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Non-Noogler Update

I am a week away from being a three month-old Googler, and currently I call myself the "non-noogler" (but not yet a googler). Things that I have done so far:

  • 151 unique drinks in Googleplex found and drank
    Tower of Drinks
  • Have jogged, cycled and driven from home to Google
  • Felt like I can change the world with my work after seeing the launch of my team's product
  • Have zealously promoted Google products to friends until wife now rolls her eyes whenever I mention 1-800-Goog-411 but forget to mention yelp
  • Commented that I "only" had halibut for lunch - ya'know, nothing special
  • Changed to using ion3 as my windows manager
  • Met Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, and Second Minister for Information, Communications and the Arts
  • Got to know about 10 Singaporean googlers, including Meng
  • Attended numerous meditation classes/sessions at Google
  • Missed two company trips. One to Hawaii, and another to Disney Land
  • Loving it here

Singapore's Existence

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, 2nd Minister of MICA, visited Google recently to learn and share insights on the development of IT and engineering in Singapore, US and globally. We had a fairly long discussion, about 2 hours, talking on issues ranging from how Google works to the rationale behind scholarships with bonds.

As the new guard of the Singapore government, I talked away with the impression that the minister had thought long about Singapore and its role in the global economy - a very poignant quote from him (paraphrased) "what why and how can Singapore, a place which logically does not deserve to exist, continue to thrive?"

Technical Jobs in Singapore

Revisiting a popular (relative to this blog) earlier rant on technical jobs in Singapore - what are the problems with technical jobs in Singapore?

Respect, Not Fear

The culture in Singapore is rift with infusions from Confucianism, and one theme is that the young should respect the elder, all else being equal. This somehow translates to managers expecting that junior employees will execute orders almost unconditionally, despite the manager's lack of technical expertise (and even if the manager is an engineer, he or she should know when the topic is out of their own expertise). Managing engineers is like herding cats - organized chaos. You really cannot tell engineers exactly what to do and when to do it. Engineers will feel much more respected if you outline the problem, and allow them to explore and develop solutions by themselves, other than micromanaging them and inspecting their work at every minor milestone. A pet peeve of mine is when managers suggest that a solution should be trivial or easy when they have no technical understanding of the issue at hand, this raises a major major red flag for me - this is why engineers should be managed by other engineers, preferably superstars who have done it all (Maybe people like Vinton Cerf, Ken Thompson, Amit Singhal, and obviously, Larry Page, Segrey Brin and Eric Schmidt). In engineering though, good ideas are king and bad ideas should be vilified - it does not matter if the idea came from the janitor or the superstar engineer. Herein lies another problem with "respect your elders". It has evolved to "fear your managers" in the Singapore context (partially because managers are given so much more power in organizations, which I discuss next) - engineers simply feel uncomfortable pointing out and rejecting an idea that the manager presented because they feel obliged to accept the idea. This phenomena is present to some extent everywhere, but I feel this is particularly problematic in Singapore.

Look, in the sky, it's not a bird, not a plane, it's your new boss

As outlined in my previous article, one, if not the biggest, problem is that in Singapore IT companies, managers are more valued and better compensated than engineers. Everyone pays lip service to "oh, engineers are number one". Even if there is a career path for engineers that reaches to senior management, there will inevitably be a non-technical person with higher status (or more likely, a whole bunch of people) in the organization. This sends a signal that propagates throughout the organization that engineers are not number one - and as non-technical people gain more traction and start making organizational decisions that make no technical sense, engineers will feel segregated and meekly allow non-technical people to make decisions for them. Lather, rinse, repeat, and the original motto of "engineers are number one" is watered down to somewhere along the lines of "engineers. oh. they do stuff that we tell them".

Meritocracy, also from the tenets of Confucianism, is alive and well in Singapore - scholarships are given to individuals who perform exceptionally in examinations and are rewarded with a fast-track career in the civil service. I believe that this is actually an excellent system that has resulted in an efficient and frankly, world-class caliber civil service.

However, it is common to "parachute" management from other parts of the civil service to technical organizations in Singapore (which, unfortunately, constitutes the major players in IT R&D in Singapore). Not to pick on the army (because management movement happens in the entire civil service), but the current policy is for generals to retire when they reach about 45 years old (give or take a few years) - they are considered senior civil servants who are able to head an entire organization, even R&D and IT organizations, which brings me back to the point - are engineers number one?

Treat smart engineers right, and great things happen. Most engineers actually do not be look to be the CEO, or to earn outrageous salaries (which, ahem, people do in the civil service) - but we do hope to be respected. I would feel insulted if engineers are "respected", but are the minority in management. That's lip service, and we know it.

100% right the first time always means ...

The last point which I will not dwell on too much is that we Singaporeans on the whole need to be more advantageous in our thinking - fall a few times, it is ok. IT organizations too, have to accept that good ideas result from a gazillion bad ideas accumulating. If everything you did worked and you reached all your goals, you are not trying hard enough.

Organizations in Singapore expect results very quickly, which is good in the industry, as you want to move fast, but also expect that these results to be the "next best thing". No, separate the two - you want to develop prototypes quickly, but be just as quick to discard it if it turns out to be bad (and to reward that behavior). Otherwise, you just have a bunch of people trying out safe alternatives to get tangible results (but not the next best thing).

This Article Writes Itself

Mike is a dear friend whom I have known since my undergraduate days in Waterloo. Mike is an astute observer of life and I refer to him as "Mike the Critic".

Blogging is hard work

me: I should just use your quotes.
mike: you should start by saying... blogging is just too much work [smile]. That's what Mike the critic would say

Using Mike Quotes

me: oh yeah
reminds me that i do have a textfile in my home laptop
titled "mike quotes"
mike: that's "Mike's" quotes
(you can add grammar nazi too)

AAPL is a good buy

Mike: so I feel safe with my AAPL investment
missed out on the iPod
so hopefully this'll be a catalyst for even greater returns
I've hated the cell phone industry for so long
now the hate is gone.

Very critical

me: You are overly critical of everything.
mike: yep, that's me
snob of everything

Buying and Selling Lemons

The market of lemons explains why company insurances are so cheap, and the professionals call the key effect adverse selection.

I mean, this has bugged me for some time - why is it so expensive to buy personal insurance for myself, but it only costs a few dollars a month to get excellent life coverage as part of a work package, possibly from the same insurance company that was going to charge you a hundred dollars a month?

It is a simple explanation, and it begins with information, or, to be precise, the asymmetric nature of it. Insurance companies can gather and calculate statistics for life expectancy for the general population, and they can use these numbers to formulate life policies to sell to people at fair value. However, when these insurance companies try to sell such policies, less healthy individuals are more inclined than the more healthy individuals to buy these policies. If you know you are sick, your expected returns from buying a life insurance is higher than if you know (or think) you are as fit as a horse.

Insurance companies have no way of differentiating between the more healthy and less healthy individuals, but soon realize that the people who buy the insurance are more likely to be sick. (And they pay out more than the statistics suggests) To counteract this, companies will undoubtedly increase the prices of the life insurances, which further discourages healthy individuals. No matter what price the insurance is set at, this trend continues. Even if life insurance costs $10,000, individuals who are sick and find the returns profitable will be more likely to buy the insurance than healthy individuals. The asymmetry of information, in this example the health of oneself, causes adverse selection.

In the workplace, however, everyone is given the same life insurance as part of work. Because everyone buys the same life insurance, adverse selection no longer plays a part, and the "fair price" (plus obligatory obscene profit-margins) for life insurance can be given to employees.

Turning american

I caught the shopping bug, especially since Google gave out a $1000 holiday bonus to all full-time employees. Besides a Harman Kardon Soundsticks II (connected remotely to my ex-neglected airport express!) and iRobot Roomba, I got a bunch of DVDs and digital music from Amazon and iTunes. I actually thought to myself, "man, I'm turning american". (like how people turn japanese). At least I can still afford my credit card bills.

In other news, I helped to host teachers from the Singapore Sports School at Google. I found it highly commendable that the school funded these teachers to visit other schools in the US and multinational corporations like Apple and Google to learn about organizational culture, operations, etc. Now the onus is on them to spread the word and make real changes in Singapore.

I also attended the highly-coveted interviewer training classes by (1) drafting a response to attend the class before openings are available, (2) setting an alert to inform me when there are openings, (3) ???, (4) profit! Oh wait, I'm not on /.

Google really places a lot of emphasis on interviewing, and it is something that software engineers consider as an actual work activity, because interviewing well is tough - You have to take the time to prepare for the interview, actually conduct the interview, and finally write a detailed summary so that Google can make an informed decision on whether or not to hire a candidate.

On the other hand, when I told the Mrs that I attended interviewer training, she informed my mother that I "went to attend some nonsense course to skive"... ouch. That hurts.

Why be an expert in Singapore? Seriously.

(Note: This was a blog entry which I wrote a while back before I completed my PhD program. I have made minor edits, but have left most of the writing intact. This entry highlights one compelling reason why I chose to work in the industry eventually. This led to a job search in Singapore, but ended up with me in US. But that's another story.)

My supervisor once voiced his concern when I started my PhD on whether I would be able to find a job upon graduation because I was not planning to study a more "popular" subject matter. Being fresh out of National Service and finally free to use my mind, I was eager to pursue my own interests and was not ready to kowtow to the perceived stifling of my academic life by such mundane economic reality. In fact, I was questioning his concern at the back of my mind - surely a computer science PhD would not have any difficulty in finding a decent IT job!

Due to stipulations of my fellowship, I am obliged to stay in Singapore for two years to work after graduation, but I was free to work anywhere, as long as it is related to computer science. So in my last year of my candidature, I started my job hunt in earnest. I prepared my resume and seeked out the usual suspects - I applied for industry and teaching positions first, and procured several job offers, each giving a fairly decent monthly salary as a first job. But, well, let's just say I was not tripping over my own feet to accept any of these job offers.

Incidentally, my wife started her job approximately the same time as I entered graduate school, and is thus rather suited to serve as a frame of reference for comparing job compensations between working after a Bachelors or doing a PhD before entering the workforce. After four years of working, she was moving up the career ladder, and was earning 25% more per month than the job offers I was getting. I like to point out that my wife is a Bachelors degree holder in a government job - so we are not talking about a really fast-tracked Masters in a blooming industry. Many a times I would hear about a supposedly "excellent", or "great" job offer from a local research institution or school, and would be informed that I was going to be paid a quarter less than my wife. The icing on the cake, the cream de le creme, the best part of it all, is that I would be drawing Bachelor's pay until my PhD degree is actually conferred. FYI, I was officially conferred my PhD degree in September after submitting my thesis in January. Let's just say I was not amused at this point in time.

The school does have much more attractive compensation, with a higher monthly salary as a postdoctoral researcher (although they do not pay annual bonus), a much more comprehensive healthcare plan, and the freedom to engage in any area of research. It seems like a no-brainer to stay in school if possible after a PhD in Singapore. However, postdoctoral research positions are contract-based for one to two years, and it does entail a need to secure a more permanent job after the contract ends. That means a tenure-track position, which is hard to obtain unless you are a super-star (but if so, you should be gunning for a position in an ivy league university).

I am disappointed at the job options of a PhD graduate in Singapore, and found them clearly lacking any attraction whatsoever. I find solace in achieving mastery of a subject matter after four years of research and study, but financially, it is a little disappointing.

Read and weep - Student to Professor: The Road to Tenure-Track [Princetonreview.com]

In a related thread, what makes sense in Singapore? People management.

People management is better rewarded than technical expertise. This differentiation between experts and middle-level managers in terms of rewards is an Asian phenomenon. Here, those who present the work seem to get the credit for it, regardless of who actually performs it. We live in a place and time where articulation is often mistaken for accomplishments.

- Are you too smart for your own good?. Manoj Thulasidas. Today newspaper. Aug 25 2007.


Fast forward to today, and I am enjoying showing up at Google for work. I honestly enjoy the challenge and it pays well enough for me not to worry about money. I wished Singapore could have given me such opportunities there, but in all seriousness, I will never return to Singapore for a technical job.

Thanks for the acknowledgement, but...

I just read Wee-Chong's PhD thesis on M2ICAL. (Fine, scanned through). I have to thank him for the kind acknowledgement which I shall reproduce here because it's so amusing:

A lavish pesco-vegetarian dinner awaits my partner-in-crime Lim Yew Jin, seemingly the only other person interested in intellectual games research in the whole of Singapore. My initial thesis idea stemmed from him, and even though it eventually metamorphosed beyond recognition, Yew Jin was always available as a sounding board for ideas and a sympathetic ear as a fellow PhD student. Almost makes me forgive him for being 6 years younger and 6 times smarter.

Yes Wee-Chong, woe to all of those who dare to study something academic on something with no immediate financial reward in Singapore. The important thing is that we survived and can walk away as free men. Thanks for being modest and saying that I am smarter than you - I can only honestly claim to have actually played (a lot) less board games than you during our candidature, which, mind you, can be viewed as a bad thing given the our subject area. And while I cannot deny that I am younger, there's also the issue of life expectancy. If I die 6 years before you, it all evens out.

Cheers!

When work is fun

First of all, to all those who did not understand my "Kool-aid" references, see this. I am not obsessed with Kool-aid.

Since my last blog post, I have moved desks so that the team now sits together, now have 90 bottles/cans in my collection, went for a talk by The Simpsons animators in Google (and got a free book!), bought a car (Toyota Corolla CE) and got rejected for a credit card.

But most importantly, I am working hard trying to get a system up at work, and have worked on weekends and weekdays until 10pm.

When work is fun, it becomes dangerous. :)

Amazon Kindle

As an avid book reader, I really like the idea of Amazon Kindle. Imagine a whole shelf of books in a electronic book reader! (And no more nagging from wife and parents about the number of books in the house)

Very nice points:


  • Lighter and thinner than a typical paperback; weighs only 10.3 ounces.

  • Long battery life. Leave wireless on and recharge approximately every other day. Turn wireless off and read for a week or more before recharging. Fully recharges in 2 hours.

  • Unlike WiFi, Kindle utilizes the same high-speed data network (EVDO) as advanced cell phones—so you never have to locate a hotspot.

  • No monthly wireless bills, service plans, or commitments—we take care of the wireless delivery so you can simply click, buy, and read.

  • Includes free wireless access to the planet's most exhaustive and up-to-date encyclopedia—Wikipedia.org.

  • More than 88,000 books available, including 100 of 112 current New York Times® Best Sellers.

However, it's currently getting 2.5 out of 5 stars in the Amazon rating system. Most complaints are on (1) DRM books, (2) Expensive reader and (3) it's not paper!

(1) DRM - unfortunately, is a necessary evil for business to agree. I would rather have tons of quality DRM books than a small selection of non-DRM books

(2) Expensive - it's all relative. Heck, if all my books are digital, imagine the money I would save on shipping charges.

(3) It's not paper - if it's better for the environment (not sure how much effect the manufacturing affects the climate), then I can adapt.

It's not that I would get the Amazon Kindle at this point in time. The main negative point for me is that it lacks many technical books, especially computer science. I am sure this is due to the HTML format of the ebooks, as opposed to something that maintains the page layout of the book like PDF. (Not that I am saying PDF is a good choice)

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