paul vidal - pragmatic big data nerd

Category Archives

5 Articles

You should not try to be more productive

by paul 0 Comments
You should not try to be more productive
Coffee, a gift from the gods

You should not try to be more productive

Sometimes, my job requires long hours to meet impossible deadlines. I think that this is a situation with which many people can empathize. So much so that the self help industry is riddled with recipes to optimize your work habits, and become more productive. Leaving aside the overwhelming pseudoscientific nature of most of the self-help industry, productivity has become a market. Apps, website, gurus, all working to make you work better and more efficiently. Here what I think: trying to be productive is counter productive.

Where the productivity industry fails

If you start diving into productivity advice, you will start to have the feeling that productivity is like a cauldron. A cauldron that accumulates anyone’s latest advice concoction, no mater its origin. Want to be more productive? Eat Kale. Listen to music with a tempo accelerated by 5%. Take notes on paper because it sticks in your memory better. Do adult coloring. Play brain training apps that have no scientific backup what so ever. Always reach inbox zero or always make sure that you have at least 10000 emails unread. Anything goes. Anything will make you more productive. In hindsight, fantasizing about being more productive is a great way to procrastinate. To be perfectly transparent, I’m guilty of having read a lot of these articles in my days. OK, literally (in its proper sense) a few months ago. I could argue that I was just reading them for entertainment but I’m more honest than that. I get fooled often, which is why I have a lot to write about. Take a step back on these productivity advice, and I think you will reach the same conclusion as I do: most of them are a mix of unproven facts, common sense and non applicable pieces of advice that take away actual productive time.

What I do instead

But Paul, does that mean that we are doomed to be as efficient as we are today with no improvement route what so ever? Yes. Also, life has no meaning. But that’s besides the point. Of course, there is always room for improvement. So here is what I suggest to do instead of trying to be productive: 1. Prioritize. 2. Execute. That’s it. Prioritizing is a necessary evil but should not be taking too much of time. The best way to do it is to do it on small chunks, like an everyday to do list. Most of the time should be spent on executing however. Once I’m executing something, I never think twice about the priority. This is why I run every day without ever thinking of what I could do instead. It is on my list, I have to do it, so I do it. I do not think that going any deeper than this has any value, really. Just list what you need to do, and do the things. It’s important to note that sometimes, due to lack of time of ever unpredictable facts of life, execution fails. This just means that another prioritizing cycle needs to happen.

After thoughts

As many of my less technical posts, this article is obviously an opinion piece. The reason I started this blog in the first place is to share things I learned throughout my career without anyone spelling it out simply to me. It is not aimed to be definitive, since my opinions are prone to change, but instead is aimed at provoking conversations and trigger perhaps more thorough scrutiny and even scientific evaluation of the methods of productivity. It would be interesting to dive into this subject, but unfortunately for me, my tasks are prioritized, and this is not one of them, so…. back to work!

You will never reach your full potential… and that’s OK.

by paul 0 Comments
You will never reach your full potential… and that’s OK.
I don't care, I'm digging a hole to the water.

I am an ambitious person. In my mind, whenever I do something (I’m refraining myself to use the word accomplish because I’m never truly satisfied), I always have this Batman Begins scene in my head: Rachel sees Bruce Wayne running out with two models after buying out a hotel; Bruce Wayne poses and says: “Rachel, all- all this, it- it’s not me, inside, I am, I am more.”. For some reason, mostly because I am a Batman nerd, this scene resonates so much. The funny thing is that I sometimes forget Rachel’s response: “Bruce, deep down you may still be that great kid you used to be, but it’s not who you are underneath, it’s what you *do* that defines you.”. Here it is: if you think you are more, then show that you can do more. I was actually reminded of Rachel’s wisdom this week by a friend/mentor of mine who enlightened a path for me to do more and get better at my job. Looking back on it, I realized that I managed to have an unconscious belief that I reached a finite knowledge/expertise about my job which could not be any further from the truth. That’s why in this blog post, I’d like to give you what really helps me going: You are never done. You don’t get to finish the game. And that’s pretty awesome.

The hinder nature of achievement

The first thing to acknowledge is the fact that the belief of achieving a certain potential is crippling. As mentioned in my very recent life experience, my unconscious belief of having reached a certain expertise in my job prevented me to get to the next steps of my career. But this is true for a lot of other things. To give you another personal example, being a fairly dedicated runner, you get to assume a few paces at which you run a certain type of races, e.g. this pace is my 5K pace, and it’s very hard to re-teach your brain to think that you can go faster than your “5K pace” when racing. It’s when you have no pre-conceived notion of what you are capable of that you can improve. But here is the secret: when you do the best race of your life, you did the best race of your life… so far! And in a similar manner that the best way to combat cognitive biases is to deliberately scrutinize them when trying to form a fallacy-free thought, you should look for your unconscious beliefs of potential and strip them of their crippling nature.

The value of consistency

The fun thing when you realize that all of your preconceived beliefs about your current potential are ill-informed, is that you get to contemplate the abyss of the work that needs to be done in every aspect of your life if you want not to get schackled by them. If you ask me, staring into the abyss is always fun. All kidding asides, it raises a very difficult question: if I can always improve, how do I get better? I think that this plays very nicely with one of the most important core belief I and many share: consistency. Let me take an example from the fitness realm again, in this case evaluating the benefits of muscle confusion versus progressive overload (spoiler, the title of this article: ‘Muscle Confusion’ Is Mostly a Myth). Too often we are confronted with miracle fitness solutions, founded on the idea that dramatically shaking things up will enable you to unlock your maximum potential. As debunked here, the only method with tangible results is consistent incremental improvement. I think we can draw a fairly straight forward corollary to the selection of our method of improvement. A muscle confusion-like does not work for improving the skills that we are trying to improve here: you are trying to improve something at which you are already proficient, which implies that you have already done a lot of work in figuring out what works best and what doesn’t. The only way to get better is to slowly augment the resistance. Look at what you have done so far. If you’re comfortable with it add more until you get comfortable. Repeat.

Coping with never being done

Now if you agree with me that you will never reach a finite potential and that the only way to improve is consistent slow incremental changes, this can be a little overwhelming. Since I agree with myself, at least for the next 10 minutes, I am a little overwhelmed. The way that I found I could cope with this incessant work that will eventually lead to my death is three fold. First, I plan things out. I set actionable, trackable short-term goals. For instance, I wanted to get better at writing and communicating so I set myself a goal of writing a blog post every week. I have done that so far, even if I missed one week over that past few months. Secondly, I prioritize. I acknowledge for instance that I don’t want to sacrifice some of the time I am spending working or running playing Magic, and that therefore I will not get to play the pro-tour any time soon or ever for that matter. Understanding what you decide not to not improve is crucial. Finally, I allow myself to enjoy the present. Granted, I’m not super good at it as of today, but I haven’t reached my full potential yet!

5 reasons gaming can boost your professional life

by paul 0 Comments
5 reasons gaming can boost your professional life
Sorry boss, Gotham isn't going to save itself.

The first year I started working, I remember hesitating to buy a game console in order to play in my spare time. Despite the cost, what made me hesitate was the idea that I was an adult and should act as such. Pondering upon this colloquial “rich people problem”, I talked to one of my best friend who told me: “Paul, a man needs the ability to play”; needless to say, these zombies did not see what was coming their way. A little later in life, I was re-introduced to what is now my favorite game, Magic: The Gathering (if you haven’t figured it out by now, I am a HUGE nerd). I can safely say that this game really changed my professional life. Combined with the reading of Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety from Charlie Hoehn, I decided to spend this week talking about the importance of gaming for your career. A few disclaimers to start. First, I am talking about gaming, and choose not to talk about playing, because playing might infer physical activities, and I think that the benefits of regular physical activities are so evident, they don’t need another blog post about that, plus I believe there is a distinct advantage in sitting down and playing a game as opposed to go outside and play sports; that being said, I realize I’m biased on this aspect since I’m pilling up 10+ hours a week of training every week. Secondly, this article won’t be a breakthrough for many who embrace gaming as part of their everyday life. That being said, coming from a very European mentality, I know that there are still many people who don’t game enough, and that’s why I think it’s important to highlight these points. Finally, I’m talking about casual gamers, not about competitive/professional gamers, although I doubt they read this blog anyway.

1. Reduce Stress

The first item is the most self evident. I was recently at my physician doing a checkup who mentioned that the biggest contributor of me catching colds was stress. To be, having the opportunity to game is almost as good as playing the game itself. Let me explain: life is very demanding, and most of the professional I know agree that the most valuable currency a man can have is time. When you actually carve into your super busy schedule to do something as pointless as spending hours looking for ammunition before getting in the next mission in Fallout 4, it is liberating. It means that during that time, you accomplished nothing of value. One might add you may actually have lost time and money doing this. And this is why it is so powerful: you get to spend time without any objective or worry in mind.

2. Learn to be decision oriented

This skill is probably the best skill I have ever learned from a game. As mentioned in introduction, I play Magic: The Gathering quite a bit. For those who don’t know this game, think about a game of chess, where the rules are exponentially more complicated, the starting pieces are 60 out of 13000 cards (all of which are pieces of art) and you get to cast firebolts, summon demons and bribe your opponent. It’s pretty awesome. But like in every card game, or game for that matter, it encompasses significant variance, which makes some games almost impossible to win. What is interesting is what to do when the outcome of a game (loss or win). The first basic reaction can be to blame it on luck and move on, i.e. not learning anything. The second reaction is often to focus on the outcome rather than the process: oh, I used this card to win, therefore this card is awesome and I should play it all the time. In this case, you are not only basing your judgement on a very limited sample, you are most likely missing the big picture. Which brings me to what I think is the ultimate way to analyze a game: focus on the decision you made during the game. By focusing on decisions, trying to understand what you could have done better, what elements were out of your control, and taking each game and each event during the game as a data point towards your personal improvement, then you can really maximize your journey towards a better player. Yes, I go deep when I play Magic.

I all seriousness, this is an extremely powerful habit: when something happens in your professional career, whether it is a sales opportunity, a failed attempt at an implementation, a complicated discussion about strategy or marketing positioning, rather than focus on the outcome of the activity or blame it on bad luck, look at it from end to end and analyze what worked and did not work. You will then be able to build a framework that will refine overtime and cater to what your career needs.

3. Find inspiration

While our job description does not entitle the creation of pieces of art (I’m sure some of us can recall some pretty horrifying powerpoint presentations), inspiration is an essential piece of our daily life. Finding the write words to send in an email, position the slides to captivate your target audience attention, using the appropriate algorithm that will allow maintainability and scalability, all of our daily endeavors require some amount of inspiration. Gaming helps when you can’t put these words together. Granted, one could argue that anything that takes your head off of the activity for which you are lacking inspiration may help, I find that emerging yourself in a fantasy world that requires interactive actions from yourself is the one of the fastest way to get epiphanies.

4. Extend your social circle

Everyone tends to stay within their eco-chamber. With work and family taking most of our daily life, it’s sometimes hard to put yourself into question and realize that there is a world out there of people that don’t care about why relational database management systems are a technology of the past. Unbelievable. All joking aside, gaming is a very easy way to encounter people that do not live in the same echo chamber as yours, and therefore enrich your view of the world and thus ultimately being better at understanding your professional circle.

5. Stop taking yourself seriously

This is probably one of the best outcome of gaming. Our professional image is often one that was molded by difficult email conversations, argument over solution architectures and so forth, to the point that sometimes your professional self and your personal self are split personalities. I could write a whole post on the fact that if you are not behaving the same at work and outside of work, then you should probably address that. What I’m highlighting here is that when people know about your dorky side (again, huge magic nerd here), you become human to others, which is extremely valuable for your career. And because you become human to others, you have to admit flaws and stop taking yourself seriously. Society is exchanging most of my time and brain power against currency that I use to provide for myself and my family first, but also buying games that have no purpose but amuse myself. That’s far from serious.

A case for talking too much

by paul 0 Comments
A case for talking too much
How do I play pokemon go with that?

I spent the last few days writing a white paper on SaaS integration, as part of what represents more than a third of my time, interestingly more than the time I spend sleeping a.k.a my job. I considered briefly diving deeper in some aspect of this work for the benefits of the readers of that blog, but I decided against it to write a lighter piece on the benefits of speaking too much in the business realm. Case in point, I spent more than 75 words, 77 according to my text editor, to say very little about the main topic of this article. Did the world catch on fire because I said too much? Nope. Worst case scenario (admittedly not actual worst, the world catching on fire being a much scarier proposition), you’ve already jump to the first section of the article. Best case scenario, you enjoyed learning about my process and are eager to read what follows. That’s the heart of my premise: when considering giving away information versus the potential negative outcome of that information, skew towards giving information away to maximize value.

Debunking the information silo myth

For some reason extremely foreign to me, throughout the years I encountered many co-workers feeling that their value is determined by the amount of information they have and other don’t. If you’ve ever encountered that kind of behavior, you know how frustrating that is. I can’t explain why they feel the way they feel, but I can tell you their premise is wrong. If you have vital information to your company or your state of business that you do not share, this will not make superstar. On the contrary, it is usually identified as a liability and a reason for making a person redundant. On the other hand, if you possess information that no one is aware of that is not extremely important, then it will die with you, and with it your value.

Why it works: you are not important.

Honestly, I often get into these conversations whenever I or my friends are attempting something difficult. No one cares about you. It’s the syndrome of the newbie at the gym that worries about what other think of him, the answer is: they don’t. The same goes when sharing information, you should not worry about communicating ideas, expressing the fact that you don’t understand something, or expressing why you agree and disagree with. If you ever get negative feedback about it, take it as it is: feedback, more information for you to consume and build upon. If you get actual mockery from your interlocutor, it is also feedback: your interlocutor lacks communication intelligence (sometimes shortened as “your interlocutor is a dick”). Another added bonus of nobody caring about you and over information, is that if you say something that you shouldn’t have said (not that I think that ever occurs), chances are the person won’t notice or judge it as inappropriate because it is consistent with your character.

The aftermath of over-communication: transparency & reliability

On the flip side, over communication unlocks you as a personal asset by making you seem transparent and reliable. If you constantly and honestly communicate with everyone you encounter and do not hesitate to share information, I guarantee that people will judge you as trustworthy. Think about it, every time you say something, especially when genuinely showing lack of knowledge or comprehension. People will want to take to you because they know that you will give them a genuine answer. Furthermore, I truly believe that cultivating a culture of over communication is essential for the success of a company. From every level of the organization, management to engineering, lack of communication is frustrating, and too much information is not hurtful. I know I have extreme views on that, but I even think you should talk simply about sensitive subject. Let’s take an example: your salary. I don’t mind of you make more than me or if I make more than me. For me, it gives me a very good insight where you are within the company, the market and your career. I believe I am worth what I make because I make sure to deliver, and my salary is in accordance to the market for a person in my position. Do you know how I know that? I talked about it with people around me.

This is not carte blanche for stupidity or chit-chat

The issue with over communication is that it is an open door to your thoughts. And every one has his share of stupid or uninteresting thoughts, myself included. Heck, I don’t even know if that article is interesting or relevant at all. This is however unrelated to over or under communication. This is work that you need to make on yourself to grow as a person that has relevant things to say. The best way to do that is simple: listen to people that over communicate.

10 things you need to tell your inner 20 year-old to stop doing

by paul 0 Comments
10 things you need to tell your inner 20 year-old to stop doing

This week I’m trying something a little different. I realize that I have less experience in career advice than in the data world, and that this post might veer into self-indulging therapy, but I do think it has value nonetheless. The elements in the list I am about to present are things I genuinely wish I knew when I started my career and that I still fight against. Hopefully, some of you can relate to this and who knows, it may give you some perspective on your current actions. With the context set, let’s dive into this: 10 things you (and I) need to tell our inner 20 year-old to stop doing.

1. Being a cynical jerk

“If we believe in nothing, if nothing has any meaning and if we can affirm no values whatsoever, then everything is possible and nothing has any importance.” -Albert Camus

Granted this is more existentialism than cynicism but it does illustrates my point. Spend your time contemplating the supposedly uselessness of your work, complaining about your routine and trying to establish solidarity around this vision of your job is idiotic. There will be displeasing aspects in your work, just as it is the case of any endeavor to which you devote more than 30 minutes. The question that you need to ask yourself is how bad the situation actually is, does it serve a purpose in your career plan, and if you need to change something. Complaining for complaining is counter productive, despite what every fiber of my French body wants me to believe, so don’t do it.

2. Not wanting to pick up the phone

This is why texting and apps like grubhub are so popular, and why voicemail is dead. We all hate calling someone, especially for a difficult conversation. Don’t misinterpret this with organizing meetings for the sake of organizing meetings, this is a completely different issue. What I’m talking about here is calling someone before or instead of sending an email/chat/text. Electronic communication is essential, but it does not replace phone calls. If you can’t find the right words to put in an email, try calling first.

3. Not having a career plan

What do you want to be in 2, 3, 5 years? Is what you’re doing know actively helping towards that goal? If you can’t answer that, you’re doing it wrong. I’m not saying that plans don’t change or that it is easy to know which direction to take (queue Camus’ quote from the first point), but it is the key to not waste time. It’s a difficult thing to face your own state of despair, but it will make you a more focused individual. Identify where you want to be. Give yourself the tools to get there.

4. Underestimating the value of relationships

However much you value relationships in your work environment, I’m fairly certain you can multiply that value by 2 or 3. At least that was the case for me until extremely recently. Take the time to speak with people. Pick up the phone, talk to them on social media, the world we live in make building relationships easier than before. Use it to your advantage. Don’t think you will get where you want to be alone.

5. Thinking that other people are idiots

I used to say, following the word of wisdom of many elders, that the worst thing in life is to work with idiots. I realize now that this was misguided. Not that I literally thought that a significant portion of my co-workers were dumber than I was (although if that’s what you actually think, you may have to climb down off your narcissist pedestal and join us common folks), more that they were many areas in which they weren’t as skilled as I am (or so I thought). The misguided part of this thought is thinking that everyone has the same objectives and interests as you. They don’t. And the fact that they don’t understand one thing you do, or even if we take this to an extreme that their cognitive capabilities are less proficient than yours, is irrelevant. When faced with someone who does not seem to understand something, or does something you think he shouldn’t have done, use it as an opportunity to learn about them, not to judge them; which brings us to our next point.

6. Failing to understand others’ ultimate motive

This is the next level of my previous point. I can attest from personal experience that I did (and still do in some occasions) misunderstand completely a person and get genuinely surprised by some of their action, which more often than not end up costing me a great deal. So try to do this: instead of dismissing people for the behavior and actions in which they engage, use these as data points aggregating towards building a portrait of them; this will save you a few surprises.

7. Hesitating to ask questions …

I was once working at a customer’s site to install one of our products and we needed a few boring environment access to be setup. Assigned to help me out was a freshly hired guy. As usual in that kind of situations, nothing was easy, and we were basically stuck until someone approved something. So I ask that guy: “who’s the person in charge of this approval?”; once he gave me his name I said: “good, let’s ask him when we can expect the approval process to be finished”. Of course, this made the freshly hired quite uncomfortable and he did not want to do it. In the end, we did contact the guy, and he was happy that we called (see point #2) because he had a few questions about what we were trying to do; I even think that ultimately it was quite beneficial for the new guy’s visibility in the organization. So if you have a legitimate question to ask to someone, regardless of their position, you should ask it. You have very little to risk unless it is misguided, which is why you should think before asking.

8. … especially to yourself.

This is fairly simple. Think before you ask something. Don’t be afraid, but use everything you know about your audience before asking a question or replying to an email. I know I’m guilty of angsty responses and I’m working on it. The key here is that if everyone else is applying the principles laid out in point #6, then they are building a portrait of you from multiple data points. Don’t give them negative data points.

9. Not looking for ways to go the extra mile

“Ask yourself ‘Can I give more?’. The answer is usually: Yes.” -Paul Tergat, Kenyan professional marathoner

I admit this might sound a little cheesy, but it is worth saying. I believe that you can always find more relevant things to do to better your knowledge, your business relationships and your recognition from other people. While this extra work might sometimes feel overwhelming, you can always prioritize it. Don’t keep this out of sight. Do more.

10. Compromising your values

… unless you have terrible values. More seriously, this is very good advice that I gave to myself after my first job. In my first job, I tried to become someone I wasn’t for the sake of fitting into a certain culture. I believe this was one of the biggest mistake I have ever made. Excelling at a job and pushing your career forward is hard enough, you don’t want to have to battle fundamental internal conflicts. I use the word fundamental knowingly. Like I touched on during my first point, you will always have doubts about what you’re doing, rightfully so. You spend a very high percentage of your time working, I don’t believe it is sustainable long term if you compromise your values, the same way you can’t be in a long term love relationship if you lie to one of the parties (you or your partner). Make sure your work environment does not make you become something you’re not.