Saturday, February 26, 2011

home life: miscellaneous.

We've been nesting a bit here, trying to make our small space work better for us. Anna ordered some fold-up camping lounge chairs, to give us something comfy to sit on besides the bed, which is not actually that comfy for sitting. We're looking at getting rid of some pillows. I unpacked some of my more useful books.

I bought an expandable bamboo spice shelf for the cabinet, and it's hard to describe how awesome it is to have all the spices visible. We don't have room for any more, of course, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. Our refill spices live in a paper grocery bag in the pantry, so I cataloged them in a Google Docs spreadsheet and gave her permission to edit it. Honestly, we only need so much dried cilantro at one time. Technology is neat.

(I admit, we have a vast number of spices. But we're good cooks, and food snobs [okay, I am], and dammit, freeze-dried shallots are awesome. And freeze-dried celery slices save us from buying celery, when we only ever use one stalk for the soup and the rest goes to waste. And the freeze-dried bell pepper...okay, I admit to just being lazy on that one.)

I'm still looking into buying a house. I can only bring myself to pay so much for one, but there are still a few candidates. The latest one I've thought about is a large house and lot across the street from the railroad tracks, which means it's probably doomed if high-speed rail (HSR) ever comes through. Of course, if I buy it at a discount, losing it to eminent domain in 10 years probably wouldn't be so bad. And since HSR still needs $10 billion in local funding, and cities and counties are figuring out how to fund their fire departments, it's actually not a bad bet to think that HSR won't come through the Peninsula at all. The catch is that the house might be unsellable while the uncertainty of HSR lingers. It might already be unsellable: it's spent more than a year on the market and the asking price has dropped 26%.

There's a wonderful lack of home stress. J can sometimes be a challenge, but Anna and I get on just fine. This is what our sad attempts at an argument look like:
"I'd like greens with dinner."
"Yeah, I should eat more greens. But I'm usually happy to just make them once or twice a day, instead of three times. I just don't always feel like cooking them, you know? I don't really want to cook them tonight."
"I wasn't asking you to cook them. I'll cook them."
"Funny, I had this whole conversation with you in my head where I got annoyed about cooking greens when I didn't want to, except I'm not actually annoyed, because that'd be silly, it was an imaginary conversation, and I don't have to cook greens."
"That...that's it? That's the best you can do for creating conflict?"
"Yeah, sorry."
Pathetic, isn't it? I'll leave it up to you to figure out who's who in that conversation (it's not obvious).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Early Writings

Second grade! As always, click to go to the Flickr pages.

I usually trace my writing style to reading Douglas Adams, but this is a few years before that. Apparently I was already finding my voice.

Early Work 2

Early Work 1

Saturday, February 19, 2011

back in the homeland

I've brought Anna to visit my family in New England. My brother and his wife and kids and dogs came last night, and stayed about 20 hours, which is always very sweet of them when it's a 2.5-hour drive. The girls are hugely tall now, but they remember me without shyness finally, and brought the heavily-used Mexican shoulder bags I brought them in 2008, and the name-embroidered microfleece blankets from before that. Good times all around.

I haven't had a chance to rant about the iPad I got before we left, but it's every bit as awesome as I hoped and I'm getting to do a lot of reading, mostly technical. It occurred to me last night that a drawing app would be fun for my nieces and at least occasionally entertaining for me, so I did a quick search and settled on Drawing Pad, which is excellent. It's nice for me to have something else to do with my brain, like making marks on the screen with my fingers. The girls were all over it, of course, so they were playing with the iPad throughout the day, until E moved it from the table without asking, at which point I revoked iPad access and set the passcode until they left.

I'm developing good parental reflexes. During breakfast we got to talking about some large stuffed penguins my uncle Richie gave my brother's family (it's complicated), and E, sitting next to me, started to get distracted.
"I can go get those to show them to you."
"It can wait until after breakfast."
"They're right downstairs! I can just go get them."
"Do it after breakfast."
She starts to get up. "I'll be really fast and come right back."
No-Nonsense Parental Command Voice. "Sit down."
And she did! It was cool, and I did it automatically.

Everyone loves Anna, of course, because she's awesome. She's been doing a lot of the talking, as is traditional, and fine by me: as it is, I talked enough that my throat is sore.

We did flip through the old photos and school materials; there's a post or two coming about that.

I'm still a little zombified from the trip out, so I have no deep thoughts. It's nice to see everyone, and hopefully I'll make time to do it a bit more often.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

housing thoughts

Back in 2005, I investigated buying a house. Specifically, I was filling out the offer paperwork for a townhouse, when my gut told me something wasn't right, and I went and did some more careful math, which told me that after the mortgage payment, I'd have about $1200 left each month, even at the lowball offer I'd planned on. And I also didn't really think it was worth the $475,000 they were offering.

To my unending glee, I was right. In 2005 it sold for $505,000, and then last year it sold for $299,000.

My favorite metric for a reasonable house purchase is the price-rent (P/R) ratio. It's not the most complete, but it's easy to calculate and it appeals to common sense; it also points to whether buying a rental property is a good investment or not. (Rental income only covers half the mortgage payment? Probably a bad idea.) Take the price of the house and divide it by the cost of renting that same house for a year.

I started thinking about this again because of a couple of foreclosed duplexes under $400,000 that appeared on Redfin. When I was living by myself, renting was a no-brainer: this lovely 1-bedroom apartment is an extravagant $1400/month, which is maybe a $250,000 house, which doesn't exist around here (certainly not near the train station).

Once you start looking at 3-bedroom rentals near the train, though, you're looking at rents over $2200/month. The rule of thumb is that for a P/R under 15, it's better to buy, and over 20, it's better to rent. With my rent going up, the denominator in the price-rent ratio, the ratio goes down.

Sadly, the housing crash is coming slowly to this part of the Bay Area: it's a nice place to live, and there are far too many people with lots of money, especially since we're in yet another tech bubble. I have faith, though. I think houses in this neighborhood have about 15-20% to fall before being in line with the pre-bubble trend.

Monday, February 14, 2011

fun with the iPhone

It has a front-facing camera.

(At Phone's housewarming barbecue on Super Bowl Sunday.)


There was a need for psyllium husk in a recipe.
"So, do we not have psyllium husk?"
"Why on earth would we have psyllium husk?"
"Because you're a fucking hippie."
[shocked] "I am not a hippie!"
"Do we, or do we not, have flax seed in the house?"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

the underwear goes on before the pants, buddy

J is 6, so of course he has adults constantly telling him what to do.

I wondered if he might understand that everyone telling him what to do is just a phase; that once he learns to do these things, no one will be telling him to do them.

Then I was thinking about why these things are important: taking bites instead of gnawing food while holding it in his hands like a squirrel, washing hands and face after meals (because of the aforementioned eating like a squirrel), asking politely before escalating to shouting demands, Angry Hands[tm] are not okay, on and on. My initial answer was "It's our responsibility to help you grow up to be a happy, civilized human being."

What's "happy," exactly? Aren't we just pushing and prodding him into unquestioning conformity with cultural norms?

One of the WorldTeach volunteers--this one, in fact--tends to use the word "happiness" in a very situational sense. For her, happiness is the outcome of circumstances, and she will often exclaim "I am so happy right now!" by way of appreciation.

I tend to view happiness differently: as a transient state like sadness, annoyance, hunger, or warmth. My inner monologue was imprecise: I thought "happiness," but I meant "contentment." For that aspect of contentment, I think I mean this:
Our internal state is in harmony with the external state of the world around us.
That means a couple further things:
  1. As best we can, we're accepting the reality of events. For J, this would involve abandoning his conspiracy theories about how I failed to bring the iPhone in the car because Mama and I don't want him to have his rightfully-earned time playing games.
  2. We're interacting with other people in a way that they can listen to and feel as comfortable about as possible. This commonly means not punching them (though not universally, even here), but also, in our culture, taking bites, using silverware, and not walking around with food covering your face and hands.
To achieve even the minimal definition of success in our society, you have to put your clothes on in the right order; can't go around punching or shouting at people; and you can't push food at your mouth and gnaw it. So, yes, we're forcing him to conform, but not in how he thinks: just in elemental behavior.

Good thing, too, since the odds of him conforming in thought are roughly zero.

Friday, February 11, 2011

new job!

I got so excited about transcribing the interview with Jim that I forgot the mention that I'm employed, as of Monday the 28th! The winner is a company called Ooyala, which is only the third-worst name on my resume (after "Cadabra" and "Neomeo").

The job is called "Site Reliability Engineer" (SRE), for which Google is the most famous. At Google, there are two kinds of SREs. Sysadmin-SREs (SA-SRE) work more on the systems administration side of things: automating SA tasks, making them scale. Software Engineer SREs (SWE-SRE) have to understand things broad and deep, to debug and modify complex multiple-service architectures with many moving parts. They also communicate with regular software engineers (SWE), or as an SWE-SRE friend at Google says, "mostly consult with product teams to make sure 200 million people can use their crap at once. I think it's a pretty good deal actually ... regular SWEs have to write features and ship products, all an SWE-SRE has to do is make them faster and more scalable."

Basically, most software engineers, even those of considerable skill and talent, don't necessarily understand how their code contributes to the larger system, or how it interacts with real-life concerns like network bandwidth and disk I/O. I'm unusual that way, and I gravitate toward that responsibility anyway, but I can never put all my energy into it because something else has always been my primary responsibility. (Less true at my last job, broken as the place was.) So this will be the first time that "chasing down problems and fixing stuff" will actually be my job description.

I originally wanted to apply for a regular SWE position, but they worked pretty hard (I pressed them) to convince me this was a good role for me, and it seemed reasonable and fun, so I decided to go for it. They mostly program in Ruby, which is my new favorite language, with a couple other languages tossed in. My boss, who seems to grin from ear to ear as a matter of course, was clearly extra-ecstatic when I ran into him on the way out from signing the offer. He said he already has a task picked out for me, once I'm settled. I asked what it was, and it does look pretty exciting: a central job queue that is performing poorly and mysteriously in numerous ways.

The company I'm not working for, MV-1, kind of...I think "panicked" is not too strong a word. I had a rant all written up, but having gotten it out of my system, it's not that important. I think they were a little confused and it didn't bring out the best in them as a team.

It is interesting that MV-1 kept talking about what an opportunity I was passing up. That's true, it was a good opportunity (though I'm not sure now what opportunity it was). Ooyala is also a good opportunity, and I would necessarily be passing up one or the other, and never without a certain amount of regret or wondering or second-guessing.

And yet, I'm really, really excited to start working.
Did I mention I'm excited to start work? I'm excited to start work, stuff that's new and hard and yet right up my alley. And I get to commute on the train! And work with technology that interests me!

I'm also setting up my grad school application. And I can't stop thinking about how reasonable the mortgage payment would be on those duplexes just south of downtown. And I'll be getting a sailing certification so we can follow through on the promise to bring J sailing.

This might be a busier year than originally planned.

the final interview

On Friday I had three interviews, all sysadmins. The first two were pretty easy, nice guys who just wanted to see that I had some basic sysadmin knowledge: how to use command-line tools, basic understanding of where to look to solve problems.

The third guy was Jim. Jim walked in with a fairly standard Unsmiling Sysadmin Face and a small Moleskine notebook much like mine.

"Hi, I'm Jim. This is my scary notebook. I'm going to ask you lots of stupid, pointless questions you probably won't know the answers to, and then I'll write scary things in my scary notebook. I've had people walk out or start crying in my interviews. The good news is that even if you say all the wrong things and I hate you, no one around here listens to me."

He started out with abstract questions.
"If you had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
"Honestly? Invest it. I have everything I need."
"Okay, say you had to spend it within a week, it would all go away."
" a house, give the rest to charity."
"That's it? No insane trip to Vegas? Amsterdam?"
"I do want to see Amsterdam. But I make enough money to have a pretty awesome trip to Amsterdam. And I don't even know where to start with spending that much money, the most expensive hotels are still just $6000 per night."
"Nope, you can find them for $50,000 per night."
"Well, I know myself well enough to know that the enjoyment I'll get from a $6000 hotel room versus a $50,000 hotel room isn't enough to justify it. I'd rather just give the money to people who need it more than me."
"You sure? They'll deliver anything, right to your room. You can say 'I want a Bentley delivered' and it'll happen."
"Do you have any vices?"
"Hmm. Whole Foods has these grain-sweetened chocolate-covered raisins--"
"That's not a vice!"
"Sure it is."
"No, I mean like drinking? Gambling? Snorting coke off of hookers? Those are vices."
"[writes] Chocolate...raisins..."
Then it was on to more concrete topics.
"What are volts, watts, and amps?"
"The electrical grid in the U.S. and most other countries, is it direct current or alternating current?"
"Why is alternating current used for long-distance transmission instead of direct current?"
"About how big is 22-gauge wire?"
"1-gauge wire?"
"How much current could you put through a 22-gauge wire?"
I pretty much haven't thought about these things since my college physics class, but whatever, it's his interview.
"Okay, next section..."
"Just a second, if I could. Why is that important to you?"
"Working with data centers, electricity is important."
"Okay. Did they tell you I'm not a sysadmin?"
"They mentioned that, yes."
"Okay, cool. Carry on."
Then we're into networking. This is a weak area for me.
"How does traceroute work?"
"What's the DF bit in an IP packet?"
"What is ICMP used for?"
On and on. I wish I'd taken better notes on what he asked, because it was great. Finally we got to the end.
"What's the most important technological development of the past three centuries?"
"Public sanitation."
"I mean, I guess it could be the germ theory of disease, though that's not necessary for sanitation, that doctor made a map of London showing cholera outbreaks focused on public wellheads. I think Pasteur was in the 1700s and the map guy was early 1800s? All you really need is to see that water-borne disease exists. So, yeah, the biggest thing is the idea that streets should not be flooded with human feces."
Jim is very good at not smiling even when he wants to, but at that comment he almost laughed.
"Any questions for me?"
"Do you like working here?"
"It's awesome."
"The people are awesome. And I come in at 5 and no one cares." [They made him get up early to come to the interview at 1 PM.]
"How do you envision this role? What do you think I should be doing in this job?"
"Deal with engineers and tell them they're doing stupid things."
"Anything else?"
"Write things to make my life easier."
I like Jim a lot. He wasn't joking: the recruiter confirmed that people have walked out or cried in his interviews, which I can understand, because he sits there and doesn't smile, and asks an endless stream of questions to which you have to answer "I don't know."
"How do you think you did?"
"I think I did all right."
"You think so?"
"Yeah, I made you smile a few times, even though you didn't want to."
The feedback I got was that he thought I was very intelligent, and he was "impressed with your knowledge of science." Possibly the best short Jim quote:
"HR made me stop using the word 'douchebag' in interviews."
I am really excited about this job.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

good riddance

I don't pay much attention to the wider world of American Zen, because I have enough other things to do, and my energy goes toward the actual relationships right in front of me. But apparently in the past few months we're finally rid of two elder Zen teachers:
  • Dennis Genpo Merzel, who created this "Big Mind" nonsense where you pay a bunch of money and have an "enlightenment" experience in a one-day seminar.
  • Eido Tai Shimano, a fairly famous figure in the story of American Buddhism, among the last of the generations of Asian teachers who came to America.
I don't know what Genpo's history is, besides the crass commercialization of spiritual practice, but the alcoholic Eido has been sexually abusing women for more than 40 years, so it's about damn time. Apparently Robert Aitken Roshi, who everyone respected, and who wrote a book on Buddhist ethics, helped cover up Eido's abuse for decades by refusing to speak out about it.

These guys have been around forever, and there's no indication this behavior is new for them, so it's staggering to think how much damage they've done. I thought we'd gotten this all worked out with the scandals back in the 80s, but apparently not. Maybe Eido and Genpo are just the last of their generation, the final, lingering symptoms of a mostly-past disease.

I don't have any pithy commentary, except to say: God, what asshats.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

stepboyfriend action video

From this morning. At one point I was making weird faces and J said he was trying to imitate me, so I decided to play with the forward-facing camera on the iPhone so he could see how silly he looked.


export your Sidekick contacts

One of the various flaws of the Danger Sidekick service--besides its lack of database backups--was its lack of interaction with the outside world. To my memory, like so many things, this was T-Mobile's fault, but however it happened, exporting your data required buying a third-party sync application, which didn't work as well as one might hope, and was eventually not an option for Mac OS X. It's also pretty lame to have to pay $25 to get your data off the service because you plan to stop using it.

In the run-up to Chile, I explored ways of getting my address book off the backend service, and discovered that through a combination of functionality (likely not on purpose), you can actually export your contacts.
  1. Go to the Mail section of the Desktop Interface.
  2. Start a new message to yourself.
  3. Click "Attach vCard." This brings you to the Contacts screen, where it will show your "A" contacts.
  4. Under the "Attach Checked vCards" button, there's a "View" selection. Select "All."
  5. Click the checkbox column header to select all your contacts.
  6. Click "Attach Checked vCards." This brings you back to your email in progress.
  7. Send the email to yourself (give it some time to send).

Some bullet points about the result:
  • The email will have one vCard for every contact.
  • Assuming you don't want to import them by hand into anything, GMail will let you download them as a .zip file.
  • I then merged them (using cat in the command-line shell) into one giant .vcf file.
  • The only thing on Linux or OS X I found that will sensibly parse a multi-contact vCard is Google Contacts.
  • Google can then export the list in Outlook or other formats.
  • I only exported 130 contacts. I don't know what happens if you have the limit of 2,000. Should be fine. Will definitely be slow.
  • Plan to do some hand-editing. There's all kinds of crazy "CLASS: PUBLIC" notes and weird wrong birthdays and stuff in the vCards.

Monday, February 7, 2011

another day, another job offer

Mountain View #1 is putting an offer together! To put it gently, their recruiting staff is kind of, um...let's say "slow." If I'm lucky I'll get it tomorrow afternoon.

I also had the final round of 3 interviews with Mountain View #2, which went extremely well, and the third guy gets a blog post of his own.

I stayed with J tonight so Anna could go to aikido, and we had some nice playing and bonding time. We don't get much time alone together, because he's very focused on Anna when he's around, and so far we haven't done much of the thing where I stay with him while she goes out. I expect that will change a bit with time.

I also joined The Future and finally got an iPhone yesterday. SO SHINY. So very pretty. The Retina display combined with the deep attention to graphical detail makes for a pretty stunning experience. In many ways it's only partly what I might like: I can only see a tiny fraction (and I'm not sure how that fraction is selected) of my most recent email in my GMail account, among other quirks. But so far it's quite nice.

Lastly, a friend of mine is taking a Computer Science class at CCSF, and holy crap, the professor sounds awful. I mean a truly, unnecessarily bad teacher. Every story makes me cringe.

Now I finally have a good reason to get a Master's in Computer Science: so I can teach part-time and save community college students from teachers like that. I fundamentally enjoy teaching, and in an area I actually know and love, with students who at least nominally want to be there, I'd be even better at it. Behold! A plan!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

climatic dissonance

Facebook is rife with Californians apologizing to East Coast friends and relatives, but nonetheless feeling the need to point out that it was in the mid-70s today. In fact it was too warm for pants, so many of us switched to shorts for the day. Barbecues abound.

We had a lovely sangha morning, and then I had a blessed day of doing precisely jack shit. I read a book that had nothing to do with work. I did my first laundry since I got back. (Long story, I have a blog post in progress about that.) I dug out my small cloth bag for bringing books to the coffee shop, and a few books to put on the shelves in the living room. I made dinner for a slightly stressed girlfriend, and that was it.

I started a spreadsheet to set down and share my thoughts about the two Mountain View jobs. It's premature, since I don't have offers from either one, but I'll be surprised not to get them. The world is not full of Tools Engineers (Job #1), and even less full of Site Reliability Engineers (Job #2). As the founder/CTO said, "No one is an SRE right out of college," because of the breadth of knowledge involved, and then a lot of people just...aren't, by temperament or mindset. I am, at least by skillset and habit. It's sorely tempting, the siren song of complex systems interacting at high speed. The hassle and pressure of keeping a service online? Less tempting.

In fact, it seems like there's not a lot of good people anywhere:
James: yeah the job thing
James: see here's the thing
James: you're like, the only one.
James: in the whole bay area.
Chris: heh.
Chris: yeah, it seems to be a problem.
James: I mean I admit that the work my company does may not attract as many applicants.
James: but we still have 3-5 coding tests per week.
James: and everyone fails them.
James: and deservedly so, given what I overhear them asking.
I hear the "talent shortage" story all over, and not just from employers, who are usually trying to justify either outsourcing overseas or an increase in H1-B work visas. I asked a recruiter about it, and he said it was mostly people complaining that they couldn't find engineers who were good at both server infrastructure and user-interface programming--not surprising, since those people are like unicorns. At no point in computing history have there been a meaningful number of people who were good at both those things, and no one has ever thought it a reasonable strategy to try and find one. So mostly I think the recruiter was an idiot.

It is true that Google and Facebook have taken their piles of money and perks and vacuumed up vast quantities of area tech people. We're also in the middle of a startup bubble, where stupid companies are once again getting too much money from venture capitalists, at excessive valuations. I give it another 6-12 months before something bad happens; some of my risk/reward calculus on my job offers involves finding a stable place where I won't have to change jobs for a few years.

The warm weather is supposed to continue, sadly (I dislike bright sunlight, and thus most of California's weather). Tomorrow afternoon is a housewarming barbecue, and on Monday I'm interviewing and lunching at Mountain View #2. Their office admin says:

"Should be a beautiful day, too (we usually eat on the balcony)."

Rough life.

job hunt: chaos!

It's a bit after midnight right now. The alarm goes off at 4:45 AM so we can get to the Saturday sangha program, but it has been a crazy week and I am all wound up, even after 35 minutes of zazen (which I'll do again after I write this). I skipped sitting this morning, otherwise I might have better noticed how active my mind has been, and I might have decided against that iced mocha in between interviews this afternoon.

Here's my week. Bear in mind that for any interview stuff, I spend a day or two getting ready, instead of reading or doing whatever I'd like to do. And the interview really breaks up the day, because I don't want to be distracted by running errands beforehand, and I usually need to decompress afterward.

  • Interview in SF.
  • Give my dharma talk.
  • Phone call about the sudden new opportunity of Mountain View #2.
  • Job offer from San Francisco. Recruiter gets all snippy at me when I don't accept immediately. I have a negative emotional reaction to the recruiter, and try not to transfer it to the company.
  • Casual interview with a couple of the tech guys at MV #2, to see which of 2 jobs I should be applying for. Didn't realize this would count as an interview, really.
  • Free! Except for prepping for Friday's interviews. I went to my favorite bar, did a little reading, but mostly had a couple drinks and hung out with some nice geeks from Electronic Arts.
  • Discover, with tremendous surprise, that there are a couple decent duplexes, at reasonable prices, in a neighborhood where I would actually want to live, and the mortgage payment could be 60% of the rent we're looking to pay (and the rents would pretty much cover that). The idea of buying a house in the midst of all this other life change, let alone being a landlord, is insane. And yet. And yet. Things will settle a bit once I have a job, and then...
  • Interview at Mountain View #1, 10 AM - 1:30 PM, then chat with the hiring manager for a bit.
  • Meet the founder/CTO and VP of Engineering for Mountain View #2.
The round today with MV #1 went very well, and I know the boss wants to hire me, so I'm expecting at least a verbal offer on Monday.

I met with the MV #2 higher-ups today to clear up exactly what job they want me for, and unfortunately, it sounds pretty awesome. Exactly the sort of situation I'd been planning to look for, in fact, though not necessarily right now, when my technical skill is still coming out of hibernation. But apparently, here it is! Now I have to deal with it. I'm interviewing with 3 final people on Monday, and then they'll let me know quickly. (And, with great gratitude, that should be my last job interview for this job hunt.)

One bit of clarity I've come to is that I will decline San Francisco if MV #1 or MV #2 makes me an offer. Deciding between the two Mountain View jobs would be a good--phenomenal, really--problem to have, but very difficult. I'll lay out the pros and cons in another post.

I am mentally exhausted. A morning of Zen stuff is exactly what I need.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

starting to understand why I'm twitchy

I'm ready to be done with interviewing. It's a non-stop succession of stressful meetings that break up the middle of my days, trying to prove myself when I'm really just barely back into my game with computers (let alone on top of it).

And the jobs I'm (successfully) interviewing for have some intriguing things in common:
  • More responsibility.
  • More need for independent motivation.
  • Roles that are not well-defined in the work they'd be doing, either because engineers pick from a list of business priorities, or it's a new role that no one has done yet.
  • Really fantastic opportunities to learn new skills and build and fix cool and/or important stuff.
One thing about me as a software engineer is that if you need a brilliant programmer to buckle down and write a giant pile of genius code, I'm honestly not your first choice. I've known several engineers who are better at programming than I am, and around here they're not that uncommon.

Engineers who understand systems, though, and can intuit the behavior of big piles of moving parts, whether or not they exist yet...or who can work more along the boundaries of software engineering and systems administration...or who can actually communicate those ideas...that's less quantifiable, and less sexy, less valued in the tech culture. In the past, people have hired me to write code, and then I just naturally spent part of my time doing systems work, because there was a vacuum there that I was eager to fill.

Now, though, it seems that people want to hire me for my actual talents. That means I have to really be good at it and produce useful results, in a highly visible context: in all 3 jobs, my responsibilities will be unique and whatever I do or don't accomplish will be immediately visible. It's no longer just a skunkworks kind of thing I do on the side, almost for fun.

And that all runs right up against my own personal dose of impostor syndrome. I can do that stuff? Did I say I can do that stuff? Really? I haven't actually accomplished anything with my career, have I? Does my brain even work any more, after 18 months out of practice?

It's like my favorite scene in Independence Day.
David Levinson: You really think you can fly that thing?
Captain Steven Hiller: You really think you can do all that bullshit you just said?
I'll be working hard to get up to speed and prove myself, wherever I end up.

job hunt: the home stretch

I have a job offer! It's from the San Francisco company, and it's an excellent offer. But, I'm going to finish up interviewing with the 2 remaining companies, and decide between them. Companies don't like that, particularly--quite reasonably, they want you to be gung-ho to work there. All these jobs have trade-offs, though, and I've been beaten up by enough jobs, and lost job opportunities, that "gung-ho" is not where I'm at right now. I was pretty excited and optimistic about working for the Palo Alto company, and we saw how that turned out.

A friend did point out that if I say "I'm considering all the options" rather than "I'd like to finish the process with a couple other companies," it might annoy them less.

A second Mountain View company has come into play very suddenly; call them MV #2. I had a quick sounding-out talk with a sysadmin and an engineer today, for both sides to see if we got along and which of two very different jobs I might be more interested in and better suited for: Big Data Software Engineer (SWE) or Site Reliability Engineer (SRE). The SRE job is supposed to be "half sysadmin [SA], half engineering," and since I don't really like SA work, I said I'd prefer to apply for the SWE job.

The sysadmin, the engineer, and the VP of Engineering (who I didn't meet but everyone says is awesome) all think I, or my skillset, would be a better fit for the SRE role. In some ways this isn't surprising: at Google, which seems to have originated the SRE idea, there are Software Engineer SREs (SWE-SRE) and Systems Administration SREs (SA-SRE). The SWE-SRE focuses on making things faster and more scalable, and the SA-SRE focuses on automation and monitoring. For both, the geek in question has to be good at working with complex systems on a broader scale than just a single project, and that sort of systemic understanding is one of the things I'm good at. Honestly, if you need someone to go heads-down on a software project, there are plenty of people who are better than me at the line-by-line process of writing code. My better talents are a bit fuzzier: working with larger systems of many moving parts, figuring out what's wrong or what might go wrong. My friend who referred me to the Palo Alto company said, "He fixes shit."

Anyway, I'll be talking to the VP to get some more details about what exactly he has in mind and why they think I'd be good for it.

I'm in for a second round with MV #1 on Friday: 5 hours, talking to 6 people, one of whom is in London, so I assume there's a phone call or a laptop involved or something. Then I think they'll have a roundtable on Monday, and if they decide to make me an offer, I have to clear up some things about the role with the team director before I'd consider taking it.

I should be employed somewhere by the end of next week. Almost done!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

dharma talk

I gave a dharma talk to our Zen sangha last night. Dharma talks are a flexible medium, but try to look at some aspect of our experience through the lens of Buddhist practice:
  • How do we perceive what's happening? In the situation, and in our own thoughts and feelings?
  • What does it mean to practice with that? How do we respond?
  • What happens when we practice with it? What changes?
  • How does this relate to [insert passage from some Buddhist text here]?
As you can imagine, this is normally the territory of teachers, but Misha will occasionally ask us to give a talk about some experience that has a practice aspect, like taking the precepts, doing a long retreat somewhere, traveling to one of the few remaining Buddhist countries, or teaching English in South America for nine months.

Given my past two talks, I decided to write this one out completely, so it went much better. My Chile experience isn't really separable from my Zen and aikido practices, and I'll probably be giving a couple more talks on it over time, but for this one, I focused on "aversion," a multi-faceted reaction that we talk about a lot in a practice context. Aversion is anything from my non-specific reluctance to do my taxes from 2008, to the time before many of my classes when I had a panicky, overwhelming desire to be doing anything else.

The first third of the talk is me describing the environment in Chile, to give some context to the dharma bits. You can download the talk here.