Why online meetings work but not online conferences

Sitting through a “slip fielding meeting” this morning, I had an epiphany – on why office work and meetings have adjusted fairly well to online formats, but not conferences. It has to do with backchannel conversations.

In meetings where everyone is in the same room, there is naturally just one conversation. Everyone is speaking to everyone else at the same time. Unless the meeting is humongously large, it is considered rude for people to “cross talk” in the meeting, and hence there is just one conversation. Of course, in the last decade or so, people have taken to texting at meetings and stuff, but that is still small.

The advantage with moving this kind of a meeting online is that now crosstalk is fully legit, as long as you are doing it using text only. Anyway, everyone is sitting with their computers. All it takes is one simple alt-tab or command-tab, and you can chat away with others present in the meeting. In fact, this makes online meetings MORE efficient by increasing the information flow (since the main channel of large meetings are usually low throughput).

It is the other way round with conferences and events. In conferences and events, the whole point is backchannel conversation. Pretty much nobody is there to listen to the lectures or panel discussions anyways – all that most attendees want to do is to meet other attendees.

And off-line conferences are conveniently structured to enable such interaction. By having multiple parallel sessions, for example, it becomes legit to just stay out and talk to others. There is always a buzz in the corridors (one conference which was single-session-at-a-time only turned out to be bloody boring).

The other thing is that most backchannel and side channel conversations at conferences are between people who don’t yet know each other, and who are there for discovery. So you need to physically bump into someone to talk to them – you can’t randomly start a conversation with someone.

And this translates horribly to online. Online is great for backchannel and side channel conversations with people you already know well – like colleagues. When you don’t know most other people, side channel conversation is awkward. And the main channel content in conferences is largely useless anyway.

This is why it is important that conferences and seminars and other such events move to an offline format asap. For large work meetings we can continue online even after we’re all back at office.

PS: I’m firmly in the DJ D-Sol camp in terms of calling people back to work, at least to make them live in or close to the “home locations”. This way, you have the optionality to meet at short notice without planning, something that fully remote work makes it really hard.

Formal interactions

Over the last couple of years, as the covid-19 pandemic has hit us and people have been asked to work from home, there has been a raging debate on the utility of office, especially for “knowledge work” (where the only “tool” you need is a computer).

Some companies such as Twitter have announced a “remote work in perpetuity”. Others such as Goldman Sachs have declared that remote work is inefficient and people need to return to offices asap. I probably was closer to the twitter position not so long ago, but now I think I’m firmly in the GS camp.

If you look at all the articles on remote work (I think Derek Thompson of The Atlantic has written some interesting pieces on this), one of the main arguments in favour of getting people to office is “informal interactions”, “bumping into colleagues”, “water cooler conversations”, etc. These kind of unstructured interactions can lead to new thoughts, which lead to innovation which lead to growth, goes the saying.

And in response to this, some companies have been trying to replicate these informal interactions in the zoom world. Instead of bumping into a colleague, you are forced to do a random “coffee chat” with a random colleague. There are online events. The hope here is that they will stand in for offline informal interactions.

Whether these events actually work or not, I don’t know. However, as I come close to a year in my job, it is not the informal interactions that I care about when I think of office vs remote. It’s “formal interactions”.

The lightbulb moment occurred earlier this week. I’m working on a fairly challenging problem with two others in my team. Two of the three of us were in office, and started talking about this problem. We drew some stuff on the whiteboard. Did some handwaving. And soon we had a new idea on how to approach this problem.

Now the task at hand was to explain this to the third guy, who is in another city. We opened Google Meet. We opened a “JamBoard” in that. I tried to replicate the whiteboard drawing, but he couldn’t see my handwaving (you realise that in video calls, video and screen share are two disjoint things!). It took a whole lot of effort to get the idea across.

This is not an isolated incident. In terms of collaborative work, I’ve found on multiple occasions that simply sitting together for a short duration of time can achieve so much more than what you can do in online meetings.

Another thing is that I’ve found myself to get exhausted faster in online meetings. Maybe I speak louder. Maybe having to look in one particular direction for the duration of the meeting is stressful. Offline meetings I can keep going and going and going (especially when on methylphenidate). Online, 2-3 meetings and I’m exhausted.

And then you have new colleagues and onboarding. Employees at an early stage require an extremely high degree of collaborative work. You need to “show stuff” to your new colleagues. Sometimes you might just take over their laptop. There are times when they need interventions that in the off-line world take 2 minutes, but online you need to schedule a meeting for.

Notice that none of the stuff I’ve mentioned so far is “informal”. Maybe it’s the nature of the work – involving deep thinking and complicated ideas. Remote work is absolutely brilliant in terms of the ability to shut yourself off without distractions and do deep work. The moment you need to collaborate, though, you need to be in the same physical space as your collaborators.

It’s unlikely I’ll ever want to go back to office full time (as I said, working from home is brilliant for deep work). However, I do look forward to a permanent hybrid model, meeting in office at least once a week. Hopefully the pandemic will allow us to get to this sooner rather than later.

Oh, and informal interactions are only a bonus.

Work is a momentum trade

Last evening, I called it a day at work at 4:30 pm. It was similar on Tuesday as well – I had gone to office, but decided to leave at 4, and go home and continue working. On both these days, the reason I shut shop early is that I wasn’t being productive. My mind was in a rut and I was unable to think.

I might compensate for it by working longer today. I might have already compensated for it by working late into the evening on Monday. I don’t really know.

Basically, the way I like to work is to treat it as a “momentum trade” (as they call it in capital markets). On days when work is going well, I just go on for longer and longer. On days when I’m not doing well, unless there are urgent deadlines, I shut shop early.

And for me, “going well” and “going badly” can be very very different. The amount I can achieve per hour of work when I’m in flow is far more than what I can achieve per hour of work when I’m not in flow. Hence, by working for longer on days when I’m doing well, I basically maximise the amount of work I get done per hour of work.

It is not always like this, and not with everyone. Our modern workday came from the industrial revolution, and factories. In factories, work is tightly defined. Also, assembly lines mean it is impossible for people to work unless people around them are also working (this is one supposed reason for the five day workweek developing in the US – with large numbers of both Christian and Jewish employees, it didn’t make sense for the factory to be operational on either Saturday or Sunday).

And our modern office working hours have developed from this factory working hours, because of which we traditionally have everyone working on a fixed shift. We define a start and end of the work day, and shut shop precisely at 6pm (say) irrespective of how work is going.

In my view, while this works for factories or factory-like “procedural” work,  for knowledge work that is a bad trade. You abruptly cut the wins when the going is good, and just keep going on when the going is bad, and end up taking a much longer time (on average) to achieve the same amount of work.

Then again, I have the flexibility to define my own work hours (as long as I attend the meetings I’ve committed to and finish the work I’m supposed to finish), so I’m able to make this “better momentum trade” for myself. If you are in a “thinking” profession, you should try it too.

The Office!

For the first time in nearly ten years, I went to an office where I’m employed to work. I’m not going to start going regularly, yet. This was a one off since I had to meet some people who were visiting. On the evidence of today, though, I think i once again sort of enjoy going to an office, and might actually look forward to when I start going regularly again.

Metro

I had initially thought I’d drive to the office, but white topping work on CMH Road means I didn’t fancy driving. Also, the office being literally a stone’s throw away from the Indiranagar Metro Station meant that taking the Metro was an easy enough decision.

The walk to South End Metro station was uneventful, though I must mention that the footpath close to the metro station works after a very long time! However, they’ve changed the gate that’s kept open to enter the station which means that the escalator wasn’t available.

The first order of business upon entering the station was to show my palm to one reader which took my temperature and let me go past. As someone had instructed me on twitter, I put my phone, wallet and watch in my bag as I got it scanned.

Despite not having taken the metro for at least 11 months, the balance on my card remained, and as I swiped it while entering, I heard announcements of a train to Peenya about to enter the station. I bounded up the stairs, only to see that the train was a little distance away.

In 2019, when I had just moved back to Bangalore from London, I had declared that the air conditioning in the Bangalore Metro is the best ever in the city. Unfortunately post-covid protocols mean that the train is kept at a much warmer temperature than usual. So on the way to the office, I kept sweating like a pig.

The train wasn’t too crowded, though. On the green line (till Majestic), everyone was comfortably seated  (despite every alternate seat having been blocked off). I panicked once, though, when a guy seated two seats away from me sneezed. I felt less worried when I saw he was wearing a mask.

The purple line from Majestic was another story. It felt somewhat silly that every alternate seat remained blcoked off when plenty of people were crowding around standing. I must mention, though, that the crowd was nothing like what it normally is. In any case, most of the train emptied out at Vidhana Soudha, and it was a peaceful ride from there on.

40 minute from door to door. Once office starts regularly, I plan to take the metro every day.

The Office

While the office was thinly populated, it felt good being back there. I was meeting several of my colleagues for the first time ever, and it was good to see them in person. We sat together for lunch (ordered from Thai House), and spoke about random things while eating. There was an office boy who, from time to time, ensured that my water glass and bottle were always filled up.

In the evening, one colleague and I went for coffee to the darshini next door. That the coffee was provided in paper cups meant we could safely socially distance from the little crowd at that restaurant. The coffee at this place is actually good – which again bodes well for my office.

And then some usual office-y things happened. I was in a meeting room doing a call with my team when someone else knocked asking if he could use the room. I got into a constant cycle of “watering and dewatering”, something I always do when I’m in an office. The combination of the thin attendance and the office boy, though, meant that there was no need to crowd around the water cooler.

I guess this is what 2020 has done to us. Normally, going to office to work should be the “most normal and boring thing ever”. However, 2020 means that it is now an event worth blogging about. Then again, I don’t need much persuasion to write about anything, do I?

How do i describe my job?

One of the “problems” with my job, if I can describe this as one, is that it’s tough to explain my job to a layman. There are multiple levels of disconnects here, and multiple “pitfalls”, if I can call them that. So when someone asks me about my work, it gets tough indeed to describe to any degree of accuracy while at the same time being concise, and at the same time talking in Kannada.

I am a quant at a hedge fund.

My work involves coming up with trading strategies, and then developing them to a level where I can have the ultimate fighter – a computer – to trade using these strategies. Then, I will need to figure out how the computer is going to implement these strategies and this part involves some heavy engineering work. And finally I code. Ok now I haven’t been accurately able to describe in one paragraph, writing in English, about my job. How do you expect me to describe it to the layman speaking in Kannada?

Coding is a part of my job, but I’m not a coder.

I deal with financial products – equities and equity derivatives. But I’m strictly not a finance guy – as far as I’m concerned, each security is just a time series. A time series on which I can trade and make money. In fact, apart from my short stint selling interest rates swaps in London, I haven’t really done any finance. My entire view of the markets is based on my idea that a security is just a tradeable time series. I think I should do a separate post on that. Anyways, I’m not strictly a finance guy also.

One of my degrees is an MBA. A PGDM to be precise, from IIMB. But I’m not a manager also. I don’t manage people apart from myself.  I’m not sure I’ll find that interesting either – I sometimes think managing is too fighter a job for me.

And so on.

And then, I work for a hedge fund. Most people don’e have a clue what a hedge fund is. I sometimes make an approximation and tell them I work for a mutual fund. And immediately I get bombarded with questions like my opinion on whether the markets will go up or down, and about how long the recession is going to last. And then there are those who start telling their sob stories about their investments in the markets when the Sensex was at 20,000 and about how markets can’t be trusted any more.

Another level of contradiction is that I’m based in Gurgaon. All finance companies are supposed to be in Bombay, right? Surely, given that I’m in Gurgaon, I must be doing some back office kind of work?

Last night my uncle was filling up some arranged marriage exchange registration form for me. And he asked me to describe my job in a short phrase. I immediately came up with “trader” and that got quickly shot down since that would give the image of a lala sitting behind huge weighing scales. Next I tried “financial trader” and “quantitative trader”. No go.

Then I wanted the simple “quant”. My highly stud uncle himself had trouble exactly figuring that out, so fat chance anyone would appreciate that. So out again. I relaxed constraints a bit and said “hedge fund professional”. But most people wouldn’t understand “hedge fund”. “mutual fund” was no go for a written form. “quantitative analyst” was considered too country by my uncle. He then asked me my designation. “Associate” doesn’t mean anything, he said and shot that down too.

Sometimes I wonder if I’ve unnecessarily complicated life for myself by choosing the path that I’ve chosen. If I were working for some software company I could’ve just written “software” over there and all would’ve been fine. The whole world would’ve understood, or at least claimed to have understood. Or even better, if I were living abroad, I wouldn’t have even been required to say that much. I’d’ve been just qualified as a “foreign huduga”, with most people not even caring for which city I was in.

For the record, my listing application records my profession as “financial services professional”, as country as it sounds. This was the only middle ground where my uncle and I didn’t disagree. And in it went. It increasingly looks like I’ll have to put fundaes to Cesares about why the stock markets have gone down in the last one year in order for them to allow their daughters to marry me. I have half a mind to start describing Ito’s lemma the next time someone asks me where the markets are headed. I’ll probably start off describing to them a random walk. And say that it’s a drunkard’s walk. And perhaps use that to change the topic. I think I might need to start practicing this. In Kannada.

I’m a quant at a hedge fund.

Pee-ball Wizard

I conceived this game around two o’clock this afternoon. It was during one of my several bio-breaks that I usually take during a hard day’s work. The amount of work done is directly proportional to the volume of fluid that passes through my system, and given the rate at which both input and output happened today, it seemed like i did a lot of work.

This is a very gross post. If you think you are going to get grossed out, read no further. And for your sake, let me put the rest of the post under the fold.

Continue reading “Pee-ball Wizard”

Bangalore Trip

I’m going to Bangalore tomorrow evening. Will be back on Sunday afternoon. My mother will be accompanying me to Gurgaon then.

It seems like there is a lot of work to do during my short stay there. Apart from the usual meeting relatives and friends, I have some tonnes of offical work to do which I hadn’t been able to do before moving to Gurgaon.

I need to give a change of address request to my banks, my brokerage accounts, my credit card account, etc. I need to take advantage of this temporary high-interest period in order to renew my fixed deposits. There are some other agreements which I’ll need to get prepared and sign. I need to go to Premier Bookshop and clear out my coupons.

As if all this was not enough, my mother had told me on Sunday that my market entry might be happening and I might even be required to meet a potential investor. Thankfully (?) that deal has fallen through before it even began, so I’m spared of that trouble.

Then, there is food. Two aunts have invited me to their homes for a meal apiece, but apart from that I’ve asked my mother not to cook for me. I will be putting a visit to Shiok, for the first time since it reopened. I still haven’t decided upon the places where I’ll eat breakfast, but the Adigas in Jayanagar 8th Block and SN in JP Nagar 2nd phase seem to be the favourites. I’ll probably have idli-vada-dosa for lunch also on one of the days.

This is the first time in almost 40 years that my mother will be moving out of Bangalore for an extended period of time, so there are thousands of relatives who expect us to visit them. I don’t think we’ll be able to entertain most of them, but still a few visits will have to be made.

Then, there is the meeting friends bit. I’ve set up two sets of meetings already, and I’m not sure if I’ll have time for more. Nevertheless, I think I must be having some time early on Saturday evening (5 to 7 types). So if you don’t belong to either of the two sets that I’ve mentioned here (if you do belong to either of those sets, you already know it) and want to meet me, give me a call. I also need to mention here that I won’t have net access from tomorrow afternoon to Sunday evening.

All in all, it seems like I have planned for a fairly heavy schedule for this visit to Bangalore, my first since I moved to Gurgaon. And all this heavy activity is contingent upon one thing – the condition of my bike. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up with the schedule I’ve made for myself if I’m not able to use my bike. So please join me in praying that my bike is in good condition and won’t play truant during the length of my stay in Bangalore.

Bloomberg Watching

Two weeks back we were all given dual screens at office. A couple of days after that, those of us that had joined recently got Bloomberg logins. It’s a very restricted version of Bloomberg, with most of the strong features having been disabled. One feature that is enabled, though, is to get the graph of the daily price movement of a security, or an index.

It is necessary to have hobbies at work. It is humanly impossible to concentrate solely on the work for all the eight or ten hours that you spend at office. You need distractions. However, in order to prevent yourself from being too distracted, it helps having one or two very strong distractions. Distractions which can crowd out all other distractions. They can be called “office hobbies”.

In the past, my office hobbies haven’t really been constructive. In my first job, I was part of a PJ Club, and we would exchange horrible jokes. By the time I got to my next job, I had been addicted to Orkut, and kept refreshing it to check if I’d gotten any new scraps. Of course, when there is a cricket match on, the Cricinfo screen makes for a good office hobby. In the last ten days, the World Chess Championship has served my evenings well. However, it is important to have a sustainable hobby which could also be constructive. One which might have a small chance of making impact on your work. And most importantly, it would be ideal if the boss doesn’t really disapprove of your office hobby.

For the last week and half at work, my right screen (remember that I have two screens) has been reserved for Bloomberg Watching. A Bloomberg window is open there in full size, and I would’ve usually put the daily movement graph of the Nifty there. And it updates real-time. It’s like a video game. I just sit and watch. And get fascinated by the kind of twists and turns that the markets take.

Twenty years back, I would spend my evenings in the courtyard of my grandfather’s house in Jayanagar watching ants move about. I would be fascinated by their random, yet orderly movements. I would spend hours together watching them.

Around the same time, I used to play another game. I used to splash water on the (red-oxide coated) walls of my loo, and watch the different streams of water flow down as i crapped. I would get fascinated by the patterns that the water droplets would form, the paths that they would take, the way they would suddenly change speed when they intersected, and so forth. I would end up squatting there long after I’d been done with my crap.

So what I’m doing now is not exactly new. I just watch a point move. Orderly from left to right. Wildly fluctuating in the up-down direction. I look at the patterns and try to guess which animal they look like, or which country they look like. I get fascinated by the sudden twists and turns that the curve takes, and wonder about the collective wisdom of all market participants who are faciliating such movement. I occasionally scream out to my colleagues saying stuff like “nifty below 2600!” and they respond with a “behenchod…” or some equivalent of it.

As the day wears on, I realized that some animals I had recognized earlier in the day are hardly visible now. They are but specks in the larger graph that is the day. And then I realize that unless there was something truly special, the movement of the day will also soon be lost. It will be available for download from the same Bloomberg terminal but that will be about it. And so forth.

Occasionally I catch some unsuspecting soul on my GTalk list and spout such philosophy. I tell them about how after a while everything becomes insignificant. About how we will always be just small players in the larger system. The smarter among them will add their own philosophy to mine, and sometimes we come up with a new theory. The not so smart among them – they will ask me about my views on the market. And what would be good picks (this has been a regular question I’ve been asked ever since I got back into the finance industry but more about that later). And then they say something like how terrorists are the reason the stock markets are plunging, and how the government should protect investors’ money and stuff.

Some day I hope all of this will be useful. Some day I hope my eye for recognizing animals and countries where none exist will enable me to come up with some earthshaking strategy, which can make millions for my fund. However, now that doesn’t matter. All that matters is the unbridled joy of watching the ticker move up and down. Rise and fall. Take baby steps, and the occasional giant leap. It’s surreal.