Reflections on 2017
When clicking on the links, it'll be necessary to scroll up a little again because it doesn't quite jump to the right spot.
- Social Issues
- Reflections on work and software
- Personal reflections
It's 2018. We are already almost through the first month. I've been thinking of reflecting on 2017 for a while and writing down my thoughts but I only just found the time.
2017 was a long long year for me. There's been incredible highs and terrible lows. It's been a year of some major learnings, a lot of growing up, some growing older, and a deep sense of inner satisfaction and peace. In many ways I attribute a lot of this change to being a father now. What used to be important to me is now a big basket of whatever, and whatever was in the whatever basked was moved out to make space for all the stuff that was just dumped into it. Some of that whatever is now pretty important to me.
Many of my beliefs were shattered in 2017. I think I hit the point of being generally skeptical of starry eyed cognitive dissonance masquerading behind a banner of youthful confidence. I also found a much deeper level understanding of the issues that women, and minority groups fight for. Thanks James (AKA, the Google Manifesto Bro). At this point though, I don't have strong opinions about almost anything. The only things left are Test Driven Development, and that the current schooling system is a root cause for a growing part of society that cannot apply critical thinking to a given situation.
If it was possible to do so, I've become even more of an introvert. And that's not necessarily a good thing. At this point I'm falling into long stages of being a hermit. In one way I love the solitude while in another way I'm learning to recognise how that's damaging my mental health silently.
Like I said, it's been a long long year. I don't believe in reflecting after a whole year. These reflections are a collection of ones I've had throughout 2017. Collected for easy reference as a reminder to the days past. Here they are.
For anyone who might be reading this, before you read them, I've written a lot of it in a voice that might sounds like advice rather than reflection. It's how I write. Where appropriate, think of this as me shouting at my inner voice. If you'd like to imagine it's me shouting at you instead, by all means go ahead :).
2017 was a year I made a lot of progress in listening to social issues. I paid attention and tried to do away with my beliefs that I could come to an acceptable position by just debating an issue in my head. I learnt to recognise that I would have biases and the only way to overcome that would be to listen to a lot of voices different to my own. So I unfollowed everyone on Twitter and YouTube. I followed more women. More people of colour. I followed conservatives and liberals and I followed extremes on both sides. I kept listening to their arguments before finally settling down on some realisations of my own.
Gender equality still has a long way to go and we can help.
To all the women who survived 2017, I salute you. I absolutely want this to be the first reflection I write. I've spent a couple of years before 2017 following the discussions around women's rights/issues. I've listened to all sides, but it was only in 2017 that I found myself becoming really sensitive to all the little things that seem to have become a norm in our society these days. James Damore played a huge part in all of this by writing his logically flawed document. I won't link to it. It does not deserve further reach.
Basically at a higher level, if you are a woman you can expect every aspect of what you say to be scrutinized and questioned repeatedly by a more male dominated "ruling class". People mock the idea of a patriarchy. But it's real. James' document was a great example of this where he equated the idea of biological differences with why women might be seen less in higher level roles or even in the software industry at all. The problem with this wasn't the fact that he had the idea. It was that it was spread with "he might have a point", and it brought us back a full circle to the point that women are constantly asked to prove why they deserve an equal chance.
And yet people still mock this idea that there's a patriarchy holding back women. It's like we completely forget that not long ago women were considered somehow too inferior to cast a vote. We know what a dumb idea that was now, but back then men held back women with the same damn line of thinking that James Damore had which was, "Eh. Women are different from men. That probably is why they aren't really worthy of participating in a given activity".
No. There's history behind all of this and it's how we got here. There's a ton of bad history and people are still trying to unwind all of that. So when I say we can help, I mean that the next time you hear a woman say that they are fighting the patriarchy, don't quote some two bit talking points to say they have nothing left to fight for in modern culture. They do. They have years of shit to unwind so listen to them. And recognise that it's quite likely that you have biases that are getting in the way of a better judgment for them and yourself. It's the least we can do. Which brings me to the next two reflections.
History teaches us a lot. Read it.
I think we ignore history too much. There's too much that we put in context of today's world and say "ohhh look at how these people are!" and we just ignore the entire context of how we got here in the first place. I've been reading history from recent times and I'm working my way backwards.
A lot of the problems we have today for example, economically and socially, have a heavy link to colonialism. I say surprising because there are still situations in the world that can be traced directly back to the effects of that time. Those effects are still very much in play and it's unlikely they'll ever be resolved. Entire communities living in poverty because their origins go back to being from families of slaves or concubines. We are talking three generations away at most.
Reading history is fascinating. I wish that it was taught differently in school where we learnt events going backwards and then traced their effects going forward. It's a beautiful dance. But be prepared for a lot of darkness. There's a terrifying amount of incidents that have placed people where they are now. Still fighting for the right to be considered human. Which brings me to the second of the the two reflections I mentioned above.
When minorities voice their grievances. Listen.
People mock political correctness. A lot. And in some cases they are right. There is such a thing as silence in the name of conformity. To say it cannot exist on one side of an argument is foolish. But that should not be a default argument especially where minorities are concerned. Listen to the argument. Carefully weigh their words and even if you find the grievance "too extreme" to deal with, find the source of the grievance. Talk to them. Dig into it.
A good example is the use of the word "guys" in a conversation where women are participating in it. There are women who don't appreciate it. I don't know if it's a lot but many women who I have spoken to dislike it. But they shrug it off as just another thing they have to deal with. It's a tiny little cut that keeps excluding them or reminding them of the fact that the conversation would still be really comfortable without them involved. Many people find this to be an extreme position.
I've been on the other side however where I find that a lot of language around parenting doesn't really make an effort to include me as a father. Look at a changing station sign. It's almost always an icon of a female changing a baby. What? Am I not good enough to change my baby's diaper? It's one of those things that gets to you over time. And it's one of those things that I've learnt to listen to.
Most of the time, I find that ego gets in the way of making a small adjustment that would be super helpful for making other people really comfortable. And it's important to make that adjustment because when you look back into history, you'll find an entirely different perspective of how we got here in the first place. And when you do, you just might realise that how we behave seem to be biased against the people who were simply on the unlucky side of history's coin toss.
Reflections on work and software
2017 was a weird year in terms of work I do and the software world in general. Core beliefs of "software is making the world better" were shattered. The sparkling facade was torn down and a more sterile and cruel face was shown to be living in the same house of cards we work in. My own beliefs of who I want to be and ambitions I had changed. Much of it faded away. And these are the reflections that got me here.
The arrogance of youth is both uplifting and destructive
I'm 29 years old now. When I was 20 and in university, I thought that Facebook and Twitter and every other social media company that came to life at the time was epic! Software is eating the world was my mantra. I looked at the "old fogeys" and thought "yea whatever, I can do better than you". In many cases, that arrogance was beautiful. It gave fresh perspective to problems that people had over time forgotten in the name of experience and expertise.
It's only now that I realise how destructive that same arrogance can become. I don't believe that Mark Zuckerberg actually understands for example what madness he has introduced into the world for example. He actually believes that he's making the world a better place in every way possible. That's not to say he isn't helping at all. That's the beautiful part. But turning society into mindless consumers where you are intentionally feeding off evolution's weaknesses to create a dopamine filled environment of unproductiveness? That's destructive. That's destructive arrogance.
But it doesn't stop there. I watch these days as I see youth throwing their life into companies that in all honesty, aren't doing much more than creating advertisements and websites for digital consumption. It's not world changing. It's not the same as pouring your days and nights into inventing something that will cure breast cancer. We have the arrogance of youth carelessly encouraging others to join a life where you spend day and night at the office. Most of which is not productive mind you. And there's history screaming at us that this is just a dumb idea but no. Embrace the grind! The grind doesn't have to mean long sleepless hours. It might mean many 8 hour days where all you do is focus relentlessly on making something happen. But that's not the grind anymore. Oh and also when faced with gentle advice, "we'll rest when we are rich!".
I can go on.
The bitcoin network is consuming countries worth of energy every damn day. Read these quotes.
Today, each bitcoin transaction requires the same amount of energy used to power nine homes in the U.S. for one day.
The total energy use of this web of hardware is huge — an estimated 31 terawatt-hours per year. More than 150 individual countries in the world consume less energy annually. And that power-hungry network is currently increasing its energy use every day by about 450 gigawatt-hours, roughly the same amount of electricity the entire country of Haiti uses in a year.
By July 2019, the bitcoin network will require more electricity than the entire United States currently uses. By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.
And yet, we have youth exuberantly professing the values of a world changing currency which does of course have fascinating possibilities. But the arrogance of youth continue to disregard the points of damage that same technology has. At what cost?
Of course, it's not only the youth that is engaged in any of the above. But the youthful exuberance continues to push this forward where we should instead be learning from history and going in the opposite direction. But no. We keep convincing ourselves that we can do it right this time.
This is also a historical trend mind you. Nothing new. But in the world of software I think we are forgetting basic civic duties and ethical responsibilities towards our fellow humans. Instead, we are leveraging the distribution power we have now and are going around destroying things faster than ever before.
That last thing about ethics?
In software, ethics is the most important topic we can introduce today
Forget TDD. Forget agile. Forget microservices. Forget Docker, Lambda, Serverless, REST, RPC, and any other thingamabob you know. I realised we need to stop indulging in which new complicated layer we want to add on and instead take a moment to think about the ethical responsibility we have towards people.
That means we need to stop conversing about shipping dates and whether TDD is right or wrong, and instead talk about the ethical responsibility of providing correctness to a person who is investing time and money to use your tools. If TDD provides that, then it's a moral duty to adopt it. Not an option that should be weighed against whether or not the project manager is going to be happy about the time it takes to write tests. If a manual QA team is what works, then you still have a moral duty to adopt that practice. Even if it costs more.
We need to be having conversations about what is the right thing to do. The Netflix CEO even said on an earnings call that their main competitor is sleep. The sheer arrogance and lack of morals that one needs to have to say "yea I'm building a product where if someone sleeps less as a result of it, that's better" is astounding. But that's everywhere in our software these days. Sticky stupid notifications clouding up my phone using carefully crafted creative content to suck me in and keep me with them.
All hail the one true KPI of stickiness.
No. Take your dopamine rush exercise and go home. I'm going to war with this menace. And it starts with me adjusting my moral compass and ethics to ensure I'm doing no harm with the software I build. And that's just the baseline. I want to eventually adjust my moral compass to point me in the direction of doing good with software.
Since so much of my work ties into personal life, there's some overlap here. 2017 made me think really hard about what I want in life. A bunch of things happened that pushed me mentally and very nearly managed to drain me out entirely. This was also the year that I finally took my wife and son abroad for the first time. It was a trip to Singapore and we were there for 9 days. This gave me a lot of time to rethink how I was approaching things in life and what I would need to do to stop me burning myself out.
This is for anyone who might be reading this, if you are ever not in a great space mentally, do NOT be ashamed to seek out a therapist for help. I did that very quickly and while I didn't schedule any visits, I have her number stored so that I can reach out immediately if the need comes back. In my case, open chats with my wife who helped me through my thought process made a big difference for me.
All that said, these were the reflections I reached during 2017
It's possible to do your work, disconnect, and still be passionate at the same time
This is one that took my youthful self some time to realise. I have my son to thank for this. I used to think that being passionate about work meant being on about it all the time. If it wasn't at the front of your cortex that probably meant you didn't have a passion for it. And I don't mean just your job. I mean if you have work in something like software engineering you don't have to be going home and working on software to prove you are passionate. I don't have to have a hundred side projects that prove my passion. If my passion compels me to have a side project, that's good enough.
The point is that passion is non binary. Someone who can't stop coding is simply more passionate than I am about software.
It goes one step further for me. Not having major ambitions of advancement is also not a sign of lack of passion. After my son arrived, within a few months the idea of changing the world with software and the impact of it all and the feeling of importance around that ambition slowly started to vanish. This caused a deep identity crisis of sort for me. I wondered to myself if I was just a lazy person who wanted to amble through life with nothing to show for it. And this year, after everything I went through. It dawned on me that it isn't as big a deal as I thought it was.
For me, my only strong ambition in life now is to be around for my wife to live life with her, and to be there for my son to help give him the knowledge to navigate life independently. If I stopped working tomorrow to focus fully on those two, especially the latter, I'd have no issue. I woulnd't be facing any interal dilemma of feeling like I'm not doing enough.
And that doesn't mean I don't have passion. It might mean I have less passion than some other people. It doesn't mean I don't have ambition. It's just not my strongest ambition.
This little realisation which is quite fuzzy to be honest, was one of the best realisations I came to in 2017. It's liberated me to stop work for the day and the week and go focus on building nano block and mini block models instead. I'm dabbling in photography now. Colouring book. And I don't care what my github commit history looks like anymore.
I thought I was saying no enough. I wasn't
Related to the above point, I realised that I had said yes to a bunch of things that I couldn't commit to. And all because of this kind of internal drive to always be doing and always be having an impact. I honestly thought I was pretty good at saying no to most things really. But over the course of 2017 I said no to:
- Tech community meetups
- Coffee meetings
- Three job offer coffee meetings
- Two conferences
- A bunch of work that known acquaintances asked if I could help with
- All consultancy work I was doing
I've still got some loose ends to tie up. But I feel so good now that I can do things I want to do without the guilt of all those pending commitments coming up.
I was trying too hard to be somebody
The last reflection and once again related to the topic of passion. In 2017 I took a long look at social media. The people I know. The posts they put up. And I finally realised to myself that it's 99% bullshit. It's so fake that the 17 USD macbook seller said he couldn't compete with it and quit.
I watched as people who I know at a very personal level kept posting things that were completely at odds with what they actually felt. People who were deeply unhappy with their lot in life posted the happiest selfies and well edited landscape pictures of holidays they were on. Others who have failing businesses kept up the bravado and appearances of nothing ever being wrong. People who saw their families only late at night or during weekends because their boss wouldn't let them go home shared things that would make you think "wow, they have great life balance".
To be clear, I don't think it's a bad thing to post happy moments. But there's a difference between posting the interesting things in your life, versus colouring over everything so people will think everything in your life is only good.
I kept questioning myself. Why do we post to social media? Why do I want the world to know I'm at a hotel? Even if it's my friends, why do I want to blast out some update into the algorithms of the various social networks thinking that my friends will be able to "keep up" with my life? Is that my life anyway? Am I posting that I get up, walk to the bathroom, brush my teeth, go into an office room, work, take care of my son, work some more, and rest with family, and then do it over and over and over again nearly every single week day? Because that's my real life.
Why does it matter? Because somewhere out there, we are contributing to a world full of people who are breaking inside by thinking, "my life is nothing like that". Because deep inside, we are letting our ability to paint different pictures of our lives take over us instead of actually changing the things that need cleaning up.
For me personally, I realised that somewhere down the line I had fallen for the allure of being a voice amidst the noise. I wasn't saying or sharing something out there because I wanted to do it without any implied hopes that someone would appreciate it. It was the opposite. I wanted people to like it. I wanted them to share it. To comment on it. My whole mindset was being optimized towards the thoughts of "what can I do to get more?".
That ended in 2017. I stopped blogging. I took to writing inside of a little notebook. I mostly stopped tweeting. That too went to a notebook. I stopped sharing photos on instagram. Instead I bought a camera, took thousands of photos, spent hours on the computer editing them, and exported them to a 1 TB harddisk. No social media will ever see any of that. Some of the work I did, no one will ever see at all. It will become an inheritance for someone else in my family.
This blog post serves as proof of this change in me. At this exact point, without any edits, the post is more than 3900 words long. I have no hopes that anyone will read all of it. I don't care. I'll share it on social media maybe but the only expectation that I have is that someone might find something useful out of it. If no one comments, likes, shares, or does anything with it, I couldn't care less. If no one reads, I don't care. I'm writing this because I want to.
At the end of 2017
The most important thing I can say for myself is that at the end of 2017, I left it happier and more confident than I was coming in. May 2018 be just as good :) .
Posted on January 26 2018 by Adnan Issadeen