Change the World

In the midst of my current search for a job to serve as the basis of my Life after the MBA, one question has been weighing heavily on my mind: what is the best way to use my skills to do “the right thing”? I’m concerned my desire to “change the world” must seem suspiciously naïve, like the glassy-eyed answer of a Miss Universe contestant. But it’s still worthy of consideration.

In The Wealth of Nations, economist Adam Smith proposed that an “invisible hand” guides the market towards the best course of action, based on individual’s motivation to increase their personal well-being. Individuals in the market exchange goods of their own volition based on the benefits they receive from buying and selling goods, and therefore everyone wins. In this context, “the right thing” would appear to be making anything for which people are willing to pay. Free market rules, right? By this logic, any job for which I can get paid must be worthwhile to society, so I should quit my worrying and move on.

It seems simple, but there’s something wrong with this picture: people buy a lot of stuff from which they don’t really gain any real benefit, prodded by misinformation, celebrity endorsements and general consumer lunacy. In short, Smith’s “invisible hand” would appear to be missing a finger or two, allowing unproductive transactions to slip through its grasp and into the market. In addition, the “invisible hand” model fails to value the side effects of transactions which cannot be easily monetized. For example: when I buy gas from a gas station, both I and the station owner gain a benefit – I get gas (and access to convenient transportation), and the owner gets money for his product. However, the side-effect of this transaction to the environment is an un-priced externality – hence, the system is inevitably unbalanced: I buy more gas than I might if I had to pay the “true” cost of gas production and combustion on the environment.

In the context of this example, I think I’d rather be the guy building new engine technology to eliminate those un-priced externalities than the guy selling the gas.

Calendaring Hell

Further to my earlier rant on employment web sites, I have a beef with community association web sites. Every industry association, trade association, and online community inevitably has an event calendar. The problem is that there is no single source for event information within the Vancouver technology community (or any other community for that matter).

Now I’m not suggesting that it’s either possible or practical for a site such as BC Technology to scour every association and society’s event calendars, and screen scrape the data to get it into their own event calendar. That would be silly. However, we’ve got these new fangled com-pu-ters I’ve been hearing about, and the word on the street is that they’re pretty handy at amalgamating data on their own, provided you give them some common format for exchanging data.

Waitaminute. Computers? Data? Format? That’s sound suspiciously like a prime candidate for an XML application!

Imagine: You’re interested in the local tech community and you know a few sites that have information on the events you care about. Instead of surfing to their web sites periodically, wouldn’t it make more sense if you could simply subscribe to their event calendar from within your calendaring application (for example: Outlook). This syndication of event calendars would mirror the way RSS is currently used to syndicate blogs. The calendaring application would become an event information aggregator, thus freeing me from ever missing an event.

Of course, I’m not the first person to think of this. Those crafty people at Apple were ahead of the game, as usual, when they enabled publication of iCalendar files through their .Mac service. But they didn’t quite take it far enough and were, unfortunately, just too damn smart for the rest of the world to follow suit. Recently, others have started an XML calendar format based on RDF. Here’s hoping they succeed sometime soon, so I can start spending more time at the events than I do trying to find out about the events.

That’s With a Capital “E”

I was talking with Gordon Bird from the Advanced System Institute earlier today after his presentation to our MBA class. We got to talking about a number of thoughts that had been rattling around my head about the needs of technology entrepreneurs and how to promote entrepreneurship in Vancouver.

One of the popular ideas I’ve heard proposed by a number of business leaders: universities need to create programs that bring together students from business and science faculties. The hope is that would break down the traditional separation that exists between science and business both inside and outside academia, and poses a barrier to innovation. Collaboration would not only expose each group to each other’s expertise and vocabulary, it would also build mutual respect between the two parties, thus enabling students to build relationships they could leverage once they complete their degrees. In addition, bringing students together would also promote mingling between researchers from the different faculties (and their respective connections in the community), thereby further promoting a healthy environment for innovation.

Another idea in the theme of promoting collaboration: a service to match ideas with entrepreneurs with the capabilities to execute/deliver on those ideas. Ideas are dime a dozen, but the people who usually have the ideas are also the least likely to be able to act on them due their lack of access to the resources, expertise, or relationships required to transform the basic idea into a product or sustainable business. Think of the loss to our economy this represents – all because we haven’t created a system to “harvest” ideas and put them in the hands of those with the greatest chance of capturing the value in those ideas.

The question is: which organization should be responsible for developing such programs and services? Academia? Industry associations? Private companies? Again, the answer appears to lie in collaboration. Though individual organizations are already addressing some of these needs in their own way (for example: Zerendipity is attempting to provide entrepreneurs with the tools to find the expertise they need) no one organization in Vancouver has all of the requisite resources or expertise to pull off these types of programs. Sounds to me like what we really need is one of the big players in the local tech community to step up and coordinate a focused effort to “create” local entrepreneurs.

Job Search

We’re coming up to our break in between sessions in the final semester of my MBA program, so I’m starting to look around at where I can work once I’m done. I’m feeling less and less certain about which area I want to work in, but more frustrating is the six zillion different places to look for work.

In the past, I’ve always relied on job sites, such as Monster.com, Hotjobs.com, and T-Net, to find jobs. But in the time between my last job search and the present there’s a whole new crop of recruiting sites that have emerged: JobShark, Workopolis, CareerBuilder, Brass Ring, and numerous others. What used to be a simple way to identify interesting jobs and put your resume in the hands of potential employers has degraded to the point that the Internet recruiting sites are no more useful than the newspaper.

For example: for each one of these sites I need to input my resume; however, each one of these sites has a different way to input my resume. Some are simple, simply requiring me to upload my Word-formatted resume, while others require me to fill out a bunch of forms, and make selections from dropdowns. Can you say “time-consuming”? Not only that, each site offers diminishing returns for the expended effort – most of the sites feature the same jobs listings from either the same employer or the same recruiter.

What we really need is some kind of XML resume format that job-seekers can post on their web site or upload to job sites, and that search engines can easily index. This would allow employers to easily find potential employees. On the flip side, employers need some kind of XML job description format that job seekers can easily find through a similar search engine mechanism.

Of course, putting such a system in place would require tools to simplify the task for both parties. The system would also significantly reduce the need for these recruitment web sites; however, given their reduced ability to match jobs with job-seekers, is that really such a bad thing?

IT: The Electric Car

I stumbled across a neat electric car outside Urban Fare on the way to grab some dinner this evening. It is called, uh, IT, and it’s a sporty four-door Low Speed Vehicle made right here in BC by Dynasty Car Corporation.

I took some time to talk to the Sales and Marketing Manager, Richard Clarke, to get an idea of the car’s capabilities. In particular, the car:

  • Is built from glass-fibre
  • Has a top legal speed of 40kph, although it was unclear if this was the car’s top speed or the top speed the car is legally allowed to drive due to its classification as a Low Speed Vehicle
  • Sells for $20K

All in all, it looks like a nice unit but it still suffers from a few minor drawbacks:

  • Despite a fairly roomy area for cargo, a removable/foldable back row and front passenger seat would enable IT to carry a lot more cargo
  • The car is restricted to a maximum speed of 40kph on roads with a posted maximum of 60kph – and must have its hazard lights on, as well as a hazard triangle on the rear bumper. Additional crash testing is required to certify the car – something which is costly to obtain and might require something other than a glass-fibre body to guarantee certification.

What surprised me most: I’d never heard of these guys. On further consideration, I realized I had seen them in use around UBC by Plant Operations but didn’t realize it was a local company. Isn’t this the kind of thing that BC should be touting both domestically and internationally? Sometimes our desire to be polite seems to get in the way of us recognizing our own strengths – this kind of entrepreneurial company shows that BC kicks butt, and we should be giving companies like this the encouragement and support they need.

AOE II/Career Plan

In the race towards the end of this module of the MBA, I’ve been procrastinating with Ages of Empires II: Ages of Kings. Yeah, yeah, it’s an old game, but it fulfills the purposes of “wasting time” and “fulfilling my God complex”. Though playing the game is meant to be a distraction, I’ve been introspective: How I play the game seems to reflect the way I approach problems – and a big problem under consideration at the moment is where to go after I finish the MBA.

For those of you not familiar with the game: it’s your basic military strategy game in which you build a village, gain technologies, and defend yourself from an enemy. My usual tactic is to surround an area with a fence, and have my villagers work like mad to mine/harvest/log resources to climb the technology curve as quickly as possible. I usually create only a small military, just enough to fend off any enemy troops who choose to assault my city walls. It works pretty well, but it also appears to be a metaphor for how I have approached my career: go to school, get degree, work hard, get an MBA, et cetera.

The question is: how well will this incremental strategy work in real life, against real (human, not software) opponents?

For example, I’ve been thinking about eventually starting my own tech venture and working towards that in a methodical fashion. Though I could start something upon completion of the MBA, it feels like it would be better to return to the regular working world for a while. Part of this is driven by pure economics (I’d like to replenish my financial reserve) and part of it by my current lack of a solid business idea. Returning to the metaphor of AOE II: I’m choosing to develop the next round of technology and hoard resources instead of attacking the enemy immediately.

Am I being strategic, or risk averse? Is trying to return to PK3i a smart, logical move that will advance my business expertise and help build a track record that will serve me when I actually start something? Or is it me “playing safe”?

Death by Formatting

It’s closing in on the end of this module of the MBA, which means that it’s time for group projects to start amalgamating individuals’ contributions into final documents suitable for markup with red ink. On the one hand, I love the process of putting something together, smoothing out the “voice” of the document and creating something that not only sounds professional, but also looks professional. On the other hand, I hate dealing with writing by people who choose to torture the rules of grammar and formatting for their own sick pleasure.

First offender: the “two spaces” format. You know the format: two spaces after a period. Two! ARRRRRRRRRRRRGH! I know, I know, we all learned to write papers on typewriters, and so it was acceptable at the time, what with the lack of variable-width fonts. But come on people! Computer word-processing has been around for ages! Fixed-width fonts are out, hence there is no need to blow the finite number of keypresses left in your wrists on an extra unnecessary character. Don’t believe me? Then here: check out what the Chicago Manual of Style says on the subject.

Second offender: custom styles applied on-the-fly. I think some people spend literally hours deciding the format they want to use for a heading. Italic? Bold? Fourteen-point underlined Century Gothic? Here’s a hint: choose the preset styles from Word’s dropdown Style menu (“Heading 1”, “Heading 2”, etc.) – if you want to change it later, fine, at least it’ll be easy to apply the change to the whole paper. Stop your procrastination, your formatting masturbation, and get back to writing some, uh, whaddayacallit? Oh, that’s right: content.

And the list goes on: fictitious words (“irregardless”, I’m looking at you!), paragraphs that span several pages, changes in tense, et cetera, et cetera.

Of course, being married to a copywriter has a tendency to oversensitize one to poor English usage, spelling and grammar. Then again, I’m an engineer – if the stereotypes are to be believed, I’m expected to have poor written communication skills! So why is it that everyone else’s writing seems worse than mine?

Ultimate Chickens

It’s been a busy couple of weekends of practices, clinics, and games with our team for the Vancouver Ultimate League‘s fall schedule. The team name is a tip of the hat to our favourite sushi restaurant, The Eatery, we’ve dubbed our team “I can’t believe it’s not chicken” – a reference to Randy’s delicious tuna tempura creation.

It’s kind of good to be out getting exercise – I’m kind of out of shape, but not as bad as I would have thought. The game involves a lot of running and, unlike last year during C-Fest 2002, my knees and ankles are holding up well. I’m still trying to get the hang of the “throwing/running/catching” thing that some of the more advanced teams make look so easy, but I guess it’ll just come in time.

I’m actually enjoying the game quite a bit, which is odd. There aren’t many sports that I actually enjoy. As a kid I played soccer (though I think that only lasted for a season), and a teenager I rode my bicycle a fair bit and trained in Judo. But I’ve never really seriously done a team sport with a lot of running. It’s kind of neat. The whole “spirit of the game” aspect of Ultimate is quite appealing, especially when I suck so badly. Oh well, it’ll just take time and practice.

Diversity Philosophy Statement

As part of my MBA program, I took an organizational behaviour course called Managing Diversity. The course covered the challenges of creating a corporate environment that embraces diversity in all of its forms and enable the best employee and corporate performance. For one assignment, the course required students to create a personal philosophy statement to guide them in dealing with diversity issues they may encounter in the first place. The following is the personal diversity philosophy statement I submitted:

My personal diversity philosophy statement is simple, but requires an introduction to give it context. My statement is a quote from legendary jazz trumpet player Clark Terry, who once said the secret to learning to improvise jazz solos could be summed up in three words:

“Imitate. Assimilate. Innovate.”

Improvisation skills allow a jazz soloist to create melodies that fit a particular section of a piece of music. To create a solo that sounds “right”, a soloist must not only play notes that are compatible with the current chord being played by the backing musicians, but also transition smoothly between chord changes in the piece, all while maintaining or augmenting the piece’s rhythmic structure.

A good jazz soloist is not actually a solo player – the soloist is responsible for not only working within the tonal structure of the piece, but acting as a focal point for new rhythmic and tonal ideas that the musicians backing the soloist incorporate as the solo progresses. Hence, there is a strong parallel between a jazz soloist and a manager.

Managing diversity, like jazz improvisation, requires a manager to:

  • Imitate: In jazz, a soloist (as well as other members of the band) will first attempt to incorporate other musicians’ alterations to the rhythm and tonality of the piece by imitating the new rhythm or notes played by the other musicians. Similarly, a manager must incorporate ideas from individual members – the first step in being able to incorporate a member’s idea is to be able to accurately repeat the point of view or idea the members have presented.
  • Assimilate: In jazz, once the soloist understands what the other musicians are contributing by parroting their rhythm or notes, the soloist needs to consider the next chord changes in the piece. How can they build on these contributions? Similar, a manager must look at the ideas from different team members’ viewpoints and attempt to understand how to formulate a cohesive whole.
  • Innovate: In jazz, once a soloist has understood the individual changes each member has contributed, they use the amalgamated changes to build the next section of the solo. Similarly, a manager must take the individual team members’ ideas, their understanding of these individual ideas and viewpoints, and use these to create a plan to move forward to tackle the task at hand.

On the basis of this strong parallel, it seems only appropriate to adopt Clark Terry’s quote as my personal diversity philosophy statement.

Tired of Helping

Last week, I returned to school for the final semester of my MBA. Not one hour into the new semester, I received a deluge of email from people I hadn’t talked to all summer (or rather, hadn’t talked to me all summer) – all of them seeking technical assistance of one type or another. I like to help, but this is ridiculous.

Throughout this program, I’ve spent a lot of my personal time helping people with their computers. I understand computers are hard for a lot of people, so I try to help them when I can. Unfortunately, people started taking this for granted. I provided help with viruses. I provided help with using software and the network. I gave away software people needed to get their work done. When people called after 11:00pm and I was already in bed, I still got up and helped them. One time, I gave almost the entire class a piece of software required to create PDFs because some professor decided that PDFs were the only format he’d accept for electronic submissions. I wasn’t even in the class. Afterwards, about six people (out of 90 who downloaded the software) thanked me.

I’m getting tired of being people’s backup plan, their excuse not to figure things out for themselves. I’m tired of people’s inability to plan, learn, or read instructions. Professors seem to encourage this behaviour as well: Don’t have the assignment done, despite the fact that it was assigned five weeks ago? No problem! They’ll just extend the deadline a week, thereby screwing anyone who bothered to plan ahead and get the paper done in time! Yeah, that kind of lesson will really serve these MBAs well once they get out in the real world.

This kind of thing is wearing me down not just in school, but everywhere. It’s beginning to feel like my ability to get organized, plan, and think ahead are liabilities. It seems at every turn I get punished for being better. Take the MBA Bursary fiasco, for example: Part of my $28K tuition went to paying for bursaries so a bunch of people who didn’t get their finances in order before entering the MBA could have it a little easier. Didn’t bother to figure out what you wanted to do in life? No problem! We’ll just ask people like Brendon who bothered to get their lives in order to do more, or pay more to make up for your lack of planning!

Let me be clear: I want to help. I’m ready to help anyone who’s down on their luck, has tried everything and is in genuine need. But I don’t want to be exploited.