Happy Birthday To My Son

Twenty-five years ago today, my son was born. I’m going to take this opportunity with him a happy birthday on a quarter century of life lived and wish him a fabulous year ahead as he has a great start on the next twenty-five years.

My son came out weighing about nine and a half pounds. There’s a joke in my family (okay, it’s my joke, but it still applies) and that is the observation that if you kid comes out under nine pounds, it’s because you weren’t trying very hard!

In fact, he was a bit post-term and needed to be induced to come out. I think he was just comfortable and didn’t see a lot of upside in to exiting his comfy pad.

After many, many hours of labor, the determination was made that while he had started down the birth canal, he big ‘ol head kind of got wedged. All brains, that boy. As a result, he had to exit stage right via Caesarian.

From the start he was an easy going baby. Always happy to cuddle, eating well, napping nicely and sleeping through the night within the first six months. In fact, his room had a window to a busy arterial so there was a fair bit of traffic including police cars and fire engines. We were very concerned that the noise would wake the boy up but that was never really a problem. He slept through the occasional cacophony just fine. This would serve him well when he became a teenager and had the ability to sleep for a dozen hours without interruption. It did not serve him well when it came to getting up early in the morning to get to school on time!

I recall when he first started reading by himself. Well, actually, that came a bit later. When we thought he first started reading, we were buying him Goosebumps books. These were kid-friendly and slightly scary. He would go off and read these books and tell us how much he liked them. I started to get a bit suspicious because when I would ask him about them, the details seemed a bit shaky. So, before handing over one of the books to him, I read it myself, then handed it over to him. Sure enough, within a few days he came back and was giving us an enthusiastic review of the book. Unfortunately, it wasn’t actually the story in the book. When I called him on it, he admitted that he couldn’t actually really read it, but really liked getting the books. I suspect we probably set up an expectation with him and he didn’t want to let us down. After all that came out, we worked a bit more directly with him on his reading and in no time he actually was reading the books at a good clip.

The “Harry Potter” books started coming out when he was 11 and that was the same age that Harry was in the first book. He absolutely consumed that entire series, as I did along with him. I recall that for at least one of the books, I had to buy two copies because I didn’t want to wait the two or three weeks it would take him to get through before I could read it!

He and I also used to play video games together. Originally he would sit with me and watch me play DOOM and other first person games. His mom was worried because the graphics were, for the time, fairly bloody and graphic. And they were, but it did not seem to be a problem. Later, he and I would play together or, more likely, competitively. This was fun for me up through Warcraft 2. When Starcraft came out, though, something changed. I knew that I was getting older but what I didn’t understand was how much better he had become! In no time at all my son was consistently handing my ass to me without mercy. This was the first, but certainly not the last time, that my son would best me in something that I used to think I was good at. And, yeah, he was probably 11. Unsurprisingly, playing Starcraft with my son became far, far less fun…

When my son was 13 he was diagnosed with an osteosarcoma in his tibia near the knee. Originally presenting as simply a sore leg, not at all abnormal for a boy whose legs were growing quickly, it was quickly determined to be a tumor and an aggressive one. Because of the proximity to the growth plate, the doctors had to move us quickly because if it got out to the growth plate, the odds were very high that the cancer would get out and in to other parts of his body. As a result, we had to decide quickly the path forward and the best option was still a very hard one: he needed to have his lower leg removed.

Thinking back on this time, I can say it was definitely one of the hardest times of my life and without any hesitation I can say if there’d been any way to take on that tumor myself and save him what he had in front of him, I would have.

What was amazing to me was how well he seemed to take the news, how well he was able to participate in the discussion about options and tradeoffs. He was clear: “What’s the right choice for best odds of getting through this? Let’s do that. Let’s go!” And, very quickly, almost too quickly, it was done and my son was in a hospital bed short the lower portion of one leg.

The next few years were a blur of time in the hospital, brief recovery, lots and lots of rounds of chemotherapy, physical therapy, far too many trips to the hospital and through it all my son being clear that his goal was to get through this to the next thing. And, in less than two years, he was back up on his feet, albeit one of those being a prosthetic which he decorated with stickers or cool covers. Looking back I’m amazed at what a trooper he was. I wish I’d thought at the time that he was almost too okay with things. I suspect, in retrospect, that we should have made sure he was getting counseling to help him deal with all the changes and how his life had suddenly taken a sharp turn to a different path. I think I made a mistake to take his apparent aplomb at face value. I think that was wishful thinking on my part. It’s not the only time I messed up as a parent, but it’s still one that sticks with me.

It’s hard to overestimate the impact having cancer had on my son. You never get to see the other half of “what would he be like if that hadn’t happened”. Funnily enough, that was one characteristic I saw from my son that I think I can work on more. He became very good at making the decision and moving forward, not apparently second guessing himself. That’s something I know I could work on in my own life.

We drifted apart some in his teen years, as often happens, I think, while he tried to work out who he was going to be separate from his parents. I’ve been actively parenting four kids now through the teen years and in all cases we would say “they went to the Dark Side” but I’m also happy to say he came out the other side and I like the young man that emerged from all of that.

My son is smart and funny. He’s sweet and he has good friends he’s close with and has stuck with even as they grow up and grow apart. At twenty five, the boy can grow a beard that would make a young Santa Claus jealous. Certainly I am and certainly those genes didn’t come from my side of the family.

I like the young man he is continuing to become. I see parts of me, I see parts of his mother and I see a great deal that is wholly just who he is. I can tell that parts of how I tried to parent him made their way in and have helped inform who he is as an adult and I can see that there is a large part that is a result of him making choices about who he will be, what his priorities are and what his goals for the future are.

I realize more now than ever that you’re never really done parenting. You’re never done worrying that your kids will be okay and hopefully lead happy and satisfying lives. But, as much as I can be, I’m confident he’s in a good place, he’s on a good path and he’s going to be okay.

Happy Birthday, my son. I love you and I’m proud of you and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next quarter century has in store for you!

Media Consumption

Media Consumption

I’ve already predicted the end of newspapers as we know them. I think media is fracturing in to a myriad of niche sources which often cater to the lowest identifiable common denominator in an attempt to grow an audience. What does this mean to me, to others of my generation and to people in general? I’ve been thinking about this lately.

Before the media landscape began to fracture, call it the early 80s, though cable television goes back to the 40s and 50s in the US, you could count the major sources for news on one hand. There were the major networks on television and newspapers and perhaps some magazines. The first was free, the second was low cost and the third was not very expensive. They represent what most people had access to for news of the day. They were the font at which America sated it’s thirst for knowledge about the world and what was going on.

I imagine there was conversation about which channel was “best” or had the more believable anchors. Certainly there were conversations about which papers had the best news coverage, but for most of the United States, it was a limited set of options.

As a result, there was a common set of knowledge that one could count on. If someone said something on Carson or if Walter Cronkite covered a story, a large number of people could be counted on having heard it. Where folks hadn’t heard it, they could catch up around lunch or the water cooler the next day.

Let’s take an example of an “event” from the early 80s, the finale episode of M*A*S*H which had a record-breaking 125 million viewers (60.2 Rating and 77 Share). This means that on average 60 percent of all TVs were on and 77 percent of households watching TV were tuned into that program during the time slot. To this day, there’s not much that touches that aside from an occasionally really good SuperBowl (Go Seahawks!)

Certainly folks are watching television. The current average per person per day is five hours of television. Let’s hit pause on that notion for a moment. Let’s say an average of 10 hours goes to work between prep for work, travel to work and work. Add in an average of eight hours of sleep and five hours of television. Using my advanced maths, that’s 23 hours out of 24 hours available, or only a sole, lonely hour on a given work day for not-sleeping, not-working and not-television watching. Wow.

Anyway, folks are watching, but they can now choose from far more than the original ABC/CBS/NBC. Viewership is fractured across hundreds of stations, many of which are created to serve a particular niche from comedy to science fiction to sports to reality television and, because there is so much to choose from, it means increasingly small numbers per given show.

Back in the early 80s, if you referenced something from that episode of M*A*S*H, you had roughly a 2 in 3 chance of someone knowing what you referred to. Contrast that with television today and if you reference a “sheepsquatch” (yes, this is a thing), the only way you’re going to know about it is if you happened to have seen a particular episode of a particular show which happens to be very loosely termed “reality television”. According to the data, a few hundred thousand people watched this show. So, unless you are part of that group, you have no idea what the context is should someone use “sheepsquatch” in a sentence. Some would feel left out of that conversation, many more would be happy to be ignorant. But, that’s not the point. The point is that smaller and smaller groups share a common cultural reference point.

I find this continues in to how I consume news. My news sources are largely limited to consuming RSS feeds in my favorite news reading software (Feedly) on my desktop or my tablet. With this tool I control what I see, when I see it and whether or not I choose to consume it in detail. I have effectively self-selected my news, my sources and what I’m exposed to. I’ve done this largely because I can and because it allows me to increase the odds of seeing things I’m interested in.

While I like the control this gives me, I suspect it leaves me underexposed in many areas. World affairs and international politics are two areas I am under-educated about, in part because I don’t choose to spend my time on those areas.

In “the old days” where folks would sit on the couch and were forced to watch the nightly newscast in serial order (with commercials!), they were exposed to what was chosen for them, but they also heard about things they would likely not have selected. So, upsides and downsides.

Today, if I choose to record it and if I choose to watch it and if I choose to watch that particular story, I might learn about it, else it goes by and I remain ignorant. And don’t get me started on commercials. I haven’t watched a commercial on purpose since the advent of the DVR and the 30-second skip. In that regard I am not a good consumer because whether it’s cable or one of the national broadcasters, I am NOT sitting through a commercial if I don’t have to.

As a result of all of this, I find two notable things:

  1. I worry about the effect of my self-selected news sources on my ability to understand what’s going on in the world. I wish I had a better way to get exposed to high quality sources of information, even and especially ones that differ in opinion from my own.
  2. I am increasingly unaware of a large number of people in pop culture. This is not a huge loss, I know, but it does serve to magnify the sense that I’m getting old as I hear names of people I don’t know and don’t know why they are (according to someone) important or why I should care. It’s either not my music or it’s not my kind of show (most all reality television) or it’s simply not something I choose to care about.

I fear that these two things, in combination, are what tends to make one start to feel as if the world is passing them by and they are (or I am) increasingly decoupled from the popular zeitgeist.

I’d love to hear from anyone with some thoughts on how they educate themselves, how they consume news and whether they are concerned about doing it in a way which is balanced and includes sources that may disagree with their views. It seems like the goals should be to try and stay informed and not just surround ourselves with self-selected sources which agree with us because that’s all we choose to listen to with what we perceive to be our limited amount of free time.

How Do You Make a Career?

According to the United States Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average number of jobs held by an adult of my age (more or less) between 18 and 46 is 11. A bit less for women, a bit more for men. As a result, I decided to write down my own job history since 18 to get a feel for how I compared to the average.

To my surprise, because my gut wanted it to be less, I’m pretty much right on the national average at this point in my career. I am left wondering how the number shifts post 46 (or 48) but I couldn’t find good data.

For the sake of the conversation, here is my work history:

Jobs:

  • K-Mart (College) : 2 yrs : College job
  • Temp Agency Tech Worker (pre-LAI) : Six months : post-college job
  • Logic Automation/Logic Modeling/Synopsys : 10 years : Longest held job
  • Eagle Design Automation : 3 Years : Startup! Responsible for my largest salary bump and favorite years of work
  • Synopsys : 2 Years : Eagle got acquired by Synopsys
  • Mentor Graphics CAE : 1 Year : Time for a change
  • Synopsys Manager : 2 Years : Got offered my first opportunity to manage
  • Synopsys CAE : 2 Years : Time for a change
  • Ambric : 2 Years : Startup!
  • Rentrak : 3 months : Not a good match, but I needed a job during the 2008-2009 recession
  • Flashlight : 2 Years : New career field (cable), but the work didn’t last
  • VMWare/Pivotal : 2 Years : Current gig

The years are off a bit because they don’t quite add up, but it’s not worth going in and shaving months off. For the purposes of this effort, it’s close enough.

It seems like after that many jobs, I ought to be able to extract some “truths” or at least things that are and were true for me as I moved through my career.

Choose Passion over Money, but Money Doesn’t Hurt

First off, I was fortunate enough to choose a career (software engineering) that I was passionate about. During my high school years, I was obsessed with software to the exclusion of a healthy social life. But, I could understand software and girls were simply a mystery beyond my understanding. Mostly still are. As a result, I got in to a career where I was truly excited to get up in the morning and work. I was invested, both emotionally and intellectually. You can’t beat that for a winning combination when starting your career. As a side benefit, working in the private sector meant my salary was good, which was important to me as, by that time, I was working to support a family. So, if you have to choose, go with your passion. But, if you can choose to cover both passion and a salary that allows you to provide, then that’s probably the right call.

Do Regular Checkins with Yourself

This is a big one for me. I believe strongly in checking in with yourself every two or three years to assess how you feel about what you’re doing. This is important to evaluate whether your priorities have changes, whether your needs have changed and whether you are still happy doing what you are doing.

I found that I typically spent 2-3 years getting on top of doing a given job before I feel like I’ve become good at it. After that, I start to look for additional challenges, either by growing within my job or by starting to look for a new job or new challenge. My history tells me this starts with a self-evaluation followed by a determination of whether I’m happy doing what I’m doing. If I’m not as happy or not as challenged as I want to be, there will be a search for opportunities or growth within my company because, typically, I like the people I work with so it’s an issue of wanting to be challenged professionally.

As a side note: Boredom is never a good thing and a state of professional boredom is something to be determined as quickly as possible and addressed because everyone suffers and it’s no one’s job but yours to identify and address this issue.

Realize That The Answers May Be Elsewhere

Two times in my career I left a large company, in my case Synopsys both times, to go join a startup. This was due to two factors being true:

  1. Professional Opportunity
  2. Irritation at the restrictions of being part of a large company

The first is natural and happens in cycles in all careers. The second is a personal thing. Quite simply I found myself feeling like such a small part of a large behemoth that I felt like my contributions or ability to influence were so diluted that, in the end, I was just a cog. I didn’t matter. When those two things lined up – Opportunity and a desire to play a more direct role in the success of my company – that’s when startups start looking good.

Don’t Fear the Startup

Depending on the source, startups are “successful” something on the order or 1 time in 10 or 1 in 20. Successful might be defined as “the stock I was offered became worth the lost opportunity cost I paid for leaving my last job”. In my case I’ve been fortunate that of the (actually) three startups I joined, two of them were successful.

My current job at Pivotal is a startup in the sense that there is a stock opportunity and it’s clear that we need to deliver on the investment made in us by our parent companies, but in some very important ways it’s less a startup because we have competitive salaries and benefits. Additionally, at well over 1500 employees, the size would bely any attempt to label it a classic startup.

But, startups are a risk. Often they involve taking pay cuts in trade for equity (stock) and often they don’t pay off. It is a gamble and making a choice to join a startup, assuming the choice is between the stability of a larger company versus the unknown of the startup, can be fraught with stress.

If I look at it another way, though, three startups out of 12 jobs is only 25% of the total jobs I’ve taken. So, that’s probably not all that risky, all told. I know folks who simply go from startup to startup, either because of the possibility of a large upside or simply because they want to be a more influential part of an organization. Obviously the amount of impact you can have on a company as 1 of 10 is far, far larger than if you’re 1 of 1500 – at least for most folks.

Growth is Good

I stole this from the motto of one of the companies I worked for, but the sentiment is equally sound. In this I simply mean that making a move, even to a different company, in pursuit of personal or professional growth is a good thing.

I used to have a great deal of fear that I would look back at my career and wonder what I missed out on due to missed opportunities. That was early in my career, but it did help inform how I look at my choices and how I evaluate risk. As a result, I was probably more open to new opportunities than I might have otherwise been simply because I didn’t want to look back and regret not having taken a chance.

Chance, for me at least, always has to be balanced against my perceived role in my family. My job, I have always felt, was to provide for my family. Possibly because I came from a pretty traditional kind of family, but I saw my role as the one who needed to work and needed to make a good salary to provide for my family. That was, especially early in my career, how I measured my own personal success.

A friend once pointed out that after five years or so, the biggest opportunities to grow with your existing company start leveling off and the biggest jumps will come by moving to a different company. That may largely be true, but at least within a geographical area or even within an industry, there is the very real risk of being perceived as a job hopper.

For me this has meant that I’ve looked for opportunities within my company but if those didn’t present the opportunities I wanted, I would start looking outside the company.

Networking Is Critical

With the exception of one of my 12 jobs, networking has played a critical role in my career. Not burning bridges has always been important to me and it’s largely served me well.

After Ambric folded due to running out of money during the recession of 2008, I created a spreadsheet to track the resumes I sent out, the response (if any) and the result. The goal was to be sure I didn’t duplicate submissions to a given company, to see what worked and what didn’t and to generally allow me to be systematic in my approach to finding a new job.

In the time I was looking, I sent out over 100 resumes to opportunities in the area. I received an automated acknowledgement of my submission less than 20% of the time. I was told I wasn’t right for the job less than 10% of the time. Five of those more than a hundred resulted in a phone screen and of that more than 100 resume submissions, exactly ONE of them resulted in an interview.

Networking has worked repeatedly where blind submissions did not.  Never underestimate the value of your network.

Embrace Change

This is a tough one for me because, personally, I feel that I am change averse. At least that’s what I say and that’s what I think, but history would say that over the last 30 years I’ve had to embrace an … average amount of change. And, with only a couple of exceptions, it’s largely been me who has brought about the change, so clearly I need to own the results of my choices.

Change also, at least in my experience, leads to growth. And if we’re not growing, we’re dying.

Where does this leave me? It leaves me believing, as I always have, that there’s a balance in this that needs to be struck. No change is stagnant and I don’t ever want to look back and feel that my life was stagnant. Too much change is a stressor for me and for the people in my life (mostly due to having to suffer through me being stressed). So, with this, as in all things, balance is my goal. Finding the balance that allows me to look back on this portion of my career and conclude that while it never really felt like it was part of a grand plan, on the whole, I’m pretty happy with my career and the choices that I’ve made that have resulted in that career.