It was a hot and humid summer day.  My hands were sweating and it wasn’t just because of the heat.  It was my first job and I was terrified.  I had been hired by Calvin, a local farmer, to help mow and bale hay on his fields.  He had hundreds of acres, some cattle, horses and a barn.  We were standing in a field with tall grass that was nearly up to my armpits.  I was listening intently to his instructions.  Parked before us was a huge yellow beast.  The enormous tractor had towering wheels that were as tall as my scrawny 12-year-old self.  I kept thinking, “This is a really bad idea!”

“You can do it!  Climb up,” Calvin said enthusiastically with a broad smile.  I climbed up the yellow mountain and sat in the well-worn black leather seat.  I could hear and feel my heart pounding in my ears.  He climbed up next to me.  “Now step on the clutch and turn the key.”   He pointed at the big metal petal on the left.

My leg was shaking uncontrollably as I stepped on the clutch.  The pedal went down with a loud satisfying clunk.  My relief was short lived as the pedal pushed back at me with enormous force.  It reminded me of one of those spring riders you could sit on as a kid at the McDonalds playground.  Just about the time you thought you had wrestled it to the ground, it would whiplash you back up with incredible speed.  The same happened with the pedal.  It literally shot me out of the seat.  Calvin burst out laughing.  I grabbed the steering wheel with my sweaty hands. Using that leverage, I was able to mash the pedal down again.  It stayed!  “Good job!” he exclaimed, “Now turn the key.”  I did.  The entire beast roared to life.  I was somewhat relieved to think that my nervous shaking was suddenly masked by the bone jarring violent rattling of this yellow dragon.  Calvin began working a lever on the console that revved up the engine.  “You want to set it at this RPM,” he said, pointing at the tachometer.  It smoothed out.

“Now, put it in first gear,” Calvin motioned to the gear shift, “and let out the clutch slowly.”  My brain refused to accept those instructions.  I managed the gear shift, but there was absolutely no way there would be any “slowly” about my ability to let out the clutch.  The death grip I had on the steering wheel had turned my knuckles white.  “You can do this!” he coaxed.  The next part is a bit blurry in my memory.  I tried.  My foot edged back slowly, shuddering and shaking, until my muscles finally surrendered.  Pow!  Kaboom! The leviathan leaped forward nearly hurtling Calvin and I off the beast.  But thankfully, it stopped as suddenly as it began.  I had popped the clutch and killed the engine.  I was convinced I had also just emptied my entire bladder in the well-worn leather chair.  My face was flush and I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.  I was sure I broke it and Calvin was going to be angry.  I looked over at Calvin.  He was laughing so hard he couldn’t breathe.  I laughed too.

“Well, son, we are going to need to build up the muscles in those skinny legs of yours before we can get much further,” Calvin said with a grin.  With a glimmer in his eye, he added, “You will be driving that thing before you know it!”  I was given instructions to sit on the yellow beast and just work on pushing down the clutch until I could do it smoothly.  “I’ll come back for you at lunch.”  Calvin jumped off and headed to the barn.

Needless to say, I was relieved.  I followed his instructions until I could execute it without failure.  He was right.  It wouldn’t be long before I was mowing and baling hay.  I worked all summer and even returned to help the following summer.  Calvin made a big impression on me.  He taught me how to drive a tractor, but more importantly, he taught me about encouragement and trust.  I think back to those moments where I was afraid, uncertain and unskilled, yet I had a friendly guide who believed in me.  He firmly and patiently encouraged me to go beyond my ability and do something greater, something I didn’t even believe I could do myself.  He taught me to face my fear and turn setbacks along the way into humor and teachable moments.  

I’ll always remember that big yellow beast, my somewhat soiled pants and those dusty hot summers on the farm.  But most of all, I will remember Calvin.  He taught me the power of encouragement and trust.  Be a Calvin.  Encourage someone today!

Sunday Scaries

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love… Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work.” – Steve Jobs

Sunday scaries, anyone?  This weekend I happened to come across an article that talked about how the majority of workers and students are often seized by anxiety, dread and sadness that the weekend is ending and Monday is on the way. The uncertainty and the dread of the new week can effectively consume and ruin the whole Sunday.  Have you ever experienced that?  I have.  It can be something as simple as, “Oh no, I need to get ready for that thing on Monday!”  Or it can be, “I wonder what new monster or demon is waiting for me in my inbox or possessed some time slot on my calendar?” 

Living for the weekend?  I have fond memories of a security guard in one of our offices who loved to remind everyone on their way to the elevator, how many days we had until Friday.  His sympathy for the first of the week and growing enthusiasm past “hump day” was simply delightful.  I always looked forward to seeing his smiling face, regardless of the day.  He was channeling the feeling that so many of us felt, counting down the days until the freedom of the weekend.  But, if we measure our quality of life by the 2 of 7 days, we are only living 29% of our potential.  

I love working for a company that creates happiness.  What we do is great work.  The magic we ship delights, informs, entertains and inspires people all over the world.  More importantly, I love working with our amazing teams.  So, why do we face the Sunday scaries?  I noticed that there were things I could do to minimize if not remove those scaries.  I’m still learning and adjusting, but I wanted to share with you some of the tricks I found to help make the workweek more like the weekend.

Plan.  The biggest spike of anxiety for me was a sense of being unprepared for the week.  At first, I started logging in on the weekend to prep for the week. This was a bad idea.  Not only were the scaries robbing my joy on Sunday, I was suddenly working 7 days a week and setting a terrible example for my team.  I changed.  I started investing time on Friday, including booking time for myself to go through the following week.  I look through and adjust meetings.  I create new meetings and add planning time to give myself time to review each day before it gets started. If I need to work on a project the following week, I will create a “placeholder” template document or start a list of “to do” items.  I also ensure I create space on my schedule for the following week to start the day with reflection, review and preparation. 

Transform dread into anticipation. I try to schedule some “fun” activities each week, and especially on Monday.  I also realized I was overbooking myself, not just on the weekdays but on the weekends as well.  I had to learn to be compassionate with myself, pacing my activities and treating myself with some leisure time.  Those things along with the planning, made an incredible difference for me.  I rarely dread Monday now and even have some sense of positive anticipation, wanting to dive into things I am ready to take on.  To be fair, there are still moments the scaries return, but they are fewer and easier to defeat.

How do you deal with Sunday scaries?  I would love to hear your own experiences and any discoveries you have made.  We are part of something special.  Let’s keep doing great things, and help vanquish the Sunday scaries along the way!

Mind the Gap

The London Underground, commonly known as “The Tube” is the oldest rapid transit system in the world.  A few years ago, during a summer before the pandemic, my family and I made our way to London for a vacation.  Our excursions almost always required at least one ride on the Tube.  We absolutely loved it.  It was incredibly convenient!  With just a little practice and a route guidance app, you can get just about anywhere in London with very little effort.

Anyone who has traveled the Underground quickly becomes familiar with the public service announcement, “Mind the gap!”  A loud audio warning is accompanied by visual signs to remind Underground passengers to take caution crossing the gap between the train doors and the station platforms.  For some of the older lines and stations this can be a significant gap which can include nefarious vertical steps.  Much to my chagrin, somewhere along my journey, my less than graceful physical skills caused me to bump my toe on one of those vertical gaps. I stumbled out onto the platform.  A friendly fellow passenger, concerned about my maneuver, smiled and repeated, “mind the gap.”  We both laughed and I shook my head walking off with my much-embarrassed family. 

Life is full of gaps.  Some of those gaps are risks that we must manage for ourselves and others.  Sometimes we see them and raise the alarm.  Other times, those warning signs are broadcast by experts.  Put on your seat belt.  Hot, don’t touch!  Wear safety goggles and other personal protection equipment (PPE).  Get vaccinated.  Walk carefully on wet slippery floors.  Don’t fly your drone around high voltage power lines.  

Another familiar public service announcement on the Underground is, “See it, say it, sorted.”  It’s a call to action to all passengers to report unusual activity to keep everyone safe.  As technologist, we are often in the front row seat to see systemic problems, reliability issues, security weaknesses, and the like.  Be on the lookout for those dangers and gaps.  Raise the alarm if you see a problem.  Often the issues are not just technical problems, but issues with process, support and usability.  Those are important too.  Improving inhumane experiences or user frustrating processes is like an ancient magic that unleashes incredible power and potential.  It also helps clumsy dads exit the Tube safely without bruising their egos.

As we journey from point to point on this adventure, we will spot gaps.  Our attention and expertise are needed to ensure we can continue to ship value… better, faster, safer and happier for everyone.  Mind the gap!

Eureka! Eureka!

“Eureka!  Eureka!” –  Archimedes

The famous Greek mathematician, physicist and astronomer, Archimedes had been given the task to verify that the king’s crown was made of pure gold.  The king suspected the goldsmith had somehow cheated him, perhaps by mixing in a cheaper metal like silver.  But he had no way of proving that so he asked Archimedes to figure it out. One day Archimedes was contemplating this problem while taking a bath. He happened to notice how the water was being displaced as he stepped into the full tub, spilling out all over the floor.  He remembered that silver weighs less than gold by volume.  It suddenly dawned on him that if he were to take the same amount of pure gold by weight as the crown, and put it into water, it should displace (spill) the same amount as the crown.  Archimedes was so thrilled with this discovery that he immediately hopped out of the bath and ran to tell the king, exclaiming “Eureka!” which means, “I found it!”.   In case you are curious, when Archimedes tested the crown, he discovered that it displaced more water than gold, indicating it was less dense (not pure gold).  So, indeed the king had been cheated by the goldsmith. You can probably guess what happened to the goldsmith!

Learning is hard.  There really isn’t a way around it.  If you want to learn something, it’s going to take effort.  I often use the excuse that the human brain is optimized to save energy.  We build models and synaptic connections to do things “without conscious thinking.”  We process huge amount of sensory data every day.  We are faced with a plethora of problems we need to solve. It would be overwhelming if it wasn’t for these optimized unconscious neural pathways that allow us to sort, react and perform our tasks without much thought.  

Learning builds more capability.  At some point in our past, we learned something new and, Eureka!  That learning was forged in our brains.  It allowed us to perform our duties while we engage our higher brain functions for more important tasks like daydreaming, pondering the next season of Loki, or wondering what’s for dinner.  Ok, so maybe those aren’t more important tasks, but you get the idea.  By leveraging our learning, we expand our capacity to respond well to incoming tasks, difficult challenges, complex changes and even enjoyable exercises. 

Learning builds on learning.  I know that sounds a bit meta, but if you examine your own experience, you know that learning builds pathways to future learning. I remember the first time I learned to program a computer.  It was hard!  I was 12 years old and wanted to make my new computer display a Christmas tree for the holidays.  Somewhere in the midst of typing in some code from a Dr. Dobbs Journal article, a Eureka moment hit and I understood the procedural flow that was happening.  I had looked at more advanced programming techniques but they were out of reach for me, at least until I hit that Eureka moment.  Suddenly that complexity was unlocked.  That eventually led me down the path to discover microprocessor design, compiler construction and operating system development.

I recently purchased some dev kits, including a LIDAR kit.  This past weekend I decided to learn how to use it to image my room as a stepping stone to my larger robotics navigation project.  The funny thing about learning is that it often takes you on roads you didn’t expect to go.  LIDARs are basically spinning measuring devices that use a laser to measure distance and send back angle and distance data.  I wanted to visualize what the LIDAR was reading but the kit didn’t provide any imaging tools.  So, I decided to learn OpenGL to render the output on my Mac. That became an exercise in itself but by the end of the weekend, I had a working project (see https://github.com/jasonacox/OpenGL-LIDAR-Display).  It was challenging and frustrating at times.  But as with any good learning effort, I had a Eureka moment that unlocked excitement and plans for future learning.  I’m looking forward to the next phase!

What are you learning?  When was the last time you had a Eureka moment?  If you haven’t already, make plans this week to tackle something new to learn.   Keep learning!