collection).

z-trip

Take to our heels when local life-forms start wondering. Sometimes it was scary, like Indiana Jones meeting the cannibals. In the north of Austria near the border to Czech Republic  – places typically picked for stereotype dark-family-secret-in-rural-village crime stories – the locals were especially suspicious.

Look, these guys are taking a photo of the sign ????!!!

z-trip, scary place

I realize, it might be hard to see the fun in this. You need to be part of it. Later I proposed this type of travelling to become part of life coaches’ outdoor training offerings. In jest of course, but as usual some people took it seriously.

Via the silly rule implied by the list of names we were forced to travel to places you would never pick for any type of vacation: They were neither advertised to tourists nor intriguing to maverick adventurers. It was like clicking form one hyperlink to the next and having to pick one line for poetry.

In the years before the z-trip our travelling was mainly for business. I mainly saw airports, train stations, motorways, and corporate headquarters. Though it should not have been a secret, the z-trip showed us that we live in a country comprised of fields and forests, of land not completely sealed by the tokens of 20th century’s civilization.

z-trip, as in the bucolic cliché

z-trip, magic well

z-trip, wind farm

We had to neglect some z-villages in the Western, Alpine regions to keep kilometers to a reasonable level. Nevertheless, we saw enough small villages that made us wonder how people can cope with tons of snow.

It was like in these movies portraying New Yorkers travelling to the wilderness of Alaska for the first time, having to deal with harsh weather and raccoons. I realized how clichéd, biased, and distorted some of my views were (… and yet, I use more clichés now to make my point!).

z-trip, wild animals

We both quit our corporate jobs the day after we had returned from that trip.

z-trip, settlers' selfie

Travelling like this was like using the internet in the pre-social-media era: Jumping from one obscure private website – designed by Microsoft FrontPage, with pink marquee taglines – to the next, not sharing and commenting on it.

I crafted my first website in 1997 – with FrontPage, I admit, and for business – but I was very reluctant to enter the interactive social web for a long time. My reluctance was the topic of my very first WordPress post. Since three years I have been exploring Web 2.0, and I am now returning to the z-travelling style of using the internet.

z-trip, mystic river

z-trip, bumpy road ahead

Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

I have enjoyed Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Farnamstreet’s review is perfect so I will not attempt at writing one. I will focus on one idea I found most intriguing.

I read Horowitz’ book as an account of dealing with hard decisions in general, about having to decide alone, about personal accountability, about having to pick the lesser of two evils.

The idea that stuck with me in particular is Management Debt, and Horowitz also blogged about this.

… management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence.

You accumulate Management Debt if you try to fix an organizational issue quickly by acting inconsistently. Horowitz’ example: You might give an employee a raise in order to stop her from leaving the company. But she had discussed her plans with another employee who then wonders why she stayed; so she feels pressed to explain the reason to him. Then others learn how to blackmail you in order to get a raise, etc..

From my short stint as a manager I am familiar with such situations but I rather like to extend the concept to Social or Political Debt. I believe that we, as human social animals, tend to focus on resolving the conflict right in front of you, rather than considering seemingly abstract consequences in the future.

I am thinking of the expert bombarded with all kinds of requests. As a professional it is hard to avoid them: People who to want to pick your brain and just like to have 5 minutes so you can glance over their problems. For free. Trying to help all of them – on top of working with paying clients – would be the equivalent of trying to copy a full book at the photocopier but yielding to anybody who wants to copy just a single page.

As a fallible human you might give in to the most intrusive requester just to get rid of him or her. You think that explaining your seemingly cold-hearted rationale would take more time and would be more emotionally taxing than just fulfilling the request.

But those people will return with more problems, and their acquaintances will, too. You have incurred debt, and there is interest rate. The moment of refusal might be difficult though, in particular with requests in the blurry area between business and private. How to say No to that alleged or self-declared old friend?

I am a believer in 1) Stating clearly what you don’t want and don’t do (rather than focusing on the positive) without feeling the need to explain yourself and 2) “Principles” – a short list of your values, or guiding principles you always follow. Both need need to be ingrained in your mind so that you react accordingly in case you receive those e-mails and calls out of the blue.

The paradoxical or sad thing is that explanations are most often futile. There are many good reasons – both ethical and business-wise – for not jumping onto such requests. The obvious one being limited time and treating all clients equal, but the best one in my point of view being the value of true expertise: Based on years of experience you might only need five minutes to solve a problem that requires somebody else doing days of research. That’s exactly why those first minutes might be the most valuable.

I am speaking from experience although such things fortunately did happen to me rarely. But when they did, it was freaking me out. I once got a call from an unknown lawyer who was in the middle of installing his very own Public Key Infrastructure; he started asking technical questions before introducing himself. I tried to explain that I was actually charging people for such services, and that I assumed he did not do legal counselling for free either. His response was that he was maintaining all his IT stuff by himself – just this topic was too complicated for him so he needed advice. So services should be free if a professional solves a particularly tricky problem. This defies common sense.

I also thought I had a killer argument, non-refutable. I am actually providing technical information on ‘the internet’ for free – the same sort of answers or materials I would charge clients for. The difference is that I am not obligated to do this, so I pick this case by case. I believe in open-source-style sharing in a community of like-minded members. I am a believer in demonstrating skills in real time instead of showing off certificates – it goes without saying this might include giving away some valuable advice for demo purposes at the start of a business relationship.

Unfortunately, this demo-for-business argument that is used too often by people who want to milk your know-how forever – just testing how far they can go – without ever really considering a ‘business relationship’. As soon as you tell them the answer to the next question will not be free of charge anymore, they suddenly stop asking.

Fortunately, I get enough feedback by providing so much detailed information for free!!. A few people who don’t get it would not shatter my confidence. Interestingly, people who still challenge me (But then you don’t have time for me??) are those whom I would not consider part of any ‘sharing’ communities or get their spirit in the slightest. I think all those issues belong in the category: Either you get it immediately and communication is based on tacit understanding what is normal and appropriate – or all explanations are in vain.

Many years ago I had been asked literally if I would like to work for free. Corporations send out request for proposals and ask for lots of free concepts and presentations – until they have gathered enough know-how from all the potential vendors invited so that finally they have learned enough from the ‘pitches’ and can do the whole project on their own. Finally I had my antennas finely tuned to all your typical manipulations methods (I have already told X you will do [unpaid honorable engagement] Y – if you don’t, this will get me into serious troubles!). Many people are driven by short-term impulses, not by malice (I have to solve this problem or my boss will kill me!) and they respond to logical arguments: What would you say if you were a paying client and find out that I do free consulting for other people at random? Some manipulators are hopeless cases though, especially if they think they provide something in return that is actually less than useless to you.

Horowitz’ war stories resonated with me more than I expected. He emphasizes dealing with organizationally or psychologically difficult issues head-on. I read his advice as: Better act sooner than later, better state the ugly truth upfront. Better take some decision at all, even if it is just 55% versus 45%. Communicate clearly, don’t use fluffy phrases. Sometimes people explicitly appreciated my way of saying No immediately and unambiguously, instead of endless dithering and not trying to hurt anybody which seems to have become fashionable in times of Networking and You Will Always Meet Two Times.

wine-clarity

Searching my own images for own that would represent both mental clarity as well as difficult decisions – I zoomed in this one immediately. (Vineyards close to my home village, evening at the beginning of May.)

Although this is tagged with ‘rant’ it should not be interpreted as what I actually consider pointless and energy-draining – endless rants about common practices in your industry sector that you cannot change but have to live with. I am in the Love It, Change It, Or Leave It camp. I have also been writing about the past, and often a single annoying event of that sort had made me shift gears.

I believe the best – and most productive – way to cope with weird requests is to either: Respond clearly and immediately using a standardized I-don’t-do reply, then ignore them as an accidental, misguided question that just happened to end up in your inbox; or: to analyze if an aspect of your previous communication might have invited such inquiries, and improve your future communications. And don’t aim at being liked by anybody, anytime.

Anatomy of a Decision (1)

Four years ago I tried something new – I took a decision and started communicating it (some half-baked version of it) without having worked out a detailed plan. One year later I started this blog, reflecting on the journey and this decision. So I celebrate the 4 years anniversary with shameless, self-indulgent nostalgia – reblogging myself. Besides, you might have noticed I did not write much blog posts lately in the personal essay / opinionated piece genre. Perhaps because I don’t want to repeat myself. And I commit the cardinal sin in the visual age – not even an image!

Career Advice – Borrowing Wise Words from a Sailing Hacker

On researching SSL-related hacks, I have stumbled upon the website of notable security researcher Moxie Marlinspike.

Marlinspike is also a sailor and working on diverse projects, such as Audio Anarchy – a project for transcribing anarchist books into audio format. On his About page he says:

I like computer security and software development, particularly in the areas of secure protocols, cryptography, privacy, and anonymity. But I also secretly hate technology, am partially horrified with the direction “geek” culture has gone.

and

In general, I hope to contribute to a world where we value skills and relationships over careers and money, where we know better than to trust cops or politicians, and where we’re passionate about building and creating things in a self-motivated and self-directed way.

I call myself Subversive El(k)ement, Security Consultant, Search Term Poet, and Luddite in Disguise … how could I not relate

So it was not a surprise that I found myself in total agreement with his career advice.

Moxie’s post starts with

What I want to say, more often than not, is something along the lines of don’t do it;

This is reminiscent of Via Negativa I learned about from Nassim Taleb’s writings. I have also  found it more helpful to state what I don’t like instead of phrasing so-called SMART goals. When planning positively you try to target a small point in the vast space of options – likely to be missed – in contrast to the negative approach of avoiding a subset of options and keeping a considerable part of them in reach.

From the famous Stanford Prison experiment Moxie draws a simpler lesson as an individual – and it seems more palpable to me than that grand discussions about morals and free will:

 … just be careful what job you take, because your job will change you.

You should look at the people working in a certain environment or industry sector and think twice if you want to become like them. This is not self-evident: At times I was dead set to break into a world whose representatives were anti-role-models – but of course I wanted to revolutionize the whole sector. Finally I have found out that it is more rewarding to go where the people are to whom you can relate with.

Moxie talks about choices we all make, and how the first of those, early in our careers, are defined by supporting structures like family, school, or university:

When we arrive at the ends of these funnels, it’s possible that the direction we’re facing is more a reflection of those structures than it is a reflection of ourselves. Self-determination in a moment like that can’t simply be about making a choice, it has to start with transforming the conditions that constitute our choices. It requires challenging the “self” in “self-determination” by stepping as far outside of those supporting structures as possible, for as long as possible.

It is silly to attempt at rushing through our lives, taking conscious decisions as early as possible and trying to cast your perfect CV in stone, as

There’s no rush to get started early on a never-ending task.

Moxie concludes that in relation to the inquiries about career advice, he is:

… likely to respond with something like “if I were you, I’d hitchhike to Alaska this summer instead.”

He advocates

… doing the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to prevent starvation, and then doing something that’s not about money, completely outside of supporting structures, and not simply a matter of “consuming experience”

I can anticipate objections, and you can also find them in the comments on Moxie’s post. How to pay the bills? How to feed the kids?

Actually I have re-written this post several times because of this – but, alas, I will not be able to avoid all ambiguity. All I want to say is that Moxie’s post struck a chord with me. Though targeted to students it is this classical advice to the younger self that exactly that self might not like. It took me ~20 years to come to that conclusion and act accordingly.

I think the primary target group of articles like this are people who arguably have choices but don’t use them – people who err on the side of caution. I don’t want to downplay the predicament of the single mum working two jobs but rather speak to the unhappy Head Chief Architect Officer of Something Sounding Really Impressive But Actually Doing Unnerving Grunt Work That Just Happens To Be Extremely Well Paid.

I am also not at all trying to evangelize among those who wholeheartedly enjoy their stressful jobs. There is this subtle dance of intriguing yet stressful work and inspiration that makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The big caveat here is that you need to find out on your own what exactly stresses you out in a fatal way – and this is not necessarily straight-forward. It is to be experienced, not to be determined by theorizing.

Based on my experience, anecdotal as it is, I dare hypothesize that there is an impressive percentage of respected middle-class corporate employees who do ponder about an alternative life as that iconic free sailor. My job role had been that of a technical consultant ever since but I had become more of a project psychologist at times. I was to hear surprising confessions – after we had left the formalities of the professional negotiations behind and people started philosophizing over coffee.

Generally speaking, I believe that most of us living in stable democracies are freer than we think. I am saying this as the inhabitant of a country whose primary mentality is not exactly shaped by entrepreneurial spirit and daring. I know how the collective submission to alleged obligations work.

As for using kids as a main counter-argument to a ‘free’ life-style, I was reminded of that most recent controversy about adventurous parents living and rising their kids on boats. – an impossible life for most people. Considering their life-styles too risky gives proof of how warped our sense of risks and probabilities is, and how over-valued spectacular risks of The Uncommon are in comparison to the dull, but near certain health risks of the accepted, sedentary living in a modern civilization.

We do make choices all the way, and be it just choosing the life expected from us by those supporting structures. When we are grown up we don’t have much excuses for not taking accountability – and this does not at all mean a perfectly streamlined career plan.

Quoting Moxie again:

Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.

The best advice is not to follow any advice (incl. this one), question everything, and decide for yourself.

Still from Kon-Tiki movie

From a documentary about Kon-Tiki (Wikimedia) – not sure if it is the new movie.

This post will be filed under Life – a collection that recently struck me as much too serious and solemn. In any case – if that happens again, I would just like everybody to know that I have never been happier; and I am weighing my words carefully.

More Capitalism, Less Zen. Tackling Existential Questions Once More. In Vain?

Usually you make things worse by trying to explain again what you didn’t get across the first time. I do it nonetheless.

My post on Zen Capitalism might have been interpreted as advocating Follow Your Bliss and Anything Else Will Follow (Money, in particular).

I cringe; this is exactly what I intended to avoid, but it serves me right in a subtle way as I ridicule clichéd ‘new age-y thinking’ often.

I believe my cardinal error was to introduce over-used terms such as passion in a hand-waving way.

What I actually tried to get across was:

I believe we deprive ourselves of viable, commercially reasonable business opportunities because we simply don’t see them.

Options are obscured by a filter built from our interactions with ‘society’ – their expectations and doubts, their questions about what you are going to do based on your degree and your experiences. I don’t want to blame ‘society – theoretically we are old enough to take our own decisions; this is rather an observation and I am preaching to myself also, not only to the blogosphere (This is true for all of my posts, I should add this disclaimer more often.)

I picked my stint as an IT freelancer for SMEs deliberately in my previous post – as it was the most stressful transition in terms of having to come to terms with ‘expectations’ and comments like But you do not need a PhD to do that?? I argue that I put all my alleged smartness into overcoming that silly pride of an academic and just offering some services that somebody else really needs right now, no matter how menial or mundane former colleagues might consider that.

This is just an anecdote of mine, there is no silver-bullet-style philosophy of work ethics to be derived from that. Your mileage may vary in terms of your blind spot. Or worse, all options you could come up with in your wildest dreams might still not be converted into something business-y.

However, my theory may be faulty and incomplete anyway:

You consider me a geek – but there is a darker side of me: A penny pincher, a controller, a professionally paranoid consultant. The underlying truth is maybe that the paranoid part of me has forced and driven me to thrive in this capitalist world (this is drive, not passion) – until I reached a state that would have made even the most risk-aware coward taking a leap of faith.

So most ironically you might accuse me of having lived Randy Komisar’s Deferred Life Plan and I cannot deny. I could just argue that I didn’t consider it a plan at all – I thought (felt) it was the best thing to do at that moment of time. Randy Komisar’s theory of matching your portfolio of passions resonates strongly with me  – exactly because of that. He states (I am paraphrasing, this is not a quote)  that the current match between your passion(s) and your options, however imperfect, allows you to get a bit closer to some ideal state – a state you cannot even describe yet.

It might be the right thing to do to deliberately embark on a job or a project that is definitely not the epitome of Your Ultimate Passion, but it allows you to take a twisted, but reasonable step in the right direction.

Some years ago I said very often that my job scores about 85% on the scale of True Calling, but it gives me more and more financial freedom. Truth is, I was not aware of what I am really heading at, and I cannot say for sure that I know it now – but it felt like the right direction. Not in a ‘spiritual way’ – no revelations here, rather assessing options and risks, probably paired with great gut feeling in a down-to-earth way. Or simply dumb luck.

For full disclosure I need to add that I have neither been born rich nor have I married rich – I daresay anything I own is due to my very own achievements,  and I am darn proud of that.

But the definition of one’s true achievements is debatable. I am guilty of having been born in a wealthy, politically stable country with an over-developed social system. Education is nearly for free – there are no student loans. But on the other hand my country is over-administered in a legendary way and infamous in throwing in intricate, bureaucratic wrenches (think Vogon bureaucracy) into the careers of aspiring entrepreneurs, and we use to say If Bill Gates would have been born in Austria he wouldn’t have been able to found Microsoft.

And yet, there is another, much simpler explanation:

Some people are luckier than others because they truly enjoy what is considered dreadful work by a majority – and that majority is in turn happy to pay somebody for that.

For example I really enjoy troubleshooting technical systems to a greater extent than most people. This invokes the explanation ‘dumb luck’ in my case.

We should start a research project or search for existing statistics on people’s intended passions, any careers that might be derived from those(*), and the economic needs of a society. Probably we find that 20% of the world population would enjoy making a living of spam poems, but this planet only needs one or two spam poets really.

I’d like to ponder on (*) a bit more as I feel this is the hidden escape.

I do still hope that we are not yet creative enough enough to apply those skills that are fired by my passion to some economically viable venture. I conjecture that everybody has some skills that allow him or her to do joyfully what is dreaded by a majority. Can we work out the math in a self-consistent way? I am already considering that pie chart diagram of skills of every individual – skills I enjoy versus employable skills I have but I just apply in order to pay the bills.

Can we sort this out and bestow joyful jobs to all of us?

Or do we need to distort and twist the definition of ‘joyful’ in a sophisticated way?

I would like to hand that question over to you again and add Michelle’s epic quote from a comment as a motto:

“I’d want to study the life cycles of Devonian brachiopods and an oil company would like me to project natural gas deposits.”

As she pointed out – probably we should have some blog carnival of a series of posts (by different bloggers) on these existential questions as comments would grow quickly into full-blown posts.

Vampire

Vampire from Wikimedia – as sort of requested in a comment by Search term Haiku Zen Master Mark Sackler. See the comments. I don’t understand the description on Wikimedia as it is in French. But this matches my existential mood. Very Sartre.

So-Called Zen Capitalism and Random Thoughts on Entrepreneurship

In this blog and in the comments’ section of other blogs I have repeatedly ridiculed: management consultants, new age-y self help literature and simple-minded soft skills trainers. Let alone all other life-forms in the lower left quadrant of the verbal skills vs. quant skills diagram.

Now it is time that I give you a chance to ridicule me: I come up with a simple-minded philosophy of life, adorned with a new age-y tag.

I am a true fan of Randy Komisar’s book The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living and his video lectures on entrepreneurship at Stanford university.

I have to apologize to hardcore long-time followers of his blog: I had already embedded one of my favorite videos in this post on my most recent career change.

Originally I planned to write a more detailed review, but somebody did exactly that already and summarized both the book and a related video. I learned about the term Zen Capitalism from this article, and I am breaking one of my silent rules on re-using it: Normally I detest this marketing lingo of oxymorons such as corporate responsibility. But it simply sounds too cool to be a gentle and wise capitalist, running your business on the wisdom of an Eastern mystic. I think it helps a lot that I know next to nothing about Zen and not a lot about capitalism.

Reader, if you are still here and not lost in the multi-verse opened up by clicking all these URLs, I will offer you my shortcut version of Komisar’s philosophy.

I had struggled with the existential contradiction between true passion and what to do for a living for half of my life. But the solution might be simple, or I turned into simpled-minded believer. Anyway, it works!

Komisar worked odd jobs while studying at the law school, e.g. as the manager of an unkown band. But he finally settled to the type of career that’s expected of a JD – until he realized that his future was going predetermined by the hierarchy of job levels at a law firm, from Junior Consultant to Senior Partner. I was intrigued by his story about the moment he recognized that – by looking down the aisle, framed by the doors of his colleagues offices’ all nearly ordered by hierarchy. This is probably one of the few times ‘hierarchy’ is used in the original sense of the word – sacred order. This is so very The Matrix!

He said that he was interested in the creative side of business – the metaphorical blank sheet of paper. So he abandoned his Matrix-like career and supported new businesses in the start-up phase a a Virtual CEO, denying the Deferred Life Plan – do what you have to do, then do what you want to do.

I had been incredibly self-disciplined for such a long time, so I feel entitled to state: Self-discipline and perseverance are all good and fine, but protestant work ethics has been ingrained into our society in a way that turned these virtues into self-replicating demons. I do not have a link to share as anything I read about the history of work ethics and its detrimental effects on Corporate Culture and the Cult of Overtime was written by German authors. So probably this is a German or middle-European issue anyway.

Abandoning the deferred life plan leaves you with the need to navigate through spacetime though. You need to take decisions that take you closer to … wait, closer to what actually?

Zen Center of NYC 500 State St jeh

The Zen Center in New York City. Investing about two minutes time in random searching Wikimedia – this was the image most related to Zen Capitalism I could come up with.

Komisar argues that it is passion that pulls us and drive that pushes us. Nevertheless, your quest for the one and only true passion will paralyze you. He said he was passionate about so many different things – trying to pick a single discipline or career once for all will drive you crazy. The good thing is that there are many options out there as well – options that should be aligned with what Komisar calls your portfolio of passions.

I believe the single most common error we all make – and I am not at all excluding myself – is denying existing options that are laying before us. In the discussion linked at the very top of this post I stated pretentiously I re-invented myself as an entrepreneur three times. This post – with its  references to a virtual CEO and Silicon Valley investments ninja – is probably the right place to add that this didn’t mean I funded three fancy fast-growing tech start-ups.

The very first time I became an entrepreneur I did so by seizing an obvious and fortunate option available particular in the years before the dot com crash. I swallowed all the pride I might have had as a physics PhD and set-up a plain and simple website marketing myself as an IT consultant for small enterprises. In contrast to today’s self-marketing mantras (as I see them tweeted every few seconds) I did not add a single detail related to my CV. I basically said ‘I will do it’.

This freelancing job was my leaving-academia-option. At that time I had worked for two years in a non-university research center (I believe this is similar to a National Lab in the US) – which was my first post-university job. I quit this job although it was a tenured position … for many reasons, most of which are not relevant to this post.

Above all, I saw the option that I might turn my IT experience into a business that allows me to determine how and where I am going to work. My IT experience was rather limited at that time – I had never been your typical physics graduate who worked in the lab during the day and compiled his own Linux kernel during the night. I did even use Microsoft Word instead of LaTeX for writing my theses.

My experience in business as such and economics was zero – in contrast to today’s science degree programmes I had never been force to take at least some mandatory economics lectures. So I learned double-sheet accounting from high school books from scratch.

Given that level of experience it worked out fine. Although I did turn to the epitome of the dark side later and become an employee again (having job titlethat  included the term Manager) seizing this freelance option was crucial. It finally opened up more options. Later I made a decision for another job I called a 60:40 decision – but again, it opened up rather more than less options.

I shunned getting stuck somewhere with a single option left. Probably this is due to the early traumatic experiences of colleagues of mine who spent too much time as post-docs at the university. I am not sure even sure if this is correct but they felt that there is an maximum age or [time spent at the university] – and after that you are lost for industry forever.

But I am now trying to return to the first narrative level now as I do not want to turn this into a Douglas Adams novel. Currently I have a hard time following Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect through all those nested levels of meta-explanations.

I basically want to emphasize that we often don’t recognize and appreciate options – most likely due to applying a filter whose logic is crafted from statements about what you ought to do. When I had transitioned to the more prestigious management job later I had been told my colleagues that this is finally an appropriate job again, fortunately. But troubleshooting computer networks at small, rural business? That was inappropriate, out of place!

I haven’t talked about Zen yet. The opening story in Komisar’s book is about his visiting a monastery in Myanmar and a riddle given to him by a monk. I could hardly believe the story is true – because adding the monk’s riddle to the tales from Silicon Valley seems so cliché. It is really unfortunate that many good stories and excellent quotes gets so over-used in management trainings, in particular the ‘spiritual’ ones. But I digress again.

The solution to the riddle implies something which is again very simple – paraphrasing to The journey is the reward and You are in charge of defining the details of the story. I don’t find a clever example to illustrate it in a non-stereotyped way, sorry. Read the book – it is a story of a guy who wants to found a start-up that sells coffins online. His pitch to Randy Komisar starts with Putting the fun back into the funerals.

Now I hope for better search terms for my poetry – including funerals, monasteries, and management.

Finally I share another wise and entertaining video about entrepreneurship with you:

Top 10 Must Have For a Start-up, by Frank Levinson, physics PhD.

You need common sense. You don’t need market studies, you need customers. You need to have the pride of a fat baby (that is: no pride).

I am watching this video regularly.  I am also re-reading my own motivational posts – I am not only the author, but the audience as well.

On Addiction: An Announcement

For the very first time I am tackling a serious issue in this blog with all due respect and solemnity. I do announce in public:

“I am going to reduce my consumption in coffee.”

The magic of that morning cup of coffee

“The magic of that morning cup of coffee” (Wikimedia). I am going to renounce it!

As we have learned goals should always be defined in a SMART way I should probably add more specifics, but I cannot add precise numbers yet as they will depend on the outcome of long-term experimental results. But I am getting ahead of myself.

My consumption of coffee has been legendary ever since. I am a walking nerd cliché, my nutritional habits are deeply rooted in geek culture. Think: spending long days in air-conditioned data centers, your brilliant hacker mind fueled by pizza and caffeine only.

As a physicist I prefer scientific explanations and I am impressed by numbers. Probably my corporate worker legacy adds to my obsession with metrics, too. It was a number that gave me permission to consume insane quantities of coffee – my blood pressure used to be abysmal. As an undergraduate I had once fainted in the street, after having queued up in a shop tightly stuffed with winter sale addicts like me. The doctor gave me precious advice – let’s avoid medication, just drink enough coffee. (And I shun sale since then).

As an engineer I am also obsessed with monitoring complex hydraulic systems, and I have finally applied the same standards to monitoring blood pressure:

Sphygmomanometer

The Steampunk version of the device used to measure blood pressure (Sphygmomanometer). I am using the modern version.

And now the issue is: I have aced the tests, my numbers are just perfect. No excuses any more.

Actually, the blogosphere had already sent me a signal before – I had also been inspired by this post by Samir Chopra and the numbers had only been the final trigger. However, I am not applying the cold turkey approach, I am going to cut coffee slowly while monitoring blood pressure closely.

I am still searching for the perfect replacement / placebo. Green tea would be my first choice, although it contains caffeine.

And if I fail, I can blame culture and peer pressure: Wikipedia tells me I am living in a country of coffee addicts:

Wikipedia: Countries ranked by coffee consumption per capita

Wikipedia: Countries ranked by coffee consumption per capita (Archived link – detected as broken some years after this article was written).

Trading in IT Security for Heat Pumps? Seriously?

Astute analysts of science, technology and the world at large noticed that my resume reads like a character from The Big Bang Theory. After all, an important tag used with this blog is cliché, and I am dead serious about theory and practice of combining literally anything.

[Edit in 2016: At the time of writing this post, this blog’s title was Theory and Practice of Trying to Combine Just Anything.]

Recently I have setup our so-called business blog and business facebook page, but I admit it is hard to recognize them as such. Our facebook tagline says (translated from German):

Professional Tinkerers. Heat Pump Freaks. Villagers. (Ex-) IT Guys.

People liked the page – probably due to expecting this page to turn out as one of my experimental web 2.0 ventures (I am trying hard to meet those expectations anyway).

But then one of my friends has asked:

Heat pumps instead of IT security – seriously?

Actually this is the pop-sci version: The true question included a lesser known term:
Heat pumps instead of PKI?

(1) PKI and IT Security

PKI means Public Key Infrastructure, and it is not as boring as the Wikipedia definition may sound. For more than ten years it way my mission to design, implement and troubleshoot PKI systems. The emphasis is on ‘systems’: PKI is about geeky cryptographic algorithms, hyper-paranoid risk management (Would the NSA be able to hack into this?) as well as about matching corporate politics and alleged or true risks with commercially feasible technical systems. Adding some management lingo it is about ‘technology, people, and processes’.

Full-blown PKI projects are for large corporations – so I was travelling a lot, although I was able to turn my services offerings from ‘working on site, doing time – whatever needs to be done’ (which is actually the common way to work as an expert freelance in IT) to ‘working mainly remote – working on very specific tasks only’. I turned into a PKI designer, firefighter and reviewer. I gave PKI workshops and an academic lecture about PKI for years.

There was nothing wrong with PKI as such: I enjoyed the geeky community of like-minded peers, and the business was self-running. The topic is hot. Just read your favorite tech newspaper’s articles on two-factor authentication or the like – both corporate compliance rules and new security threats related to cloud computing make PKI or related technologies being in demand a sure bet.

(2) Portfolio of Passions

I would like to borrow another author’s picture here: In The Monk and the Riddle: The Art of Creating a Life While Making a Living Randy Komisar – Silicon Valley virtual CEO – expounds how he dabbled in some creative ventures after having graduated, and how he finally embarked on a career as a lawyer. And how he saw his future unfolding before him – Associate, Senior… Partner. He could see the office doors lined up neatly, reflecting the ever progressing evolving of what we call career, and he quit his career as a lawyer.

In particular, I like Komisar’s definition of passion  that should not at confused with the new age-y approach of following your passion.

It is not about the passion, but about a portfolio of passion – don’t drive yourself crazy by trying to find THE passion once for all.

My personal portfolio had always comprised a whole lot – this blog has its name for a reason. Probably I will some day blog on all studies and master degree programs I had ever evaluated attending. When I was a teenager there were times when philosophy and literature scored higher than anything science-y.

So I had ended up in an obscure, but thought-after sub-branch of IT security. I have gone to great lengths in this blog to explain my transition from physics to IT. However, physics, science, and engineering never vanished from my radar for opportunities.

I wanted less reputation as the internationally renowned high-flyer in IT, and more hands-on down-to-earth work. Ironically, the fact that security is hot in the corporate world started to turn me off. I felt I stood at the wrong side of fence or of the negotiation table – as an effectively Anti-Security Consultant who helped productive business units to remain productive despite security and compliance policies. Probably worth a post of its own, but my favorite theory is: If you try to enforce policies beyond a certain limit, people will pour all their creativity into circumventing the processes and beating the system. And right they are because they could not do their jobs otherwise.

For many years a resource-consuming background process of soul-searching was concerned with checking various option from my portfolio of passions. I was looking for a profession that:

  • is based on technology that is not virtual, but allowing for utilizing my know-how in IT infrastructure and security as an add-on.
  • allows for working with clients whose sites can be reached by car – not by plane.
  • allows for self-consistency and authenticity: Practice what you preach / Turn your hobby into a job.
  • utilizes the infamous physicist’s analytical skills, that is combines (just anything): Theoretical calculations, hands-on engineering, managing the design of complex technical systems, dealing with customer requirements versus available technical solutions.

The last item is a pet topic of mine: As a physicist – even as an applied physicist – you have not been trained for a specific job. Physics is more similar to philosophy than to engineering in this respect. We are dilettantes in the best sense – and that is why many physicists end up in IT, management consulting or finance for example.

There are interdisciplinary fields of research that utilize physics via sort of mathematical analogs – think “Bose-Einstein condensation” in networking theory. According to another debatable theory of mine we have nearly blown up the financial system because of many former scientists working in finance – on the physics of wall street – who were more interesting in doing something that mathematically resembles physics than in the impact on the real world.

Solar collector. Image credits: punktwissen

Solar collector, optimized for harvesting ambient heat by convection in winter time. Image credits: Mine / Our German blog.

.

(3) And Now for Something Completely Different: Heat Pump Systems and Sustainability

Though am truly interested in foundations of physics, fascinated by the LHC, and even intrigued even by econophysics, I rather prefer to work on mundane applications of physics in engineering as long as it allows for working on a solution to a problem that really matters right now.

Such as the effective utilization of the limited resources available on our planet. Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist (Kenneth Boulding). I do not want to enter the debate on climate warming and I do not think it makes sense to attempt evangelizing people by ethical arguments. Why should we act in a more responsible way than all the generations before us? My younger self, traveling the globe by plane, would not have listened to that arguments either.

However, I think we are all – green or not – striving for personal and economic independence and autonomy: as individuals, as home owners, as businesses.

That’s what got me (us) interested in renewable energy some time ago, and we started working on our personal pilot project that finally turned into a research project / ‘garage start-up’.

We have finally come up with a concept of a heat pump system that uses an unconventional source of heat: The heat pump does not draw heat from ground, ground water or air, but from a large low temperature reservoir – a cistern, in a sense. Ambient heat is in turn transferred to the water tank by means of a solar collector. A simple collector built from hoses (as depicted above) works better than a flat plate collector that relies on heat transfer via radiation.

As with PKI, this is more interesting than it sounds, and it is really about combining just anything: Numerical simulations and building stuff, consulting and product development, scrutinizing product descriptions provided by vendors and dealing with industry standards. None of the components of the heat pump system is special – we did not invent a device defying the laws of physics – but is it the controlling logic that matters most.

I am going to extend the scope for combining anything even further: Having enrolled in a Master’s degree program in energy engineering in 2011, I will focus on smart metering in my master thesis. Future volatile electricity tariffs (communicated by intelligent meters) will play an important role in management and control of heat pump systems, and there are lots of security risks to be considered.

It is all about systems, interfaces, and connections – not only in social media and IT, but also in building technology and engineering. Actually, all of that is converging onto one big cloudy network (probably also subject to similar chaotic phenomena as the financial markets). I am determined to make some small contribution to that.

(4) Concluding and Confusing Remark

Now I feel like Achill and the Tortoise in Gödel, Escher, Bach(*) – in the chapter on pushing and popping through many levels of the story or the related dreamscape. I am not sure if I have reached the base level I had started from. This might be cliff-hanger.

(*) This is also a subtle tribute to the friend – and musician – mentioned above.

~~~

There should be an epilogue. Time-travelling back, from 2018, I am adding this comment. I think have never actually traded in anything for anything! Here I am, in 2018, and I am still doing PKI, in parallel to the heat pumps!

Recommended Listening: The Unemployed Philosopher’s Podcast

In 2012 I have shared some of my memories on career-related decisions and transitions I had made. With hindsight I can say I would not change a thing – but I would have wished that resources such as Dan Mullin’s Unemployed Philosopher’s Blog or Julie Clarenbach’s site Escape the Ivory Tower would have been available back then.

Comment from the future: Most links don’t work anymore and I don’t want to archive.org-avize so many links to a blog that the owner chose to “unpublish”. So do that yourself if you like :-)

Dan publishes podcasts on alternative jobs for academics regularly, mainly targeted to humanities graduates. However, I am always astonished by how well the advice and insights given by Dan’s guests would have applied to physics at the time I had graduated and would still apply – based on my anecdotal evidence from discussions on alternative careers in physics.

I like this Episode 6 in particular, as Julie discusses ‘career versus skills’ and the overarching but underestimated role of culture.
[Is ‘Episode’ alluding a bit to Star Trek? SCNR]

Above all, she encourages graduates not to be too modest and she tells you that some grieving and ‘panic’ is normal when you make a transition.

It’s simply good to know that a transition that might feel strange, alien and disturbing is very, very normal after all.

I would even extend the scope of this discussion and validity of advice to any major transition, that is associated with cultural changes – such as: leaving the global corporate world and turning to run a mainly local business, changing industry sectors, working self-employed after a longer period of employment or vice versa.

Almost There: Celebrating a Special Day

No, this does neither refer to the End of the World tomorrow(*), nor to Christmas, nor to the End of the Year.
(*) In 8 minutes in my time zone.

Since I have alluded to a ‘leap of faith’ and ‘passing through worm holes’ here or here I owe you a sequel. In a sense it is also a prequel.

I am celebrating an anniversary today: It has been the 20th of December 2003 when I travelled to Tenerife. Escaping snow, cold and Christmas-related rituals.

I had just finished one of those Need-to-be-done-before-Christmas-it’s-so-funny-to-spend-the-nights-in-the-office projects. At the airport I bought popular science magazines on quantum mechanics and the history of the Curie family.

Actually, I was embarking to another journey and slowly I am realizing today that I am almost there. Fortunately I have not known it would take to long, but I believe the journey has constituted a reward in its own right.

Meandering Paths. Tenerife.

Meandering Paths. Tenerife.

My visits to the Canary Islands have always been entangled with career and life decisions: I have been to Lanzarote nearly 20 years ago as a PhD student – when I was pretty sure I will not stick with academia forever. In Fuerteventura I recovered from having been promoted to my first management position and decided to return to the pleasures of working as a geek specialist soon.

At the end of 2003 it has been a year since I had started to re-read all my university physics text books and lecture notes again ‘for fun’. The pop-sci magazines were intended to serve as light entertainment on the airplane, but finally they triggered a process that could not be stopped ever since. I was determined to work my way back or forth from corporate global IT to physics and engineering. More than that I wanted to invent my own peculiar way of doing that – as explained previously neither academia or a corporate position were an option for me.

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Pine trees in Tenerife.

Actually, one of the outcomes of the Tenerife episode was an offer to work in a project on applied quantum physics shortly after my travel. Quite flattering, actually. But I declined after some sleepless nights and decided to stick with IT for some time (and gradually transform and control the way I work) instead of returning to postdoc life.

It took one more trip to La Palma the next year in order to finalize the next step – in our joint journey. We founded our company another year later,  focusing on some very specific fields in IT. Actually, the final preparation was done when traveling as well: We visited most of the villages and cities in Austria whose name starts with a ‘z’ – an idea created in the company of like-minded strange lifeforms. This trip had a surprising impact: Since the z criterion was so random you were forced to visit places neglected by tourists (Some villages consisted of a single street basically). And all of a sudden you realize how rural and down-to-earth the country is where you have lived – and how immaterial, weird and bizarre the world of global corporations seems to be. It was like Dilbert working on a farm – the ultimate outdoor experience.

Breakwaters. North of Tenerife.

Breakwaters. North of Tenerife.

Nevertheless, I spent some more years at airports, in chilled data centers, and steel-and-glass office towers, and air-conditioned hotels. But it was a tremendous improvement to work as a self-employed consultant versus working as an employed consultant: No more goals in terms of utilization and billable hours! Paradoxically, I did not work less, but I had the chance to say yes or no to every project request and I was able to become even more specialized in an area I had selected – instead of working on the projects that are on the table and need to be done to meet the numbers.

I was still reading physics stuff including really hard text books, but I admit I focussed on beating my own numbers every year. I am still proud of my achievements and in particular about the fact that I never did anything remotely resembling marketing. Unless you count ‘drinking coffee with old friends’ as marketing.

Mountains in Tenerife

Mountains in Tenerife

I was in Lanzarote at the beginning of 2010 – considering a career change really seriously, but not yet sure about how to start exactly. I had acquired a ‘licence’ as a ‘Professional Engineer in Applied Physics’ by the end of 2009 and we have started to tinker with an unconvential heat pump system.

Fast forwarding to end of 2010 – I was stressed and nearly burnt-out by the end-of-year deadlines, not so much by the work load but by what I called a lack of meaning. Suddenly I felt like the anti-security consultant who tried to help really productive people to get their work done despite security and compliance. Ironically, IT security was (and is) still ‘hot’ – I have been busy with declining project requests long after I had stated firmly I will not do this any more.

In December 2010 I would have loved to write a good-bye e-mail to all of my customers, but I was not ready for that yet. I left hints between the lines on some of my websites but nobody noticed. The difficult part in the decision was not about renouncing of future revenue, it was rather about disappointing all of my ‘fans’ who invented nicknames as ‘Grande Dame of PKI’ for me.

Then there was Easter vacation and accidentally I heard some stories about friends from friends who had been forced to change their careers – due to the economic crisis or health issues. And then I knew that my personal challenge was to initiate the change all by myself.

Natural swimming pool. Tenerife.

Natural swimming pool. Tenerife.

After having considered zillions of postgraduate studies since 10 years (incl. philosophy, computer science, mathematics, psychology, science communication) I enrolled for another master’s degree program in energy engineering immediately after Easter. Our personal heating system project proliferated into a research project. I informed all my customers, one by one, experimenting with the way I presented my story. I got amazing feedback and heard interesting stories of other IT people who wanted to do something else or who basically stated ‘Finally you are doing what you always wanted’. During the time I was already phasing out my IT activities I had a meeting with a new potential business partner nonetheless, playing my IT role for the last time (I thought). Months later I confessed to this partner and he told me right away that it was clear to him from our lunch small talk that my heart was in science and engineering. I could not even remember I talked about science with him.

So here I am: Aspiring consulting engineer in renewable energies, the transition period is going to end soon. The pilot system is doing fine and I am entering the final purt in the third term (of four) in my master’s program. I am delighted by feedback and questions from potential customers and partners – during the stealth mode period.

Wind Park in the north of La Palma (2004)

Wind Park in the north of La Palma (2004)

More often than not in the past I did not celebrate achievements or milestones, but rather executed the perfectly designed plan. I did not travel the world after completing my first Master’s or PhD studies, and between jobs I spent two weeks of vacation maximum. But this time I take every single step with utmost awareness.

__________________________

Further reading / context: Reading and contributing to discussions on www.physicsforums.com helped me a lot to develop my personal strategy. My postings over there allow for tracking the gradual shift in my attitude.