31 December 2015
On New Years' Eve I think on the events and patterns of the year, as a reflective practice. I learn more when I use hindsight to my advantage.
I've looked at the work I didn't do. Now I'll look at what I did.
The unexpected is a source of inspiration and joy. Sometimes it is a source of meaningless interruptions. I have found that people are a source of inspiration, and advertising is invariable noise. I use technology to filter the latter out of my life.
Lesson: Technology, like all tools, can be used to further your goals. Identify what you care about (fewer interruptions, privacy), and chances are there's a tool for you.
I like to anticipate obstacles and opportunities by being well informed. I ended up reading over a thousand blog posts, research papers, newspaper articles, and books this year. I lack an eidetic memory, so I maintain a personal knowledgebase.
I keep track of the most useful resources, categorized by topics such as health, food, education, government, companies, privacy, computer security, intellectual property, software development, data science, finance, environmental engineering, productivity, communication, job searches, scientific research, and our ever-growing police state.
Lesson: Latency is king. The amount of information I can access depends on time. Computing latency works the same way.
Many useful tools (Google, StackOverflow, cookbooks) are successful because they move knowledge a lower latency.
I was able to complete one big side project this year, analyzing the personnel expenses of the University of California (UC) system. Spoiler: most of the money goes to administrators, not teachers or students.
I can't publicly show the work I do at my job. Practically all of my work results are derived from student activity, and even non-PII data about students is restricted by FERPA laws unless lawyers say otherwise.
Luckily I can talk about what I do, without the results, on my work blog.
I have made some (very modest) headway into tackling the problem of student debt at the UW. I didn't anticipate that all of the challenges would be political/organizational, rather than technical.
Lesson: Don't expect to change a company's culture without the risk of getting fired. Work on analysis projects that have clean data sets, to save time.
My learning this year was focused on a small number of skills.
A large number of the best engineers I've met are accomplished musicians. Learning new programming languages, patterns and business rules require focused effort to fit new ideas into your own understanding of the world. It's the same process as learning new music. I play in a Brazilian samba band for fun.
Lesson: Work on a craft or hobby. It'll make you a better engineer, and it's a blast.