A Letter to the Girl at the Gym, Going Back to CalPoly

Congratulations! You’re going back to Cal Poly!

Oh, I hope you don’t mind. David told me. David is my trainer, and your trainer, and as you’ve been training with him it will come as no surprise that he shared that. The fact that you and I don’t really know each other somehow makes this okay, but I’m still not sure how the social convention of talking about others works (when it is and isn’t okay), so just understand he is proud of you and that’s why.

He said you came back because you didn’t make friends and no one was particularly nice to you your first quarter.

Well, first, let me congratulate you again, and point out that you are making a financial decision that will last the rest of your life, and that we need more women in STEM, and that since the American schooling system is trained to either drop you out or send you to college (no trades-person training, which really should happen), you picked the best route, really. I’ll do you the credit to assume you knew that.

That said, a word about the friends thing: You’re not in college to make friends, and the deck was stacked against you.

To my first point: college is widely touted as this friendship-making, bonding experience that late teens/early twenty-somethings will have, filled with parties, alcohol, clear skin, walking to class in your pj’s, Ramen dinners, learning the physics of beer pong, etc. Every college brochure has the following 3 pictures among others: one pic of a beautiful college campus with architectural or landscaping feature, one pic of what a graduate of this college will look like (cap, gown, diploma, smile), and one pic — and usually several more — of groups of diverse young people with big smiles doing varying things in and out of class.

Take it from me: friends are what happen in between cramming for tests, running to class, and sleep deprivation. Friends *can* happen in college, but they are not part of the curriculum or contract  you (and/or your parents) are making with the university. Speaking as someone who attended classes where some of the constituents CRIED because they got a 95% (that’s crying with shame, mind you) — and the class was graded on a curve — college classes, and particularly STEM classes, are competitive. While it is possible to be friends and competitors, it’s a difficult trick and usually requires more experience than the school system arms you with. (Remember, from Kindergarten to 12th grade, we are all Special.)

Friends do not instantly appear as part of your dorm room provision, and in fact most people I know who did stay in the dorms avoided their dorm mates. Not that they were bad people, or anything, just not their type. Also, since college is a different psychological playing field than high school was, the criteria by which people group themselves together and socially signal is subtly altered. Wearing the right clothes or doing your hair the right way will not automatically identify you with some particular group that you can meld in to. You will find, I think, that this is a good thing.

Which leads me to my second point: you were going to have a hard time making friends. Everyone does, but you in particular will. First, I agree that it is unfair. Second, I will explain: you are a tall, athletic blonde, with fine features, and clear skin. You have the brains to get into CalPoly. You are, therefore, the subject of envy on two fronts.

Most of us who could get into CalPoly (and I say us because I didn’t apply myself — in both senses of the word — but had I –again, in both senses of the word — I would have got in) were the ugly ducklings of our high school. We had thick glasses and our skin wasn’t clear and we “geeked out” on things before being a geek became cool. (Wait, does that make us hipster geeks?) We spent our high school — and some of us, junior high — lives being either envious of your looks, your social sphere, and your choices; or being mistreated by you or people who look like you. (Example: it was one of “your” group in junior high who did the “finger test” down my spine to see if I was wearing a bra, and then announced it to the entire lunchroom.)  There’s an entire subsection of high schools everywhere of folks who were like me, who pretty much cried every day they had to go to school for a given period (in my case, about a year) because being a teenager is awkward enough but the additional unfairness that is heaped upon everyone in those times just makes it more so.

Imagine our distaste, then, when we find out you had brains, too.

Even if you weren’t one of the locker-room bullies, even if you were super-nice popular girl (and we had a bunch of those, too — and those are the ones I can be Facebook friends with now, actually, because they’re the same and I’ve grown up), we still were going to Go To College and Everything Would Be Better. We wouldn’t be judged on our looks and would only compete with our brains, and especially, especially at a technical college, our brains would be the thing most appreciated.

And now we saw you had them, too.

There’s going to be reticence. There’s going to be envy, and comparison, and competition, and it’s going to feel a lot like that first part of Legally Blonde where the two characters — the blonde one and the brunette one, I don’t remember their names but the brunette is considered more smart and less pretty, naturally — are in the thick of it and the smart, less-pretty brunette (I think the quote was “not entirely unfortunate looking”) is picking on the blonde. The real and perceived inequities of high school coming back and asserting themselves on someone who looks like, but isn’t, the person they had to deal with.

Totally, completely, and utterly unfair. In retrospect I agree. (Did I do this? No. I slacked off. It wasn’t a better solution.)

So I want to give you this advice, because it was hard to make friends for me as well — in junior high and high school. And, as I have the clarity of some years, this is the advice I wish I had gotten, and/or followed:

1. Remember where you are, and why you are there. It’s 3.67 more years to go, which is a comparatively small part of your life: treat it like a job. Learn as much as you can, get a decent GPA. Come home to the friends you’ve made here, but don’t be surprised if they change — or if you do. It happens.

2. Make friends outside of college. Join the gym there, or a club, get a part-time job at a place whose products you enjoy. Keep your college life, and your personal life, separate, at least at the start. You will find them slowly merging, and it may take a couple of quarters or a year, but if you don’t require it as an instant presentment you will be fine.

3. Get an internship somewhere. This will help you when you graduate to show practical work experience. It also shows you that most of the world operates differently from high school and college, and while it is not the utopia most of us thought college would be, it is far better than college was. You’ll learn about the difference in expectations of the corporate world and the academic world, you’ll learn the value of a well-timed coffee break or how to multitask in a meeting. Possibly more importantly you’ll learn if that is what you want to do when you get out of college, or if you want to pursue a more academic life.

As you left I heard you tell David you’ll be back in November, to visit for Thanksgiving. I’m looking forward to the update. 🙂

State of Education

I was born in California, and the first 12 years of my life lived there. The summer before my 13th birthday we emigrated to Washington, all six of us: my four parents, my brother, and I. Up until then we had gone to private school (in my case, religious private school) because my parents wanted to keep us out of the blackboard jungles of southern California.

When we arrived in Washington State the public school system was actually pretty darn good — the fellow students in my junior high were, for the most part, atrocious (as all junior high kids are) and my social register was somewhere beneath pond scum; but the educational offerings, while not as good as a private school, were pretty decent. My brother and I were as challenged as we wanted to be (which became “not much” and so between parent teacher conferences and report cards, the continual theme was “Bobbie could do so much better if she just applied herself”.)

As a twelve to seventeen year old student, I did not pay attention to educational funding or where public schools ranked within the state or the country; I wasn’t a taxpayer and I regarded school as a dismal use of my time (why couldn’t I just sit in a corner and read someplace?). When I finished college (the first time), left home to go create my own, and returned to the state with the intent to start a family, I still assumed Washington schools were “fine”, as they were when I was in school.

By the time my son was about 2 I was hearing, from the fellow mommy reports, that this was not so. Funding issues were brought to the forefront, and as someone who has voted in every election since 2000, I discovered a direct correlation with my vote and my taxes. I was paying for these schools now, so why was I hearing complaints from the field? Why were the local schools needing additional funding, seemingly each year, in the form of bonds and levies?

When my son entered Kindergarten, I resolved to be as involved in the school system as I could — PTA, volunteering, etc. Doing this as a single mother working full-time was difficult but necessary; there’s an unspoken “us vs. them” for the parents who contribute (in any form or fashion) vs. the parents who do not. This is not fair but it is true. With every PTA meeting and email from the school and school district, it became clear that as well-funded as our schools seem and ought to be, they are not. As we live in an area where the median house costs about $350k and nearly every high schooler drives his/her car to school, this is not what one would expect.

My son’s school — the one he is leaving — was built the year my brother was born. There are five or six portables that have been there at least twenty years, housing not only “electives” like music and computers, but also at least two grade-level classrooms. In my six-year tenure here, the PTA has paid for cement stairs and a ramp for easier access to the kindergarten area, fencing to protect the schooling area from bears and predators that walk on two legs (for we have had cases of child enticement), new landscaping, chairs for all of the classrooms, new sports equipment, stipends for the teachers annually to spend on school supplies, scholarships for children whose parents cannot afford the roughly $350/year in expected purchase of school supplies, materials, school party contributions, and field trip costs. That the direct community who benefits from this (parents of the local students) is the direct community who provides it, is a pleasant thing. The realization that we are fortunate and there are other schools in this district and throughout this state where they cannot hope to raise equivalent cash is not.

Washington state is unique in that it has a state constitutional mandate to *amply* fund education. Unfortunately it hasn’t and got sued (see the McCleary case) and lost in its own Supreme Court. Lawmakers are scrambling to figure out how, with the number of tax-reducing propositions on the ballot, they can achieve the now court-mandated requirement to fully fund education by 2018. This is not eased by Common Core State Standards (whether you’re for or against them — and my opinion is that at least there’s a standard now, even if it’s a low one — they do cost money in the form of teacher training, new materials, etc.). This is not eased by teachers unions (who fight legitimately for better benefits for people who are treated as babysitters and, for the most part, have the shittiest job around; on the flip side they protect those teachers who are not deserving of the pseudo-tenure said unions provide). I have participated in three ballot/levy votes here in our little area of Sammamish, including this last round. For this last round I knocked on 375 doors, I called 85 strangers, I emailed hundreds more. I wrote each week to the local newspaper to get them to print my letter urging constituents to vote, explaining the benefits of a properly funded and educated community to even those who do not, or no longer, have children in schools here. (I succeeded twice.) In this most recent effort, the operational expenditures the district needed to survive were approved. Our kids will have heat in their classrooms, they will have virus-free computers, they will have secure locks on doors.

But they will have this at 40 kids to a classroom, with some children being bussed in from 10-15 miles away, because the local bond initiative (to account for expansion) failed. We have a total of 300 brand new houses going up in the immediate area this year alone; the average house here has 4 bedrooms. The amenities keep expanding and City of Sammamish is spending a record amount of money on a local swimming pool and community center. If you want to go to a chiropractor, an orthodontist, a podiatrist, a personal tutoring service, a nail shop, a grocery store, a sports equipment store, or a gas station in Sammamish you have a choice of three of those (each) within a 3-mile-square area. What I do not understand is we fund all of these things through the local economy, and the demand is there for additional housing for families ostensibly with children– where are those kids going to go to school?

Already poorly-paid teachers, who will not be getting raises in exchange for some preservation of their retirement funds, will need to stretch their attention to an additional 10 or so students. The level of personalized attention is already small in a 30-student classroom (in elementary school, where that attention is needed as they build the foundations of study and learning practice). It will diminish that much more as the schooling populace swells. Sammamish, and the local school district, will not have the ability to put forth another bond measure for four years, meaning that the short-term decision-making of the paltry 34% of the populace that voted (yep, that’s right, only about a third of the voting populace voted, and while more than half voted for the bond, bonds require a supermajority (60%) which was not had) will have some long-term effects on the community as a whole.

I had been Legislative Advocate at my son’s Elementary school for five years. This last year, after the second failure of the bond (there was proposal A, and then when that failed a special election for proposal B), I gave up. It may be temporary, and I may just be suffering from fatigue of the situation; I increasingly feel that this society values an “every man for himself” view of education.

Well, if that’s how it’s going to be, that’s how it’s going to be. It’s just a sad state of affairs.

 

Be a Traci

Every year, about this time, I get a little hectic. I’ve decided it must be me, because every job I have had for the last ten years, regardless of industry or emphasis, seems to go absolutely crazy at this time, and it lasts right up until about Christmas or just before New Years’. In previous years I attributed it to planning, that process where you decide how much money a given individual is responsible for; in recent years I had attributed it to the frenzy of “finish what we said we were going to do by end of year”.

Now that I am in a Retail Organization, I realize that I was but a Baby Developer/Analyst and had No Idea what the Real World was like.

I am finding comfort, and redoubling effort, in light of something I learned at my old job: Be a Traci.

To explain:

Each year, at this time, in my old job, I was part of a process in which we divided up something on the order of 1 or 2 Billion Dollars (it changed over the years) to 8 or 12 individuals, in terms of responsibility for the coming year. In short: Jane Roe, Jon Doe, and George Smith, you are now responsible for $1bn/x for the next 12 months, and if you don’t generate that cash volume in your area the Whole Company will look down on you with a mixture of derision, pity, and disgust.

As you can imagine, having someone (especially a Dev Manager) tell you “Here is your number, based on my Excel spreadsheet and near-sociopathic bent for analytics, have fun with that”, is not fun. I got a reputation for being “apolitical” and someone took me aside at one point to tell me that “No and no” was not a reasonable response to email.

However, the mitigation for this at the time was to get all 8 or 12 people into a room, for 8-10 hours, with me, a laptop, a projector, and dubious catering service. In that meeting each person would grab their PowerPoint and their skills in persuasion to indicate to the VP’s that Be why they should be able to put 10, 20, or 30 million dollars back in to the pot. After two rounds, I could tell you, in advance, who was going to sandbag, who was going to like it and lump it, and who was going to knock it out of the park.

Traci always knocked it out of the park.

I met Traci formally in Las Vegas during one of these meeting events, she was responsible for San Diego and was an up-and-comer. Traci was a Manager at the time and therefore a bit more down the hill that these monetary expectations rolled down. The next year, though, she was one of the 10, and she grabbed her Power Point, her very cute shoes, and her Excel Spreadsheet, and did something remarkable:

She accepted her number, and said how she’d do it.

Her number that she was allotted was audacious. It was not easy. I remember thinking she had to have balls of solid steel to accept it, and this was in a meeting where at least three other people who had been Directors, longer, put money back on the table. She didn’t act overzealous, she admitted the number was aspirational, but she detailed her plan.

She made her numbers.

She made her numbers every year for five years.

She has been a VP for three years running at a Fortune 500 company,

When there is a problem to go solve, they send Traci.

And every time, she rises to the occasion, grits her teeth, and gets it done. In cute shoes.

There are relative few heroines for women in the working world, apologies to Sandberg and Mayer. The fact that I can only think of two off the top of my head (without getting political) is sad (note: I have a whole blog post about Lean In coming). And the fact of the matter is, Traci and I are worlds apart in the actual work we do.  But I cannot forget her tenacity, and I cannot dismiss the infectiousness of her attitude.

Traci once had a long conversation with me about the 20-odd ways there are to say “No”. I like to say “No” the way I learned to: “No”. But in modern business, you need to say “No” without actually saying it: “I need to review our resources”, “Perhaps XYZ tactic will work better”, “I will take that back to management and we can review”, and so forth. It was one of the best lessons I had ever had in management, and I use it to this day.

So these days, when I feel overwhelmed and like the Powers That Be are dumping more on to my plate than I can handle, I remember Traci, and that meeting in Vegas. I’m armed with my Excel spreadsheet, and my Power Point. Now all I need is cute shoes.

Economics and the Power of Hindsight

I recently found myself on a direct flight, courtesy of Delta, from JFK to Seattle. Having thrown out my back (technically dislocated two rear ribs), and not slept well the night previous, I was tired and cranky as I checked in. For most travelers, checking in means using a kiosk or online app, which in turn peppers you with questions like “do you want to check your bags?” and “do you want to upgrade your seat?” As I had arrived at SeaTac on the way to JFK in pretty much the same state, I made some fiscally dubious choices on the way out, and on the way in. Here you get to learn from my mistake(s).

First, the way out: it was 5:30AM when I got to Airport Road and my flight left at 7am. I did not intend to check my bag, so that was a blessing, but I figured security would be awful (I was proven right). Therefore I opted to park at the airport rather than offsite as per usual, saving me the shuttle ride to and from the airport but costing me (it turns out) about $36 more for this trip. The verdict? Nice, but not worth it. It was nice not having to hassle a shuttle ride, and being able to pay a machine on my way to my car and just drive away, but it wasn’t $36 nice and I would’ve made my flight despite the long security line. I didn’t check my bag and I had already checked in online the night before.

Now, on the way back: it was 4:30AM when I arrived at JFK and had 3 hours to kill. My back was aching and my sleep had been nonexistent, and so I both checked my bag ($25) and upgraded to Comfort Economy (or Delta’s equivalent), for $39. (NB: each time you use the kiosk to do a transaction, you run your card for EACH PART of the transaction and get a receipt for EACH PART of the transaction. Not efficient.) The results on this are mixed: the bag check was totally worth it: for the remaining 2.75 hours I had post-security, I didn’t have to lug around a heavy bag (just a heavy laptop) and it was one less thing to have to manage from seat to coffee shop to seat to other coffee shop (there’s not a lot to do in JFK at 5am). I didn’t have to fight anyone for overhead bin space and could plop right down into my seat. Verdict: worth it.

That said, “Comfort” Economy is a joke. I had a window seat, which should have been a lot more comfortable, but it wasn’t. My knees hit the chair in front of me (I am 5’10” in flats) and the seat appeared as narrow as the “regular” Economy seats. The sole nod to comfort that I could see was that the attached-to-the-seat pillow was slightly plusher and of a lighter color leather. For $39 I wasn’t expecting first class, but an inch or two more of legroom and a nicer chair would be good. Verdict: so very not worth it.

Delta has free-first-bag bag check with certain levels of flight status/mileage membership and/or their credit card. I get a similar deal on United and it’s nice.  The question becomes if I’m willing to pay $25 for the privilege of checking my bag, would I pay the same (or more) for guaranteed overhead compartment space?

Experiential “Spending”

Because I have, at one or two points, ordered something online from Athleta, I receive a catalog roughly once every three weeks from them. Because I have, at one or two points, ordered something online from Athleta, I also receive catalogs regularly from Title Nine and assorted other Look We Are Women Who Work Out And Yet Can Be Fashionable In A Really Sporty Way catalogs.

The Athleta catalog arrival in my house is met with trembling perspiration, as I tend to like the cut of the fabric and most of the designs even if I am not the highly-muscled size two twentysomething that graces each page. (The highly-muscled size two twentysomething comes in a variety of skin tones and hair styles but basically if you put them in greyscale and blocked their face and hair they are the same human). It usually results in me rationalizing the purchase of a sweater, a skirt, a top, etc. (usually just “a” thing) that I normally wouldn’t spend that much on. It also serves the same purpose as the gym membership: if I’ve thrown money at it, it clearly must be something I am doing and therefore I too can be a Woman Who Works Out And Yet Can Be Fashionable In A Really Sporty Way, if not a highly-muscled size two (almost) fortysomething.

(Anyone unfamiliar with the Athleta catalog should probably also know that most of the models in the clothing are NOT just standing looking cute. Usually they’re doing instructor-level Yoga poses, sometimes, you know, balancing on their head, or folding themselves into a pretzel. Or they’re actually running on a beach. Even their sweat is cute.)

This particular catalog has sat in askance at my chair side for about six days, with dog-eared pages indicating the latest Shiny Thing I Want To Spend On. And, like every other time, I’m obsessing over what will ultimately be a relatively harmless expenditure (call it about 2 weeks of skipped latte’s). This is because I am remodeling my kitchen.

For the analyst, any home improvement project is an invitation to insanity: you start at the project with very specific quotes, measurements, appliance model numbers, and expectations. And then, as each week unfolds, you find out you need another electrical outlet (so the price goes up) or that particular range does not have the expected rebate (so the budget goes up) or you waited too long to reply to that one email (so the project extends by three weeks) or you didn’t take into account that the flooring needs time to adjust (so the project extends by four more days). You also realize that everything in the kitchen needs to be packed up.

I have a roughly 7×10-foot kitchen, U-shaped, with about 20′ of linear cabinetry (if you add top and bottom), plus a pantry. I have also had a thing for cooking for slightly under 20 years. Ergo, I have a LOT of kitchen stuff: in packing my kitchen up (something not done in 9 years) I discovered I have not one but TWO ravioli rolling pins, a rice cooker (I have been cooking rice on a pot on the stove for the last 9 years), 5 jars of cumin (??), and a truly impressive collection of cookie cutters. That, plus everything else (minus a few plates and a cutting board and basically the kind of reserves you’d make for such a project), is now boxed up in my study. Every item that was packed (for the most part) incurred a fleeting thought of 1. what was I thinking when I bought this, and 2. have I actually ever used this (I have two mushroom brushes, I am not kidding), and 3. what can I do to make sure I don’t actually spend money on something I am not going to use?

I recently read “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending” and it (like every other book that offers financial advice) pretty much nails non-necessary expenses (e.g., discretionary expenditure) as a permanent exercise in opportunity cost analysis paralysis. I can, for example, obsess endlessly over whether or not I will be buying the super-cute boots on page 48 (I’m not) or what I could do with that money instead. The argument of this particular book is that if you’re going to spend the money, it is better spent on an Experience than a Thing. To wit: you can buy the boots but what kind of experiences will you have in those boots that you cannot have in other boots/shoes/footwear, and instead what kind of experience can you buy for $180 plus shipping and handling? Or, in my case, will it buy me a faster, quieter vent for the kitchen (a thing) that means I can actually cook AND hear my son talking to me (endless experience)?

The problem with a remodeling (or moving) exercise where you are required to look at your past purchase history and review each item (I have enough wine stoppers to stop the wine in an entire case) is that you realize you didn’t have this discipline in your younger years and now there’s a strong urge to hypercorrect in your more mature present. For a consumptive and excessive youth there is a penurious and stringent old age. This is antithetical to what most consider retirement and/or the higher-earning years: in my parents’ generation it was starve now and play later, which has (appropriately) afforded them lovely retirements (case in point: one set of parents is in Europe for 7 weeks).  And suddenly, those words of caution they offered when you were spendthrift in your twenties make sense.

All from a 72-page Athleta catalog, provided for free. That’s an entertaining experience.

Yes, It Was The Right Choice

Five months ago I accepted a new job with Sur La Table. I had spent nine years at Expedia doing a variety of things, and learning a tremendous lot, but it was definitely time to move on and be the “fresh blood” somewhere else. As I gleefully told my family, friends, and professional associates of my move, I got mainly 3 reactions:

1. That’s great… what do they do again?

2. That’s great… wait, you’re moving from Director to Manager?

3. That’s great… are you making more money?

I can sort of see the first reaction, if you’re talking to someone who’s not in one of the 27 states that SLT operates in, and/or you don’t cook. (I am not judging.  Yours truly has a few friends who know an awful lot about food but you shan’t let them in the kitchen). The other two have been reiterated so often that I figured I’d just answer them here, and then point people to it.

1. Sur La Table (www.surlatable.com) is a store, and site, for cook’s tools and entertaining. That’s it. You are not going to find beekeeping outfits, a large selection of scented candles, ironing boards, etc. You are going to find a wide selection of knives and people who can tell you how to use and care for them, because they know. You are going to find a variety of stove top cookware, in a variety of materials and colors, and any one of the people wearing a Sur La Table apron can tell you, depending on YOUR cooking style and YOUR stove what will work for YOU. In more than half of the locations you will find a roster of classes you can take that will teach you everything from how to use your knife properly to how to make homemade pasta to how to do five recipes on one grill for six people.

2. Yes, I moved from a Director to a Manager. Specifically the course was Director of Business Development to Director of Content to Applications Development Manager. And here’s your first clue why “different” does not mean “downward”: I went from what was essentially inflated project management (with a bit of ability to direct the change that instantiated the project) to Operations management to development management. With each step the skill set gets broader, and deeper. Project management is about managing people you don’t technically manage, Operations management is about managing people you manage and managing by proxy.  Development management is all of the above and now you get to speak two languages: business and technology.

I could go on: development offers a chance to actually BUILD THINGS, the reality that a Director at Expedia is not equivalent to a Director at Microsoft is not equivalent to a Director at Sur La Table, in either breadth of responsibility or in terms of compensation. And frankly, I’m mercenary enough to be happily titled the Hobgoblin of Object Oriented Programming if they pay me enough, which leads us to…

3. Yes. I mean, I can offer the logic that benefit packages from Company A to Company B require careful weighing and measuring, and that there are quality of life trade-offs with commuting time, etc.  But any way you slice it, frankly, the answer is yes. Anyone who tells you that “Retail” is this or “Technology” is that is at best over-generalizing and at worst missing opportunities.

None of this answers the question, four (working) months later, of “Are you enjoying it” and the answer is an unqualified YES. Do not get me wrong, there have been seriously frustrating times. Sur La Table has been around since the 70’s but its growth pattern is such that it *feels* like a start-up, with all that that entails. Development has to run quickly and there is enormous demand for my department, which leads to both the wonderful sensation that “we can DO this” combined with “OMG how are we gonna do this??” There’s a bit of “hey let’s go down this path… no wait that path… no let’s go down the first path” that you see in nascent organizations, and for someone who was at a company that went from start-up (well, close to, it was about 4 years in) to Mature Large Company in my tenure, there’s the urge to be much farther along the development path than we are.

Then again, it affords me (us, really) the opportunity to be there to make the changes that need to be made, and build the cool, fun stuff that needs to be built. That, by far, is the best reason.

Kitchen Witchin’

About three weeks back I showed up at the Sur La Table in Kirkland, bright and ready, for my cooking class at 10am.

Only to discover I am, in fact, a total dork and I had signed up for the 1:30pm class. (Disclosure: I work for SLT, which was only part of the reason I was there.)  The instructor for my class happened to be there and knew, without checking a list, that I was in the class. She also knew the names of my friends in the class. As well as the other 6 participants.

That’s pretty impressive.

After going home and puttering a bit, I returned for my class: “Everything on the Grill”. The class was $69 and included about 2 hours of instruction, as well as the food itself (you get to eat what you have cooked when you are finished), and a printed copy of the recipes (no note-taking required).

We arrived and sat down, where we were handed aprons, name tags (with our names already on them), the printed recipes, and a discount card for any purchase we made that week. And then our instructor, Nicole, started talking. (Nicole was flanked by two kitchen assistants, whose very job it seemed was to make sure we didn’t have to do anything so “icky” as wash something, or fetch our own coffee. They also had tons of tips to hand out.)

Nicole walked us through how the class would proceed, and then started in on the first recipe. (Recipes included grilled kale and nectarine salad, a grilled asparagus-onion-tomato-corn salad, and marinated pork chops. Dessert was grilled lemon poppy seed pound cake with berries. No I’m not sharing the recipes unless you come to my house).  My teammates were actually my former boss and my former skip-level, and, having been conditioned on how best to work with me, were full of verbal praise. (I’m actually pretty mercenary, but verbal praise works best between review periods).  It did get a bit embarrassing though and I had to ask them to knock it off. I felt like “that” kid, if you get my drift.

The format of the class is very hands-on. You chop your own stuff, you juice your own fruit, you place your own food on the grill, you take it off, you test for done-ness, and you eat it. I learned a new way to hold my knife (and chop onions faster), a quick trick how to slide cherry tomatoes en-masse (actual quote from my friend Sharon: “this is worth the price of the class ALONE!”), how to tell when asparagus are grilled just enough, and that you oil the food and not the grill.

And then? Then I tested it out on friends. And their relatives. In my house.

They did not die. Despite his disinclination to tomatoes (and kale), the male person ate heartily. Doubles were had on dessert (which I modified to be angel food cake, and that grills up just fine). And I was informed that the pork marinade should be put into the “regular rotation”. All in all, a success.

Still, I can’t help doing what I tend to do with recipes. After I made it at home, I reviewed some parts and decided I’d change this-and-that, tweak it here-and-there. But that really is part of the joy of cooking.

Summer

School is OUT! I fondly remember, as a child, waiting anxiously for this day to come, and revelling in the ten (or was it twelve?) weeks of summer. Summer, in my case, was summer camp, at the local YMCA. This was in California, and so I spent every day in the pool, if we weren’t going to Disneyland, Magic Mountain, Knot’s Berry Farm, or into the mountains to hike. Every summer I got a wicked burn, then a wicked tan (for those who know me today: yes, it is possible. I have proof.) At the end of camp in 4th grade I broke my arm skateboarding, at the end of camp in 6th grade I had a “boyfriend”. We held hands.

School seemed an interminable period of judgement, testing, studying, and BORING things. Fun fact: I like learning now, I did NOT like learning then. I have dozens of saved report cards from my formative years informing my parents that “Bobbie could do so much better if she just applied herself.”

When I hit 28, I was in full-on baby-mania. Actually, that’s not quite accurate, I was in “have a kid, change my life” mania. It wasn’t just the “baby” I wanted; I wanted the 9-year-old telling me he forgot he needs to bring 2 dozen cupcakes (the morning he needs to bring them). I wanted the cramming for the SAT’s, and the first trip to Disneyland, and reading books goodnight. And I felt sure that when I had a child, what with my academic-leaning parents, I too would become an academic-leaning parent and come to see the value of school.

It is therefore with a mixture of embarrassment and wonder that I report that while I do truly cherish the value of school, and I am that academic parent (that was me, putting my kid in tutoring), I also could not wait for summer. Because it meant a reprieve.

A reprieve from parent-teacher conferences, from enforcing homework revisions, from watching the frustration on his face when he didn’t get a concept or (in the long tradition of my family line) didn’t get it exactly perfect the first time. (He carries that trait to everything, skateboarding and electric guitar have been recent lessons in “no one is perfect the first time”). It’s a reprieve from emails from the teacher, from looking for lost hoodies in the Lost and Found, from waiting for the June Box (items taken by the teacher go into a box and are retrieved… in June), from nights filled with homework, projects, and the dutiful requirements of school.

By the time the end of August rolls around I will revert to the feelings of my youth and delight in back-to-school shopping, even if my son doesn’t. I will feel re-invigorated and redouble my PTA efforts, all the more excited as this is our last grade school year (and I’m chairing the Science Fair). I will be all excited again.  And the boy… the boy will have had ten weeks of fun, and sun; he will have a wicked tan (bless his Father for giving him better skin than I had, the kid does not burn). Even he will be looking forward to school and seeing his friends on a more regular basis, if not the excitement that being a 5th grader (and therefore, top of the heap) brings.

But here we are excited and grateful, officially, for summer.

Dabble, Dabble, Toil and Babble

“Your biggest problem”, he stated flatly, “is you’re a dabbler. You don’t specialize in anything. You are not going to succeed because you do not focus on a given talent; you just dabble in this and that.”

This was actually stated, to me, in a 1:1 with my boss at the time. He was a financial services guru and I was his personal and executive assistant, so assigned because I was technically inclined and could type fast. In short, I was good enough to be his e&pa because I dabbled.

Despite initial reaction, this was meant to be a positive speech: it was going to Incite Me To Action and I was going to Make Something Of Myself. Instead, I quit the job, moved back home, and dabbled some more.

I dabbled my way into SQL.

Then I dabbled my way into ASP.Net. Then I dabbled into VB.Net.

Then I dabbled into SQL some more, and into project management. And the dabbling continued, through business development, communications, operations, and back into development (but C# this time).

“Which one of your degrees does this job come from?” wondered my stepmom one night in Spring when I told them I had acquired this one. “None of them!” my dad said wryly.

My old boss is correct: I am a dabbler. None of the things I have done, have I truly specialized in. There are better people at SQL out there than I am, there are certainly better people at .Net and BusDev. But there are damned few who can speak those languages and are willing to translate them, painfully, carefully into shiny PowerPoints and ROI-laden SWAT analyses.

A few months back I had my midlife crisis, it lasted 36 hours and was of the vein  of “what am I DOING with my life? Where will I go next?” And I realized that every other time in my life I’d been faced with that question things unquestionably got better, more exciting, and more rewarding.

I have friends who went to college for what they ended up being in life, they seem happy and fulfilled. I have friends who picked a field and stuck with it, and will have a decent retirement to speak for it. My own parents offer four different examples of picking a road and trotting down it come hell or high water and they’ve all done fine.

I do not believe, though, that diminishes any success by a diagonal route.

Owning Your Data

I realize I’m terribly late to this party. I’m not even fashionably late, I’m “you arrived just as the caterers were cleaning up and the hostess had taken off her shoes” late. I’ve been busy (as, I think, I’ve amply covered).

However, I really must say a word or two about Reinhart and Rogoff.

For those who don’t follow economics or kinda remember they heard about it but aren’t sure what the big hullabaloo is, I recommend you google it; look for the Economist, the Guardian, and the Atlantic non-editorial resources to start. There’s a few. Then you can go off to the editorials for dessert. For those who don’t want to google, here’s the Twitter version: Two economists present a work in which they suggest that there is a deep drop off in economic performance without austerity measures. Essentially they said that when debt is high, growth slows to a grinding halt; the graph they presented roughly resembled the cliffs of Dover.

And it was wrong.

Because of an Excel spreadsheet formula error.

Normally this wouldn’t be awful. Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who has used Excel to convey data (or volumes of analysis) has made that spreadsheet error, and it can be as simple as not properly conveying a Sum formula, or as complex as messing up your Vlookup in your nested IF statement. Excel has been bastardized over the years into an analytics function (by courtesy of default in that it’s on nearly every machine) that it really can’t fully accommodate without failsafes; EVERYONE makes an Excel error.

Reinhart and Rogoff’s mistake is NOT that they made a spreadsheet formula error. And, contrary to the article above I linked to, it’s only partially that they did not peer review.

It was governments’ (plural, many, varied) mistake to use it to shape policy.

Lookit, suppose I told you that, according to my Excel spreadsheet, you were very likely to die from dehydration if you didn’t eradicate all but 0.4 grams of salt per day from your diet. For perspective, the average diet has about 5 times that. You would very rightly look to other studies, other data, other sources of information. You’d poll your neighbors. You’d check with friends. You’d do your due diligence before you used my say-so, no matter how shiny my Excel spreadsheet, or even how shiny my MD would be (this is fiction, after all).  Plenty of people are told by their doctor to lose 10lbs because it will make a difference in the long run, and plenty of people seem to blithely ignore it because they don’t have corresponding (personal, attributable, anecdotal) data.

So why, why, why did any government, financial body, fiscal institution leap on the screeching panic train when R&R’s study hit?  Why did no one look to a 2nd opinion, a different study; why didn’t they check the data for themselves before subjecting their economies to the fiscal equivalent of a rectal exam?

I have been in data now for 15 years. It’s not a long time in the scheme of things, but it’s something I’m known to be passionate about. I can go on and on about how data works, or doesn’t; what you can derive from it; how data *is* integrity if done right. Any form of analytic reporting that is worth its salt has been tested, peer-reviewed, and validated against two or three other methods before it is used in a practical space. At Expedia, at one point, I managed 500 ad-hoc requests per month, and each of those was eyeballed against existing reporting and a decent sense-check before being used to cut deals (or not).

Now, please understand: R&R screwed up. And, apart from their formula error, they insist the outcome is the same (and it is, but it’s the equivalent of saying “ok it’s not a steep drop off anymore, more of a speedbump, but still it’s a delta!!”). This is the foible of the data monkey; again, something we’ve all been prey to. But not all of us have done it to the culpability of large (and small) governments, and most of us have learned to admit when we’re wrong. That is the crux of it: if no one is perfect, no data is perfect, to pretend yours is against evidence to the contrary is specious at best and negligent at worst.

I argue though that the more egregious mistake is to *follow* that data without validation. To quote Ben Kenobi: “Who’s more foolish, the fool, or the fool that follows him?”