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. 🙂

This is Going to Hurt You More than Me

Greetings from the ending of a self-imposed blogging silence: I got the aforementioned email and am happy to state that I will shortly be joining Microsoft.  Sur La Table was very diverting and offered many challenges with respect to data, but it’s hard to pass up an opportunity to work in, and with, big data.

As a result of that interview loop, plus some interviews I did for an open position we have at Sur La Table, I’m here to write something Very Important: Don’t Lie on Your Resume.

Typically when I am called in to conduct a technical interview, I read the candidate’s resume, and then ask the hiring manager how technical they want me to get. If it’s me, and I’m hiring for a developer, I’m going to get very technical, and you’re going to spend 100% of your time with me at the whiteboard. If it’s for someone else, and I’m hiring for say, a PM, or a QC, or technically-minded-but-not-otherwise-a-developer role, I’m still going to test you on skills you state in your resume.

So when you tell me that you have a lot of experience with SQL, or that you’ve been using SQL for five or six years, I’m going to run you through the basics. Either of those statements will tell me that you know the four major joins, you know the simplest way to avoid a Cartesian product, you know how to create data filtration in a join or in a where statement, and you know how to subquery. I’m not even getting to more advanced parts like transactions with rollbacks, while loops, or indexing — the aforementioned list are what I would characterize as basic, everyday SQL use.

Imagine my dismay, then, as an interviewer, when after declaring (either verbally or on your resume) that you are a SQL expert, you can’t name the joins. Or describe them. Or (worse) describe them incorrectly. When you say you know SQL, and then prove that you don’t, it makes me wonder what else is on your resume that you “know”, that is less hard to prove (in the interview) that you don’t. The default assumption, for the protection of the company, is that your entire resume is a raft of lies. It’s the surest way to earn a “no hire”.

It would have been far better to state the truth: someone else wrote SQL scripts for you, told you what they did, and you were adept enough to figure out when there was a disparity in the output. That does not mean you “know” SQL, it means you know how to run a SQL script. This gives the interviewer an honest window and the ability to tailor your time together (remember, they’re getting paid by the company to spend time with you, if it’s productive it is not a waste of money) to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Having just been hired into a position that works with big data, where I was honest that the largest db I have worked in and with was about 3TB, I can attest that it’s really hard to have to look a hiring manager smack in the eye and say: “I have 90% of what you have asked for but I’m missing that last 10%”. It gives them the opportunity, however, to decide if they’re going to take the chance that you can learn.

If they’ve already learned you’re honest, then that chance-taking looks better in comparison.

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.

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.

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.

Welcome to Scottsdale

It had been a few visits here for me before I realized that Scottsdale is, in fact, its own city. The sprawl that is Phoenix stretches out for miles; if you fly in at night you are treated to a truly awe-inspiring stretch of lights. As “Scottsdale” is only 30 minutes from the airport, I had always taken it for granted that it was but a neighborhood. Soon however you notice signs that say “City of Scottsdale” and eventually, the “Welcome to Scottsdale” signs along the wide, clean freeways.

My parents moved here 3 years ago, after having lived in Washington for nearly 25 years. This place is as dry and hot as my adopted state is wet and cold: most of the year it is, and some of the year it isn’t. This time of year, it’s very, very hot. Two nights ago, the “low” was 92 degrees.

This temporal extremity leans to some specialized behaviors: stores and shops all have their AC up full-bore, so walking out of 110 degree heat into 70 degrees is a bit jolting. My mother ordered hot tea with lunch because the restaurant was so cold. Women wear sleeveless shirts or dresses, and shorts or capris or skirts; when they leave the car they reach first for their shades and the windshield shade, and second for a little sweater or wrap for once they enter the store. I’ve seen it. It’s real.

In Washington, after it rains, things smell fresh and woodsy; in Scottsdale, after it rains… I can’t quite describe it. It’s a vaguely grassy, musty smell. It’s not wholly unpleasant once you’re used to it. And when the sun comes out again, your first inclination (as a Washingtonian) is to run right out and enjoy it, after all, you’re looking through large picture windows at sunshine dappling on the pool, and hummingbirds flitting about. You open the door, go outside, and your face starts to flake off.

I will say this: the climate, however hot, does great things for acne, and hair that won’t behave. I can let my hair air-dry here without getting massive frizz. And thus far I haven’t gotten completely burnt. Or not much. Playing in a backyard pool for hours that is naturally at 90 degrees isn’t bad, either.

If you’re looking to visit Scottsdale and/or Phoenix in summer, I do recommend the following:

1. Pack a light windbreaker. It’s monsoon season, and so it “rains”. If you’re a Washingtonian you don’t probably care much about rain, but others seem to, so it makes them feel better when you have a light jacket.

2. Sunscreen. Spray-on, waterproof, and use it repeatedly.

3. Phoenix (and Scottsdale) have many GREAT museums (including the Heard, the Art museum, the Natural History museum…) and a wonderful zoo. It’s not just golf and desert hikes and great Mexican food.

4. Water. Drink lots and lots and lots and lots of water. Not from the tap. The water here is killer hard, so most houses/establishments have water softeners, which make the water taste like ass. So get bottled, or filtered water. No, I don’t know what ass really tastes like, so let’s just say I *imagine* that’s what it tastes like. Just read it as unpleasant.

5. The freeways here are wide, languid, flat things with lots of other people on them, who (for the most part) drive reasonably. But motorcyclists don’t have to wear helmets and they don’t always drive “reasonably” here. If you rent a car, note that, and also note that no matter how cool it seems outside, a shady parking spot will be worth a little bit of a walk.

6. If you play outside, or run outside (I don’t in the summer, the ‘rents have a treadmill), do it early and remember the altitude. Scottsdale is 632m (about 2000 feet), unlike my hometown of Sammamish, which is 9m (30 feet). It makes a huge difference in your cardio.

And, as you leave, note that the Phoenix Airport is truly crazily laid out, so if you have to return a rental car plan some extra time (especially as it’s a 20-minute shuttle ride from the rental car facility to the actual airport). If someone is dropping you off,  you need to know what terminal you’re at well in advance of airport arrival (or you will miss your terminal and do that never-ending-drive-around-the-airport-thing).  Finally, the TSA area has a dedicated family-friendly line — and they don’t care if your kid is 10. Just sayin’.

Urgent (?) Care

There comes a time in one’s life where one will find oneself in need of Urgent Care, but one is mindful of one’s health insurance and still has some steam, so one goes not to the ER but to, well, Urgent Care.

This is the predicament I and a friend found ourselves in last night, and went thusly to the Urgent Care clinic that is about 5 minutes from her house.

Now, to my mind, and I realize I’m picky, “urgent” means, “right now, or as close to right now as you can get”, and so I would imagine that all things that happen in an Urgent Care clinic happen “right now”, or at least with the attempt to make it as “right now” as possible. Urgent Care to me denotes moving quickly and with purpose, not frenetically but also not languidly.

In their defense, their doctor was very “right now”. My friend got a room, a bed, and within about five minutes an initial evaluation, some trial meds, etc. The Doctor Was Doing Something, and Doing Something Urgently. Check.

The front desk staff (and indeed, the telephone staff I called in advance) were Not Really Into My Definition of Urgent. As in, “Oh, if you don’t know her date of birth/social security number/mother’s maiden name/location of her baptismal socks” we can’t put you on the list of people we expect to see in the next fifteen minutes.”  As in, “Oh, you need directions to the ER we told you to go to? Here let us go to mapquest and wait, print, um, wait while I answer the phone, now wait some more while I attend to someone else, continue waiting as I pull the pages from the printer and carefully, carefully staple them together, etc. — and wait some more”. As in, after the doctor said to pull up and double-park so they could walk my friend out to the car, “wait a second while I look at you strangely whilst you are double parked, then wave in recognition, but continue to not go and get your friend because I totally forgot we said we were going to do that.”

My recommendation therefore is if you find yourself in need of Urgent Care, sick a friend on the front-desk staff and get yourself in front of the doctor. And then try to have the friend find decent parking in front. You know, so she’s not double parked, like an idiot.

Correlation & Causality: Why Money Won’t Drive an Economist, Exactly

In 1992, the beautiful notion that a bunch of disparate countries could get together and form an Economic Union came to pass: the Maastricht Treaty. Like a giddy young couple (well, this would be technically a plural marriage, but anyways…), the countries went to the altar, ’til death do they part.

Because, as is widely touted now, there was no exit clause.

This on its own is enough to give me pause: how, in this litigious, finance-driven society, can ANYONE go to the altar and not have a pre-nup? (No, I didn’t last time — there was nothing to ‘nup, to quote Kirstie Alley — but I will next time).  I get that it’s extremely unattractive to go into a marriage acknowledging the prospect of divorce, but the odds are not in your favor for success. (Nor are they in your favor for combined economies — see “Austria-Hungarian Empire”.)

Lack of forethought aside, someone has come up with a way to arrive at the solution: Simon Wolfson has created a $400k ($250 pounds sterling, 300 Euro) prize to the first person (likely Economist) to come up with a successful, practical way to exit the Euro. (He has a nifty title in addition to the money: Baron Wolfson of Aspley Guise). It’s the second largest economics prize in the world, behind the Nobel.

And here’s where things get interesting: if you read Drive by Dan Pink (or check out the RSA Animate if you’re averse to reading too much), you’ll know that heuristic tasks/jobs cannot, beyond a sustainable living salary, be rewarded via income.  That is to say, if you take someone and you give them an algorithmic task — follow process “A”, exactly — then you can monetarily incentivize them. If their task requires innovation, or creative thinking, though, a monetary incentive will backfire: their solution will be less creative and delivered under greater duress (and likely late).

So why offer a large monetary reward for what is absolutely certain to be an incredibly heuristic task? Clearly they will not be incentivized by the cash.

Best answer? Because they are incentivized by recognition — and this prize is, as stated, second only to the Nobel (one could argue you may win BOTH if you figure out how to do it elegantly). The money itself buys the recognition from people who would otherwise not ordinarily care *who* solved the problem. Think about it: if, some six months from now, someone in a government building figured out how to make this process work, you won’t care — if there’s no prize. The very existence of the prize, by virtue of its sum, is what drives the recognition, and in turn drives the Economist, or Economists, that figure this out.

Here’s hoping it works.

Show Your Work

I’m sitting at the dining room table with my son, answering work emails and working on a power point, while he does the 3rd grade equivalent: Math homework. Right now they’re making change (e.g.,” Jose walks into a store with $5 and buys a yo-yo for $2.58, how much change should he get? What’s the fewest coins he could receive?”) (My personal take is Jose shouldn’t be ripped off $2.58 for a yo-yo, that he could probably get a tall latte for that, but that’s another matter).

The problem we are currently facing is the predisposition to guess and/or intuit the answer. Whilst this works about 75% of the time — well, more like 83% of the time — the remaining 25-or-17% of the time it doesn’t. And he marks a wrong answer, and it gets caught in the check (read, Mom review).

Then begins the inexplicable cascade of numbers, Rainman-style, that come from my son: “42! 13! 79! No mom it’s really 12!”. And then I utter the dreaded phrase: “Show your work.”

My brother and I were raised by engineers — Gandalf help us — and thusly hated this phrase ourselves. We *knew* the answers, to sully the page with scribblings that were really academic — literally — to the proceedings seemed poorly required. Oftentimes we’d get grades come back with a B — A for accuracy, but alas we hadn’t shown our work. A deep and abiding distaste for the phrase “Show your work” started. To us, the ANSWER was the beautiful thing. Why show the bones of your effort?

As I progressed up the math chain — I can’t speak for my brother, as I wasn’t around much in his advanced schooling and he would have found me unbearable had I been — I discovered the grade value of “Show your work”. In calculus, and especially differential equations, showing your work can show how you were totally on the right track until step 34, when you saw a deer. Or something. All of a sudden your “C” becomes a “B” and when your GPA is riding on it, this becomes a Big Thing.

When you’re in grad school and you’re funding your GPA it becomes a Really Big Thing. The only class where “Show your work” was a detractant was the Legal Environment of Business, in which I kept confusing what was Right with what was Legal, and I got ding’d for “irrelevant ancillary notes” (true story). On the flip side, I’ve noted that the mark of a really, truly excellent lawyer is one who has the “Brief”, briefly, but with a million annotated facts and appendices, clearly marked, at the ready.

I sit here with my son, nagging him to show his work. He will totally thank me some day when he’s a lawyer.