18 November 2014

Hasan Elahi: FBI, here I am!

Hasan was first introduced to the FBI when he topped a local watch list and was detained mid-travel for questioning. After extensive questioning and talks with various agents, he decided to compile his life in such a way that they could check on him wherever he was (which he made public here: elahi.umd.edu). While this may cause panic for most of us, he commented that the data he was posting was so specific and exacting that is was practically useless.

14 November 2014

"Never come in early" and other workplace fallacies

"Never come in early," said the middle aged man. He was giving advice for my working life. This was my first job and he was sort of a friend/mentor (I was too young to know these things).

"Never stay late," was his other maxim. "That's how they get you," was his reasoning. "They start asking you to come in earlier and earlier and they make you stay later and later. All without paying you a dime more."

In hindsight I hear his words with some embitterment that probably came from a long exposure to corporate abuse.

While not really purposeful, I generally followed his advice. I never planned to come in early (more than 15 minutes before my shift was scheduled) and never planned to stay late, unless there was due compensation agreed on beforehand.

As I have worked through the years, and have matured, I have noticed that many people hold this mentality and many companies (regardless of their stated workplace environment policies) foster a place that reinforces this behavior. The mantra from both sides: "Do your job, keep your head down, attract as little attention as possible."

Many people like to think they are bold, open and engaging, they are not really. Employees are frequently encouraged to be social and interactive with open employees but many attempts to learn about other peoples' work are viewed as territorial challenges and are frequently met with subversive hostility and mistrust. "Why are you trying to learn my job?" is a common question. And a fair question. Many companies send unsuspecting individuals in to learn someones job for "redundancies" and "in case they ever go on vacation" then promptly learn off the teacher and replace them with the learner (who is often paid less).

While many companies say they want their employees to be happy and engaged in the workplace, they maintain strict policies of strong management oversight of minutia, accountability over trivial details and dysfunctional behavior towards those who reach outside their ordained silo.

Another issue is that many companies, and some employees, are old and have a long history. This means that there are many, many layers of politics and more delicate boats that cannot be rocked than can be found in the most intense daytime soap.

In hindsight, the saddest places I have worked were the ones that were deserted after 5pm. The places where no one wanted to stay a minute longer than they were supposed. Places where both the employees and the company were just putting in the hours.

In connection with my opening quote, I have realized that I never want to work for such a place where people flee the scene at the end of the work day.

Instead, I want to work at a place that I want to come in early and leave late every night; where the people are so engaging that I count working as "hanging out"; where the work is so interesting that I can hardly call it "work"; where the company is so open that I feel like I can roam free without judgment; where I can learn about other people's jobs with interest and not be scorned for territorial challenges; where big picture thinking is encouraged, not just in words but in action; where my manager is transparent and open.

So, no more with "just putting in my time." If time and money are they only things that get exchanged then the work is not worth either my time or my employers money.

As I think about this, such a workplace requires effort from all the involved parties. Companies have to create an environment of trust where employees can appropriately share information freely without feeling like they need to keep secrets in order to keep their jobs. Employees need to be able to find their work interesting and engaging. This usually requires at least some perspective (many of the most boring tasks I have ever done at work were agreeable because I knew that my contribution was making an impact--not because I was told such but because I knew the big picture). Employee then need to act in this open environment. Being free is pointless if that freedom is not utilized.

The cool part is that the companies that have open environments that employees utilize effectively are the companies that scare the pants off their competitors because those companies are the fastest, most agile and most prone to have a surprise that no one saw coming.

05 November 2014

"Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain" by David Eagleman

I have always thought the brain was cool but in sort of a nebulous, general way. Eagleman writes about many of the most recent findings about the brain and how cool neuroscience is. Most interesting is how much we still do not know or cannot tease out from other things. For example, we know that people use different sides of their brain to do different things, however if half a brain is removed from a child younger than eight, we find no developmental differentiation between the half brained child and a full brained child throughout the rest of their life. We still have yet to understand where all those brain functions went and what they displaced. (As a side note, there are very good medical reasons for removing half a brain--cascading seizures that could lead to death are one--and such operations are not performed arbitrarily "for the sake of science".)

Interesting tidbit: At this point in our research, environment is a better predictor of psychosis than genes.