The broken engineering interview process

Imagine yourself in an interview, sitting in front of 5-10 others of your field. Midway through, the group’s questions drift from the personal and work experiential to the assessing and cross-examining.  They ask you to step up to The Whiteboard, marker in hand, and prove what you know.  Never mind that you’re not fresh out of college and that you haven’t taken a formal test in some time. Gone are the days when a good professional portfolio and list of references, along with a teamwork-minded personality, can get you a job.

These days in the engineering industry, you have to take an impromptu public test to prove your aptitude. I think this interview process is faddish at best and broken at worst.

I had my first whiteboard interview at InVue a few years back. It was ridiculous and a bit demeaning. I failed miserably which hurt my ego for some time afterward. As someone who suffers from impostor syndrome, it wasn’t a good experience.  Did they not like me? They must have thought they wasted their money and time on me!

But the longer I work in the world of engineering, and the more confident I become in my capabilities, the more ludicrous I see the whiteboard interview. First, designing on one’s feet, in front of a room of one’s peers, is not how engineering is done.  It’s not how it’s ever been done. I’ll go one further: this model of engineering isn’t even good engineering.

Engineering is by definition of process of refinement. A design begins on a proverbial napkin, which moves to paper and screen, and finally to copper etched on fiberglass, or lines of code compiled to chip. These stages are meticulously reviewed by groups of other engineers over months, sometimes years… never in the course of an afternoon in front of a single whiteboard by a single candidate.

Put it another way: if a whiteboard interview ever produced a product in the real world, I’d never ever buy it. It would likely burst into flames and kill its user. Perhaps the notorious Note 7 debacle borrowed just such a design cycle?

And in time, I learned that I wasn’t alone in my disdain for this method of interviewing. There’s a great trend on Twitter where programmers are getting honest about their inadequacies in order to protest this style. I love every single one of them. They each, in their own way, help shatter the unrealistic glass conference room doors that are modern engineering interviews. They reveal themselves to be real designers, not necessarily gifted in quick, improvisational thinking.

So in their spirit, here’s my own tweet, the full story you can read here.

Redesigning our family finance

The art of personal finance has been a topic of interest for me for most of my adult life. Some people feel strongly about it, choosing all manner of tools, software, processes, etc.; while others employ no real system at all, opting for a more intuitive sense of financial decision-making. That’s a wide spectrum of fiscal personality, but make no mistake: family finance is a deeply personal experience. It’s no wonder that there tends to be a lot of emotion tied up in our financial lives.

My personality predisposes me to the former end of that spectrum above. I’m that annoying guy who finds it necessary to quantify every last detail of my expenditures and investments. I did so with a range of software products over the years. I cut my teeth on Microsoft Money, then switching to Quicken, then Quicken for Mac, then Moneydance.

As for processes, I had been keeping everything in perpetuity. We’re talking receipts, invoices, tax returns, mortgage statements, warranties… everything. At one point, I probably had up to 10 years of paper, documenting my entire financial life.

But then one gets married. And as your personalities meld and contrast, you find yourself taking on more of a mutually new set of financial preferences. The gist is this: there’s only so much time in the day to tabulate. Being married has taught me to start valuing more the bigger picture of things. What good is all the data, if I don’t do anything with it? Data is great. Goals are better.

And so that brings me to 2016. That was a landmark year for our married financial lives. My wife and I took a Dave Ramsey class and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say it was life-changing. Establishing a system, exercising co-discipline, focusing together on the future, and openly communicating about finance without fear or anger… those are life-changing benefits!

Some takeaways I learned from our class experience and budget living:

  1. Balancing a check book (or any account) is reactive. Budgeting is proactive.  The former is all about the past, what’s already been spent and gone. The latter is all about the future, what’s yet to be spent and where you plan to spend it.
  2. Getting away from credit was a vital step in our process.
    1. Forget those points you earn; it costs you more in stress, late fees, and hours of balancing than what you earn on the points. It’s far better to buy things with your own money, rather than take out micro-loans each month (which means you can’t actually afford stuff anyway).
    2. Seeing my expenditures draft within 24-48 hours at my bank (with a debit card) revolutionized my money-tracking. In the old days, when we bought everything on plastic, it would take ~31 days before that bill actually came due. But by then, we had long forgotten about the stuff we bought. Worse, we had mentally allocated new income toward other stuff, instead of paying off the old stuff. It’s far better to see the cash leave your bank account as close to immediately as possible. The purchases are more real that way, and this is vital to a healthy relationship with your money.
  3. When every last penny of your income is budgeted (which is to say, “told where it will be allocated”), I have unbelievably less stress in my life. It was like night and day. In the old days, it wasn’t always clear when auto-bills would draft (see #2 above). And then the nonlinear consumption of utilities would constantly throw us off. So there was always this undercurrent of instability, which invariably would lead to stressful arguments between us.
  4. We’re on the same team now. #3 above just doesn’t happen anymore, which is not to say that money isn’t tight or that life is without stress.  It’s just that we don’t have money fights anymore.
  5. We know when we can we afford something. It was next to impossible in the old days to forecast when and how we’d afford some big expenditure. We just didn’t have the tools. But now, we use “sinking funds” to — radical thought here — save up for them. I know, pretty basic, yet totally revolutionizing for us. Deferred gratification is far more valuable to us now because the alternative is too costly in stress.

As for specific tools, my wife and I are using a combination of things that either are 3rd-party or privately developed (all of which are free). They are:

  • Every Dollar. This is Dave’s website tool for maintaining your monthly budget. It’s an easy-to-use tool that my wife swears by (she’s the Budget Queen in our family).
  • Google Docs (Sheets). Initially we had been using Evernote, which works just as well. In Sheets, we have an ever-updating list of expenditures that either of us has made with our debit card, all of which fall tightly into our monthly budget. Each line item has a Paid/Unpaid status that forces us to “settle up” or reconcile the expenses with actual cash later.
  • Apple Numbers in iCloud. My wife has developed a number of spreadsheets using her Mac’s builtin editor. She uses them to track various budgeting goals, like vacation planning, Christmas funding, mortgage pay-down, etc. Then she has these files located in her iCloud account so that she can edit them on the move with her phone too.
  • Personal Capital. This is an all-encompassing aggregator tool that I’m using (not so much my wife) purely for viewing our wealth position across all bank accounts, investments, insurance, etc. It’s incredibly useful and heavily automated. Basically all the manual work I did for over 20 years with the various software tools listed above, I can now do simply by logging into my Personal Capital dashboard. That’s it.

Ukrainian Outsourcing

I had the most bizarre confrontation last year in my gym locker room — a place that is supposed to be a bastion of privacy, comfort, sometimes camaraderie — from which I haven’t really recovered.

Charles is a jovial sort of guy.  He’s in his mid to late 50s.  He’s gregarious and extroverted, often seeking out quiet-type guys to chat up. I don’t doubt his sincerity and desire to connect with other men; in fact, it’s a quality of which I’m somewhat jealous, simply because it doesn’t come naturally to me.

This one fateful day, early on in Trump’s ascension up the Republican primary ladder, Charles zeroed in on me.  I was his next “project guy” and he was intent on getting to know me. He introduced himself, but I already knew his name from his many other encounters with similarly quiet-type dudes. I’ll be honest: I was dreading this day. The potential intersection of introverts with extroverts can leave the former with anxiety and the latter with anticipation. He had a bull’s-eye on me, while my eyes were firmly in my locker.

But he would not be denied. He invaded my personal space with determination, so I did my best to be cordial. He asked what I did, as most of these conversations start. I returned the question, and that’s when it all went surprisingly south.

Charles, it turns out, is the owner of an engineering company, specializing in cloud-based video streaming. Cool, I thought. This would be a great chance at professional networking, which can be difficult as an introvert. I asked him if his operation is headquartered locally, or if his engineers telecommute. The latter, he says… from Ukraine.

I think my reaction was mostly bewilderment. Fair enough, he outsources his tech labor. A lot of companies do. But it was his almost unapologetic reply that disturbed me. “Americans are just too much work, man!” he implored. He’s a “man” and “bro” type gym extrovert. Every guy is his brother at the gym, where the handshake is substituted with a fraternal knuckles punch.

But I’m an American. And I’m an engineer. I’m an American engineer, and I’m too much work for this employer. I couldn’t feel much more insecure.

He went on to explain that US software engineers basically are too expensive and that the Ukrainians don’t complain as much. A cheaper workforce is basically more grateful.

I countered to Charles that if I worked for him hypothetically, regardless of my talent and reciprocating cordiality, he’d fire me within minutes of showing up to work. Because I’m too expensive.

Charles just looked at me with his bootstrap intensity, a matter-of-fact pursed lip, and said nothing.

I was left with a bit of existential shock, realizing that some corners of the tech world were anything but “safe” for job security. I suppose this can never be the case when there exists regions with extremely cheap labor for sale.

That said, I can only hope that one day the Ukraine experiences its own middle-class resurgence. How does that happen? When it’s local industry exports its goods and not its people.

Until then, Charles and I won’t see eye to eye.

The mystical comfort of music

Immediately following the 2016 US presidential election, the very last place I wanted to go to for comfort was my church.  I’m not alone in this.  I attend a fairly-conservative, mostly-white Republican Evangelical church in a similarly populated town.  As a registered Democrat, I suddenly felt politically and ideologically “naked” among my fellow parishioners like never before.

Weeks before the election, while explaining to my first grader the simple first-grade ethics of mutual self-respect, gender equality, compassion for the indigent, I was struck by how these ideals have somehow been lost on a host of the very people that espouse such virtues from the pews.  The mantras of “build a wall”, “lock her up”, “grab them by the pussy” and other patently anti-Christian bully sentiments surely are at odds with the core beliefs of my fellow churchgoers.

But alas, that’s not what the election results tell us.  70-80% of my church voted for this monster.

I haven’t yet made peace with my tenuous relationship to Church (capital ‘C’); even less so with Evangelicalism as a model for modern church organization and outreach. But it’s inside of this chaos that I felt the most curious bit of solace: choir.

I’ve talked about my membership in our church choir before.  It’s no mystery that music can have incredibly calming and healing effects on people.  So it was in choir rehearsal recently that — despite not having any conscious clarity about the election — the music of Gustav Holst moved me to some modicum of peace.

Here is a sample of another choir’s performance of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in his hand
Christ our Lord to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.

King of Kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth he stood,
Lord of Lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heav’nly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads his vanguard on the way,
As the light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,
That the pow’rs of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

At his feet the six wing’d seraph;
Cherubim with sleepless eye
Veil their faces to the presence
As with ceaseless voice they cry,
Alleluia, alleluia,
Alleluia, Lord most high.
Amen.

Customizing Chrome’s “new” tab

Ever bore of the new tab screen in Chrome?  It’s what you’re presented with after doing a CTRL + T.

The drab new tab
The drab new tab

Well, with the magic that is extensions, you’re free to change this.  There are a host of replacements available on the Chrome Web Store.  But I’ve always appreciated a low-tech, unobtrusive approach.  I’ve used the Google Art Project screen, which puts a new great work of art on your new tab.  For days that I feel overstimulated, I’ve opted for simply a blank tab.

But recently I found the Google Earth new tab, and I’m in love with it.

Google Earth new tab
Google Earth new tab

It’s mesmerizing, yet subtle somehow. It doesn’t take over my screen, it just invites me to take a moment before racing off to the next website, and simply gaze upon our planet’s beauty. That may only be one or two beats, but at least it’s a bit of pause in a busy online life.

previous Google Earth images
previous Google Earth images

Email, the new Todo

Shockingly, over a year has elapsed since I last spoke about my digital life-hacking.  That’s a pretty terrible commitment to the discipline of writing and contemplation.  I can blame that on so many things: raising small, needy humans; steadily growing home-improvement lists; active social calendars; too many screens and not enough books.  But the truth is, writing is hard.  And everything else can be easy or more immediately fulfilling.

But here I am again, ready to get back into the work of expressing myself… and getting more organized.  The upshot of the rather long hiatus in this series of articles on productivity management is that I have this nice big data-set from which to draw my conclusions.  Which is rather rare for me.  Typically, when I find some “new solution” to an old problem, I’m too quick to conclude that the new is better.

Well, this time I can pretty highly recommend my new take on the old way.  And what is this new way?

Inbox by Gmail

Once again, I’m hardly cutting edge on this bit of software.  It’s been around for a while now.  It rather obviously back-engineered some of the coolest features of the competitor email app known as Mailbox.  Inbox is a novel take on its existing email platform, Gmail.  It re-imagines your email as possible “todos”, allowing you to set reminders to your email workflow.  Each email can have an associated task date.  If you add a reminder to an email, these will show up over on your Google Calendar as well, or in Google Now as a card (for mobile users).  So there’s very good cross-product integration.

Setting reminders on an email.
Setting reminders on an email.

Marking an email “done” in Inbox translates to applying the Archive tag over in Gmail.  The genius of Google’s approach here is that you don’t have to sacrifice your Gmail experience and commitment to use Inbox.  You can fluidly go back and forth if you want to.  Although what I found in the past 12 months is that by month 2 or so, I was fully using Inbox exclusively.

And of course, Google has baked in very good keyboard shortcuts so that your workflow can be as fast as you want it to be.  On mobile devices, each email or Reminder can be swiped right for completion and left for rescheduling.  It’s a powerful and fast workflow.  And when you’ve conquered your tasks/emails — which is to say, addressed all the stuff that’s in your inbox — Inbox presents you with the most pleasing trophy you could want: virtual sunshine.

Happy inbox
Happy inbox

Conclusion

Obviously, having all these features integrated tightly into Inbox (and Calendar, and Keep, and Drive, etc.) makes for a great overall user experience.  Gone are the days of buying 3rd party plugins to a Mac OS-only mail client just to set a reminder on an email.  I couldn’t really be much happier with this solution, since it’s all right there at my various fingertips (whether on desktop or mobile).  And the fact that such powerful software is essentially (troublingly?) free makes it all the more compelling.

Looking back, I’m amazed that I ever did email differently.  I had a set of pretty good solutions, cobbled together with 3rd party tools and utilities.  It all got infinitely better when switching to Gmail.  But now with Inbox, I’m in organization nirvana.

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