For Those Entering Tech.

algorithms fearI had a recent Skype conversation with someone working at a company that I had done some contract work for. I suppose I went in knowing how it would go and for a bit of closure – it was the same old story. Contractor does work for a company, contractor does what was required faster than company expected in the hope of a more permanent position, company ends contract.

Someone messaged me on LinkedIn, looking for sage advice because of what I had written – thinking me sage when I am only greying, thinking me wise because I’m good with a keyboard. And all I could come up with this was:

It was a salt trap. 

One of the good things about taking myself out of the job market is to write, unrestrained, about career-limiting topics – mainly because the career is over because I decided not to continue falling for the salt trap. I decided it was time to shift my future, so I did and I have no regrets – though the adjustments are still happening.

My experience in the Software Engineering market spans pre-Internet to last year (and whatever I fiddle with these days). I’ve only worked for one true multinational, and I’ve done work or worked for companies that have disappeared in the churning of economies. Most of the code I wrote – if I called it ‘my code’, intellectual property lawyers would cringe – is not in use. I’m almost sure of it. Contributions to projects deceased.

Sisyphus on a conveyor belt rolling against him. And the project managers and upper management keep singing,  “Keep pushing, folks.” 

In this, I suspect, I am not alone – I suspect that people around my age in the industry have done their time in the Code Mines of places long forgotten. We’ve been through bad economies, through tech bubbles and their inadvertent falls. We’ve seen the rise and fall of languages and frameworks, of business practices that range from asinine to outrageously lucky – rarely solid.

So what is this all about? Oddly enough, it’s about fear. It’s the rare tech company that is built to last; most seem to be built to get money in a tech ponzi scheme – from venture capital to buyouts. The big picture is lost, leaving some really smart people writing some really good code that will not last, that isn’t intended to last, that is meant to get someone else to their own version of success.

Disgruntled? You bet, though I have taken the Path to Gruntlement. There are so many young ones in technology trying to get their street cred, fluffing their resumes – is it appropriate to fluff your own professional persona? – competing against each other like crabs in a barrel, necessarily antagonistic in a market that would do better with more collaboration. Or is it the natural antagonism of tech people? It’s hard to tell.

So my advice to those entering the market is that the market is not the few tech companies you are unlikely to work for, it’s the churning primordial ooze of failures that makes the market – and you will, at the least, have to weather that – if you’re lucky, if you’ve had a good start or get the right opportunities, know that these can be fleeting and that it’s easy to slide back into the ooze. Accept that it’s not going to happen the way you want – or the way that anyone else does, anyway.

Learn and move before they disappear.

Find recruiters that don’t suck. If you’re getting cold called at work by recruiters, block their numbers. Professionals would send you an email first.

Find managers that don’t suck. I could write a book about that. Maybe I should.

And keep pushing until you tire of it – and recognize when you are tired before your body figures it out.

Technology And Arts

Sisyphean TechnologyPeople in technology of my era and later are strange creatures that delve into the depths of understanding the cold and relentless logic of systems that they create and maintain. We see the same in other fields, in Law, in Medicine, Accounting and so many others.

Today, as Lessig wrote, ‘Code is Law‘, and Law wrestles with technology even as technology works to circumvent existing Law. Law, as a freshman student will tell you, is not Ethics – it is an attempt at the codification of Ethics in a society. That distinction is important yet routinely forgotten by many – and that’s where some empowered by technology have an ax to grind. Others are just in it for the money, or for some political agenda.

One of the problems we face, as a global society of screen-watchers, is that we have separate silos of technology and arts – where technology is often used as a platform for the liberal arts.

If Only.

170616-N-XK398-090I’m reading the latest stuff on NOAA’s Tropical Cyclone 2 Updates (06182017), and I’m remembering some things.

If only there was someone who had dealt with emergency communications and worked toward developing a system where alerts could be sent to people’s mobile phones.

If only he had a military medical background with an idea of how things really work – and don’t – on the ground.

If only CARICOM had put such a system in place; if only when this alleged person was approached by Roosevelt King they hadn’t said they needed to spend a few hundred thousand US dollars to get it done.

If only he hadn’t told them that they could have developed the system from scratch starting at about $10K U.S., with development costs, circa 2006. That was too cheap and would employ local developers. That would be no good.

If only there was someone who had found himself working with such systems at ECN, and worked to troubleshoot existing systems, design new ones and see what goes wrong – plus document it all. If only those systems included NOAA! If only when he returned to Trinidad and Tobago, he tried connecting with people in Digicel and TSTT and met silence.

If only such a person existed. If he did, he’d probably be a farmer by now after having tried to chase a vision no one else wanted. Hypothetically, 12 years is a long time by human standards. 1/6th or 1/7th of a decent lifespan, really.

Ahh, well. If only we had that experience. Too bad.

A Curmudgeon’s Guide to Social Media

Grim JoyI used to be heavily involved in social media; some might think I still am when I’ve simply become more efficient and have sculpted my networks. In all, though, I rate myself a curmudgeon – a ‘a bad-tempered, difficult, cantankerous person.’

This is not to say that I am a curmudgeon, but I imagine that there are some people who send me things who now believe I am a curmudgeon. Wishing people happy birthday on social media with a click is silly. A deluge of images of politicians leaves me feeling dirty in ways a shower cannot cure, a stream of people who believe Putin masterminded everything from the Presidential Election in the U.S. to their lost sock makes me roll my eyes, watching building blocks of uninformed opinion become representative of otherwise intelligent people is the intellectual equivalent of being assaulted with gift wrapped feces.

David over at Raptitude figured out that he could have more time to do things with his experiment. Yet even as a curmudgeon, I have to point out that social media, social networks and the humans that use them are a part of our lives – we just don’t need to exist on their plane; they need to exist on ours.

What that means is we should understand that it’s typically not very important, and we should be OK with telling people not to send us crap on WhatsApp, Facebook messenging, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever crackpost (that was a typo but I like it) network that people use as echo chambers to feel good about themselves.

We shouldn’t have to think of ourselves as curmudgeons to do this.  We can control what we take in simply by telling people what we don’t want to spend our time on –  be it the stale joke networks on whatsapp to the in depth discussion on doomed men’s fashion, from the cute puppy videos to the insane amount of posts about adopting animals, etc. In my spare time, I don’t want that to be what defines me.

No, I’d rather define myself than be molded into an acceptable image of what society likes. We are society.

Tech, Bureaucracy, and the Humans

In my sojourns, I came across someone who had worked with Social Services in Siparia, Trinidad and Tobago, and took the opportunity to hear some of their experiences. In my world, I connect with people of all types in society, and there is much to be learned from that.

He tells me an old woman made him cry. It’s a very human story, where the children abandoned the mother, but the meat for this post is in the beginning of the story, where he lays the context:

“Every year pensioners have to come in and sign a document to show that they’re not dead.”, he said.

I looked at him, appreciating what he said and how he said it – how silly it is. I smiled.

“No, really, that’s the only reason that these people have to come in. To show that they’re not dead.”

I got it the first time, which he wasn’t used to, but here’s why that is something I had to smile at and why he felt he needed to repeat himself: Within the last decade, births and deaths – it’s buried in some Ministry somewhere, I don’t really care which – became computerized, and they’ve been busy updating birth certificates to the point where the populace is a bit tired of having to go get an updated document from Births and Deaths.

So that information exists in computer readable form in one tendril of the vast bureaucracy. Yet, somehow, it is not connected to the pensioner’s information. Now, people do have to go in and sign because others had been collecting pensions for the dead, so now someone has to wander in and prove that they are still alive. “I’m here! I’m breathing! Here’s my signature!”

But the data could be connected. It could allow the pensioners to stay home, and if there are questions, why not go to them? Having recently dealt with the death of someone close to me who was a pensioner and having seen what her son went through, it seems peculiar that we need to torture the old and the weak to prove that they still get a payment deposited to their account. There are so many ways to deal with that.

It’s these little things that technology, properly done, could help with. It’s these little things that technology doesn’t in Trinidad and Tobago.

Maybe privatization is the way to go to make things more human, but then with corruption and poor analyses of what actually exists, who is to say that it would get done? Therein lies the rub.

Given the opportunity, I’m sure that people could fix that. I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to see silly little things like that fixed. Pensioners are already on the downhill slope, why subject them to a gauntlet of 1,000 papercuts?

A Few Thoughts on the techAgri Expo 2017

Given my return to Trinidad and Tobago, which my last post gave some context to, and the fact that I own agricultural land in Trinidad and Tobago, I went to the UWI techAgri Expo armed with my decades of experience as a software engineer, years of experience dealing with land, and my own trials and tribulations at growing things not just on my land, but over the years. I had good counsel on the latter from established farmers in Trinidad and Tobago, but I am not an expert.

I purposefully left my camera behind. People treat you differently when you have a camera, and I wasn’t going as some sort of media person or pretending to be. I was going for information. I didn’t need a camera for that.

Generally, I thought it was worthwhile. One person I know remarked that it was more like a bazaar in that people were selling things – I see that as a factor of any expo to get foot traffic. Another criticism is that the students didn’t have all the answers to the questions asked, but a quick analysis of that criticism reveals an unrealistic expectation in the critic. They are students, after all. Someone said that it could have been held inside, but then, what of all the plants? So, personally, I dismissed a lot of the criticisms.

The farming equipment was plainly visible. Children packed into the tractors for photo opportunities, and every now and then people would inquire about prices. Plants galore – the savanna was alive with plants, and there were many people leaving with plants.

I bumped into the tent where they had information on the apps – things like Maps.tt I would find an immediate benefit from, and their land suitability app looks promising. The AgriDiagnose Mobile App also looked very useful. The data from NAMDEVCO could be useful, but in it’s present forms it’s not too useful for people planning to do things – more on that later. A brief chat with Dr. Bernard showed we knew some of the same people.

Moving on, I came across rabbits at the UWI Faculty of Food and Agriculture University Field Station – dealing with academia must be a preparation for long German – and I saw rabbits and agouti. There were signs about entrepreneurship behind these creatures imprisoned in their cages, so I asked around about the market for them. They had no idea. They had no idea where to find such information. Well, they were students, so no need to be hard on them.

Continuing my walk, I had some interesting conversations with some international folk, a few criticisms from staff about getting interdepartmental assistance for some things (a few people knew me and the criticisms were more specific, but I know the unpleasant frustration of academic silos), and I came across a business that was marketing rabbit meat.

Well, here we are. They’ll have answers. So I spoke with them about the market for rabbit meat and rabbits in general, and as expected, it wasn’t exactly a high demand market. It’s not as if I see ‘rabbit roti’ on the roti shop walls. It’s more of an exotic market, and more for pets than pots. Completely understandable and expected, so I thanked the lady for her candor and moved on.

The Agricultural Development Bank (ADB) was interesting, though I’m not sure that it was all accurate. They advertise great interest rates for agricultural and aquaculture projects, but when I spoke about the specifics of things I was looking at doing, I asked about whether I should split some land off for collateral and repeatedly told I didn’t need to do that. That seems peculiar. Established farmers I know have criticized the ADB in that while their interest rates seem low, with all the fees one ends up paying, it’s effectively the same as banks with higher advertised interest rates. An after discussion with someone who knows more about interests rates revealed the 3-5% was effectively around 8-9%, but that advertised bank rates at 8% were closer to 14% in reality.

So, the ADB didn’t really sell me on anything in the end.
I was finding holes. Opportunities. Flaws in the bureaucracy, as there always are and always will be.

The rest of the expo was as informative to me on aquaculture, agriculture, potential markets.

Try Cafe Vega. They had a stall. I met Dr. Floyd Homer, and we talked about beans and all sorts of things. How could I pass up a cup of local coffee? Good stuff.

The NAMDEVCO Data

The thing that jumped out at me most was market data.  What’s published is Open Data – it’s one of the founding principles, it seems, but it’s not as open as you would think. If you take a look at the data available from NAMDEVCO, it gives you averages of monthly data over the years (starting in December 2016), but it doesn’t show you volatility. It is lacking, and part of that may be that NAMDEVCO simply wasn’t designed for it – or the people who want to do it are getting crushed by the gears of bureaucracy (been there, done that), or it simply hasn’t entered into people’s minds.

But I’ve spoken to farmers. One successful farmer revealed his success one time with cabbage, being able to buy a car for cash after reaping one cabbage crop. That’s an outlier. So there is volatility in these markets that farmers have to be able to plan for. Granted, the app that shows the immediate prices is good, but if you’re getting into a market, you want more data. It is there at the link, but it has to be hand typed in from the images in the monthly PDFs to get what you want… when I tried the contact link on their website, I was greeted by a configuration error. So I can’t really tell them about the error, now can I? Try it. Maybe they’ll fix it. Let me know.

In all, I think my only real criticism of the techAgri expo is that I wish it were more helpful to me – but that’s not so much on them. I’m a demanding person when it comes to information, and I know how to deal with Big Data – something lacking around Trinidad and Tobago, really – and my criticism is more of an identification of opportunities for myself and others. There is further analysis that can be done, and there are opportunities that you can find… if you have the gift of seeing what doesn’t exist yet.

Eschewing the Networks Of Noise

Social Media Signals

On one side is the gigantic internet, a miracle of fine articulation, which turns out the tabloid newspaper: on the other side are the contents of the tabloid itself, symbolically recording the most crude and elementary states of emotion.

I wish that I had written that but I didn’t. I simply switched ‘printing press’ with ‘Internet’ on a quote of Lewis Mumford (Technics and Civilization, 1934).

Someone mentioned that they would add me to some Whatsapp group this morning, but I didn’t have a smart phone – and they did so in a way that hinted at me being some stick-in-the-mud. I have no doubt that they see me as such, but as I responded, “If it weren’t for all the shit being posted, I might bother with it.”

“Yadda yadda yadda”

Case in point. Nothing of worth but implicitly saying, “I don’t care what you think”.

There’s only one suitable response to that, and they got it.

The signal to noise ratio of networks all over bugs me. I suppose part of that is the way that I grew up when minutes on a landline were a cost and thus one got the most value that one could. I suppose that my time in the military reinforced that, where you didn’t waste time in communication – and in dealing with ambulances from the Emergency Department in a Naval Hospital, where communication had to be clear, concise, and devoid of noise. I suppose it was reinforced even more with the SOAP notes that we wrote – quickly, accurately, no noise, anticipating what the reader would be looking for and making those things clear so that a month later you wouldn’t be asked questions about it.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a value to ‘noise’, I won’t disagree, but there is no value when it crosses a certain threshold. This threshold varies between people, and I’ll admit that I have a lower threshold than most that has increased with age.

A perfect example was using Whatsapp group to organize a Hindu funeral. It worked out fairly well despite only fragments of information being shared, and I used my own old smartphone on a wireless network to participate. Towards the end, though, it became a place where people were playing. Jokes inappropriate for a funeral were being posted, and other nonsense that didn’t pertain to the subject of the group were being posted.

Others on Whatsapp were interrupting my day with ancient memes I’d already seen on Facebook and Twitter. They meant well, but to me, what was it? Noise.

During all of this time, I was thinking of getting a smartphone here in Trinidad and Tobago – a period of months, and maybe soon enough I will, but right now I don’t want one because I don’t want to pay more to get less through both phone and service.

Am I the only one that feels this way? I don’t know, and frankly, I don’t really care right now. I see children walking around with smartphones, and when I see that I wonder who is teaching them how to communicate clearly and concisely? If 20 and 30 somethings – much less 40 year olds and upward – can’t communicate clearly, do we wonder at the confusion that has become social media – a place of poorly communicated emotion, of poorly communicated ideas?

Society, with all the wonders of technology so well dressed in the palms of their collective hands, seems to be more interested in communicating the tabloid rather than the textbook, and while the tabloid most certainly has it’s place, we need more textbook in my opinion.

After all, competing with it has infected ‘news’ media…