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Burning Lights and Falling Stars (2019 Review)

When I look back on 2019, what first comes to mind are a number of protracted struggles. These spanned a broad range of issues, from work to philosophy and from finance to logic. This was probably either the toughest or the second toughest year I’ve had since I moved to London. It’s comparable to 2016 (with MCMAS and Palantir work in parallel, and then TimeLock): in both cases I think that I’ve grown and learnt quite a fair bit over the course of the year, probably more than in other years, but also that this generally isn’t a long-term sustainable pattern.

Software Engineering

The early part of the year involved finishing up work done last year on Transactions2. This project was generally successful, though more painful than expected. There were a lot of weird bugs that took quite a lot of iteration, and since the previous dev lead with whom I worked with on this project left the team and these involved pretty deep technical knowledge it would have been very costly to ramp anyone else up. Delivery could have been improved with a bit more careful project management/planning, but in terms of technical execution I think I performed at or slightly above my personal bar here.

I became a tech lead in March and then a more general team lead later on. A lot of the year involved me trying to get comfortable with the roles; it was a conscious decision to focus more on that as opposed to further refining technical execution of individual projects.

The former focuses on making architectural decisions, prioritising feature and support work, being a representative of the team at higher-level meetings, and being responsible for communicating thoughts and ideas with other teams. The first two things I think were expected to go mostly smoothly, and did: I already contributed to quite a bit of these while “strictly” an IC, and I definitely consulted the leads at the time and then jumped in on things I thought were more important than the work I was originally planning on doing. I maintain a lot of context on what’s going on on the team and product, and am aware that my input on these is valued quite well. The latter two also turned out to have worked better than I expected, in that feedback has generally been positive with regard to communication and argumentation. I also don’t think I’m where I’d like to be with regards to coming up with ideas for things to do (as opposed to, given a list of features, filter them for feasibility/benefit and then prioritise them) though there are of course support structures for that.

The latter role seems to also involve project management, and developing other members of the team to become stronger engineers. This hasn’t gone as well. I think it’s not so much a question of not wanting to do it or investing in it, but instead not being efficient by making an invalid assumption that others would follow the same growth path as me (which is basically mostly by absorption and from figuring things out as they come up). That by itself is maybe reasonable in terms of expectations (I think it worked very well in my case), but I took a long time to course-correct. It looks a bit ironic that why I took a long time to course-correct was because my bandwidth was strained on a lot more pressing things because I felt I needed to handle them directly, and the antidote to that is scaling myself by investing in team members’ growth.

I continued to work on some technical projects throughout the year, though not as intensely as in 2017 or 2018 probably by design. I’d probably say that the highlights were the two hackweek projects that I did. The Summer project is going into production, and involved careful reasoning through the AtlasDB development stack. The Winter project came with a bit of a pleasant surprise: my efforts on being thoughtful about interviews landed a runner-up for use of tech, which I really wasn’t expecting; I did the project more because I saw a relevant need.

Recreation and Personal Development

A fairly common theme here is skill development – there’s some evidence of this in terms of Sudoku and German, both of which are things I spend a fair bit of my free time on.

Sudoku and Logic Puzzles

I set a goal to achieve a global rank in the top 100 of the World Puzzle Federation Sudoku and Puzzle GPs. This was achieved in both cases: I finished with rank 66 in Sudoku and 92 in Puzzles. The contests run monthly (I think it’s actually every 4 weeks) from January to August.

Each Sudoku contest is basically an exam paper which is marked out of 600, though additional points can be obtained by submitting a fully correct paper before time is up. There are 8 contests, and the overall GP ranking is based on the sum of the six highest scores. I was at around the 350/600 mark at the end of last year, and so was expecting a final score of about 2200 or so (allowing for discards of bad results), but I probably got slightly better over the year and managed to finish with 2504. Puzzles went less smoothly as I missed the first round as I was on holiday and had a really bad round 6 where I chose very tough puzzles to attack, but I still squeaked over the top-100 line.

Deutsch

I started learning German this year. I think I began with Lingvist and Duolingo around May or so, and then started formal lessons in June. I have lessons once a week for 1.5 hours. I was originally hoping to take the A1 exam by the end of this year – this is currently planned for January, though my teacher’s quite confident that I won’t have issues. Nonetheless I do think I’ve made substantial progress.

I hoped to push on towards A2 actually. It’s unclear if I am at A2: while the CEFR descriptors don’t look too hard at that level (I feel I can satisfy almost all of the criteria), I’m aware there’s quite a lot of grammatical knowledge expected at A2 that I don’t know or am not confident about (e.g. irregular verbs in the simple past, passive voice). I’ve tried the Hören, Lesen and Schreiben (listening, reading and writing) sections of various exams aimed at the A2 level, like the telc A2 and UK GCSEs (I’m saving the Goethe papers for when I actually do that exam) and generally have been able to do quite well on them (i.e. above 80% on telc A2, Grade 9s on the GCSE components – maybe not writing), though admittedly Sprechen (speaking) is the part I’m most concerned about.

Travel and Exploration

Travel this year included four trips to Singapore (two were based around weddings). I also visited Zürich multiple times, Japan, Brussels, Boston, Stockholm and Palo Alto (though mostly for work). I did not travel as much as I wanted to outside of work, possibly because of prioritising other goals (I mainly worked on logic puzzles and German on the weekends) though actually they aren’t that incompatible (e.g. a flight is a good amount of time to work on learning German).

I really enjoyed the Japan trip (highlights included the Sankei-en Garden, Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum and Ginza Tamai), and though the wedding trips were short (just 3-4 days in Singapore each time) I don’t regret them at all. Travelling is interesting: I don’t always look forward to the trips (especially the work ones) but almost always enjoy them. It’s possible there’s some sunk-cost fallacy here, though that’s mitigated by me not directly paying for the work trips in terms of money (still in terms of time, of course).

Financials

I generally looked at my portfolio quite a bit less after Q2, perhaps because I invested more resources in my new role at work and also because there generally was a fair bit of non-actionable stress.

Savings Rate

There are several ways to slice this: Savings Rate #4 from this post is what I normally use. In a UK context, define $S_1$ as workplace pension contributions, $S_2$ as individual pension contributions (e.g. SIPPs), $S_3$ as other savings (ISAs, taxable accounts), $C$ as consumption and $D$ as tax changes derived from taxable benefits. Furthermore, define $\tau$ as the tax rate expected when one withdraws from one’s pensions. Then

$SR = \dfrac{\tau(S_1 + S_2) + S_3}{\tau(S_1 + S_2) + S_3 + C + D}$

Roughly 55% this year, up two percentage points from last year (looking at it, my expenses did increase quite a lot from last year, but not by as much as the raise I received, so this makes sense). This is in a pretty reasonable spot.

Discipline in Spending

I’ll paste an extract from the essay I wrote on my birthday this year, that captures the major spending increases here:

• Groceries has had an increasing trend year-on-year, going up by 50% from 2017 to 2018, and another 26% this year. Some of this is because I patronise M&S nowadays; I actually find the food tastes better. The ”three meat or fish items for £10” deals were something I used to scorn in first year at university, calling it absurdly expensive; I now actually use that on occasion.
• Gifts has increased to 2x over last year. I think this is natural, seeing as my financial position is a bit more stable now. I also definitely recognise that I don’t have infinite time to use this.
• Travel has increased to 2.5x over last year, as part of a generally increasing trend. This is fine as long as it doesn’t increase exponentially from here. Some of this is also probably because I started thinking about flying slightly more premium cabins (premium economy or even business), and where this is not the case booking extra legroom seats. It seems I also can spend quite a bit when making “bleisure” trips, such as to Boston and Palo Alto. I think that’s okay, though – especially if I’m spending it on interesting experiences (and not tat).
• Clothing has increased to 2x over last year. I have lumped shoes into clothing and that is certainly a part of the cost, but that definitely doesn’t explain the whole delta. I think it tends to be a large number of items as opposed to individually expensive ones – perhaps it’s a form of retail therapy? I think something actionable here might be to implement a one-in-one-out policy in 2020. £28.74 per week for clothes is concerning. This does cluster (e.g. I spent £250 in the Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales, including on a pair of Nudie raw denim and two pairs of Converse that should hopefully last) but it’s still more than I would expect. I’d view most articles of clothing apart from shoes to generally be luxuries at £28.74, and I certainly don’t feel like I’m buying one such treat per week.

There’s still some discipline, in that my savings rate has increased in spite of these trends, and in most cases (apart from the clothing one) the increases are justified and were made (mostly) thoughtfully. I have to deduct points for the clothing-as-retail-therapy thing though.

Report Cards (2018 Review)

We are just over an hour into 2019 where I am (Singapore), though it is still 2018 in the UK. For me, the highlight of the year was probably receiving the VCLA Outstanding Masters’ Thesis award in August; the worst part of the year would probably be around April, when I had a month or so of doing primarily reactive tasks and managing technical debt. Nonetheless, every year will have positive experiences (hopefully) and negative ones as well; I’d say my main takeaway from 2018 is that optimisation can be dangerous if one picks the wrong variables.

I set some targets at the beginning of the year. While setting targets without subsequently revisiting them can already spur improvement, it’s useful to consider how one has performed as it informs drafting next year’s goals (in particular, figuring out what is realistic, and what would be too comfortable). The grading system I’m using here is similar to the OKR system – each task receives a score between 0.0 and 1.0, and a straight success (with no extensions or bonuses) scores 0.7. For quantifiable tasks, I usually do a pretty straightforward linear interpolation with zero at 0.0, and 10/7 of the target at 1.0; usually a 1.0 means that the goal either wasn’t ambitious enough, or the relevant area became more important during the year.

A1: Software Engineering: 0.5

Not quantitative. Progress this year, while significant, felt largely incremental (which is maybe unsurprising as I’ve been focusing on similar work in terms of distributed systems and back-end performance).

I’d say most of the “progress” here is in the form of a considerably more principled approach to pursuing performance improvements and building new features. It’s difficult to evaluate improvement in Java skills; I spent some time this year studying Java performance (especially garbage collection algorithms and concurrency). There were a few bugs I remember this year where Java Memory Model knowledge was useful, which I wouldn’t have known as well this time last year.

A2: Logic in Computer Science: 0.9

The original goal here was arguably quantitative, in that it was to present one paper at a logic conference. This was presented – see this AAMAS18 page. I decided to bump the score up from 0.7 to 0.9 as a somewhat related highlight of the year was receiving the VCLA Outstanding Masters’ Thesis award for my work on MCMAS-Dynamic. This was mostly based on past work, though I had to write up a summary of the work that had been done.

This target was intentionally not too ambitious. I do want to finish up one more paper from the thesis – I think four is about the limit of where we can take this (the third paper already had a decent amount of original content) but I don’t anticipate presenting that until possibly 2020.

A3: Innovation in Engineering: 0.7

The goal here was to get two patents in the pipeline, and this was achieved exactly. There might be a third coming from my winter hack-week project, but I prefer not to count things that aren’t done yet.

This goal was conceived as an alternative to the pull-requests goal I had in 2016, as I find a small number of substantive changes to usually be far more motivating than many smaller incremental changes. (A possible danger of this is that I might discount the value of said incremental changes too much!) I’ll probably keep some version of this in 2019, as I find this kind of innovation enjoyable and motivating.

B1: Writing and Blogging: 0.4

The goal was 52 and I think this puts me on 27; I’ll be generous and round up. It seems a weekly schedule is pretty challenging, particularly around holidays and busy periods at work. I do still want to maintain somewhat regular updates here, but a lower target (40, perhaps, to allow for some of these) could be more reasonable.

B2: Travelling: 0.3

The goal was to visit 12 countries, considering the UK as my home base. I’m writing this from Singapore, and have also visited Switzerland, Germany, Norway, Sweden and the US, so this puts me on 6. That would be 0.35 – this rounds to 0.4 by standard conventions, but I’ll round down considering how work-dependent most of these trips were. I do enjoy visiting new places and learning more about them; however spending time with friends and family is also important to me, and in some ways travel allows me to do that. I think some kind of travel-related goal is likely to feature next year, though I’m not sure yet what form that should take.

B3: Walking: 0.7

The goal was to walk an average of 10,000 steps per day. I’m at 10,131 and I can add one more to that average for every 365 steps I walk today. Bumping this to 0.8 would require 213,160 steps today, so I’m fairly confident 0.7 is right.

I commute to and from work by walking most of the time. This provides a form of exercise and also saves money on transport (tube fares in London are expensive). That accounts for around 7-8,000 steps; the rest are accumulated walking around the office, or on weekends exploring. I don’t think this was sufficient in terms of physical fitness.

B4: Music: 0.5

There is some progress; I’m able to hit Bb4 quite a bit more consistently than I used to, but B4 remains difficult and elusive. I came across Meant to Be this year and attempted to sing it – I can just about manage the song (including the female vocal line) which requires consistent Bb4; trying it at a +1 key has not worked. I would not have been able to land consistent A4s even at this time last year, so the improvement could be considered as two semitones out of three.

C1: Gross Savings Rate: 0.8

The goal was a gross savings rate (Savings Rate #1 in this post from Early Retirement Now) of 50 percent, and this ended up at 54.2 percent for this year. I think this is good given that UK taxes can be quite high. This is a difficult chord to play, as one needs to determine how to discount future utility from money put into savings and investments. I think this was slightly higher than expectations.

C2: Minimum Income Standard: 0.8

The goal was to have non-housing expenditures of at least £10,800 for the year; this reached £12,000. This may seem somewhat antithetical to C1, though the issue with savings rate is that higher isn’t necessarily better; I’d prefer a sufficient budget at SR 50% over a tight one at SR 65%. It’s also not impossible to score highly on both goals (by earning more).

D1: Communications and Maintenance: 0.6

This goal is non-quantitative. I think I’ve made reasonable efforts to keep in touch with friends from both Imperial and Singapore. For the most part this has gone well, though there have been some lapses where I haven’t been as responsive as I’d have liked, hence just under the target sounds about right.

Highlights and Lowlights (2017 Review)

I did four reviews at the end of each quarter (see: Q1, Q2, Q3, Q4). Typically, I link each of these reviews to a song I’d been listening to a lot during the quarter. This is usually based on whether I empathise with the singer’s persona, as I find these more ‘sticky’ than merely good instrumentals or well-executed pieces. For a quick recap, the songs were:

• Q1: “Back from the Edge”, James Arthur
• Q2: “7 Years”, Ben Schuller (this is a Lukas Graham cover)
• Q3: “Mercy”, Shawn Mendes
• Q4: “Back to You”, Louis Tomlinson and Bebe Rexha

This selection makes it seem like it’s been a rather turbulent year. It has been, but looking back on things I think it’s certainly been decent enough too. Of course, variance and volatility don’t necessarily imply growth, but it certainly feels like the problems and struggles I’ve had have been beneficial. Here’s a quick rundown of some of the more notable things that have happened to me this year.

Commuting on Foot

I started walking to and from work instead of taking the tube. In an earlier post, I calculated that I was being paid an effective wage of £27.59 an hour to do this. I think I kept up with this through most of the year; that walk while initially taxing feels quite normal now. It’s a good bit of morning exercise for me to clear my head before starting work, and I find it a convenient time to call home too. Furthermore, the amount of money saved is quite substantial; I’d imagine I’d spend £126.80 a month for the monthly travelcard, but in practice my monthly transport expenses are more in the range of £20, so that’s an extra £1200 per year.

To be fair, I’ve noticed that I’ve worn through shoes much quicker this year (the route is about 2.5 km each way), so maybe depreciation should additionally be factored in to the cost. Even then, I’ve been disciplined about intelligently shopping sales for walking/running shoes; I’ve spent less than £100 on shoes this year, so factoring that in we’re still looking at more than £1000 in savings.

AI Down Under

I took two weeks out in late August to present at IJCAI 2017 in Melbourne, Australia (plus a short holiday, and a stop-over in Singapore). I do have a bit of a soft spot for pure, hard theoretical computer science, and this certainly allowed me to show off some of that. Besides actually giving the LDLK talk, the non-technical programme was also very interesting; I managed to meet quite a number of interesting researchers whom I only recognised from their papers, there were a variety of interesting venues, and there was also an exhibition where some robots attempted to compete in football.

My own non-technical programme was great too – I enjoyed touring parts of Melbourne, the hotel (the Crown Metropol) was very comfortable, and of course returning home was good, even if only for a short while. The 24-hour flight was pretty intense, but there wasn’t really a compelling alternative.

Greed and Fear

Cryptocurrencies are, of course, a highly volatile asset class. I’ve been maintaining modest long positions in a couple of them; the extreme swings have certainly highlighted the presence of these ‘primal forces’; while I did buy into BTC under $5000, there’s a part of me that’s still a bit miffed that I didn’t initiate a larger position then. I extracted my cost basis at$17000 and will probably let the rest ride.

In total, my portfolio gained about 18 percent this year. I’ve never actually been through a bear market (well, at least with a large investment holding). There was the correction in early 2016, but my portfolio is substantially larger now. While I’m of course familiar with Buffett’s well known hamburger analogy – since I’m a net buyer of stocks I should be happy when they go on sale – I’m in a position where I could at least on paper lose half a year’s salary if things get ugly (or even more – during the Great Depression, stocks crashed by roughly 90%).

Cross-Border Connections

It has been more than a year since my cohort at Imperial graduated. The one-year mark is significant for a few of my friends, because one year is a common requirement for intra-company transfer visas (at least in the UK and in the US). I’ve also had friends who started outright overseas (much like what I did). Keeping in touch has been somewhat tricky, especially bearing in mind timezones – but I think it has been going fine.

I’m starting to see what I thought was the most likely scenario as far as maintaining these connections post-university pan out. I got pretty stressed last year thinking that it would be difficult to keep these ticking over. I’m aware I have a tendency to inaccurately amplify small risks, and this turned out to be the case here.

Builders

I always had a bit of skepticism about 24-hour hackathons whilst in university (bad work practices, too many flashy demos without actual reasonable implementation); that said, I do like the concept of hack weeks and have participated actively in every one of them that’s been on whilst I’ve been at Palantir. Five to nine days is long enough that people aren’t generally going to be working too unsustainably (though I have certainly felt the burn from pushing hard on these – even then it’s 80 hours a week hard, nothing near 168). I’d definitely classify the hackweek we had in summer as a major highlight of the year, and the one in winter as something nice too.

It’s a nice occasional reminder of the ‘core’ parts of my job I like (that said I do also enjoy interviewing and tech-talks). I enjoy many of the projects I do for these hackweeks because I get to apply fancy CS things that I’ve read about or otherwise worked on while also testing my engineering and rapid-iteration skills. There is a claim that if one wishes to go fast, one should go alone; if one wishes to go far, one should go in a group – and while the hack-week form of many of the things I’ve worked on doesn’t make it into production, the rush of rapid development is exciting and some form of what I work on tends to, indeed, make it to production.

Jeremy’s Annual Review 2016

As mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been using the system of objectives and key requirements (OKRs) to keep track of how I’ve been faring, looking at various metrics. I think OKRs do tell a significant part of the story, but they certainly don’t cover everything; a year is certainly long enough that things can change direction massively. There may be unexpected things that have come along for better or worse.

Why am I doing this? Reviews in general help me to reflect on the direction I’ve been taking, and allow me to consider how I should orient myself in the next period under consideration. I also find that being held publicly accountable is useful in spurring myself to perform better.

I’ll split this into three main sections: what went well, what did not go well and what major lessons were learnt. There’ll be another post to come concerning targets for the next year, though I’m sure some of the information here will feed back into that.

Things that went well:

1. Academics at Imperial. There is still certainly room for improvement, but scoring 100 percent in the project and a 94.5 average for the final year blew even my best expectations away (95 and 92, respectively). I wasn’t too happy with some of the scores for the modules I took, but I think all things considered this was a very solid finish to four arduous years.
2. Contracting at Palantir. I think working part-time as a software engineer during the term was great, though I realise the long hours (mainly because context switching became super expensive) had nontrivial costs. The main drivers behind this involved maintaining the currency of my skills as a developer as well as keeping in touch with the team at Palantir, and I think both ends were achieved here.
3. Friendships. I was expecting the worst after we moved on from Imperial, but I’ve been keeping in touch with a fair few people. It hasn’t always been the easiest thing to do and it’s certainly caused me a lot of stress (unfortunately, it might have also had that effect on said friends), but I find maintaining good communication very worthwhile and I’m happy to have friends who also (at least seem to) believe this is important.
4. Travels. I don’t mind a small amount of travel, but for various reasons was faced with a London – San Francisco – Palo Alto – Washington DC – New York – London – Singapore – London trip which ordinarily is more than I would like. Nonetheless I broke this down into small chunks and handled each leg of the journey smoothly. Besides the aforementioned trip I also had another visit to Palo Alto earlier in the year as well.
5. Writing. I think at least over the past three months or so when I started here, I’ve been a lot more disciplined with sticking to a schedule and forcing myself to express my thoughts.

Things that didn’t go so well:

1. Acquaintances. I’d have liked to keep in touch with more people from uni. I know this goes against the third point above, though that focuses more on the closest friends I had at Imperial whilst this focuses more on quantity.
2. Working hours. Subsequent to a previous post where I explained how I tracked time at Imperial, there have been spikes above 80 and approaching 90 even, which is something I need to learn to control. I think I tend to have a very strong bias towards action, plus I do know that I can be very determined; but this can lead to such situations.
3. Shifting standards / “the problem of never settling”. I find that I’m usually able to identify weaknesses and then address them (good), but there will always be more weaknesses to find, and a high quality bar very often has pretty heavy costs too. I’ll spend some time over the next two weeks to clear my head on this. As always there’s the flip side to this which probably leads to my current attitude, that settling for less-than-great performance isn’t ideal as well.
4. Investments. I’m largely a defensive investor, as Benjamin Graham would call it. I invest every month when my paycheck comes in, and diversify into a portfolio of passive and active funds (this is needed in some cases, such as for access to small-value). Yet there were many occasions this year where the markets kept me up at night or had me worried, when they really shouldn’t. I have a tendency to be very aggressive with these (I bought in after Brexit; not so much after Trump since there wasn’t really a significant drop there once the markets opened).

Key lessons I learned (largely chronological):

1. “It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great”. (You might recognise this as a quote from Tom Hanks’s A League Of Their Own.) I think I’ve generally liked to put myself through my paces, but this came out of the depths of working with MCMAS-Dynamic. In a way finishing that project gave me some kind of further validation that the 90%+ grades and the strong performance reviews I had were warranted. Sure, it can be painful, but the sense of accomplishment I often get when successfully pulling off something really difficult is great. And even at the end (before the grades) I was still concerned the project was not hard enough!
2. Sometimes I need to take the first step. I’d say I learned this most clearly in what I call the post-Imperial crash period, when I started realising that a number of my friends would no longer be in London. I was somewhat concerned about how things would go from then on, and this caused me a fair bit of stress. I became considerably more proactive with many of them, and it seems things have worked out better than what I expected.
3. “If you’re made to wait, it’s for your own good”. Performing high-quality work takes time. During MCMAS-Dynamic I found that after 8 hours or so per day I had difficulty maintaining my concentration; I thus switched my strategy from firing off those 11 or 12-hour days during the term that required comparatively less abstract reasoning to an 8 hour a day 7 day a week model. I was pretty drained out by the end, still. I’d be inclined to think that the pure technical difficulty of MCMAS-Dynamic is higher than anything I’ve had to face so far at Palantir, but I’ve similarly run into seeming brick walls with some of my work (though generally have not been implementing the 7 day a week thing). The quote above was introduced to me by a teammate who was concerned by the hours I’d been working; I think it was intended to be in an outgoing direction (that is, I might be making others wait for their own good), but it could also apply to some extent in the other way (that is, doubling down on effort in an attempt to rush something out is not always a good idea; being forced to slow down might be better).