We are all writers of our craft. Which is why it astonishes me when I hear someone say, I have a huge passion for [a subject], yet I cannot put my thoughts into words. Across the globe, the ubiquitous subject that was taught to every student was writing. The argument on how well it was taught is up to debate, however. To write is to perform three acts interchangeably: reading, comprehending, and transforming thoughts into words that proclaim clarity. If you too are shackled by the fear of writing, pick up Writing To Learn by William Zinsser and simply devour it. It’s a feast for your brain.
Something about life at work
The beginning of June, I realized I would soon be reaching my three month anniversary at Salesforce. What substantial progress had I made? My first month dissipated in simply understanding what my team did, my second in kick-starting a major project and assembling the required teams, and my third in having multiple meetings and pouring over the same data repeatedly. I still hadn’t developed new models to improve security — the core mission of my project.
To say things were going fine would be ingenuine. As a product manager, I felt helpless without having a physical product to work on. With a physical product, you could hold focus groups, send out forms to collect people’s responses, observe how someone used your product and derive inferences. I had to build something to prevent attacks that hadn’t even happened yet.
I remember one afternoon when I felt extremely dejected and quite frankly frustrated that I didn’t know how to move forward, and did not have the guidance I had in a University. I went over to talk to a Senior Director who I knew well at the office. We spoke for about 20 minutes, most of which I used to pour out my worries while giving context to the problem. ‘Go back, pick one security incident that happened in the past year,’ he said, ‘and drill as deep as possible there.’ That wasn’t enough though — he wanted me to find a solution just for that specific incident.
I went back to the data I had, and handpicked a few incidents to go over and found the right people to talk to. Over several meetings, I slowly understood how it happened, what could have changed things, what mitigations they had in place now and how we can prevent it from happening. It was very useful advice, what he gave. I had conducted enough deep dives to understand what some of the use cases to tackle were. And then the next hurdle, how do you prioritize? Nobody teaches you that skill — neither in College nor at work.
My answer to that would be to look at what lies at the intersection of three things: what your team’s capabilities/timelines are, what the data tells you, and what the experts are telling you. However, in the end you need to make the decision. Even if the experts suggest going after one feature, their judgement could be clouded by their personal biases (maybe it would help their team in achieving a quarterly target). You need to trust your instincts, and push aside the fact that you are inexperienced while people around you have a decade backing them. It is because nobody else has put in the amount of hours trying to understand the problem or think of a solution — only you. So keep telling yourself that.
Something about life outside work
Since I came to Bellevue, I’ve been aching to meet journalists. The other freelancers out there can resonate with the sentiment when I say how time inefficient it is to get your first article published. There are two articles in my pipeline that have been waiting to see the light of day since long. You spend so much time reaching out to editors, and thinking of inventive ways to elicit a response that the time spent in deep work takes a hit. Yet, there is no way around it. Fame achieved overnight is ephemeral — so is the impact of a lesson when things come by easily. So, keep evaluating your experiments constantly. I can assure you that all you need is one person to respond, and then the power of network follows. I got that one after sending out a dozen emails.
It was a senior reporter from The Seattle Times. You know how sometimes you want to meet someone not only because you have a set of 10 questions to ask them, but simply to listen to them talk? That’s how I felt then, and during the three calls that followed with various reporters from around the country. One of the more noble professions out there is journalism. Or, to be more accurate, I feel it resides in people who strive to uncover the subjective verities behind every event, milestone and trauma, and complement that with what is objective. I was specifically gravitating towards data journalists who work on long-term investigative projects. One of the conversations I had was very memorable.
Every time I spoke to a journalist I began with the same monologue, ‘My name is Soundarya. I graduated from Columbia University recently, but NOT with a journalism degree though..’ I felt the need to qualify myself — I don’t know why. To set lower expectations? or to wow them with my continued passion despite a degree? It didn’t matter. ‘People who didn’t graduate with a degree in journalism are still reporters. But,’ he told me on the call, ‘I rarely see a journalist who can work efficiently with data without having a degree to support that. If you want to be a data journalist, stop looking at your background as a disadvantage — because it’s not. It’s a rare advantage that you should trumpet more.’ Once he said it, it made perfect sense.
I tell it to aspiring graduates all the time — it doesn’t matter if your GPA is low or you didn’t work on shiny projects. Worry about things that are in your control. I felt hypocritical when I didn’t follow that myself. What was not in my control was my degree, but how I positioned that can make a world of difference.
Something about life
Since I read Sapiens, I’ve been struggling with finding a North Star for morals. I grew up as an ardent theist — influenced by my conservative family — but somewhere in the four years during my under-graduation, I outgrew the necessity of the rituals and superstitions that I passionately clung onto growing up. Now, stuck somewhere between the juxtaposed definitions of an atheist and an agnostic, sometimes I wish I was a theist. Not for the promise of an idyllic afterlife, rather to escape the constant need to question things around while I’m alive.
A good book to begin understanding the complex web that is our human brain is Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely. It doesn’t teach you what an amygdala is or does, but it is filled with case studies and experiments that Dan conducted during his stint at MIT and other Universities. One of my memorable ones from the book involve how we behave at an office. If somebody kept a jar filled with one dollar notes on the kitchen table, would we feel morally righteous in pocketing some of those notes? Maybe not. However, replace the money with stationary, or packets of Hershey’s chocolates, and the scale tips. In his experiment he found that people are more likely to take money from their office as long as it’s presented in a form other than, well, money itself. The medium mattered for morality.
When I talk to a religious devout, I’m baffled by how many of the decisions I struggle with are so easily made for them by texts written hundreds of years ago. They have this surety, and conviction, when faced with a dilemma and the actions to be taken. I’m quite envious to be honest. Why does my brain crave for a justification every time? However, I know following the Bible or Gita is not the solution, and certainly not one I’m willing to adopt.
A possible solution is for Universities to encourage students in taking subjects that would help with such matter. We are coerced into taking a host of subjects which prove to be useless very early in our career, yet the ones needed are not even talked about. Time management, decision making, team building, psychology, ethics — why doesn’t anyone bring these up? Is it because of their shapelessness? That they don’t have a set of formulas to remember? That’s a shame. I don’t expect to walk away with a framework or a model from these courses. Even a hint at having knowledge on their history or how other people dealt with these situations would help.
Now we’re left with working harder to find the answers on our own.
Here are the previous two articles from the series:
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