The null process

We all have that friend who, while ordering at a restaurant, says ‘go ahead and order anything for me’. And when you order them a plate of asparagus pasta, they complain about how they hate asparagus.

We see a similar situation play out at work, where managers don’t establish processes, but expect them anyway. These managers avoid established processes with a good intention. They want to avoid taking away their team’s freedom and autonomy. Nevertheless, they harbour implicit expectations on how certain tasks ought to be performed.

In programming, a null variable is one that is defined, but not assigned a value. When this variable is used in an operation, it throws an error and derails the program. A null variable is one that ought to be present, but hasn’t yet been defined. Similarly, a null process is a process that ought to have been defined, but hasn’t yet been defined.

As managers, we all fear bad processes. However, when a task needs to be done, a process always exists to perform it. If we’re specific about how it needs to be done, we need to lay down a process. And yes – that process isn’t set in stone, and can be iterated and improved.

The key to being a good manager is to not fear processes, but to dance with them in iterations until they serve your team and your customers.

Inspiration: The Null Process

Goldilocks management

‘Please make dinner tonight.’

‘Please make lentil soup for dinner tonight. Have it ready by 7:30 PM.’

‘Please make lentil soup for dinner tonight. Use red lentils, celery, carrots, ginger, garlic and vegetable stock. Garnish with parsley.’

‘Prepare lentil soup for dinner tonight. Soak the red lentils beforehand. Peel the ginger, mince the garlic into tiny bits. Use coconut oil instead of olive oil. Go easy on the vegetable stock – else the soup will turn out too salty. Don’t boil the vegetables – that will overcook them. Instead, just sauté them. Stop! That is too much pepper.’

There is a degree of management that feels just right. Too little, and your team doesn’t have enough direction. Too much, and you stray into micro-management.

How does this recipe taste?

Say you have invented a recipe for a delicious lemon pie. Instead of making the pie itself, you tell your friend your recipe and ask her for her opinion on how the pie would taste.

Do this often enough and you won’t have any friends left.

Yet, this is precisely what we do with business ideas. We come up with elaborate ideas and pitch them to friends, investors and prospective customers. By doing so, we tell them all our recipe for lemon pie and ask them for their feedback on its taste.

The proof of the lemon pie is in the eating. The proof of a business idea is in how its product fares in the market.

What computers do

As knowledge workers, we do most of our work by thinking.

Productive thinking mostly takes one of two forms. Let us explore both these kinds of tasks with the example of writing this blog.

To write each post, I

– Compose them on a .txt file on my laptop

– I open up a browser and navigate to my site

– I create a new post, paste my text inside and save it

– I edit this post and schedule it for publishing later

Steps 2 and 3 are ‘routine’ steps. With every post, this process is the same. Doing them occupies my thinking, but are rather mechanical and thoughtless. As a consequence, I have automated these steps using a computer script. This script opens the browser and transfers unpublished drafts from my local machine to my WordPress site, so that I can edit them later.

Steps 1 and 4 are ‘creative’ steps. They require my creative input to be performed. If I don’t do them myself, they don’t get done well, and therefore, I cannot automate them away.

Computers are great at automating routine tasks, so that our minds are freed up to do more creative work. As they have gotten more sophisticated, they are capable of taking over more complex tasks that are, nevertheless, routine. Now, they also assist us creative tasks to some degree – the parts of this task that have a routine component to them.

We often think of computers as merely multimedia devices that can process information and play media. They are, however, better understood as extensions of human thought.

The answer is always a ‘no’

When you don’t negotiate your salary, you get whatever was on offer.

When you don’t put your hand up, the opportunity goes to somebody else.

When you don’t ask for help, you don’t usually receive any help.

When you don’t recognize your own achievements, chances are that other people won’t either.

We often expect the world to meet us halfway with satisfying our unspoken needs. Alas, that only works for babies.

When you don’t ask for something, the answer is always a ‘no’.

The non-obvious obstacles

Here’s how most startups fail before they even take off.

A founder looks at a problem in the market and proposes a solution to this this problem. They then go around pitching the solution and getting feedback on it. Usually, this feedback is encouraging, so they launch their product. However, the same people who provided enthusiastic feedback later hesitate to buy the product, and the startup eventually fails.

Why does this happen?

Well, with several problems we see in the world, the solutions appear obvious to us. Consider plastic recycling. Less than 10% of plastic that has ever been produced has been recycled. The answer appears obvious – waste segregation and a good recycling supply chain. However, it turns out

– most plastic we use isn’t suitable for recycling

– the part that is recyclable is often mixed in with other kinds of waste

– even if recycling is possible, it isn’t financially viable in most cases

– companies that produce plastic packaging have strong lobbies to ensure that policies work in their favour

Therefore, most waste produced even in developed countries is simply shipped to a landfill in a faraway country.

The truth is that most obvious solutions to real-world problems have non-obvious obstacles that are much harder to address. When we launch a product to test it out, we are often unaware of these obstacles. Some of these obstacles are the difference between a customer praising your demo and a customer making a purchase.

As founders, the challenge is to validate our problems and their non-obvious obstacles instead of validating our solutions.

How does a computer work?

You may think that a computer is complex, but at its core, a computer is so simple that it can boggle the mind.

You may have heard of a computer working in binary – with 0s and 1s. You may have also heard that a computer chip is comprised of transistors. Now let us demystify binary and transistors. A transistor is nothing but a tiny switch – very similar to one we use to turn lights on and off. When a transistor is turned on, it is said to represent the ‘1’ state. When it is turned off, it is in the ‘0’ state. If we place transistors in a row, we can represent any number, since we can convert binary numbers into any other base.

In a manner similar to how keys on a set of piano keys pushed together can produce chords, a bunch of switches arranged in different configurations can perform mathematical and logical operations. Now those numbers can also be combined using any arithmetic operation. A standardized mapping (also called encoding) of binary digits can help us represent various alphabets and symbols we use to write texts. This is nothing but a table that maps out binary values to letters. Et voila – a bunch of tiny switches can now represent text.

I could go on and on here. Every function of a computer boils down to a bunch of tiny switches and wires that connect them. Those wires are what you see when you open up a computer’s PCB and see the tiny lines of metal that run on its surface.

Any complex system, at is essence, is governed by remarkably simple components. Most complexity comes from repeating a simple construct over and over, until it gets hidden and obscured. True expertise lies in being able to peel back these layers to connect what we see on the surface to how it happens at the most fundamental level.

Inspiration: Patterns on the stone

An image of the mind

Programmers can tell a lot about how a person thinks by looking at their code.

A piece of code is a reflection of the mind. It is akin to a blueprint for a house. When you look at a blueprint, you can instantly tell if the house has been designed well. If you notice, for instance, that the shower is located inside the kitchen, you’ll instantly know that something is amiss. Programmers can interpret computer code in similar terms.

More broadly, the same principle applies to writing. You can read a piece of writing and tell if the author’s thinking on the topic is clear. Readable text that is logical and flows freely is a reflection of clear thinking. If you have to read and reread a paragraph to understand its meaning, the author’s confusion has been transmitted to your mind via their writing.

Writing is a great way to organize your thinking, because when you write, you are forced to spill out all the contents of your mind – confusion and all- on paper. By reorganizing the words on paper, you are also reorganizing your thoughts on the topic to make them coherent, cogent and clear.

Speed and efficiency

The people with the fastest typing speeds aren’t the best writers.

Elite long distance runners do most of their training at a pace much slower than their race pace. The key to running fast is to train slow.

A good programmer isn’t necessarily the fastest programmer. A good programmer takes the time to edit and rewrite her code to make it readable, maintainable and efficient.

We often confuse speed for efficiency. To be efficient is to take the time to do things right.

When was the last time?

As a bachelor in Hyderabad, I enjoyed going on long cycling rides. Every weekend, I used to ride about 80-100 kilometers across the green outskirts of my city along with a jolly bunch of fellow riders.

It has been more than 6 years since my last ride in Hyderabad. Ever since, I haven’t gone on a single such cycle ride. Yet, if you had told me after that ride that I would go 6 years without doing something like this, I would not have believed you.

When was the last time

  • you attended a concert?
  • played a team sport you really enjoy?
  • went for a walk just to go for a walk?
  • reread a book you always meant to read again?
  • went on a trek?
  • studied a course?

We have already had some of our best experiences for the last time, although we failed to realize this when we go through them. Understanding how scarce our best experiences are helps us savour them in the moments we are having them.

Inspiration: Sam Harris

The smartphone void

Most of us will find it hard to stay separated from our smartphone for a month.

What about a week? How would it feel if you did not have any access to your phone for an entire week?

If that is too hard, what about going for an entire day without a smartphone?

Say you notice that your smartphone is low on charge as you step outside the house, and don’t take it with you. In that moment, does it feel strange to remove the phone out of the pocket and leave it behind?

Does your smartphone accompany you to sleep? What would it feel like to not have it by your bedside?

There is a time interval for which every smartphone user will miss not having one around. How small does that interval need to be for it to register an alarm?

An exercise in humility

An argument is only half as good once I have written it down. This has often been my experience from writing this blog.

An argument we feel strongly about isn’t necessarily a strong argument. When you write an argument down, the feeling gives way to cold words on paper that are stripped of emotion. A written argument without its emotion has its weak logic exposed.

An argument always seems more potent in our minds than in reality. Staring at a blank page is a great antidote to this illusion.

The effect and cause trap

Celebrities lead lavish lives. Their fans sometimes also try and lead lavish lives to be celebrated and admired.

Yet, the reason they admired those celebrities are because they are great actors, entrepreneurs, sportspersons etc., and not because of their lifestyle.

Startups that need to scale often hire a bunch of talented people, hoping that all those people will help them grow at a rapid rate. If it helped Twitter and Uber scale, the same might work for them?

Yet, they often forget how Twitter and Uber scaled mainly because they had a great product – not because of how large their headcount was.

Athletes often endorse the high-end models of certain sporting brands. This tempts their young fans to also splurge on this equipment, in the hope that it will elevate their own game.

Yet, replacing standard sporting equipment with a high-end variant doesn’t really boost sporting performance.

The effect of celebrity is living it up. The effect of building a successful product is the need to hire a large team. The effect of being a world-class athlete is the privilege to endorse certain brands. Only too often, we mistake these effects for causes.

Cause and effect. In that order.

Bearing the unbearable

Have you ever experienced a feeling that was unbearable?

We have all had moments of pain, sorrow, anxiety and stress that have felt unbearable in that moment. Yet, after having experienced those feelings, we are still here. It turns out that we did bear them – that we were capable of bearing them.

The moment you experience discomfort, you have already borne it. What makes something feel unbearable is the fear of having to bear it in the next moment. Understanding this fear gives us the strength to bear that which was once unbearable.

Inspiration: Sam Harris

Protect the work

One of the best ways to grow your career as a good developer is to share your expertise with a community of fellow developers.

In every field, a handful of good developers write articles and speak at conferences about what they have learnt. These contributions often accelerate their careers.

However, there comes a point where these developers become inundated with speaking engagements, employment opportunities and other demands for their time. At that point, it is crucial for them to prioritize. They need to ensure that their other engagements do not come at the cost of writing code that is useful.

And yes, this principle applies to every other creative profession as well.

We often mistake interest in our work for its affirmation and approval. If we wish to preserve our creative edge, we must ensure that our other engagements do not come at the cost of whatever earned us those engagements in the first place – doing the work.

Inspiration: Maria Popova

This isn’t going well

Perhaps you were distracted this entire morning. Yet, there is no reason this evening cannot be one filled with focus and purpose.

Perhaps 50 minutes of an hour-long meeting didn’t lead anywhere. Yet, the 10 minutes that remain can spark something phenomenal.

Halfway into your workout, you catch yourself slacking off. Yet, you can push for the second half to be the toughest in a long time.

In the midst of an experience, we sometimes realize that it isn’t going well. In the moment, there is no reason why we cannot turn things around.

The power of instruction

My remote yoga sessions start with a pre-recorded warm-up routine.

With time, I knew the warm up session by-heart. I then stopped using the video and performed the routine from memory. However, I noticed a curious change. Somehow, the routine felt more boring, more tiring and more difficult to perform. I often ended up half-assing the warm up routine, which eventually led me to half-assing my entire yoga session.

I then went back to using the recorded warm-up video, and found that the rigour was back! I also enjoyed my sessions more. The reason this happened was because I no longer needed to spend precious mental energy on thinking about the warm-up routine while performing it. I no longer needed to keep count or keep track of which exercise was next. I simply followed along with the video.

Even if we know precisely what to do, we benefit from coaches and trainers. While they keep track of our training plans and routines, they liberate us to focus 100% on our performance and on improving it.

PS: My wonderful yoga instructor happens to be my mother. Happy Mother’s day!

I am just one person

How much power do you have over your fellow human beings?

Have you had a family member who has changed the course of your life? Have you had a friend who has intervened in a time of crisis?

Have you had a teacher, a boss, or a colleague, who inspired you to transform as a person?

Have you had a waiter at a restaurant or a security guard made you smile and filled you with warmth in the tiny interaction they have had with you?

Everyday, we are on the other side of all those equations. As family, friends, colleagues, bosses and customers, we all have tremendous power over the people we interact with. What’s more? This is just as true for the investment banker, as it is for the social worker. It is just as true for the CEO of a company as it is for its janitor.

Philanthropy is far more accessible than we think it is. It is available to each one of us, in every moment. Once we realize this, how are we going to show up in ways that we can be proud of?

Van Gogh without his art

We often hear people talk about how genius and insanity are intertwined.

Van Gogh is often portrayed as the tortured artist who struggled with mental illness throughout his life, which he eventually took. People celebrate Van Gogh’s genius, but often pity that it came at such a dear cost to his mental health and his well-being.  If that is the price for genius, is it really worth paying?

We often ask if it is Van Gogh’s art that fueled his mental illness and pushed him over the edge. Yet, we forget to ask ourselves another question – how many people suffer from mental illness, but are unable to create valuable art? How many people suffer from depression, but do not paint The Starry Night or Sunflowers? Unfortunately, far more people suffer from mental illness without creative genius to accompany it.

Sunflowers – Vincent Van Gogh

Seen another way, Van Gogh’s art didn’t cost him his life – it redeemed it. His art filled his otherwise tragic and meaningless life with some purpose. Without his art, Van Gogh would have merely been a poor man who suffered from mental illness in the Dutch countryside – one among millions of such people that we have long forgotten.

Inspiration: Maria Popova

‘Why didn’t you speak up earlier?’

A problem that most bosses, managers and CEOs have is a dearth of constructive feedback from their subordinates. When a small disagreement within their team snowballs into a large conflict, they often wonder why somebody did not speak up earlier.

The feedback we receive falls into one of three categories

– What we want to receive

– What we are open to receiving

– What we do not want to receive

From peers and subordinates, we only receive feedback of the first two kinds. It is only natural that they don’t tell us what we do not wish to hear, until things boil over.

Further, the kind of feedback we receive is largely a function of how much vulnerability we display. A boss who is always defending herself and covers up her mistakes is likely to receive much praise, but never any constructive feedback. Unfortunately, this only reinforces their sense of invulnerability.

Growth lies in feedback that is unpleasant, but that which we are open to receiving.

As a leader, if you don’t receive constructive feedback from your team, it is mostly because you aren’t ready to receive it yet. What can you do to change that? How can you signal that you are open to critique?