Career advice from Einstein

“If I would be a young man again and had to decide how to make my living, I would not try to become a scientist or scholar or teacher. I would rather choose to be a plumber or a peddler, in the hope to find that modest degree of independence still available under present circumstances.”

Albert Einstein, 1954

Successful companies with incompetent employees

It’s not hard to imagine how a company filled with great people can thrive. More intriguing are the companies that inspire Dilbert cartoons and yet manage to succeed. When a company thrives despite bad service and incompetent employees, they’re doing something right that isn’t obvious. Not everyone can be incompetent. Someone somewhere in the company must be very competent to keep it alive despite liabilities. Or at least there used to be someone very competent who set things in motion.

Maybe the company is good at attracting investors. Maybe they have enormous economies of scale that overcome their diseconomies of scale. Maybe they’ve lobbied politicians to protect the company from competition. (That’s a form of success, though not an honorable one.) Maybe they serve a market well, but you don’t see it because you’re not part of that market.

Advice for going solo

Two years ago I left my job at MD Anderson to become an independent consultant. When people ask me what I learned or what advice I’d give, here are some of the things I usually say.

You can’t transition gradually

I’ve done consulting on the side throughout my career, and I planned to ramp up my consulting to the point that I could gradually transition into doing it full time. That never happened. I had to quit my day job before I had the time and credibility to find projects.

When you have a job and you tell someone you can work 10 hours a week on their project, working evenings and weekends, you sound like an amateur. But when you have your own business and tell someone you can only allocate 10 hours a week to their project, you sound like you’re in high demand and they’re glad you could squeeze them in.

When I left MD Anderson, I had one small consulting project lined up. I had been working on a second project, but it ended sooner than expected. (I was an expert witness on a case that settled out of court.) The result was that I started my consulting career with little work, and I imagine that’s common.

Things move slowly

As soon as I announced on my blog that I was going out on my own, someone from a pharmaceutical company contacted me saying he was hoping I’d quit my job because he had a project for me, helping improve his company’s statistical software development. First day, first lead. This is going to be easy! Even though he was eager to get started, it was months before the project started and months more before I got paid.

In general, the larger a client is, the longer it takes to get projects started, and the longer they sit on invoices. (Google is an exception to the latter; they pay invoices fairly quickly.) Small clients negotiate projects quickly and pay quickly. They can help with your cash flow while you’re waiting on bigger clients.

Build up savings

This is a corollary to the discussion above. You might not have much income for the first few months, so you need several month’s living expenses in the bank before you start.

Other lessons

If you’re thinking about going out on your own and would like to talk about it, give me a call or send me an email. My contact information is listed here.



Uniformitarian or Paretoist

A uniformitarian view is that everything is equally important. For example, there are 118 elements in the periodic table, so all 118 are equally important to know about.

The Pareto principle would say that importance is usually very unevenly distributed. The universe is essentially hydrogen and helium, with a few other elements sprinkled in. From an earthly perspective things aren’t quite so extreme, but still a handful of elements make up the large majority of the planet. The most common elements are orders of magnitude more abundant than the least.

The uniformitarian view is a sort of default, not often a view someone consciously chooses. It’s a lazy option. No need to think. Just trudge ahead with no particular priorities.

The uniformitarian view is common in academia. You’re given a list of things to learn, and they all count the same. For example, maybe you have 100 vocabulary words in your Spanish class. Each word contributes one point to your grade on a quiz. The quiz measures what portion of the list you’ve learned, not what portion of that language you’ve learned. A quiz designed to test the latter would weigh words according to their frequency.

It’s easy to slip into a uniformitarian mindset, or a milder version of the same, underestimating how unevenly things are distributed. I’ve often fallen into the latter. I expect things to be unevenly distributed, but then I’m surprised just how uneven they are once I look at some data.

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Help wanted

I’m looking for people to help with some miscellaneous tasks. I don’t expect one person to do everything, but if you’re excellent at any of the following and interested in small projects please let me know.

  • CSS / responsive design
  • WordPress customization
  • Emacs customization
  • Advanced LaTeX
  • Data cleaning and visualization
  • Python (miscellaneous automation scripts)

I don’t have an immediate project to outsource, but these tasks come up occasionally and I’d like to have someone to contact when they do. Mostly these would be small self-contained projects, though data cleaning and visualization could be larger.



People want Swiss Army Knives

I ran across this graphic this morning on Twitter:

comparing a scalpel and a swiss army knife

Obviously the intended message is that scalpels are better than Swiss Army Knives. Certainly the scalpel looks simpler.

But most people would rather have a Swiss Army Knife than a scalpel. Many people, myself included, own a Swiss Army Knife but not a scalpel. (I also have a Letherman multi-tool that the folks at Snow gave me and I like it even better than my Swiss Army Knife.)

People like simplicity, at least a certain kind of simplicity, more in theory than in practice. Minimalist products that end up in the MoMA generally don’t fly off the shelves at Walmart.

The simplicity of a scalpel is superficial. The realistic alternative to a Swiss Army Knife, for ordinary use, is a knife, two kinds of screwdriver, a bottle opener, etc. The Swiss Army Knife is the simpler alternative in that context.

A surgeon would rightfully prefer a scalpel, but not just a scalpel. A surgeon would have a tray full of specialized instruments, collectively more complicated than a Swiss Army Knife.

I basically agree with the Unix philosophy that tools should do one thing well, but even Unix doesn’t follow this principle strictly in practice. One reason is that “thing” and “well” depend on context. The “thing” that a toolmaker has in mind may not exactly be the “thing” the user has in mind, and the user may have a different idea of when a tool has served well enough.

Experts vs Professionals

Working with professionals can be a joy. Not only can they solve your problem, they may help you see what problem you should solve. I’ve had several instances lately when I hired a pro to do something I’d attempted myself. In each case I was very pleased and wondered why I hadn’t done this sooner. Offhand I can’t think of an example where I regretted hiring a professional.

Strictly speaking, a professional in some area is simply someone who is paid to do it. But informally, we think of a professional as someone who not only is paid for their services, they’re also good at what they do. The two ideas are not far apart. People who are paid to do something are usually good at it, and the fact that they are paid is evidence that they know what they’re doing.

Experts, however, are not always so pleasant to work with.

Anyone can call himself an expert, and there’s no objective way to test this claim. But it’s usually obvious whether someone is a professional. When you walk into a barber shop, for example, it’s safe to assume the people standing behind the chairs are professional barbers.

Often the categories of “professional” and “expert” overlap. But it is suspicious when someone is an expert and not a professional. It implies that their knowledge is theoretical and untested. If someone says she is an expert in the stock market but not an investor, I wouldn’t ask her to invest my money. When I need my house painted, I don’t want to hire an expert on paint, I want a professional painter.

Sometimes experts appear to be professionals though they are not. Their expertise is in one area but their profession is something else. Political pundits are not politicians but journalists and entertainers. Heads of scientific agencies are not scientists but administrators. University presidents are not educators or researchers but fundraisers. In each case they may have once been practitioners in their perceived areas of expertise, though not necessarily.

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Taking responsibility for the mistakes of others

The version of Windows following 8.1 will be Windows 10, not Windows 9. Apparently this is because Microsoft knows that a lot of software naively looks at the first digit of the version number, concluding that it must be Windows 95 or Windows 98 if it starts with 9.

Many think this is stupid. They say that Microsoft should call the next version Windows 9, and if somebody’s dumb code breaks, it’s their own fault.

People who think that way aren’t billionaires. Microsoft got where it is, in part, because they have enough business savvy to take responsibility for problems that are not their fault but that would be perceived as being their fault.

Closed-world expertise

Venkat Rao has an interesting take on the ideas of deliberate practice, flow, and the 10,000 hour rule. In The Deliberate Practice of Disruption he points out that these ideas of expertise are always presented in closed worlds.

The real problem is that research on expertise focuses on fields where “expertise” is a well-posed and objectively codified notion. This means mature fields that are closed and bounded, and can be easily observed, modeled and studied under laboratory conditions. So it is not surprising that the work … is based on fields like “medicine, music, chess and sports” … all sharply circumscribed and regulated domains.

Rao’s essay may be a bit too harsh on closed-world domains and a bit too romantic about open-world domains, but the distinction between the domains is important. You don’t become a successful entrepreneur, for example, the same way you become a successful violinist. Closed worlds place a much higher emphasis on error-elimination, at least initially, than do open worlds. In an open world, the concept of an error may not even make sense. Where there is no law there is no sin.

Consulting is a more open world than academia. As Rao notes, academia can close off an otherwise open world through “bureaucratic productivity measures like publications and citations.” Clients are happy if you solve their problems. They could not care less whether your solutions are publishable and all that implies. Original and thoroughly footnooted work that doesn’t solve their problems is not appreciated.

Clients are not going to give you an oral exam to see whether you’ve mastered some canon. And they don’t care if you cross academic boundary lines to use something “outside your field.” They do care about credentials sometimes, but in a pragmatic way: they may need someone with the right credentials to review something. In that case, your credentials are part of the solution.

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Sometimes definitions are enough

Sometimes you can apply math just by raiding it for vocabulary. You may not need to apply a single theorem.

This has been a surprise to me. I’m more used to creating a mathematical model so you can compute something or apply some theorem. But sometimes you can move a project along just by providing a name for a concept. A meandering discussion can snap into focus because someone has a name for an idea everyone vaguely understands.

Sometimes it may be clear that only part of a mathematical definition applies. In this case math can guide the discussion by asking whether the rest of the definition applies. “It sounds like we’ve got a widget here. A widget has to have these five properties and clearly we have the first three. Let’s think about whether the last two hold.” The answers don’t have to be positive to be useful. You might realize something important in the process of explaining why your thing is not a widget.

Sometimes a definition may not apply at all and still be useful! “This reminds me of a widget. It’s not a widget in any strict sense. But if it were, this is what we’d do next. I wonder whether we can do something like that.”


Looking like you know what you’re doing

I’ve been in The Netherlands this week for a conference where I gave a talk on erasure coding. Last night after the conference, my host drove me and another speaker to Schiphol Airport. I’m staying in Amsterdam, but it was easier to drop us both at the airport because it’s a short train ride from there into the city.

After wandering around for a bit, I found where I believed I should wait for the train, though I wasn’t entirely sure. While I was standing there a group of half-drunk young men from Scotland walked to the platform and asked me questions about the train. One of the group thought they were on the wrong platform, but I heard their leader say “He’s got glasses and a beard. He’s obviously more intelligent than us.” Apparently they found this argument convincing and they stayed.

Neither my nearsightedness nor my facial hair made me an expert on Dutch trains. This was my first time catching a train in a new country where most of the signs were written in a language I do not know. I imagine they’ve ridden more trains than I have. The only advantage I had over them was my sobriety. Maybe my experience as a consultant has enabled me to give confidence-inspiring advice on subjects I know less about than I’d like.

Central Station in Amsterdam

Time and Productivity

Contractors were working on my house all last week. I needed to be home to let them in, to answer questions, etc., but the noise and interruptions meant that home wasn’t a good place for me to work. In addition, my Internet connection was out for most of the week and I had a hard disk failure.

Looking back on the week, my first thought was that the week had been an almost total loss, neither productive nor relaxing. But that’s not right. The work I did do made a difference, reinforcing my belief that effort and results are only weakly correlated. (See Weinberg’s law of twins.)

Sometimes you have a burst of insight or creativity, accomplishing more in a few minutes than in an ordinary day. But that didn’t happen last week.

Sometimes your efforts are unusually successful, either because of the preparation of previous work or for unknown reasons. That did happen last week.

Sometimes you simply work on more important tasks out of necessity. Having less time to work gives focus and keeps work from expanding to fill the time allowed. That also happened last week.


I did get out of the house last Tuesday and wrote about it in my previous post on quality over quantity. This turned out to the theme of the week.