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.

Slip fielding meetings

It’s been nearly six months since I returned to corporate life. As you might imagine, I have participated in lots of meetings in this period. Some of them are 1-on-1s. Some are in slightly larger groups. Some meetings have big groups.

Meetings in big groups are of two types – ones where you do a lot of the talking, and what I have come to call as “slip fielder meetings”.

Basically, participating in these meetings is like fielding at slip in a cricket match. For most of the day, you just stand there doing nothing, but occasionally once in a while a ball will come towards you and you are expected to catch it. That means you need to be alert all the time.

These meetings are the same. For most of the discussion you are not necessarily required, but once in a while there might be some matter that comes up where your opinion is required, and you need to be prepared for that.

I can think of at least two occasions in the last six months where I was rudely awoken from my daydreams (no I wasn’t literally napping) with someone saying “Karthik, what do you think we should do about this?”.

And since then I’ve learnt to anticipate. Anticipate when my presence might be required. Figure out from the broad contours of the conversation on when I might be called upon. And remain alert when called upon (though on one occasion early on in the company my internet decided to give way just when I had started talking in a 20 person meeting).

Yesterday, a colleague gave me a good idea on how to stay alert through these “slip fielder meetings”. “Just turn on the automated captions on Google Meet”, he said. “Occasionally it can be super funny. Like one day ‘inbound docks’ was shown as ‘inborn dogs'”.

I think this is a great idea. By continuously looking at the captions, I can remain sufficiently stimulated and entertained, and also know what exactly is happening in the meeting. I’m going to use this today onwards.

I now wonder what real slip fielders do to stay alert. I’m not sure chatting with the wicketkeeper is entertaining enough.

Not all minutes are equal

I seem to be on a bit of a self-reflection roll today. Last night I had this insight about my first ever job (which I’ve  said I’ll write about sometime). This morning, I wrote about how in my 15 years of professional life I’ve become more positive sum, and stopped seeing everything as a competition.

This blogpost is about an insight I realised a long time back, but haven’t been able to quantify until today. The basic concept, which I might have written about in other ways, is that “not all minutes are created equal”.

Back when I was in IIT, I wasn’t particularly happy. With the benefit of hindsight, I think my mental illness troubles started around that time. One of the mindsets I had got into then (maybe thanks to the insecurity of having just taken a highly competitive, and status-seeking, exam) was that I “need to earn the right to relax”.

In the two years prior to going to IIT, it had been drilled into my head that it was wrong to relax or have fun until I had “achieved my goals”, which at that point in time was basically about getting into IIT. I did have some fun in that period, but it usually came with a heavy dose of guilt – that I was straying from my goal.

In any case, I got into IIT and the attitude continued. I felt that I couldn’t relax until I had “finished my work”. And since IIT was this constant treadmill of tests and exams and assignments and grades, this meant that this kind of “achievement” of finishing work didn’t come easily. And so I went about my life without chilling. And was unhappy.

The problem with IIT was that it was full of “puritan toppers“. Maybe because the exam selected for extreme fighters, people at IIT largely belonged to one of two categories – those that continued to put extreme fight, and those who completely gave up. And thanks to this, the opinion formed in my head that if I were to “have fun before finishing my work” I would join the ranks of the latter.

IIMB was different – the entrance exam itself selected for studness, and the process that included essays and interviews meant that people who were not necessary insane fighters made it. You had a rather large cohort of people who managed to do well academically without studying much (a cohort I happily joined. It was definitely a good thing that there were at least two others in my hostel wing who did rather well without studying at all).

And since you had a significant number of people who both had fun and did well academically, it impacted me massively in terms of my attitude. I realised that it was actually okay to have fun without “having finished one’s work”. The campus parties every Saturday night contributed in no small measure in driving this attitude.

That is an attitude I have carried with me since. And if I were to describe it simply, I would say “not all minutes are created equal”. Let me explain with a metaphor, again from IIMB.

The favourite phrase of Dr. Prem Chander, a visiting professor who taught us Mergers and Acquisitions, was “you can never eliminate risk. You can only transfer it to someone who can handle it better”. In terms of personal life and work, it can be translated to “you can never eliminate work. However, you can transfer it to a time when you can do it better”.

Earlier this evening I was staring at the huge pile of vessels in my sink (we need to get some civil work done before we can buy a dishwasher, so we’ve been putting off that decision). I was already feeling tired, and in our domestic lockdown time division of household chores, doing the dishes falls under my remit.

My instinct was “ok let me just finish this off first. I can chill later”. This was the 2002 me speaking. And then a minute later I decided “no, but I’m feeling insanely tired now having just cooked dinner and <… > and <….. >. So I might as well chill now, and do this when I’m in a better frame of mind”.

The minute when I had this thought is not the same as the minute an hour from now (when I’ll actually get down to doing this work). In the intervening time, I’ve would’ve had a few drinks,  had dinner,  written this blogpost, hung out with my daughter as she’s going to bed, and might have also caught some IPL action. And I foresee that I will be in a far better frame of mind when I finally go out to do the dishes, than I was when I saw the pile in the sink.

It is important to be able to make this distinction easily. It is important to recognise that in “real life” (unlike in entrance exam life) it is seldom that “all work will be done”. It is important to realise that not all minutes are made equal. And some minutes are better for working than others, and to optimise life accordingly.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might think this is all rather obvious stuff, but having been on the other side, let me assure you that it isn’t. And some people can take it to an extreme extreme, like the protagonists of Ganesha Subramanya who decide that they will not interact with women until they’ve achieved something!

Fifteen years of professional life

I was supposed to begin my first job on the 1st of May 2006. A week before, I got a call from HR stating that my joining date had been shifted to the 2nd. “1st May is Maharashtra Day, and all Mumbai-based employees have a holiday that day. So you start on the second”, she said.

I was thinking about this particular job (where I lasted all of three months) for a totally different reason last night. We will talk about that sometime in another blogpost (once those thoughts are well formed).

The other day I was thinking about how I have changed since the time I was working. I mean there are a lot of cosmetic changes – I’m older now. I can claim to have “experience”. I have a family. I have a better idea now of what I’m good at and all that.

However, if I think about the biggest change from a professional front that has happened to me, it is in (finally, belatedly) coming to realise that the world (especially, “wealth games”) is positive sum, and not zero sum.

The eight years before I started my first job in 2006 were spent in insanely competitive environments. First there was mugging for IIT JEE, where what mattered was the rank, not the absolute number of marks. Then, in IIT, people targeted “branch position” (relative position in class) rather than absolute CGPA. We even had a term for it – “RG” (for relative grading).

And so it went along. More entrance exams. Another round of RG. And then campus interviews where companies came with a fixed number of open positions. I don’t think I realised this then, but all of my late teens and early twenties spent in ultra competitive environments meant that I entered corporate life also thinking that it was a zero sum thing.

I kept comparing myself to everyone around. It didn’t matter if it was the company’s CEO, or my boss, or some junior, or someone completely unconnected in another part of the firm. The only thing that was constant was that I would instinctively compare myself

“Why do people think this person is good? I’m smarter than him”
“Oh, she seems to be much smarter than me. I should be like her”

And that went on for a while. Somewhere along the way I decided to quit corporate altogether and start my own consulting business. Along the way I met a lot of people. Some were people I was trying to sell to. Others I worked with after having sold to some of their colleagues. I saw companies in action. I saw diverse people get together to get work done.

Along the way something flipped. I don’t exactly know what. And I started seeing how things in the real world are not a zero sum game after all. It didn’t matter who was good at what. It didn’t matter if one person “dominated” another (was good at the latter on all counts). People worked together and got things done.

My own sales process also contributed. I spoke to several people. And every sale I achieved was a win-win. Every assignment came about because I was adding value to them, and because they were adding (monetary) value to me. It was all positive sum. There were no favours involved.

And so by the time I got back to corporate life once again at the end of last year, I had changed completely. I had started seeing everything in a “positive sum” sort of way and not “zero sum” like I used to in my first stint in corporate life. That is possibly one reason why I’m enjoying this corporate stint much better.

PS: If you haven’t already done so, listen to this podcast by Naval Ravikant. It is rather profound (I don’t say that easily). Talks about how wealth is a positive sum game while status is a zero sum game. And to summarise this post, I had spent eight years immediately before I started building wealth by competing for status, in zero sum games.

JEE Rank, branch position, getting the “most coveted job” – they were all games of status. It is interesting (and unfortunate) that it took me so long to change my perspective to what was useful in the wealth business.

PPS: I’ve written this blogpost over nearly two hours, while half-watching an old Rajkumar movie. My apologies if it seems a bit rambling or incoherent or repetitive.

 

 

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?

Proper Job

For the first time in over nine years, I’m taking up one of these.

If someone, sometime, were to do a compendium of stories of people whose careers changed because of covid-19, then I might feature in it. To be very honest, my present career change had been in the works for a while now. However, a bunch of things that covid-19 forced upon me this year made it that much easier to take the plunge.

As the more perceptive of you might have observed by now, I quit full time employment to embark on a “portfolio life” in late 2011. Apart from getting control over my own time, this change allowed me to do a lot of interesting things apart from my “core work”, which I took on such that most of the work I did was things I was good at or interested in.

So over the last nine years, apart from doing a lot of very interesting consulting work around data and analytics and AI and ML and “data science” and all that, I did a lot of interesting stuff otherwise as well. I wrote a book. I wrote a column for Mint. I taught at IIMB. I did public policy work for Takshashila.

I met lots of people and had loads of interesting discussions. There were times, yes, when I went into every meeting or catchup with a “sales mindset”, trying to sell something to someone. Thankfully these times were infrequent, and short. At all other times, I enjoyed all these random catchups, without any expectation  that anything come out of it.

My network expanded like crazy during these years. For the first time in my life, I came to be known for something apart from entrance exams. I spent time living in other places. I “followed my wife” when she first went to Barcelona, and then to London. It was all smooth.

In any case, you might be wondering how the pandemic resulted in my transition to employment being easier. The main way in which it has eased this transition is by ruining my carefully constructed lifestyle of the last nine years.

I’ve loved going around and meeting people. On an average, I would meet two to three people a week, for things completely unrelated to work. That has come down to nearly zero in the last nine months.

I had grown used to having massive control of my time and schedule. The prolonged school shutdown has completely sent it for a toss, with shared childcare responsibilities. “If I don’t have control over my time any ways, I might as well take up a job”, went one line of my reasoning.

I sometimes think I have a fear of open offices (I’ve felt this even during my consulting times when some clients have asked me to do “face time” in their offices). I hate having other people looking at my screen when I’m working. Maybe it has to do with some bad bosses / colleagues I’ve had over the years. The pandemic means I start working from the comfort of my home. And by the time I go to an office I will have hopefully settled down in this job.

And speaking of offices, the pandemic has normalised remote or hybrid working to an extent that I applied to jobs without having the constraint that they necessarily need to have an office in Central Bangalore. The company I’m joining – I’m not sure I would have thought of them in a “normal job search”. As it happens, while they’re not primarily based here, they do have a small office not far from Central Bangalore, and I’ll be going there once it reopens.

Then, thanks to the pandemic, I have successfully concluded my jobhunt without stepping out of home. All interviews, with a big range of companies, happened through video conferencing. In terms of my personal experience, Zoom >> Teams >> Meet.

But yeah, the biggest impact of the pandemic has  been on my lifestyle. So many things that I craved, and took as given, have been taken away from my life, that changing lifestyle seems to have become far easier than I had imagined. It’s like the tube strike model. I got shaken out of my earlier local optimum, and that has enabled me to convince myself that this new lifestyle will work.

In any case, I hope this works out. Just before joining, I feel positive, and excited in a good way.

Oh, and I guess I need to add here, and maybe at the beginning of every subsequent post.

All opinions expressed here on this blog are mine, and only mine. They don’t reflect the thoughts or opinions or positions of any organisation(s) that I might be associated with. Also, none of what I write on this blog is to be taken as investment advice. 

 

Record of my publicly available work

A few people who I’ve spoken to as part of my job hunt have asked to see some “detailed descriptions” of work that I’ve done. The other day, I put together an email with some of these descriptions. I thought it might make sense to “document” it in one place (and for me, the “obvious one place” is this blog). So here it is. As you might notice, this takes the form of an email.


I’m putting together links to some of the publicly available work that i’ve done.
1. Cricket
I have a model to evaluate and “tell the story of a cricket match”. This works for all limited overs games, and is based on a dynamic programming algorithm similar to the WASP. The basic idea is to estimate the odds of each team winning at the end of each ball, and then chart that out to come up with a “match story”.
And through some simple rules-based intelligence, the key periods in the game are marked out.
The model can also be used to evaluate the contributions of individual batsmen and bowlers towards their teams’ cause, and when aggregated across games and seasons, can be used to evaluate players’ overall contributions.
Here is a video where I explain the model and how to interpret it:
The algorithm runs live during a game. You can evaluate the latest T20 game here:
Here is a more interactive version , including a larger selection of matches going back in time.
Related to this is a cricket analytics newsletter I actively wrote during the World Cup last year. Most Indians might find this post from the newsletter interesting:
2. Covid-19
At the beginning of the pandemic (when we had just gone under a national lockdown), I had built a few agent based models to evaluate the risk associated with different kinds of commercial activities. They are described here.
Every morning, a script that I have written parses the day’s data from covid19india.org and puts out some graphs to my twitter account  This is a daily fully automated feature.
Here is another agent based model that I had built to model the impact of social distancing on covid-19.
tweetstorm based on Bayes Theorem that I wrote during the pandemic went viral enough that I got invited to a prime time news show (I didn’t go).
3. Visualisations
I used to collect bad visualisations.
I also briefly wrote a newsletter analysing “good and bad visualisations”.
4. I have an “app” to predict which single malts you might like based on your existing likes. This blogpost explains the process behind (a predecessor of ) this model.
5. I had some fun with machine learning, using different techniques to see how they perform in terms of predicting different kinds of simple patterns.
6. I used to write a newsletter on “the art of data science”.
In addition to this, you can find my articles for Mint here. Also, this page on my website  as links to some anonymised case studies.

I guess that’s a lot? In any case, now I’m wondering if I did the right thing by choosing “skthewimp” as my Github username.

Core quants and desk quants on main street

The more perceptive of you might have realised that I’m in the job market.

Over the last one month, my search has mostly be “breadth first” (lots of exploratory conversations with lots of companies), and I’m only now starting to “go deep” into some of them. As part of this process, I need to send out a pitch to a company I’ve been in conversation with regarding what I can do for them.

So I’ve been thinking of how to craft my mandate while keeping in mind that they have an existing data science team. And while I was thinking about this problem, I realised that I can model it like how investment banks (at least one that I worked for) do – in terms of “core quants” and “desk quants”.

I have written about this on my blog before – most “data scientists” in industry are equivalent to what investment banks call “core quants”. They are usually highly technically accomplished people; in many cases they are people who were on an academic path that they left to turn to industry. They do very well in “researchy” environments.

They’re great at running long-gestation-period assignments, working on well defined technical problems and expressing their ideas in code. In general, though (I know I’m massively generalising), they are not particularly close to the business and struggle to deal with the ambiguities that business throws at them from time to time.

What I had mentioned in my earlier post is that “main street” (the American word for “general industry”) lacks “desk quants”. In investment banks, desk quants are attached to trading desks and work significantly closer to the business. They may work less on firmwide or long term strategic projects, but their strength is in blending the models and the markets, and building and making simple tweaks to models so that they remain relevant to the business.

And this is the sort of role in which I’m planning to pitch myself – to all potential employers. That while I’m rather comfortable technically, and all sorts of different modelling techniques, I’m not “deep into tech” and like to work close to the markets. I realise that this analogy will be lost on most people, so I need to figure out a better way of marketing myself. Any ideas will be appreciated.

Over the last month or so I’ve been fairly liberal and using my network to get introductions and references. The one thing I’ve struggled with there is how they describe me as. Most people end up describing me as a “data scientist”, and I’m not sure that’s an accurate description of what I do. Then again, it’s my responsibility to help them figure out how best to describe me. And that’s another thing I’m struggling in. “Desk quant” doesn’t translate well.

Coming back to life

On Sunday, I met a friend for coffee. In normal times that would be nothing extraordinary. What made this extraordinary was that this was the first time since the lockdown started that I was actually meeting a non-family member casually, for a long in-person conversation.

I’m so tired of the three pairs of shorts and five T-shirts that I’ve been wearing every day since the lockdown started that I actually decided to dress up that day. And bothered to take a photo at a signal on the way to meeting him.

We met at a coffee shop in Koramangala, from where we took away coffees and walked around the area for nearly an hour, talking. No handshakes. No other touches. Masks on for most of the time. And outdoors (I’m glad I live in Bangalore whose weather allows you to be outdoors most of the year). Only issue was that wearing a mask and walking and talking for an hour can tire you out a bit.

The next bit of resurrection happened yesterday when I had an in-person business meeting for the first time in three months. Parking the car near these people’s office was easier than usual (less business activity I guess?), though later I found that my windshield was full of bird shit (I had parked under a tree).

For the first time ever while going into this office, I got accosted by a security guard at the entrance, asking where I was headed, taking my temperature and offering me hand sanitiser. Being a first time, I was paranoid enough to use the umbrella I was carrying to operate the lift buttons, and my mask was always on.

There were no handshakes. The room was a bit stuffy and I wasn’t sure if they were using the AC, so I asked for the windows to be opened (later they turned on the AC saying it’s standard practice there nowadays). Again, no handshakes or anything. We kept our masks on for a long time. They offered water in a bottle which I didn’t touch for a long time.

Until one of them suggested we could order in dosas from a rather famous restaurant close to their office (and one that I absolutely love). The dosas presently arrived, and then all masks were off. For the next half hour as the dosas went down it was like we were back in “normal times” again, eating together and talking loudly without masks. I must say I missed it.

I took the stairs down to avoid touching the lift. Walked back to the car (and birdshit-laden windshield) and quickly used hand sanitiser. I hadn’t carried my laptop or notebook for the meeting, and I quickly made notes using the voice notes app of my phone.

Yes, in normal times, a lot of this might appear mundane. But given that we’re now sort of “coming back to life” after a long and brutal lockdown, a lot of this deserves documentation.

Oh, and I’m super happy to meet people now. Given a choice, I prefer outdoors. Write in if you want to meet me.

Meetings from home

For the last eight years, I’ve worked from home with occasional travel to clients’ offices. How occasional this travel has been has mostly depended on how far away the client is, and how insistent they are on seeing my face. Nevertheless, I’ve always made it a point to visit them for any important meetings, and do them in person.

Now, with the Covid-19 crisis, this hybrid model has broken down. Like most other people in the world, I work entirely from home nowadays, even for important meetings.

At the face of this, this seems like a good thing – for example, nowadays, however important a meeting is, the transaction cost is low. An hour long meeting means spending an hour for it (the time taken for prep is separate and hasn’t changed), and there’s no elaborate song-and-dance about it with travel and dressing up and all that.

While this seems far more efficient use of my time, I’m not sure I’m so happy about it. Essentially, I miss the sense of occasion. Now, an important meeting feels no different from an internal meeting with partners, or some trivial update.

Travel to and from an important meeting was a good time to mentally prepare for it, and then take stock of how it was gone. Now, until ten minutes before a meeting, I’m living my life as usual, and the natural boundaries that used to help me prep are also gone.

The other problem with remotely being there in large but important meetings is that it’s really easy to switch off. If you’re not the one who is doing a majority of the talking (or even the listening), it becomes incredibly hard to focus, and incredibly easy to get distracted elsewhere in the computer (it helps if your camera is switched off).

In a “real” physical meeting, however, large the gathering is, it is naturally easy for you to focus (and naturally more difficult to be distracted), and also easier to get involved in the meeting. An online meeting sometimes feels a bit too much like a group discussion, and without visual cues involved, it becomes really hard to butt in and make a point.

So once we are allowed to travel, and to meet, I’m pretty certain that I’ll start travelling a bit for work again. I’ll start with meetings in Bangalore (inter-city travel is likely to be painful for a very long time).

It might involve transaction cost, but a lot of the transaction cost gets recovered in terms of collateral benefits.