I’ve been thinking lately about different things I’ve tried that didn’t work out and how grateful I am that they did not.
The first one that comes to mind is my academic career. If I’d been more successful with grants and publications as a postdoc, it would have been harder to decide to leave academia. I’m glad I left when I did.
When I was in high school I was a fairly good musician. At one point decided that if I made the all-state band I would major in music. Thank God I didn’t make it.
I’ve looked back at projects that I hoped to get, and then realized how it’s a good thing that they didn’t come through.
In each of these examples, I’ve been forced to turn away from something I was moderately good at to pursue something that’s a better fit for me.
I wonder what failure I’ll be grateful for next.
One of the themes in David Ogilvy’s memoir Confessions of an Advertising Man is the importance of selecting good clients. For example, he advises “never take associations as clients” because they have “too many masters, too many objectives, too little money.”
He also recommends not taking on clients that are so large that you would lose your independence and financial robustness by taking them on.
I have never wanted to get an account so big that I could not afford to lose it. The day you do that, you commit yourself to living with fear. Frightened agencies lose the courage to give candid advice; once you lose that you become a lackey.
This is what lead me to refuse an invitation to compete for the Edsel account. I wrote to Ford: “Your account would represent one-half of our total billing. This would make it difficult for us to sustain our independence of counsel.” If we had entered the Edsel contest, and if we had won it, Ogilvy, Benson & Bather would have gone down the drain with Edsel.
This sort of thinking was very much on my mind when I was preparing to leave my last job to strike out on my own. As Nassim Taleb discusses in Antifragile, a steady job seems safer than entrepreneurship, but in some ways it’s not. With one big client, i.e. an employer, you are less exposed to small risks but more exposed to big risks. Your income doesn’t vary per month, unless it suddenly drops to zero.
In addition to looking for good clients, Ogilvy shares several stories of letting go of bad clients. I have yet to resign from a bad client—I haven’t had any bad clients—but I value the option to do so. The option to resign from a project makes it less likely that you’ll find yourself in a project you wish to resign from.
Somewhere in school I got the backward idea that solving math problems is hard but that formulating them is easy. I don’t know if anybody ever said that to me. Maybe it was just implied by years of solving problems someone else had formulated.
A related wrong idea that I also picked up was that formulating math problems was not a mathematician’s responsibility. Someone, probably an engineer, would formulate the problem and hand it over to a mathematician. That happens occasionally, but that’s not how it usually works.
Formulating problems is hard, and it’s usually the applied mathematician’s responsibility, ideally with generous input from a domain area expert.
There are a lot of ways to turn a real world problem into a math problem, and maybe several of them would be adequate for the task at hand. Then you might as well choose the easiest one to understand and compute. Knowing several ways to formulate a problem increases your chances of find one approach that’s tractable. Particularly when you can determine what problem really needs to be solved, not just the problem you first see, you might give yourself more options for how to go about it.
Applied mathematicians don’t need to be an expert in every area of application, and of course cannot be. But they do need to meet clients half way (or more). They need to know something about the problem domain. They need to listen well and need to ask good questions. The questions help the mathematician get going, and they may also give the client something new to think about.
They say that doctors make terrible patients, but in my experience consultants make great consulting clients. The best are confident in their own specialization and respect you in yours. They get going quickly and pay quickly. (I’ve only worked for consultants who have small companies. I imagine large consulting companies are as slow as other companies the same size.)
Sometimes consultants working in software development will ask me to help out with some mathematical part of their projects. And sometimes math/stat folks will ask me to help out with some computational part of their projects.
I started my consulting business three years ago. Since then I’ve gotten to know a few other consultants well. This lets me offer a broader range of services to a client by bringing in other people, and sometimes it helps me find projects.
If you’re a consultant and interested in working together, please send me an email introducing yourself. I’m most interested in meeting consultants who have some overlap with what I do but who also have complementary strengths.
The other day I ran across a line from Peter Thiel saying that if you have a plan for where you’d like to be in ten years, ask yourself if you could get there in six months.
I don’t think he’s simply saying see if you can do everything 20 times faster. If you estimate something will take ten days, it probably will take more than half a day. We’re better at estimating things on the scale of days than on the scale of years.
If you expect to finish a project in ten days, you’re probably going to go about it the way you’ve approached similar projects before. There’s not a lot of time for other options. But there are a lot of ways to go about a decade-long project.
Since Thiel is well known for being skeptical of college education, I imagine one of the things he had in mind was starting a company in six months rather than going to college, getting an entry level job, then leaving to start your company.
As I wrote in an earlier post, some things can’t be done slowly.
Some projects can only be done so slowly. If you send up a rocket at half of escape velocity, it’s not going to take twice as long to get where you want it to go. It’s going to take infinitely longer.
Some projects have to be done quickly if they are going to be done at all. Software projects are usually like this. If a software project is expected to take two years, I bet it’ll take five, if it’s not cancelled before then. You have to deliver software faster than the requirements change. Of course this isn’t unique to software. To be successful, you have to deliver any project before your motivation or your opportunity go away.
I only connect to people on LinkedIn that I know. This almost always means people I have met face-to-face or at least talked to over the phone.
If you’d like to connect on LinkedIn and we haven’t met, please contact me to set up a phone call. I look forward to talking to you.
Richard Feynman tells a story in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman that I’m reminded of periodically when I realize something is smaller and less sophisticated than I imagined.
[Update: A couple people pointed out in the comments that I got the roles of the two characters in this story reversed, so I’ve corrected this.]
Feynman tells the story of a colleague at Los Alamos, Frederic de Hoffman, describing his company’s attempt to plate plastics with metal. De Hoffman said that his company was making progress, but gave up when he saw that another company, Metaplast Corporation, was apparently way ahead of them, based on Metaplast’s advertising. Feynman had worked at Metaplast a few years earlier, but didn’t tell de Hoffman immediately.
Feynman asked de Hoffman how many chemists he thought Metaplast had.
“I would guess they must have twenty‑five or fifty chemists … How the hell could we compete with them?”
Feynman told de Hoffman “You’ll be interested and amused to know that you are now talking to the chief research chemist of the Metaplast Corporation, whose staff consisted of one bottle‑washer!”
I don’t think Feynman was trying to gloat that he was smarter than the staff of chemists at de Hoffman’s company, though he may have been. Feynman knew all the problems his company had and the times they screwed up. They projected a more confident image in their advertising, and the competition bought it.
A few years ago, a friend told me he was thinking about learning a certain technology because it was really hard to use. This was not something that had to be complex to solve a complex problem, but something that was unnecessarily complex. Why would anyone do that?
His reasoning was that as a consultant, he could make good money supporting a technology that’s hard to use. My friend would have more integrity than to recommend something that he didn’t think was a good solution. Perhaps he was thinking of saying something like this to a client: “I wouldn’t recommend this technology if you were starting from scratch. But since you’re invested in it, I’ll help you with it or help you migrate to something else.”
That sounds like an unpleasant way to earn a living. It also sounds risky. If something really is unnecessarily complex, better alternatives are likely to arise, perhaps suddenly. (This assumes people are free to choose alternatives, not prohibited by law, for example.)
Learning a technology that’s complex for good reasons could be a smart and ethical move. The work is harder at lower levels of abstraction, but someone has to solve the problems others would rather not think about. And since not as many people can do that work, it should pay better and be more secure.
There are a couple dangers, however, associated with choosing a more difficult technology. One is the temptation to use it where it isn’t needed. The other is that the set of problems where it is needed may shrink over time.
Large companies take longer to start projects. How much longer?
A plausible guess is that project lead time would be proportional to the logarithm of the company size. If a company with n employees has a hierarchy with every manager having m subordinates, the number of management layers would be around logm(n). If every project has to be approved by every layer of management, lead time should be logarithmic in the company size. This implies huge companies only take a little longer to start projects than medium-sized companies, and that doesn’t match my experience.
In my experience, lead time is proportional to something like the square root of the company size:
T = k √ E
where T is lead time, k is a proportionality constant, and E is the number of employees. For example, someone told me that he moved to a company 1000 times bigger and things seem to move about 30 times slower. That would be consistent with a square root rule.
If T is measured in days and k = 0.5, the square root rule would say that a solo entrepreneur could start a project in half a day, and a company of 130,000 employees would take six months. That seems about right. Of course small companies can move slowly, and large companies can move quickly. But it’s a good rule of thumb to say individuals operate on a scale of days, small-to-medium companies on the scale of weeks, and large companies on the scale of months.
The reason may be that large companies scale up well, but they don’t scale down well. They can put together large deals fairly quickly, relative to the size of the deal, but not small deals.
It’s hard to transfer intellectual property. When I was managing software projects, it would take months to fully transfer a project from one person to another. This was with full access to and encouragement from the original developer. This was a transfer between peers, both part of the same environment with all its institutional memory. If it’s this hard to transfer a project to a colleague, how hard must it be for a competitor to make sense of stolen files?
I’m most familiar with intellectual property in the form of software, but I imagine the same applies to many other forms of intellectual property. Some forms of data are easy to understand, such as a list of passwords. But others, such as source code, require a large amount of context beyond the data. One reason acquisitions fail so often is that the physical assets of a company are not enough. The most valuable assets a company has are often intangible.
Of course companies should protect their intellectual property, but a breach is not necessarily a disaster. On the other hand, the loss of institutional memory may be a disaster.