The Future of Work: An Individual Perspective

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. 

In this piece I suggest a framework to prepare for that future at an individual level, (one I have used at every decision point of my career). I also intend this piece to serve as a final one for my series on ‘Musings on a BITSian Life’.

To recap from Future of Work: A Vision

“As the rate of change of relevant skills becomes higher, one will have to take bigger and more frequent bets with their time to develop new skills and specializations. This cannot happen if one is not passionate, disciplined, talented etc. but most importantly this cannot happen if one’s work is not a good representation of one’s self, one’s aspired identity. The resilience and endurance required to keep meeting waves of change cannot be developed if the actions required for this are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.”

The Future of Work: A Vision

To have some clarity on that last bit, I propose that a person should have a reasonably good idea of where they stand on two graphs.

Risk Endurance Profile

In Asian households, there is a misguided refrain oft repeated motivating children to put in grueling efforts for grades/entrance exams to have a shot at an elite education. It goes something to the effect of “Study for 10th grade /national board exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study for 12th grade/SAT exams, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Study engineering/medicine, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Do an MBA, you can enjoy life later”. Then after a few years: “Get into investment banking or consulting, you can enjoy life later.” Then after a few years: “Get promoted, you can enjoy life later”. This is a version of the work treadmill I have described, for young people. This sentiment and its psychological impact on young people has been captured beautifully in the international hit movie: 3 Idiots.

As I have argued here that this advice has several problems with it but the most important one is that it is outdated and irrelevant. With the highly visible success of technology companies today via stock market, valuations, IPOs, and the buzzwords related to AI being hyped everywhere, newer parents might advise their children to study computer science because that seems to be the future. That would indeed update the advice, however it would still remain mistaken.

Just as an example, the competitive advantages of knowing generic computer science are also thinning away rapidly. It is already advisable to develop expertise in particular branches of computer science or machine learning or combination fields such as robotics, NLP. And that trend is only going to continue. 

The real point is that if you are on a path or a trajectory, moving forward on it will only require you to become more and more of what got you there. Not only will you have to do more of it but you will most likely have to get very good at it. If you have to change yourself too much to get somewhere, its a great indication that the whole destination should be re-evaluated. Because the dissonance between the journey and the self, if it exists, usually only gets worse. As career trajectories become more exponential, winner-takes-most in nature, this question of re-evaluation will become more important for more people.

Therefore when standing at a decision point i.e. choosing a journey and a destination, one must have some understanding of where one stands on this graph. What are the risks of that path and does one have a reserve of endurance to face their downsides? A lot of people know this somewhat intuitively and frame the question in different ways but those questions are essentially finding one’s place in this graph:

Risk Endurance Profile

There are two very important notes to keep in mind during this thought exercise: 1) This assessment can change over time. For example, you may find yourself in possession of more financial resources increasing your appetite for risk or endurance. Similarly your life’s circumstances may change due to external factors making it impossible to take high risks. So very crucially, 2) this assessment is not a judgement. Some egoistic “self-unaware” people would like to think that placing oneself in a low-risk-low-endurance category would be undesirable. However this assessment is not necessarily intrinsic to your character. For example most societies suffer from a systemic lack of imagination about women’s roles in the future of work, education and productivity. There are societies where nobody wants to invest in them (ensuring 0 endurance) and nobody wants to take a bet on them (ensuring 0 risk taking ability). This leads to social systems forcing a certain quadrant on a certain demographic of society. Therefore placing yourself on this quadrant is not so much a judgement but an honest look at where you stand and what may lie ahead. 

Aggressive-Passive-Independent-Conventional

The first graph was mostly about placing oneself on it. I also argue that it is not intrinsic to who you may be as a person. But the next graph may be more so.

No (wo)man is an island. I struggled for a very long time to crystallize the many ways in which you also need to understand and place the people who surround you, a mental model of sorts for people. But then I came across this exceptional essay by Paul Graham on ‘The Four Quadrants of Conformism’ and there was an aha moment. Here is my attempt at a pictorial representation of the quadrants he has laid out. Of course every word of that essay explaining the quadrant is worth a read.

Axes of Conformism

Why is this useful? Sometimes when you are too embedded inside a group of people like high-school friends, college friends or family, it is hard to see the bigger or the real picture. The usual tendency is to consider anyone with a different orientation inferior. Thinking for a few minutes about people surrounding you on these axes might bring reality closer home. 

For example in a previous essay, I have described how groups which don’t have a clear purpose tend to be exceptionally subjective. Groups that don’t have much clarity on why they are together look for artificial reasons to stick together, often fermenting and rotting in each other’s company. Instantaneously becoming more rigid, closer and suspicious of newer arrivals and further entrenching that process. If your bond with someone/something derives strength from stepping on someone else, ironically that entity you collectively despise becomes the most important defining aspect of the relationship. Only groups that have strong clarity on why they are together can also at the same time be agile enough to discover new people.

Which kind of group are you in? Which group of people do you have a problem with? Placing both on a graph can lead to better understanding and better preparation for the future.

I’ll end with two things (relevant mostly for young people). It is remarkable how much our institutions encourage pattern-following and rarely ever provide the tools for pattern discovery (let alone pattern-questioning, maybe the reason we are set up in a race with ourselves for self destruction, hello climate change!).

As I elaborate on this point in the context for college students in this essay, developing a good question and finding the right people to ask it are both incredibly important, yet very hard. But an inexperienced person is in the unique position to seek out many people, study many journeys and observe the outcomes. To separate the traveler from the journey and the destination. To carry out good great pattern discovery.

The worst* kind of young people are people who think an earlier time in history was a better time, who look back at history, convention and tradition and believe that some prior combination of these was better. It means that they have bought into the power systems which have caused the world as it stands today. (You could be a completely ignorantly blissful person and say “so what’s the problem with the world as it stands today”, but I highly doubt such a person would even be reading this right now).

The best kind of old people are people who are excited for the future and wish they could live a little longer because it demonstrates a vision for an improved possibility, likely one that their life’s work has contributed to. You must decide pretty early on which kind of young person and which kind of old person you want to be.

Epilogue

I must acknowledge Sahil Shah, my husband, who brought Paul Graham’s essay on conformism to my attention.

If you ever wonder, why I wrote all of this, I answer that here.

*P.S. Thanks to a new trend of hyped up lists of 30-under-30, 40-under-40 entities (people, startups, wannabe twitter celebrities etc.), there is a new contender for the worst category. I do not want to waste too many words on this professional version of attention seeking. Also, I am totally in the market for any comprehensive analysis which could answer questions like: How many startups which showed up in the 30-under-30 category were able to survive 5 years after that. Or if any managed to transition to the 40-under-40 category. Analogous questions for people. Or if the number of twitter followers or facebook fans is actually correlated to any meaningful real life metric such as funding, valuation, revenue etc. Enough words wasted already. Moving on.

The Future of Work: A Vision

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In this post, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

The Real Implications of ‘Winner-Takes-Most’

I’ll draw upon the shift that is happening in the world of computer vision to demonstrate my point. Deep learning, the latest buzzword in the field today really established its place at the forefront of machine learning in 2010. Deep learning approaches were being developed by a group of researchers since the 1990s. A culmination of advances in processing power like GPUs and large labeled datasets like ImageNet created the perfect arena. One in which the deep learning approach finally demonstrated that it could significantly out do traditional computer vision approaches. Quite rapidly, almost overnight, the expertise of traditional computer vision researchers & practitioners became outdated. While the original scientists and researchers worked in relative obscurity to develop these ideas, it was their students and 2nd generation PhD students who find themselves in the most advantageous position today. External viewers of this phenomenon (such as journalists, new students etc.) are processing this disruption in 3 ways:

right-time-right-place

This attitude supposes that all or (at the very least) the 2nd wave of early students in the field were in the right place at the right time to capture the deep learning wave.

rapture

This attitude places the original researchers, the 2nd and 3rd wave of researchers all in the same category. That category being one of iconoclastic geniuses more or less.

this-is-the-usual (technological-disruption)

This attitude looks at history and normalizes the deep learning wave as yet another example of the long history of technological disruptions.

Each of these perspectives captures and yet misses some important part of the whole picture. 

right-time-right-place attitude acknowledges that several veins of technological/science research require similar kinds of ingenuity, creativity, and technical brilliance. It tries to reduce the perceived gap in the merit of less successful but similar efforts carried out with the same intention and integrity.

this-is-the-usual tries to bring some perspective to the scale of upheaval a technological disruption brings about by normalizing it with history. However, it trivializes the fact that there is hardly ever anything “usual” about birthing something new. 

Both right-time-right-place and this-is-the-usual (technological disruption) attitudes do not give adequate recognition to the amount of risk, courage of conviction and effort it takes to believe/test new ideas. Especially in the face of powerful convention.

The rapture, hero-worship attitude in contrast to the other two gives ample recognition to the risk and courage of conviction it takes to birth new ideas in the face of excruciating uncertainty and occasional hardline naysayers. Yet it is probably off the mark the most in terms of creating a gap between the many similarly courageous people and their efforts.

These prevalent attitudes are not merely my observation. They are pretty much directly reflected in the common wage structure today. In 2014, two researchers from University of Bangkok and HBS conducted a survey about “How Much (More) Should CEOs Make?”. I encourage the reader to stare for a little while at the 2 graphs on a blog post about this study.

Briefly, in the United States, people estimated that CEOs make about 30 times more than an “unskilled” worker. Again most people think that should number should be 7.

30 and 7. Thats one chasm.

Now here’s the real deal, that number in reality is 350.

7 (ideal) –> 30 (estimated) –> 350 (actual)

That is an even bigger chasm.

A Hypothesis

A common framework that everyone tries to fit the changing equation of Work, Value/Productivity into is one of capitalism and socialism. But these frameworks are no longer sufficient and out of touch with reality. The crux of the problem is this:

All attempts to solve society’s problems/create value can be categorized into 3 buckets. 

  1. Successful attempt – the one that actually worked.
  2. Unsuccessful attempts – the ones that lacked one or more factors preventing them from becoming Successful attempts.
  3. No attempt
  4. <Fraud>

Pure socialism is the right-time-right-place/this-is-all-luck attitude taken to its extreme. It assumes that the gap between (1), (2) and (3) is near zero. Crucially it almost makes no distinction between unsuccessful attempts and those who make “No attempt”. Any person who has tried to create something of value (whether successful or not) cannot be true to themselves and accept this value system at the same time (especially those who have suffered the downsides of being in category (2)).

Pure capitalism is the rapture attitude taken to its extreme. It assumes that there is a huge gap between (1) and (2) and that it is justified. Specifically, it assumes that the reward gap between a successful approach and other similar approaches should exist (in the name of incentive/competition etc). Because of this crucially, it also places (2) and (3) at the same level (of near zero utility).

So here is my hypothesis for the crux of the problem:
Current Value systems underestimate how much a Successful attempt (1) is actually a function of Unsuccessful attempts(2). We need several different perspectives, attempts and approaches for the many unsolved problems facing the world today. This underestimation is another reason why current Education, Work, Value systems are so comfortable ignoring the human potential of women and large swathes of other under-represented demographics. Moreover and equally importantly, any value distribution framework will have to find a way to first differentiate between (1) and (2) and (3) and subsequently maintain those differences at “reasonable” levels.

True, real innovators mostly appreciate how deeply and extensively (1) is a function of (2). Geoffrey Hinton, a pioneer of deep learning, the field and example I have chosen to anchor this discussion, recently said, “The future depends on some graduate student who is deeply suspicious of everything I have said.” (*There is greatness and then there is transcendence). 

Grounded in this hypothesis of value creation, I lay out a vision of the Future of Work.

A Vision (for Work & Value)

About Work.

The lifecycle of change and disruption is going to become shorter and the rate of change faster in all walks of life. Thanks to automation, technological disruption and shifting labor markets, the gains from specialization are going to be exponentially high, massive. Leading to increasing winner-takes-most scenarios. But only until that specialization is relevant and only until that winner-takes-most advantage is not commoditized or regulated away. To become a winner in this winner-takes-most scenario and to reestablish a specialization in a new area, one has to take bets and spend time in areas that may generate value in the future. Areas for which it would not at all be clear or certain that spending time in it is going to lead to those substantial exponential gains that will make that time bet worth it. This is a vision for ‘Work’ part of the equation.

Now about ‘Value’.

In this changing scenario, Maslow’s Hierarchy, a concept devised in 1943, holds the key for how the perception of ‘Value’ is going to change. 

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy are classified as ‘Deficiency’ needs. Two very important characteristics of those needs are that the longer they are denied, the more a person becomes motivated to fulfill them. However, once they are fulfilled to reasonable levels, people are more motivated to transition to higher levels of the pyramid instead of fulfilling those needs in greater amounts or to a higher quantity.

The picture changes completely when an individual transitions to fulfilling a ‘Growth’ need such as creativity, self-expression etc. These needs may become stronger as they are engaged. They do not exist because of the lack of something but from the desire of an individual to reach higher levels of self actualization.

Herein lies the key to that future of work. As the rate of change of relevant skills becomes higher, one will have to take bigger and more frequent bets with their time to develop new skills and specializations. This cannot happen if one is not passionate, disciplined, talented etc. but most importantly this cannot happen if one’s work is not a good representation of one’s self, one’s aspired identity. The resilience and endurance required to keep meeting waves of change cannot be developed if the actions required to do them are not in sync with who you are and who you want to be.

As a corollary, traditional rat races (manifested in entrance exams, school grades bell curves, promotion bell curves, traditional careers and their ladders) are not only dehumanizing etc. but that they are already and will rapidly become irrelevant. Talk to most super achievers in their fields, whether politics, technology, art, law etc. and you will find that their hours only increase as they transition up the pyramid, not decrease. External observers (like journalists, retired past generation) focus only at the value society provides top performers in exchange for these hours in terms of money and labels it a success. However, this situation can only realistically be called a success if those hours contribute to that person’s idea of who they want to be. For example, I do believe this is one of the reasons top actresses have such a hard time making peace with who they are when they are at the top, irrespective of the pay. Because they realize that suddenly the sex symbol image that was helpful on the way to the top is no longer in sync with their needs for respect, prestige and control over pay in a highly sexually misogynistic society.(*1)

A thumb rule to discern these kinds of ‘top performers’ which has anecdotally worked for me is: People who’s success is out of sync with who they want to be, go to great lengths looking for external validation. They regularly engage in ego-matches and show-off contests to bridge the gap. Anecdotally, the thumb rule also seems to have a good prediction rate for sustained future success of that entity (person, group, company, community etc.).

This was the vision for future of work as it would look like to an individual. At the system level, institutional level I do think that the survival of a society will depend on how much we can enable people to do (2) so that as a group we have a real shot at (1). The key may really be in enabling a lot of people to take risks and experiment. It is to provide more people both the incentive and the safety net to experiment with new approaches, take risks and improve existing or outdated systems. And reward them if through their risks, they develop something of true value to society that solves a real problem. (Universal Basic Income is one financial vehicle that is being touted as a possible way to achieve this).

As political systems have demonstrated again and again, they rarely wake up in time to deliver opportune solutions to people’s problems. They usually have to be jolted into such a state with ugly processes like war, revolutions, violent protests and painful sacrifices of their victims. Since governmental politics is inter-connected with education, the wheels of motion are slow there too. As COVID-19 is already demonstrating, most universities in the developed world are having a hard time coming up with any logical, coherent approach for their modus operandi for the crisis. Not having invested in modernizing education, most are struggling with upgrading to online methods and are quite unabashedly passing on the buck to students. Therefore it is unlikely that large scale systems will change in any meaningful way to handle the already changed or changing nature of work and productivity.

There are some people who have the “good fortune” even today of living in that future of work. The upsides seem to be

“offices in the rich world’s capitals are filled with clever people working collaboratively.…The pleasure lies partly in flow, in the process of losing oneself in a puzzle with a solution on which other people depend…shaping high-quality, bespoke products from beginning to end…design, fashion, smooth and improve, filing the rough edges and polishing the words, the numbers, the code or whatever is our chosen material. At the end of the day we can sit back and admire our work – the completed article, the sealed deal, the functioning app – in the way that artisans once did, and those earning a middling wage in the sprawling service-sector no longer do….Work is a wonderful refuge (from emotional troubles).” 

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

It looks great so far but in the face of lacking systemic support to step out of it, the same things that provide these advantages are also the reasons that over time will become points of weaknesses.

“…it does not allow us much time with newborn children or family members who are ill;…Or to develop hobbies, side-interests…it makes failure or error a more difficult, humiliating experience. Social life ceases to be a refuge from the indignities of work. The sincerity of relationships becomes questionable…they befriend their clients because they spend too much time with them…Stepping off the treadmill does not just mean accepting a different vision of one’s prospects with a different salary trajectory. It means upending one’s life entirely: changing locations, tumbling out of the community, losing one’s identity. Spending our leisure time with other professional strivers buttresses the notion that hard work is part of the good life and that the sacrifices it entails are those that a decent person makes. This is what a class with a strong sense of identity does: it effortlessly recasts the group’s distinguishing vices as virtues.”

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

As this vision of work becomes a reality for more and more people, the revolution needed to prepare for it will have to be borne by the individual in their own personal lives. In the face of lacking leadership, support from the system, how do you prepare for this eventuality? This is what I talk about in my next article: The Future of Work: An Individual’s Perspective.

Epilogue

I must acknowledge Mahaveer Meghawat, my father, as many of the ideas in this post were sharpened over many many discussions with him.

I must also talk a little about ‘Education’. Of the 3 pillars from Work, Education & Value, Education is the least ‘valued’ today but probably the most fundamental to how individuals will choose Work in the future and perceive its Value. One school of thought posits that education reform is ‘THE’ key to looking at a brighter future. My favorite author on education reform in the Indian context, Prof. Arvind Kudchadker outlines a bold yet practical vision in his book ‘Creating a New Technological Institute’. This position is obviously true and relatable for almost every knowledge worker.

This 2014 essay on “Productivity And The Education Delusion” by Techcrunch editor Danny Crichton captures beautifully the many dilemmas this school of thought faces. (Totally worth reading).

What does an extreme form of this vision for the Future of Work look like? I encourage you to watch Chef’s Table episodes on Grant Achatz and Jeong Kwan in their entirety for a glimpse of this. (The episodes are an absolute treat to watch as an added benefit).

(*1)- I would refer the interested reader to the movie: ‘My Week with Marilyn’ and her wiki page for a real world example of this.

The Future of Work, but first Now & the Near Future

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In The Future of Work, but first a History , I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In this post, I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

The Treadmill (Now)

Technology, decentralization of work, globalization, these forces mean that increasingly most jobs are becoming winner-take-all or winner-take-most competitions.

“Banks and law firms amass extraordinary financial returns, directors and partners within those firms make colossal salaries, and the route to those coveted positions lies through years of round-the-clock work. Securing a place near the top of the income spectrum in such a firm, and remaining in it is a matter of constant struggle and competition”.

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

Constant competition, a requirement of long work hours for years on end has several other social outcomes. Firstly such competition encourages concentration i.e. such people cluster together. Therefore same relatively high earning people drive up the cost competing for other resources such as real estate, professional services, education etc.

Finally, this forms a feedback loop. The cost to achieve the same lifestyle keeps going up and so does the need to work ever longer hours for increased professional achievement to meet those costs. It is as if you are on a constant hedonic treadmill. This phenomenon has excruciating social outcomes for the individual, something that has formed the fodder for many TV series and movies. (E.g. Suits, Scrubs etc.).

(Notice that the so called 40 hour work week concept is practically irrelevant for knowledge economy workers today). Career trajectories are rapidly changing from linear to exponential for most parts of the economy. As mentioned earlier, while low skilled workers are forced to accept ever smaller pay rises to stay in work, high skilled workers need to work longer and longer to maintain their place in these exponential trajectories. Because that next jump will mean exponentially more for the individual than not fighting for it and staying in the same place.

The pyramid to the top has been a reality since the dawn of human society. However the point I’m trying to make is that the reward gaps in the pyramid are widening. The gap will gradually become unsustainable for those participating in it its lower rungs socially, psychologically and eventually financially (unless they score the exponential jumps up the pyramid). The 2nd point I want to make is that this pyramid is becoming longer, wider and more common in all kinds of industries. We may not realize but almost every knowledge economy job will start or already resembles the set up of competitive sports athletes.

Near Future

As articulated brilliantly in Armando Fox’s amazon book review of Ryan Avent’s book on the topic, if the current setup of the economy continues:

“Future employment opportunities will likely satisfy at most 2 of the following 3 conditions (employment trilemma):

  1. High Productivity & Wages
  2. Resistant to Automation
  3. Potential to absorb large amounts of Labor

Example of (1) ❌, (2) ✅, (3) ✅

To see the dynamic, consider the solar-panel industry. Increased productivity in manufacturing solar panels has caused them to drop in cost, creating a large market for solar panel installers, a job resistant to automation (meets criteria 2 and 3). But that same increased productivity means most of the cost of acquiring solar is the installation labor, limiting wage growth for installers (fails criterion 1).

As another example, consider healthcare. As technology increases the productivity of (or automates) other aspects of care delivery, healthcare jobs will concentrate in non-automatable services requiring few skills besides bedside manner and the willingness to do basic and often unpleasant caregiver tasks.

Example of (1) ✅, (2) ✅, (3) ❌

Consider artisanally-produced goods, whose low productivity is part of their appeal (meets 1 and 2). But the market for them is limited to the small subset of people who can afford to buy them (fails 3).”

I encourage you to read that amazon book review in its entirety. Totally worth every second you will spend reading it.

The Missing Piece of the Puzzle

Jefferson:
Uh! Our debts are paid, I’m afraid
Don’t tax the South cuz we got it made in the shade
In Virginia, we plant seeds in the ground
We create. You just wanna move our money around

…….
Hamilton:
A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor
“We plant seeds in the South. We create.”
Yeah, keep ranting
We know who’s really doing the planting

Hamilton by Lin Manuel Miranda

So far the discussion has focused on technological disruption, globalization, automation, shifting labor markets etc. as the primary movers causing dynamic changes in the equation between work, education and productivity. But this is not the only reason why general assumptions about this equation are at odds with realities of actual value generation in society.

The other primary reason is a social one.

“What work is valuable to society?” This question has always been answered only by a select group of people who represent only a certain demographic of humanity. Historically that demographic has always been powerful men. (And they haven’t gotten it right enough, ever). (And they have extensive mechanisms to keep the output of that value concentrated with themselves). Most social unrest across the world has originated from groups who did not have a say in this answer trying to fight for one. As automation increasingly catches up with aspects of work and society which were considered “valuable” by only this particular demographic, we are in turn periodically forced to reconsider what the term “valuable” means actually.

For example one such dissonance is in the work that the different genders do. As I argue in my essay on the origins of Wonder Woman:

“The work that women do in shaping the future of humanity (literally by raising children) and safeguarding the health of families has no formal recognition in that ever enigmatic metric of honor, GDP”.

Aaksha Meghawat: “The Myth of Wonder Woman”

This is not a plea for more consideration. Creating structural disadvantages for participants of this important aspect of society that moves it forward makes all of us the worse for it. This value creation shows up in other ways. For example, 70% of top male earners in the US have a spouse who stays home. The women in these households are creating value which goes on to create and preserve family legacies but they usually have little ultimate control over the return of that value. Modern economic society has no framework to deal with the value provided to it in rearing nourished, psychologically stable, positively contributing humans. It is probably the reason school teachers earn abysmally low amounts as well.

If we wake up Keynes from his grave today and ask him to imagine a household where both husband and wife are high skilled workers, he would probably describe a scenario hypothesized in Ryan Avent’s essay:

“Each may opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure.”

Further, regrettably 

“that didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children”.

Ryan Avent: “Why we work so hard?”

The exponential trajectory nature of knowledge economy jobs has something to do with this. However the artificial social constructs which decide whose labor is valuable and whose is not irrespective of how they benefit society also has a lot to do with it. These artificial constructs are what prevent that “sharing of housework” (and are problematic to say the very least).

“Those most at risk of technological disruption are men in blue-collar jobs, many of whom reject taking less ‘masculine’ roles in fast-growing areas such as health care”.

Equipping people to stay ahead of technological change

After a lot of efforts from many people across countries and cultures, the only recognition of the labor needed in raising children is parental leave. Beyond this the so called economic wisdom offers nothing for such an important aspect of society. (That silence or inadequacy is taken over routinely by even more archaic power structures such as Religion who attempt to undermine abortion, Planned Parenthood and other medical organizations, sabotaging efforts offering women more control over this process).

And this is not a new problem.  As the fictional rap exchange between Jefferson & Hamilton demonstrates, denying people the true value of their labor and boosting economic metrics has happened time and again. For example consider this short recap of Manumission in the US, capturing how the rise and decline of labor intensive crops directly affected society’s appetite and rules for freeing slaves. This is Goodhart’s law playing out at its worst and it has real damning implications for our lives.  

Goodhart’s Law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

Marilyn Strathern

The culmination of all this is a ‘winner-takes-most’ setup. What I talk about next is what this really means for us as a society. (And no, its not a trope on anti-trust laws, capitalism etc. I hope to offer something different, hopefully more useful).

The Future of Work, but first a History

COVID-19 has forced us all to rethink many aspects of our lives. Job losses, stimulus checks, 0% interest rates and stock market turbulence dominate conversations when avoiding the more morbid topics of death and disease. Most large scale systems are struggling to deal with this pandemic in a coherent way and these struggles offer a rare lens into what we value as a society. As I work longer and longer hours, and fight with a variety of electronic screens to protect my cognitive real estate, I’ve been compelled to analyze the relationship between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

“Never let a good crisis go waste.” Sometimes the music is not in the notes but in the spaces between them. Taking this pandemic as that silence between the notes, in a series of blog posts I examine deeply the relationship between the 3 pillars of the knowledge economy: Work, Education and Value.

In this post, I briefly tour history to understand how common ideas about Work, Education & Value (Productivity) became ‘common’.

In Future of Work, but first Now and the Near Future I talk about why those ‘common’ ideas are not a reflection of reality any more (pandemic notwithstanding). I try to understand reality and where we are headed in the near future if nothing is done about fixing the gap between that reality and the common ideas/assumptions.

In Future of Work: A Vision, I first propose a hypothesis of the crux of the gap problem. And then, based on all of this, I present a vision for the future of work. Most importantly for the reader, in Future of Work: An Individual Perspective I describe a decision framework at the individual level about how to prepare for that future of work and the changing dynamic between Work, Education and Value (Productivity).

The Common Idea

We have been raised with the idea that Education will make “better” Work accessible to us. Our Education is a means to an end. This is not a judgement on the nature of education. It is an observation, almost an unstated fact. A crude blueprint of this system which happens to be in most people’s minds is:

“Our Education is a means to an end.”

Let me unpack that statement a little bit.

The “Means” need to transform us into a “productive” entity as defined by a Keynesian economic idea of “valuable”. 

The “End” is a realization of this “productivity” in terms of some form of “value”. 

“Value” is usually a combination of money and a lifestyle.

This idea did not just randomly take birth in society. It has very interesting origins which hold grave implications for the future and what we value as society. Prior to these ideas, most of the older generation passed on specialized knowledge to the younger generation via the system of apprenticeships.

The “means to an end” approach for education is an approximation of the commonly understood relation between Education, Work and Productivity (Value). However, in real life the relation between these 3 aspects is not at all obvious or clear. This common understanding of the relationship is often inconsistent with the rapidly changing needs of society, often structurally disadvantageous to some forms of real value generation/productivity over others.

So before jumping to a hypothesis of the future, I want to give you a brief tour of the origin of this idea.

History of Work: A Brief Tour

After most societies of the world had been sufficiently robbed of their ‘Produce’ by the European colonial powers, thanks to the “world” wars in Europe and subsequent independence wars in the rest of the world, modern political states were formed and there was a brief window to rethink what they valued as a society. A brief window to restructure the equation of work, value and education.

The conventional advice we receive today stem from ideas /assumptions developed about work and productivity in the few years following this period. The post-war/post-independence concept of work was largely shifting from work-for-survival to work-for-comfort for an increasing number of people. Not a significant proportion of society but an increasing one. More people were making the transition from ‘Basic Needs’ to upper levels of ‘Psychological Needs’ of Maslow’s Hierarchy.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Several events in the western world set the tone for what conventional ideas surrounding work would soon look like. Labor unions began mounting political pressure in the 1870s for 8 hour-work-days.

Henry Ford re-organized the manufacturing process of his car factory by breaking it up into small, specialized tedious parts which meant that a worker needed only minimal training to contribute to the process. This resulted in huge efficiency gains. Subsequently he was one of the first industrialists who supported a 40 hour work week. It was more or less passed into law in the US in 1940s.

Similarly Germany set the retirement age at 65 in the late 1800s as a populist political move (why 65? Simply because people were not expected to live beyond that age at the time). The trend spread among other governments with the US government finally passing it into law in 1935.

Ryan Avent in his brilliant essay “Why we work so hard?” beautifully articulates that the post-war concept of work was a

“…means to an end…it was something you did to earn the money to pay for the important things in life….the working class had become a leisured class. Households saved money to buy a house and a car, to take holidays, to finance a retirement at ease…work was never supposed to be the centre of one’s life…”.

The industrial revolution was reaching its zenith with increased automation and innovation. There was an idea prevalent in American society at the time that the trend of automation might continue free-ing many more people from the need to work 40 hours per week.

“Keynes extrapolated in 1930 that a century hence, society might be so rich that the hours worked by each person could be cut to ten or 15 a week”.

This extrapolation might seem strange or illogical today but at the time

“productivity rose across the western world, hourly wages for typical workers kept rising and hours worked per week kept falling – to the mid-30s, by the 1970s”.

The extrapolation at the time seemed pretty reasonable, so what happened? Why aren’t you and I looking forward to a 20 hour work week (after graduation) with loads of free time to binge watch the whole of Netflix or work on a startup idea or produce and raise children or compose the next Hamilton?

While the 40 hour work week was on its way to becoming the norm in the western world, the supposed automation that was required to sustain the productivity levels of the typical worker did not actually happen. The productivity level fell out of sync with the automation needed to sustain it and a 40 hour work week was no longer viable. This paved the way for exporting manufacturing jobs to cheaper markets which did not have such labor-market restrictions, like China.

Wherever it was possible to simplify and atomize manufacturing steps, the efficiency gains in the short run resulted in higher wages for workers but also made them more susceptible to automation in the medium run. Another school of thought also points out that all of this was happening against the backdrop of a decline in the bargaining power of labor unions and the welfare state.

“Less-skilled workers found themselves forced to accept ever-smaller pay rises to stay in work. (They willingly or unwillingly worked fewer hours).”

I want to present another key point about automation which is often missed in such analyses. After having built machine learning products for over 5 years overseeing algorithms & pipelines to automate and enable business decisions, a fundamental idea of automation is that the moment you automate something well enough, the user’s expectation quickly adapts to the automation and demands the next bit of automated personalized tweak. The assumption that the user’s demand will stay the same or even grow at a steady pace wherever automation becomes available is a poor one.

Just as in my day job, I must develop models that “evolve” in the right direction with parameters which adapt to the situation, ironically the idea of a static “40” hour work week is practically irrelevant to the dynamic changes in the value creation chain today. Most high skill and low skill jobs require longer hour-work-weeks to justify the cost of the employee to the organization.

So while conventional ideas about work paint a picture of 40 hour, 5-day work weeks, 9am-5pm jobs, with expected retirement at age 65, all of this is becoming rapidly irrelevant. So what does it actually look like? What is the reality? What is it going to look like in the near future? This is what I talk about in The Future of Work, but first Now & the Near Future.

3 years of Swimming. In Data.

As 2016 is *finally* coming to an end, a year whose repercussions will be felt for many more to come, I cannot but help reflect on the past few years that I have spent swimming. Swimming in data that is.

I have had the opportunity to be a productive participant in the field of data science from many perspectives. Having spent time both in academia and industry, and as both a producer and consumer of data science solutions, I have plenty of lessons that I remind myself of.  Here are the key takeaways from all those years of swimming in data and finding things that would hopefully be useful for someone:

It takes a village.

‘Big Data’ was a big hype word very recently. Until everyone realized that the ‘game-changing’, ‘life-changing’ and ‘world-changing’ data either did not exist or was in the hands of very few people or companies.

There is an unhealthy disregard in academia and industry for collecting data. The way research progresses in AI, ML and all the related fields which collectively affect our abilities to make the most of our data, there is a race to publish the most sophisticated mathematical solution.

In an article on ‘Why Deep Learning is changing your Life?‘ I was happy to note that there was a small paragraph dedicated to Fei-Fei Li, a Stanford AI professor who started the first serious concentrated effort to collect data for computer vision. It was only after she created ImageNet, that the computer vision researchers of the world could show-off their sophisticated math skills at making sense of complex data. It was this effort that created the arena where thousands of researchers having Olympic levels of math skills could finally meaningfully use their expertise.

Which brings me to my first point: Creating and having good datasets is essential, crucial and possibly more useful than all those complicated math models that some people pine away hours at first to build and then to make sense of. A good dataset with a simple model can sometimes tell you far more than the most complicated function approximator run on a bad dataset.

In short, the prestige incentives of academia are not always efficiently aligned with the real world need for making (game/life/world)-changing data science advances.

Now onto why I title this section as ‘It takes a village’.

My hunch is that the ‘Big Data’ hype was generated because the way the world operates, what matters to the big guys is usually projected as what should matter to everyone else. For all the hype and McKinsey reports on the big data revolution, the number of big data companies that actually exist in my opinion are exactly these: Google, Facebook and Amazon. (Apple & Microsoft notably have their foundations as product companies).

Analogous to how the problems of the developing world are never even discussed, let alone be fixed, the real data problems of the rest of us don’t garner enough attention. Most research problems in the field today are trying to solve problems for scenarios that largely exist for these companies (and NSA, shhh, secret).

Most questions in the industry that people now want to answer in a ‘smarter’ way because they know that a (smart) phone exists in every hand don’t have the right datasets to answer them. And definitely not in the context of the developing world. (There is a connection that I see between this gap and the recent wave of the Indian Startup scene, but more on that in another post).

There is another hurdle to the willingness of creation of such datasets. Data collection takes time and it also takes time and resources to start generating dividends. In industry, the Chinese whispers that happens between the sales team, the deal makers and everybody else where it is necessary to quickly book profits and revenues, solutions are sold before there is time to figure out whether the questions the client is asking can even be solved with the data available.

It takes guts to ask that question: ‘Do we even have the data?’ and consider the possibility of hearing back a ‘No’. Then it takes deep pockets to fix that issue. And then it takes perseverance to come up with a meaningful solution. Which is why I am not playing a blame game here. Businesses and companies need to be run and what needs to be sold to that end needs to be sold. But in the end only long term thinking can produce anything valuable.

So, in the industry too, the incentives are not always efficiently aligned with the real world need for making (game/life/world)-changing data science advances.

So as a data science PM/engineer/researcher etc. what does all this mean for you? As much as possible, fix that misalignment. *It takes a village* to build a useful data science solution right from the engineer who makes the system for data collection (if you have the luxury of having such a person in your vicinity) to the designer who can finally make your beautiful insights visible to those who matter. Get in touch with all of them and take them along, up and onwards with you. Every link in that pipeline matters.

Get your language right.
When you offer insights about/from data to someone, you operate in an abstract space of ideas. In such a scenario, you could be talking about the same thing and still not be on the same page. This is usually the case because you are quite literally using words that mean something different to the other party or using different meanings of the same word.

Again the Chinese whispers that happens between the sales team, the client management and company management means that by the time the data and the problem reaches the engineering team, several things have been lost in translation. In academia, when you have researchers from different backgrounds or fields collaborating, there are several different ways of expressing the same ideas creating potential space for misunderstanding.

For example, when you talk to a natural language processing researcher, the audio and visual information is ‘context’ or background, i.e. all the extra information that they may or may not want to include in their machine learning models. Similarly, when you talk to a speech technology researcher, language and visual cues are ‘context’. As someone who has worked on building machine learning models to combine all these communication media, I very quickly realized that while discussing or presenting my work, I would have to avoid the word ‘context’ like the plague if I had to get my point across to everyone together.

Listen. Listen. And then listen some more.

To get the previous point, you must listen to your audience’s language in the first place. But there is a bigger reason why there is a need to keep one’s ears wide open. In my short stint so far, I usually find that people actually don’t know the questions they want answers to. However, people do know very well the pain points of the problems they are facing. Try to listen to these in detail and with great patience. Even to the egoistic (a*holes) who might come to you full of insight and in no mood of listening to what the data is actually saying.

This does 2 important things for you. First you can decide whether a person really has a problem or has something that they have already decided to hear. Next if they do have a problem, it is better for everyone if you can quickly assess the situation and come up with the questions that can be answered and then the questions that need to be answered. Many times, they are not the same. If you are ever part of a project in which these happen to be the same, jump at it with all you’ve got. This does not happen often.

This is analogous to the famous Steve Jobs mantra that the consumers do not know what they want. So, you must get good at listening because before finding a solution, you must transform a problem into a good question.

Math is beautiful.

When I had just started out, I was brash and naïve. I wanted to apply the full force of my training and change things everyday. But there was a slow and painful process of realization that the world does not a) know its problems b) is not always looking for solutions to the known problems c) so many years of my education had not quite prepared me to face the factors that were important in solving problems.

I immediately changed gears to try to fix some of those issues in my life. The world is hard and disappointing. However, Math is only hard, not disappointing. As a data scientist I place my bets on Math and it is that bet that inspires me to get up everyday and get to work, no matter what.

I hope this was useful! Here’s wishing a happy productive 2017 to all!

Why I love ‘Zero to One’: The Contrarian Question

I am overwhelmed with Peter Thiel’s ‘Zero to One’. Do not confuse that with admiration. I am simply overwhelmed because I have rarely ever read a book that is so insight-heavy. The book’s title goes something like ‘Notes on Startups’. I feel you might as well replace that with ‘Notes on Modern Day Wisdom’ and that would be more apt. Peter Thiel mentions that this book is an exercise in thinking and I think its a very good one at that. So although I don’t completely agree with a few things and I am wary of his libertarian conservartism, this book is superbly exciting.

After the foreword, the book starts with this question “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

I remember very distinctly the moment I read this question. I sat quietly as I experienced an implosion inside me. I was commuting back from work and things blurred past me. I lost some sense of where I was in time and space. The last time I was asked this question was probably a decade ago in a class discussion. And this event itself was an exception because I went to a rather different school that occasionally takes the risk of asking students to think for themselves.

There is a famous Zen Koan (come again, whats that?) which essentially says- “Try to see the non-obvious.” It is a puzzle because it asks you to see something non-obvious. If its not obvious, then how can one see it? And therein lies the distinction. It is not non-visible, it is just non-obvious. This means it is something that is very much possible to see, not visible to most people and most importantly will take some effort for one to see, beyond the usual.

Can you imagine what a brilliant question this is? That our entire education system for all its grand claim of cultivating young minds, falls so highly deficient in this small little question? While the thought process that could develop an approach to this question is somewhat encouraged in the Sciences, I think we all should do a better job of encouraging it in everything else. And most of all in History.

“History is a set of lies agreed upon by the victors”- Napolean Bonaparte. I bring this up to argue for not focusing only on the victor’s perspective. I want to make a case for this not only on ethical grounds (what are those anyway?) but for some more useful reasons (More on this in a second).

A lot of our present is shaped by our interpretation of the past and Religion still has a stronghold of most people. So it is necessary to keep asking this question to make some sense of the perceptional chaos, that is the human legacy.

Coming back, in short, I was blown away by this question. When I reached back that day, I wrote furiously for a few hours as I had so many responses to this question. A few days later, after infusing some coherence into this huge thought-download, here I want to write about the one answer that I cannot keep simply to myself (and is also the least controversial).

So here’s something I have for what I have named the contrarian question:

What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

People study success to understand what to do. But I believe that one should study failure equally and more to become the next successful person.

Experience is the best teacher but most of us are not good students.

At an individual level, some people are not able to handle failure and so they fail at failure. They fail at learning from it. They become timid in the face of future risks and adventures. Most are not able to study failure in a wholesome way to understand how to deal with it.

When we are trying something new, we tend to seek out those who have already succeeded and take advice from them, learn from them and sometimes copy them. Personally though I have always received the best advice from somebody who failed then succeeded. In short somebody who had tasted failure and learnt how to deal with that bitter taste. Figuratively, they fell down, but had picked themselves up, very well. They not only valued and appreciated what they had far more than someone who only knew success, but their advice was more useful, heartfelt and mature.

So this was the important truth. But why do I think that very few people agree with me on this?

Because basically, I do not believe that this inability to treat failure with the right framework is inherent. It is rather encouraged and nurtured over time due to the way our systems (educational and otherwise) of ‘paying attention/rewarding’ are designed.

In society and in our schools we idolize and worship the winner. We teach young minds that it is important to be at the top and our reward system is indifferent to the rest who tried, however well they may have done so. (*) This conditioning continues into our adult life when our society prizes only the successful and there is little or no appreciation for those who tried and how they did it. Maybe this is even more relevant in India where our society has not made the paradigm shift in appreciating failure. (Things are changing though, maybe…)

But this is not a clarion call to hand out more medals, awards, ‘A’ grades etc. Rather it is to hand out lesser of those and more importantly, pay less attention to them anyway. I’ll try to make myself clearer with an example.

When I graduated from high school, I put myself through the ((in)famous) grueling Indian engineering entrance exams. At the end of the exam session for that year, my school organized a counselling session with the previous year’s topper for some advice on navigating the complicated process of getting a seat in a good college after the results. This fellow had an All India Rank < 10 in the JEE (the largest, toughest exam). So on paper he had the best credentials to give such advice but in reality he was probably the least suited for the job. For one, he had no experience in navigating the messy and chaotic seat counselling process because he had gotten the top seat in the best college by filling up a simple form. He had no experience in resolving the confusions that come along when you have to choose between 2 ‘not-the-best’ options, make lists of pros and cons, all the while managing your inner confusions and others’ expectations. Because he had faced none of it and hence gotten over none of it. This is not to say that what he had achieved was not awesome, it was. Yet he did not deserve the position of the guide-post for the rest of the class for that. A far better person would have been somebody who would have juggled many options and converged on one choice. The decision process of someone like that would have been far more useful for all of us.

Our systems tend to reward people for their skills, advantages, intelligence but rarely for what they end up doing with those attributes. Intelligence, beauty, these are natural attributes that attract appreciation but it almost appalls me sometimes when we do not ask, “Great, you are gifted with some good stuff? So what have you done with that so far?” Or better still, “So you started ahead of everyone on the start line, but how far did you go from there?” But anyway this is for another blog post, another day :D.

It is people who have experienced a transition from success to failure or from failure to success that have the most to offer for good advice. So the next time you are wondering what to do and need some advice, pull out a list of the winners and losers. And if possible, before sounding them out, do examine how they got there. Because ultimately in which category they fall is vastly unimportant compared to how they got there.

It requires great luck and culmination of several factors to become successful. “Luck favors the prepared mind”, so they say. One important aspect of being prepared is being robust, and knowing what not to do is a great step in that direction. What not to do => know what didn’t work=> study failure. A lot of times that can be a great starting point for what should/could be done.

Maybe we are this way because of our history. When conquerors fought wars, there were clear demarcations between the winner and the loser/failure. And the losers were quite literally rooted out of existence. As I walked the aisles of British Museum a few years ago, I was surprised to learn that the ancient Greeks only rewarded and recorded the identity of the winner, rank 1, in the original Olympics. There were no runner-up positions. Maybe they didn’t want to do the paperwork (scrollwork, whatever).

Yet I believe that our systems are obviously far more capable now and our minds are too (even though conventional media would like you to believe the contrary).  In essence failure is important and those who have failed and then succeeded tend to have the most authentic and useful advice.

P.S.: This book has technology as its underlying theme. But I cannot resist pointing out that this question essentially summarizes the entire job description of a financial investment manager.  And for all the nerd-aversion of wall street, asking this question constantly and coming up with good answers is what most successful investors do.

My Django Journey

I have been wanting to put this together for over a year now. This is a collection of great blogs, tips, tricks, tutorials, how-to-s that helped me go from an absolute Django noob to setting up a full fledged website (solely depending on them).

I have benefited tremendously from open source software as a student and as a professional. Here is a very small effort to acknowledge everything that helped me on, as the title suggests, my Django journey.

This post is for noobs, first time users and/or developers who are considering Django among their options to set up a website.

<On a side note, I have always questioned the use(lessness) of taglines for marketing, but Django comes with a beautiful tagline, ‘For Perfectionists with Deadlines’. I really couldn’t resist checking Django out after that 🙂 >

First off, if you are a web developer and in the decision phase for choosing the framework/stack that you want to use, IBM has an excellent overview of Django. This will give you a quick view of the backend code, the code structure and a few tools that you would have to dabble in from start to finish, without having to do any experimentation of your own. This link is meant for developers and for somebody who has requisite technical knowledge to judge a framework on technical grounds.

However, don’t get worried if you don’t find yourself in that category. If you are an absolute noob who finds oneself in the situation of having to set up a cool website, there is no need to worry at all. You can kickstart on the right foot by completing this great MOOC on Udacity: Web Development.This will require some good time investment but its totally worth it.

If you have decided on Django, then dive in:

This is the best and most succinct page I have ever come across on starting a Django project. It is an absolute MUST FOLLOW. Even if there is nothing else in this post that you read or use, this one link can take you very far in doing things the ‘right’ way. A recent update for Django 1.6 from the same author is here.

At this stage you should have a good idea of everything that you need in terms of software components and the major milestones you will have to accomplish to get your website up and running.

While the Django tutorial allows you to do away with the hassles of databases and servers, obviously, real life is not like that. Which is why Link (1) is so important as it outlines steps to make real life hassle free.

I will go ahead and emphasize something more here. It is quite common to not think of servers and deployment in the initial stages. That is not such a good idea. You should think of deployment from day zero for 2 reasons. 1) You will focus on designing your code for deployment and that will make life easy towards the completion of your project. 2) If you deploy your code early, you can have a good idea of how the website will look to the world and also demonstrate your progress to others during development itself. In that spirit here are 2 links:

  • Top 10 tips for a new Django Developer– You will/should keep coming back to this page during development to make your project as portable as possible and for smooth transition between servers, etc.

If all this is too much for you (tl;dr, didn’t understand etc), there is atleast one tip that I highly recommend. It worked great for me, even during development: A BASE_URL Template Variable in Django.

Enough of deployment (for now). Lets get back to the actual tools.

Link (1) covers this tool but I will mention it again because it was of tremendous help to me during development. I could manage my database and schema growth smoothly with this tool, which otherwise can be quite nightmarish during development. They also have some very nice and brief tutorials to get you up and running in a matter of minutes here. Again an absolute MUST HAVE.
(For starters you will never face this irritating error ever).

I chose to go with postgresql for the database and set it up using this short bunch of steps. I cannot find this cool blog online anymore so I have uploaded a pdf of the saved page. A few more helpful (almost MUST-KNOW) links for postgresql:

For the server, I chose to go with Apache. Some helpful links:

I am excited about this section. Some cool developer tips that made things really efficient and less annoying:

Django Specific

Although the django documentation is extensive and helpful, it is lacking w.r.t these specific tasks, which can be quite confusing for a newbie:

UI/UX- Using django-widget-tweaks made my life easier

Finally deployment- I chose to go with Linode. Read this blog + comprehensive guides of Linode and you should be good to go.

If you have made it this far into the post, then here are a few bonus pointers:

So well, without much ado, I will end this post now.

If you are wondering, where is the website that I worked on? I used Django to make an online game to simulate a financial environment for the students of London Business School. I am currently working to release this game under a GNU GPL license. If that goes through, I will update this post with the link and would be happy to receive some reviews. In the meanwhile, I hope these links will help someone as much as they helped me.

Code on!

(*)- In my experience I have not found Django’s FormWizard to be very helpful. After trying it once I stuck to designing and coding in multi-step forms on my own.

 

On Inspiration and Entrepreneurship

This post is inspired from ‘The Social Network’. Before you read on, if there is a thought lurking somewhere in your mind that here’s another article singing a song of facebook, joining in hundreds of people doing the same thing all over the world, well then no, not really.

Today I want to think about what really strikes people. There is always something about inspiring people. Is it their rebelliousness? Is it standing out? Any passionate work of mind and spirit encourages copy cats, why?

If it was simply success that induced admirers, then we all would want to be ideal. Because then we would have to conform to metrics set in place by others.

It is not money or marks but its Respect, Envy and Revolution that drive the world.

Because it is not numbers, it is not rules and mundane awards that drive the world. It is not the conventions, standards, it is not even the unconventional, the rule breakers who drive the world. Not rule breaking for the sake of it.

It is originality that drives the world. Passion, love drive the world.

Real success not only generates respect, crazy unjustified downright blind following, admiration, sycophancy. It also generates mockery. People either hate you or love you, they go crazy in your passion and energy in either a good way or bad, but they go crazy because its all about passion.

And why do some things drive people crazy. Because at the end of the day everybody wants to fall in love with somebody or something, wants hope and a reason, to wake up to a purpose. Because it is not enough to breathe and eat and think. Life is not that, life is passion, it is love and dedication.

Why does anybody want a purpose to wake up to? Why do you want hope and a reason? Because possibly that is the only way of finding your centre and your confidence.

General Douglas MacArthur once walked through gun fire right on the battle field. As he embarked a second time to repeat the same feat, he asked a petrified soldier to accompany him. On being questioned as to how he could walk through gunshots with so much confidence, he laughed saying,” I will not be killed by these gun shots. I still have my purpose to fulfil.” The young soldier immediately replied, “Sir I have no such purpose in life to live up to.”

Confidence and conviction. Because sometimes you just know that you are right, because there’s no reason, because you know the universe will conspire not against you but for you.

It is all about living to the fullest. It is about being 100% of one thing, putting everything at stake, dreaming.

Entrepreneurship is not a modern day business concept, it’s a way of life, it’s a way of living that you choose in which you choose yourself over everybody else. You recognize your own individuality in the highest possible form (you give your own individuality the highest possible recognition), to give the best and the most of everything you have to one thing. And therefore even a seemingly non entrepreneurial activity can be entrepreneurial and sometimes starting your own enterprise can also not be entrepreneurial.

In the movie, Sean Parker said, “the record companies beat me but only in court”. He represented something that had defied all regulations but he represented something real. He was perhaps a non conformer.

There is no reason for you to think that this is radical.

And possibly the most critical point is to realize also that non conformity is not the way or a solution. This is not a call to drop everything you are doing, or surrender yourself to the unknown or disobey all the rules for the sake of it. But it’s a call to ask you to wake up, to live more, to be 100% more in everything you do.

If you want to be a non conformer, then be one but with full integrity. You want to break rules, break them but break them well. You want to destroy, do so but destroy well.

So what should you do? Ultimately what matters and what doesn’t? Do marks matter? Does popularity matter, do friends matter? Or don’t matter?

Should you drop out and wait for that spark or brilliant idea to come along? Not really. Be happy, do the things you like. Make sure you have no regrets and that you are happy with everything going on in your life. That’s all.

Learn to applaud the winners but do not forget the losers. Because there will be many losers who will be as good or even better than the winner and so learn to appreciate them. Remember ultimately that winning is fun but its not always beautiful and infact more often way more ugly before it becomes close to becoming anything beautiful. Accept the fact that people will work harder to loot, steal your ideas, work and achievements prior to and rather than acknowledging or appreciating you. That this is the ugly fact life.

Life is way more beautiful and way uglier than you can imagine, and you in all probability have no idea of the degree of its beauty or ugliness. That the most important thing is to keep an open mind, to be humble and never ride too high or too low. That there is scope to be happy and sad in almost any situation. And you have control of your life in ways you have not realized and you do not have control of your life in ways you might be tricked into believing.

That everything is confusing and because of that everything is also very clear. It is very complex and hence very simple.

Intense

Winston Churchill once said, ” From intense complexities emerge intense simplicities.” The veracity of that is realized when life thrusts you into a quandary. A quandary of sorts. When the mind cannot any longer comprehend one’s situation or how one got there. When all reasoning and implications are either insufficient or turned on their head.

Then the mind stops thinking.

It is only when you face heat that your mind distills. It is only then that you realize how unimportant judgments and classifications can be. That the illusion of control over your life is just that, an illusion.

It is only then that objectivity rises. The acceptance and the realization of what is and not just what one wants it to be.

In that bottom emptiness when you cannot bottom out further, only then can you resolve yourself. Then you are bare. In that difficult moment the elements that made you stand out. Your dependence, your nature. And even though you are an individual, suddenly your individuality is resolved. The smallest of elements that were not even considered to be participants in making you come out. Only then can you see your beliefs.

Every event in your life that presents you with an opportunity to bottom out, the pressure, the risk, the extreme, there is the risk that you will break down or enter a higher orbit. But more importantly that is also the only opportunity when you will have to resort to objectivity. And due to that compulsion objective you do become.

If you enter that higher orbit, from then on the taste of that exaltation pulls you further and further more to enter higher orbits. All your actions, your mind’s decisions drag you, pull you, attract you towards entering that higher orbit.

And if one does it for long enough, it gradually become’s one’s nature. The natural becomes indistinguishable from the forced. The world and even oneself begins to believe that this is me, that I am this.

Such are the heroes of the world, admired for their nature, for their detachment and lack of dependence.

But if you do not enter that higher orbit, you breakdown. All beliefs are discarded even if just temporarily. There is no attraction, no pull, no push, just you and the present. You and the now. Then the mind is jabbering, frantically trying to find a set of beliefs, a source to cling on to but you do not want (even if just for a while) to be pulled back into anything. Because you are tired of believing, tired of judgment, tired of your own attractions.
It is only in that complex descent that you have the chance to redefine your metrics, your beliefs.

And you have to believe in something because existence demands that. Presence of hope is life and its absence is death.

Once again you enter the cycle hoping that you may not break again, hoping that you will enter the higher orbit.

In those moments of redefinition one can be a curious mix of vulnerability and strength. Strength against the old and vulnerable to the new.But it is that vulnerable side which decides your course from then on. What you give into in that vulnerability is what your future will be.

And then someday in the future when you do look back, you are but a product of the metrics and definitions you chose for yourself that day. You may consider yourself to be wrong or you may consider yourself to be right but all you will be is not something right or wrong, but simply a product of your choices, definitions and metrics.