You Can’t Handle the Truth – Col. Jessup

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http://boston.cbslocal.com/2013/01/22/toucher-richs-scallenge-no-challenge-for-brian-scalabrine/

Brian Scalabrine is a retired professional basketball player who spent about a decade bouncing from team to team as a marginal contributor. Other than being tall, his physique is decidedly non-athletic: doughy, lubmering, white, maybe even pasty. During his NBA career and especially throughout his stint in Boston, he became a fan favorite for being sort of an everyman on a professional sports franchise, a couch potato in a uniform. Think Philly Phanatic if he was actually on the Phillies. This made it all the more enjoyable when he buried a clutch outside shot in a crucial situation. Scal could hurt you in a big spot. Over the years, his jovial reputation grew and people started to actually see him as a schlub. To his credit, Scalabrine took it well.

Until he retired. It appears that after retirement, fans continued to see Scalabrine as more of a mascot than a professional athlete of the highest caliber. They even challenged his athletic prowess loudly and publicly. The ever gracious Scalabrine accepted the challenge which paved the way for the Toucher & Rich’s ‘Scallenge’ recently held in Boston. Four of Boston’s finest young athletes were hand selected to play Scalabrine in a game of one-on-one to 11 points. Four of Boston’s finest young athletes had no idea what was in store for them.

Brian Scalabrine beat all four challengers by a combined score of 44 to 6.

44 to 6.

Two of the challengers didn’t even score a single basket. The last player, who played division 1 at Syracuse, lost by a score of 11 to 4 and that was Scalabrine’s fourth consecutive game of the day. If it wasn’t so funny, it would have been sad.

These four opponents, and many many more who didn’t make the cut, actually thought they could beat a professional athlete at his own game. Even the worst professional athlete is better than 99.99% of the general population (that’s one in 10,000 which is still probably too high). These four challengers (“Scallengers?”) didn’t even play professional basketball in Europe or D-League in the States yet they thought they could defeat an accomplished 10-year NBA veteran? Scalabrine isn’t even old. He JUST retired and he’s 34. If he was still in the Association, he would be younger than Jason Kidd, Manu Ginobli, Kurt Thomas, the entire NY Knicks roster, and Steve Nash. In Scalabrine’s world, his opponents aren’t even rec league worthy.

I have no doubt that the challengers are good basketball players – there’s some evidence in the video. They are probably the best in their playground, high school team, YMCA, or church league. They were probably told how great they are by their friends, colleagues, girlfriends or wives (or both?). But at the end of the day, they aren’t professionally good. By “professionally good,” here’s what I mean: Brian Scalabrine probably played basketball every day for 6 hours a day from the age of 12. During that 22 year span, he played the best basketball players in the world for 6 hours a day for 22 years – first at USC then in the NBA. He was coached by the best coaches in the world for 6 hours a day for 22 years. Scalabrine was obssessed with basketball to an unhealthy degree for 22 years. If you factor in that he is white and not particularly athletic, he was probably told by many that he had no chance of going pro yet through sheer force of will, he carved out a 10-year NBA career. For 22 years, Brian Scalabrine displayed a relentless determination that most of us cannot comprehend. And so, when Joe Schmo from Framingham thinks he can beat Brian Scalabrine because he won his YMCA rec championship last week, Scalabrine got mad. I would be mad too. Joe Schmo has no idea what good is.

The reason this silly little one-on-one tournament resonates with me is because it is a glimpse into how we think as a society. We constantly feel good about our status as a nation and we tell our kids how great they are at everything. As a high school math teacher for two years, I met students who honestly felt they were going to do the following: professional baseball player (2), professional baskebtall player (2), PGA tour pro (2), Olympic athlete (1). The youngest of that group is now 22 and suffice to say, I do not know any professional athletes. One of the would-be baseball players didn’t even remain on his college team.

Meanwhile, across the globe, a whole generation of Brian Scalabrines are obsessively gearing up to eat our lunch (sorry Brian). While we sit around and pat ourselves on the back for being the greatest nation on the earth, the other nations are destroying our children by every educational metric. It’s an oft-cited statistic that while our kids struggle internationally in math and science comparisons, they lead the way in self-esteem. One day our children will grow up and so will the children around the globe. And when the time comes that they are challenged, many of them will respond like Scalabrine and show people what good really is.

I have never met Scalabrine and I am not an elite athlete but I bet I know this about him: no matter how good he was, he never felt he was good enough. If he did, he might have lost a one-on-one game 44 to 6.

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The Fountain of Youth

If you knew the secret ingredients to a potion that restores youth but needed someone to create the elixer in a laboratory, how would you go about that? Humor me for a few moments and assume for argument’s sake that the potion works and you discovered the most incredible antidote to aging that man has ever known. If you could create mass amounts of it, you would become the most powerful person on the planet. You would amass extraordinary wealth and command greater influence than all the world leaders combined. The world would be your oyster.

Except, you can’t make the drink. You need someone to do it for you – a very skilled bartender of sorts. So how would you go about that? Since you can’t actually answer the question to me directly, I’ll just go ahead and tell you what I would do. I would work like crazy until I saved enough money to pay for the best bartender(s) and then have them produce the potion for pay. More importantly, here’s what I would NOT do: approach bartenders all over the city that I haven’t met and offer them a “piece of the action” to make my cocktail for free. I wouldn’t do this because if I really had the fountain of youth, I would find a way to maintain as much equity as possible in the sale of said fountain. When word starts to get around, I would then be able to maximize my personal benefit in delivering eternal youth and beauty.

This situation is happening all over the city today and in many other cities. Once a week on average, I am approached by entreprenuers who have the next billion dollar idea but just need a programmer to throw it together. They all think they have the fountain of youth but from where I sit, it’s not even Yoo-Hoo. But here’s the main point: if they really did have the magic potion, why would they be so eager to split the revenue with someone like me who they haven’t even met? Why wouldn’t they try to keep it to themselves and simply offer to pay me?

Please bear with me as we go through some basic math:
– An entreprenuer approaches you with an INSANE idea that’s just primed to go viral in the mobile social networking, geo-location, recommendation-generating, party-planning space. He wants you to program the minimum viable product (including back-end which is something he doesn’t understand) with website and iOS/iPad/Android/Galaxy tab mobile apps – it’s all easy with PhoneGap right? He offers 5 to 10% equity for the privilege.
– You ask him what kind of valuation he thinks he can get from a Series A round at a major VC firm like Sequoia or Union Square. After explaining what a Series A is, you tell him that the valuation is what he thinks the overall company value might be. He says something in the billions (seriously, I get this a lot).
– Let’s say we tone it down a notch and go with $100 million – still a stupid high number. At 5% equity, your stake would be worth $5 million. Yet, you offered to code the MVP for $20,000. He says that’s too rich for his blood but he’s willing to grant what essentially amounts to millions in equity even at a valuation several orders of magnitude below his estimate.
– The math doesn’t equate. He would rather forfeit millions in equity to save $20,000 today.

These conversations are unfortunately very common and show a stunning lack of understanding of 8th grade math. If these people really had multi-million dollar ideas (forget billions), then even 1% equity is a lot to give up so they would be better off forking over cash. Even out-of-pocket cash that they save from their day jobs.

These situations betray a lack of confidence. People who think this way are already trying to defray risk and reduce the stench of failure – $20,000. If you were Charlie and found the golden ticket, would you give away a piece for a ride to Wonka’s factory? I don’t think so. You would find any way possible to pay the cabfare to get to that factory and keep the ticket to yourself. Too often, these wannabe Steve Jobs don’t see themselves the way the tech community does. Among programmers, these people are at best laughed at (behind the scenes – we’re not in middle shcool). I used to be one of those people. That was, until I spent three years and an unholy number hours teaching myself how to program so I can build out my own product. Whenever an entreprenuer approaches me with the next billion dollar plan, I ask myself, would he do the same?

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College

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In the past few years, it has been en vogue to denounce the utility of college especially when seen in conjunction with skyrocketing tuition costs. Everyone knows the story of college dropouts who went on to become titans of industry and amass wealth beyond imagination. Several high profile investors, companies, and entreprenuers go so far as to encourage people to either drop out of college or not go at all. For more, just google “Peter Thiel” and “college” and see what comes up.

Like everything in a free market society, prices will eventually stablilize and colleges will settle on a tuition that enough people will pay to keep the beast fed. Usually the impetus for change in this arena is competition and from what I can tell, we’re starting to see some of it. And I don’t mean community colleges or de-facto vocational schools like DeVry (I’m not denigrating these institutions – I applaud anyone who strives to improve his or her skills in any capacity). I’m talking about Khan Academy, Coursera, iTunes U, BigNerdRanch, and guys like this. The market is starting to recognize that college is no longer the golden ticket to prosperity that it once was and is responding with a cottage industry that is specifically designed prepare students for economic reality. Further, colleges themselves are sputtering when it comes to this role – at least in the tech sector. Within tech circles, MBA’s are routinely mocked and an on going debate wages between the value of an undergaduate CS degree and industry experience. Many feel that the four years spent in an undergrad program would be better served learning on the job and actually applying those skills. In this sector, college is growing obsolete. As the proliferation of online courses and for-profit educational programs continue, the market will gradually shift resources to this burgeoning industry where it finds better ROI.

Colleges, for their part, are not keeping up because they don’t have to. As more and more students major in Gender Studies, Psychology, and Cultural Studies, colleges continue to raise prices while maintaining or expanding enrollment. There’s no need to change. It’s good to be a college administrator today. This has led to the gradual atrophy of departments that used to prepare students for a global economy: engineering, sciences, math, and basic compositional skills. Ask any employer about the writing abilities of their entry level people. This void will be filled by the private sector. Someone will step in and provide this service and like I wrote in the last paragraph, we’re starting to see it in tech.

So what does that leave behind? If you had an 18 year old kid applying to college, would you pay $50,000 each year so he could go to Skidmore and study Folk Literature? Would you take out $200,000 in loans so your daughter could learn about gender equality at Sarah Lawrence? Neither would I. This leaves behind only those who would pay those amounts – the maligned 1%. This begs the question: if we won’t pay it, why would they? The answer lies in another post, Which Economy Are You In? They would pay it in order to provide their kids the advantage of hob-nobbing with other members of the 1% and thus form alliances that can be very helpful in their post college careers. It’s like a country club for 18 to 24 year olds. That’s what college has become. If you don’t believe me, watch an episode of The Real World and tell me those kids are prepared for the real world.

This post isn’t meant to be doom and gloom. I’m actually optimistic about all this. As a free market believer, I’m happy to see the market respond with alternatives that are superior to CS departments at major universities. If I was 18 years old today, I would enroll in a tech course and study on my own for a year. Then I would start programming professionally and by the time I was 21, I would start a company. That’s essentially what I did anyway but not until several years after college. Had I started at 18, I would have a formidable advantage over my peers who basically drank full-time from age 19 to 22 (myself included).

College will always be there. It just won’t always be occupied by the same people. For a while, college was explicitly reserved for the economic elite. The Civil Rights movement changed much of that for about 50 years. Though it took half a century, college was able to get back to where it wants to be.

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80 – 20 Rule

I read somewhere that 20% of the men have sex with 80% of the women. It was in one of those how-to pick up women websites. I’m pretty sure it’s true and I’m definitely sure I am not in that 20%, sadly. This rule also applies to the labor market. 20% of the labor force get 80% of the good job. Obviously, the numbers aren’t scientifically calculated and it’s probably not as skewed but the principle is clear and true. I know because I am THAT 20% and I know quite a few people in the 80%.

As a software engineer in NYC, I am in a perpetual state of balancing multiple freelance assignments. I’m never not working unless I choose and I have turned down three six-figure jobs since October. I have politely aksed recruiters to stop calling and have told the more persistent ones to fuck off. This steady flow of freelance work and full time job offers is not without some effort on my part. My skillset is always evolving and I release iOS apps and web apps that clearly demonstrate my abilities. I keep my resume up to date and scan the LinkedIn/StackOverflow listings maybe once a week. I average 2 – 3 meetings per week with potential clients and companies. What I am trying to convey is that I am overemployed. There are too many job offers and freelance assignments to choose from. Recently, it got to a point where I considered hiring my own iOS developer to sub-contract the work. I know my experience is not unusual for developers because in the past, I have seen other engineers deal with similar issues.

Contrast this with the experience of some of my friends who are chronically unemployed or employed in shitty dead-end jobs. These people aren’t stupid. They’re college friends and I went to an Ivy League school. One of them graduated with a higher GPA than I did. He was unemployed for two years (roughly 2008 to 2010) until his benefits ran out then he took a shitty job in Queens doing some kind of data entry. Another college friend works as a research clerk and lives at home with his parents. To say he hates his job would be like saying LeBron is okay at basketball. These guys are in the 80% (ironically, the second one is the 20% when it comes to women – he has had to use my apartment in the past). To these guys and many others I know, life just sort of happens to them. That’s how you end up in the 80%. It’s the same with women. You don’t go to the bar and wait for women to walk up to you.

It comes down to where you focus your energy. If I put all my time and effort into making myself more appealing to women, I don’t know if I would crack the 20% but I would definitely do better than my current level. But I don’t put my energy into that and I’m okay with it. Almost all of my time and focus goes into improving my programming skills: learning new techniques, languages, frameworks. My friend who works as a research clerk devotes his free time to being good with women. He got very good at that. That’s where his head is. My head is stuck in a GitHub repo somewhere. Paul Graham, the y-combinator founder, once wrote about natural focus – where does your head wander when it’s not supposed to be somewhere. Whatever the answer, that’s where your focus is.

Like I said in the first paragraph, the 80/20 rule is exaggerated. It’s probably more accurate to say 30% of the people get 70% of the GOOD job offers. Anyone can get a shitty job for low pay. Just like anyone can get a girl if you lower your standard enough. But the principle of the rule is clear – you’re either in the 20 or you’re in the 80.

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Are You Programming

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I am a self-taught programmer. I didn’t major in CS and didn’t pick up a programming book until several years after graduating college. In the time since, I completely switched industries and make a comfortable living as a software engineer in NYC. Along the way, I taught a handful of students and at any given monent in time, usually have a roster of 3 – 5 private students who want to learn. One of the most common questions I get is: what did I do to get good at programming (if you consider me good which is debatable). It’s pretty simple so I’ll just go through it:

1) Summer 2009 – picked up this book on basic C programming and burned through it in about a month. I committed about six to eight hours a day every day going through text and working through the examples. I ran my own business at the time and over the summer, I kept my hours light.

2) Mid to late summer 2009 – Went through this book. I read every chapter twice and the memory management chapter four or five times. They devoted a section to Quartz drawing which I went through at least three times.

3) Late summer 2009 – Stanford University iPhone programming course on iTunes. Every iOS dev knows this course and I went through the Spring 2009 curriculum. This was taught by Evan Doll and Alan Cannistraro. Today, the instructor is Paul Hegarty. I went through the videos in the following manner: watch a video straight through. Then watch it again but follow along the coding examples on my computer. Then watch it again but hand-write the coding examples on a piece of paper. Then try to do the assignments. So in effect, I went through this series at least three times.

After this point, I lost track of the books I went through but by my estimate, it’s probably around 50. I’ll just recall from memory whatever I can.

4) Studied RESTful web services vs SOAP/RPC systems. This was mostly Googling and watching stuff on Youtube, no books.

5) October 2009 – Went through the O’Reilly book on Java. I can’t find the exact edition online but I think it had a kangaroo on the cover and was around 800 pages. I went through this book twice and a few chapters, three times – specifically anything that related to asynchronous processes. I went through another Java book as well that was focused purely on JSP’s and servlets. The servlet stuff was useful but JSP’s were a waste of time.

6) October/November 2009 – Taught myself Google App Engine in Java (as opposed to Python) by going through a shit-ton of examples online. This was a textbook which I used as reference. It was pretty helpful but overly focused on Google Web Toolkit which, in retrospect, is not a tool I would use for AJAX development. Other available web design frameworks like Bootstrap are much better for this even though it’s not AJAX based. I think AJAX is overrated and a bit of a fad.

7) Deployed my first functional backend on App engine. I remember this night very well. It was a game-changing moment for me.

8) Decemeber/January – published an iPhone app which simulated gambling with fake money. The backend was deployed on App Engine along with the website and the iPhone app, of course, was written by me.

Throughout that timeline, a typical day went like this:
– Wake up, go to work for about six hours (again, ran my own business), come home and program for 8 – 10 hours. On weekends, program for 6 to 10 hours. This went on every day for a couple years. From 2009 to today, I probably have taken 7-10 days off from programming.

As I teach more and more students, I find that most of them think I am naturally inclined as a programmer and am born with certain advantages. This may or may not be true. Here’s what I know for sure: I am beyond obsessed with being a good programmer. The amount of time I put into it on a daily basis is unhealthy. There is nothing else I would rather be doing than programming unless it involves being naked. Whether or not my abilties are naturally ordained is not for me to say but I know this – over time, relentless effort and natural talent resemble one another.

Here are the thoughts that keep me moving forward:
1) It’s supposed to be hard. If it was easy, everyone would do it.
2) When I’m not programming, my competition is.

Are you programming right now?

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Which Economy Are You In?

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When I ran a small business in a tony Connecticut suburb, I had a few high net worth clients whose kids needed summer jobs to keep them busy. Though I didn’t really need more than one assistant, I often hired two or three of these kids at a time over the summer which was the slow season (college coaching). So why did I do it? Because maintaining good relations with high paying clients usually paid off in referrals. In the long run, it proved to be an effective strategy. As you go down the economic ladder, I think this approach doesn’t quite pay the same dividends but people still make hiring decisions in this manner. If you were on Billy’s baseball team in high school, you had a better chance working for his old man’s landscaping company than Joe Schmo off the street. Everyone knows this.

The financial crisis of 2008 changed the game. The old adage of “it’s who you know” still, and always will ring true but today, it’s only germane to the economic elite. Whereas knowing Billy’s dad might have gotten you that landscaping job in 1972, today the business doesn’t exist and Billy’s dad collects unemployment. That might be a bit drastic but you get the idea. More realistically, Billy’s dad is probably not hiring because business is slow.

The US has bifurcated into two economies: what I refer to as the ‘social economy’ and the real economy – the one you and I live in. The social economy is truly all about who you know. These are the people who end up in cushy middle management positions that don’t demand hard analytical or quantitative skills. Think mid-level executive at a television studio or advertising agency. Have you ever seen that movie “What Women Want” with Mel Gibson? Remember his job in that movie? He basically brainstormed silly adverstising campaigns with that chick from Mad About You for a living and got paid well to do it (see: his Chicago high-rise condo). You mean to tell me that job requires a 4-year college degree? I don’t think so. I know it’s just a movie but somewhere on Madison Avenue, that job exists (think about it: SOMEONE has to come up with all those stupid commercials that ruin football Sundays). It’s a job in the social economy and ONLY people in the club get to apply. You and I are not in the club. It’s why we see TV shows that are horrible from day one like Whitney. It’s why we see movies that are so obviously stupid you have to wonder how they ever got made (I’m looking at you, Parental Guidance). It’s how Andy Reid gets hired as head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs after fumbling through two inept seasons in Philadelphia. It’s also how Eric Mangini, who was an absolute failure as New York Jets head coach, gets hired as an analyst at ESPN. Of all people, I would not trust Eric Mangini’s football acumen given his performanace in the NFL. This economy does not recognize bottom line performance or results. The performance is who you know and the results is quid-pro-quo. I’m speculating but my guess is that Eric Mangini’s agent owes ESPN a favor for taking his shit-bag client as an “analyst.” Or maybe ESPN was returning a favor. I wonder who else is on that client list.

The real economy is the one you and I learned about in Econ 101. It’s all about supply & demand. It only rewards those who can provide skills or services that the market demands. As a software engineer, I am firmly embedded in this economy. The quality of my code is the only factor that determines my employability. If my code sucks, I don’t get work. There isn’t much more to elaborate on this economy.

Until the financial meltdown, I suspect a good deal of the US was operating in the social economy. Middle class businesses probably took on two employees for a job that could have been done by one or kept on a few people who were no longer needed in order to keep people happy. The meltdown of 2008 shuffled the deck and a lot of people got tossed into the real economy without knowing it. Corporations used the crisis as a pretense for massive layoffs and cutbacks (notice how quickly corporate profits rebounded after 2008?). Evidently, corporate America was hiring friends and family even at the bottom of the ladder. As Steve Jobs said, those jobs aren’t coming back. This is the new economy and people will be forced to reckon.

There’s no real message and this post isn’t meant to be a guiding light in any way. It’s just the world as I see it. Which economy are you in?

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Living In Fear

My first job out of college was as a math teacher at a small private school in Connecticut. The woman who hired me, let’s just call her Susan, was the division head and one of the top administrators on campus. She answered directly to the head of school who answered to the board of trustees. During the Fall, Susan was abruptly informed that she would not be asked to return the following year and that she should start looking for another position. She was devastated. It was October and the school year had hardly begun. Susan fell into a deep depression and started missing work frequently. Before long, she stopped showing up altogether. By December, she was completely gone from the school. Last I heard, she was running a yoga studio in MA (I’m glad her story didn’t end tragically).

Stories like Susan’s serve as cautionary tales to people primarily motivated by fear. These are the people who advise you to act a certain way in order to make sure you get a good recommendation. They tell you to work long hours and sacrifice thyself for the greater good in the hopes of fortifying job security or maybe even gaining that promotion. These people are glad to live in a situation that can be completely upended at the behest of just a few decision makers. These people live in fear.

Everyone knows that the middle class is being phased out and corporate loyalty doesn’t exist. Job security is a quaint notion of the past and wages are being driven down by automation and global competition. It’s scary out there and the companies know it. What labor needs to recognize is that this sitatuion can be empowering. No matter what companies tell you, good human capital is still the rarest commodity and cannot be automated or outsourced. Now is a great time to be an independent worker. There are myriad opportunities for people who can find untapped value. For example:

1) When I lived in Connecticut, there were many many times where I was starving at 1am but was not well-suited to operate a vehicle (ahem). An enterprising young man could have easily started a service that delivered to people like me for a 30% surcharge.
2) Have you been to the mall lately? Have you seen the wait times at the Cheesecake Factory or PF Changs? Why hasn’t anyone started a professional waiting service? They wait in line for you, and when it’s your turn to get a table, they text you. $5.00 for the convenience of not waiting in line for 30 minutes? I would pay that.
3) In NYC where I live now, there are a TON of people who want websites/apps/software made on the cheap but don’t want to hire oversees. They can’t afford people at my rates but I also know a lot of developers who are trying to gain experience and are willing to work at cut-rate. I’m not a headhunter so I’m not interested in brokering this kind of deal but there is a definite opening here for someone who can bridge that gap.

The common theme here is that you have to find value where ever you can and exploit it. It’s no loner enough to be a moderately skilled assembly line worker and exepct to be employed for 30 years. But for those with the right motivation, it’s actually a great time and there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Even if money is tight and and it’s hard to get things off the ground, it’s better than living in fear.