A bittersweet Canada Day

I went for an evening run here in Victoria a couple of days ago. The run took me down to an oceanfront walkway where I could see the mountains on the other side of the strait, the choppy water turning dark as the sun was setting,
the almost-full moon, and many friendly people walking their dogs, waving, smiling. I passed a tour bus parked at a lookout and about a dozen tourists taking pictures of the view we were sharing, while I thought how fortunate I am to routinely run in a place that is so beautiful that people come from around the world to see it, that they judge it photo worthy. I ran through well-maintained parks and well-lit streets, and when the night fell and I was jogging back through a few blocks of what passes as Victoria’s inner city, I still felt safe and protected.

This is all to say that I live in a gorgeous city, in a great country, and I know how lucky I am. When we’ve had medical emergencies or treatments, I find I usually only need to pay for the parking at the hospital. The schools are good and the teachers committed. People’s attitudes to me and my partner, as immigrants, are warm, welcoming, and inclusive. There are playgrounds everywhere here, public transit, bike lanes, and bike paths, and a good public library system. Canada gets so much right, and Victoria and Toronto have been such good places to live in, that I can’t be anything but grateful to have been adopted by this country.

And yet, though grateful, I’m also increasingly disgusted and exasperated by the government that this country has imposed upon itself for the past ten years, a government that vastly contradicts everything that makes the country great. How have its citizens allowed this to happen for so long? How has this seeped under us? The government dismantles our social welfare and it attempts to buy off those of us with comfortable salaries through tax cuts. We keep accumulating Fossil of the Year awards, while our government blocks any pragmatic efforts to rein in climate change and hustles to extract and sell the dirtiest fuel we’ve found. We allow government scientists to be censored, science funds to get cut, and research libraries to get destroyed. We let ourselves get worked up over this or that loose terrorist threat, while we let our intelligence services entrap weak-minded folks, and our leaders boast and try to act more macho than the US or Russia. We let ourselves get spied on by our own public servants, spied on to such an extent that, frankly, I’m fearful that inconsequential as I may be, voicing my concerns might get me a file somewhere. Even more so because, astonishingly, for a nation built on immigrants, we’ve also just passed a law (C-24) that allows the government to revoke my citizenship (or that of any dual citizen, even if born in Canada—my daughter, for instance; perhaps you?) without trial, if I commit any acts that are “contrary to the national interest of Canada”, and we’ve passed another law (C-51) that defines such acts in the vaguest terms to include, potentially, dissent or discussion.

I cannot reconcile the beautiful country around me with its increasingly brutish government. I understand that Harper is trying to bend us to its ideology; I don’t understand how so many of us are letting him get away with it.

This is a bittersweet Canada Day for me: there is so much to celebrate, but so much bad work to repair too. There is an election coming. I truly hope that by the next Canada Day this government will be out, and reparations under way.

No Place to Hide

Glenn Greenwald‘s “No Place to Hide” is a good and important book. Beyond the NSA disclosures, which should at this point come as no surprise to anyone who cares about the issue, he correctly emphasizes the role that the institutionalized forces of the mainstream media play in amplifying the voice and the will of power.

This behaviour of the media, and especially of liberal commentators (Hendrik Hertzberg, Jeffrey Toobin, many others) was a great disappointment to me when the disclosures began, a year ago. It shouldn’t have been—I should have kept in mind, for instance, the blindness of both capitalist and communist intellectuals to the excesses of their factions during the Cold War; I should have remembered that often the people that agree with us, especially when they are powerful in any way, agree not due to the rightness of the position, but due to their personal convenience.

Snowden, I learned in “No Place to Hide,” did remember this, and explicitly reached out to adversarial journalists (Greenwald, Poitras) and requested them not to share his materials with subservient media institutions—particularly the New York Times. This, I think, is partly why the leaks about the illegal and outrageous programs of the NSA came through at all. Snowden acted not just heroically: he was also very smart. I’m grateful for that.

Things were very different before we came by

Reading Berton’s “The National Dream“, about the construction of the Canadian transcontinental railroad, I’m impressed by how different Canada was only 140 years ago. Its political system was tremendously corrupt; its territory was barren, largely unexplored, deadly; its only neighbour was poised to take over it, by economic if not military force. Victoria, the major city in the Canadian West Coast then, barely had a thousand voters—Vancouver wasn’t even on the map. The country, on the whole, appeared, to my eyes at least, to be on the verge of collapse for at least a couple of decades.

What I find striking is that this was all not so long ago: our grandparents’ grandparents lived through it. And yet the impression I got from Canada, when I first arrived, was of a country established, whole, with a culture, a history, and an identity. The “Canadian project” was not in question.

Many of the good things we take for granted were not easy to accomplish; they were not a given. They required quite a bit of effort, and quite a bit of luck, and everything that is true about that time is true about today.

Learning

Now and then I obsess over a topic (or skill, or thing) and dedicate an inordinate amount of time to it. They have a secret and I must extract it—I must fill my mouth with their taste. They are often, unfortunately, fairly pointless pursuits. Then I’m sated—I’ve learned some tricks or stop being surprised—and the need disappears.

But there are a few topics for which my obsession is tidal. For them, whenever I learn, I feel my ignorance opening wider still: my learning is partly about all the things that are still unlearned; my satisfaction is grounded on discovering that despite years of effort I’m only getting started, that the secrets will not end, and that the journey will last my full life. I sometimes get weary and stop for a while—even for a very long while—but I’ve always taken up the path again.

I can think of four things that affect me in this way: writing, gardening, programming, and playing Go. In all four, learning feels only like peeling a layer, never reaching the core—and I’m extremely far from the core. In all four, I can see, study, marvel, and draw joy from the work of people that are much better than me. While overwhelming, this keeps me humble and hopeful. In all four, practice leads to a contemplative state, and insights seem to apply as much to the thing itself as to life in general.

Perhaps later on other things will come to have this effect on me—gardening is a fairly recent addition to the list, one I only started three years ago. I hope they will, though I can’t control it. But I doubt these four will go away.

Limbic

These have been times of important anniversaries for me. In the past few days I’ve celebrated ten years in Canada, one year out of academia, and three months with Limbic Consulting.

In 2003, when Val and I moved to Toronto and I started my Master in Computer Science degree, I thought that my stay in both Canada and academia would be temporary. A couple of years, at most. But I discovered I liked both too much—enough to think of staying in them permanently. Years later, as it turned out, Canada is happily still our home, but I became disenchanted with the academic house, or rather with my corner of it, and left.

This is what I come to every morning Professionally, this last year has been excellent—I feel like I had been in danger of being left behind by the software industry, and that I’ve caught up again. After a stint at Terapeak (a company where I learned much, but whose goals diverged with mine) I joined Limbic. I’m very glad I did. Limbic is a small firm (which I think is great) filled with smart, fun, kind, multidisciplinary people. The office feels equal parts grad lab, electronics workbench, Agile shop, and surreal cave.

We’ve got an art gallery attached to our workplace, a tickle trunk with wigs and costumes to use in standup meetings (and whenever the conversation gets heated), a dictionary of modern thought and back issues of Make as our washroom reading material, great coffee, and healthy snacks. Most importantly, the projects we are working on are both technically challenging and fun, and we have the autonomy to work on them the way we think is best. It’s a pretty unique place, and an exciting time for me.

I’m a software developer again

I’m happy to announce that this week I started on my new programming position at Terapeak, a local data-analytics company. I’m especially happy because it satisfies almost all the criteria I was looking for when I set out to find a job [1]. It’s quite a change for me to get out of the university environment after being immersed in it for almost 9 years—a change that I felt was necessary, and one that I was really looking forward to. So I’m no longer an academic. Or I guess you could say I went native: I joined the community that used to be my object of study [2].

I’ve only started at the new place, but I’ve been already learning quite a bit and having lots of fun. I’m also having really satisfying feelings of liberation (getting myself out of the small, ineffectual corner to which my research had been pushing me, as research tends to do), of relevance (knowing that my work will be used and found useful), and of possibility (dusting off skills that will get me closer to where I want to be). These feelings may be possibly in part due to the novelty of the change, and, as always, it’s hard to say how things will turn out. But right now this feels like it was the right choice.

[1] With one exception: it is not an organization working on environmental or social justice issues. But I found none of those hiring folks like me in Victoria. Of course, I’ll continue working on these issues in my free time.

[2] Though I never did research on Terapeak.

Software Carpentry Assessment Report

One of the things I’ve been doing over the past six months is an assessment of the effects of the Software Carpentry program on its participants. It involved surveys, dozens of interviews, and observations. I’m happy with the results, and glad I got the chance to do this. I delivered my report today, and it’s now available to the public (PDF). If you prefer, you can read the Executive Summary at the Software Carpentry blog.

Why not a professorship?

Since I wrote a post about looking for a job, a few people told me they were interested in the reasons why was I not looking for a professor position. After all, the typical procedure for someone in my situation (a PhD with a postdoctoral fellowship under his belt) would have been to apply to as many professor and research lab positions as possible. Right now, I should be flying all over the continent, presenting my work at universities, and trying to get one of those elusive tenure-track positions somewhere or other—perhaps taking another postdoctoral fellowship (or two) if the professorship does not materialize.

However, I decided to step out of that treadmill when my time at the University of Victoria runs out. There are many reasons, but three stand out: I became a father, I got tired of the Ponzi scheme dynamics of the academic career, and, most importantly, I lost faith in the value of much software research to society.

First, parenthood. Among other things, parenthood meant, to me, that my partner and I should be more selective of where we’ll live, where are our friends, how much will I need to travel, and to what extent can I balance work and personal life. We’ve made friends in Toronto and in Victoria; uprooting ourselves again, perhaps a number of times until we finally settle, is unappealing. Furthermore, I now like keeping my evenings and weekends to my family, and to minimize travel. All of this does not agree with the demands placed on young computer scientists today: there are proportionally very few positions available, and if you want to get one, you might need to jump yearly from postdoc to postdoc, and from city to city, perhaps from country to country, and to work overtime to beat your friends to one of them—and once you get it, you’ll need to sacrifice even more to satisfy your tenure committee.

I don’t think it was always like this, for Computer Science researchers. From what I have heard (I don’t have concrete data), the field expanded pretty rapidly some 15 years ago, and for a while universities were grabbing new doctors as fast as they could. But CS enrollment took a huge hit after the bubble burst, and it has not recovered. As a result, university demand for new professors is pretty low—or even negative, in some cases: the positions of retired professors are not being refilled. The university keeps churning new doctors, though, and these doctors are taking postdoc positions because there’s nothing else available, and they build up their CVs so that new grads almost certainly need to engage in the same dynamic themselves if they are to compete. The postdoc life in North America, by the way, is certainly more comfortable than that of the graduate student, but it still does not compare to that of the industry professional. Before you get that professor position (if you get it), you’ll spend about ten years of your life, at least, earning a fraction of the salary of your wiser college friends. The skills you’ll learn in academia will also be a tougher sell outside of it than the skills you would’ve learned in industry (though I think they may be extremely valuable skills, they are not necessarily seen that way out there). All in all, there does not seem to be a strong financial case to be made for the academic path at this point in my field.

I could put up with all of that, actually—with the uprooting and the overtime and the elbowing and the living-at-the-poverty-line—if I was convinced that what we are doing in Software Engineering research is important to humanity. But over the past few years that belief has almost disappeared. The academic structure, at least in my area, only rewards benefits to society nominally; in practice, they are usually nowhere to be seen. You can scour our top publication venues for usefulness, as I do, and find, often, very little to report. (Sadly, you could scour my publications and come to a similar conclusion…)

This problem of usefulness to humanity exists when Software Engineering research fails to be pertinent, but sometimes also, ironically, when it succeeds: one of the goals of our research is to improve the efficiency of software companies, and for a civilization mindlessly depleting its resources faster than ever, it’s unclear whether the net impact of improving the performance of a software corporation is positive or negative to society. There is of course an argument to be made about indirectly aiding progress, but I’m skeptical of it. I only have one life, and if I’m going to put myself and my family through the stuff I described above, I want to make sure that it is for a good reason.

Now, I said that my belief in the usefulness of Software Engineering research has almost disappeared, and that “almost” is important. To be sure, some people working on this field are admirable, their work is fascinating, they tirelessly swim against the stream, and we’re indebted to them (you know who you are; don’t make me name you!). When I think of them I start second-guessing myself: should I not stay and keep trying to use my skills in meaningful problems? Am I not acting precipitously? And the empirical bent of much of our research today brings it closer to applicability—am I not giving up too soon?

Perhaps, but in the end, I’m leaving the university because I have not found a sustainable way to stay and help (truly help) fix the world, and I lost my patience. I’ve resolved to work for an organization that is actually built around that purpose, ideally, or for one that makes it easy for me to do it in my personal time. Given the current state of my field, either will bring me closer to my goal than pursuing a professorship.

Looking for a job

My time as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Victoria will run out fairly soon: until the end of August at the latest, four months from now. It’s time, then, to look for another job, and to make some important decisions about who and where do I want to be. For reasons that deserve a blog post of its own, I decided not to look for professor positions, and to broaden my scope instead.

Ideally, I want to find a job that fulfills as many of these needs as possible:

  • First, do no harm. I won’t work for an organization that deals in violence to others, to the environment, or to fairness.
  • Second, do as much good as possible and still get paid. I would love to work for an organization that’s trying to make the world better, especially with respect to social justice or environmental issues. I would work hardest, and for lower pay, if this was the case. Alternatively, I would like to work for an organization that has enough freedom built in so that its members can pursue these goals in their available time.
  • Geography. Val and I like Victoria and Toronto, we’ve built networks in both cities, and they’re currently our two top choices.
  • Stability. I want a permanent position with a sustainable salary, because I don’t want to be looking for another job again a year from now.
  • Work-life balance. Reasonably low overtime and travel requirements, and flexibility in work hours to be there for my daughter when she needs me.
  • Good teamwork and work environment. This is harder to assess than the others, but I think a commitment to team self-organization, autonomy, and co-location are good indicators.
  • Technically hard problems, because I want to feel challenged and engaged at work.

And here’s what I think I can offer in return:

  • An unusual perspective: I’ve studied dozens of software organizations and interviewed hundreds of professionals, who have shared with me their ideas of how their teams work and how they could work better, especially with respect to coordination and communication.
  • Pragmatic knowledge of useful and state-of-the-art empirical research in software development, which I regularly blog and write about.
  • Skills that I learned while getting my PhD and that are transferable to (and, I think, welcome in) the software industry and elsewhere: observation, active listening, data analysis, communication, estimation, and self-management.
  • More conventionally, experience developing software and managing projects.
  • The assurance that, as long as my employer fulfills the needs I listed above, I’m in it for the long haul.

There’s nothing in my wishlist about specific positions or job titles—the ideal position for me might be hard to pin down with a label. I expect that for most organizations my best current fit would be around project management, although I would also love to develop software again, and to work in the intersection of research and practice. If you know of a place where I could be of help, or if you’d like to discuss possible collaborations, please let me know!

Recommendations from 2011

Happy New Year! Alright, 2011 is gone, and I wanted to share some of the books and things I discovered throughout it that got me excited.

For me, this was a good year for books. Among the new ones, I enjoyed “The Tragedy of Arthur”, by Arthur Phillips, which presents itself as a newly discovered Shakespeare tragedy, with a long introduction in which Phillips tries to convince the reader that the play that follows is not actually Shakespeare’s, but a forgery made by his father. Colson Whitehead’s “Zone One” is a good zombie novel—like in most zombie stories, the real villain is ourselves, though in this case it’s specifically the bullshitty, bureaucratic, superficial patterns we’ve grown so fond of. Patrick DeWitt’s “The Sisters Brothers” is fun and engaging: a Western that’s both literary and pulpy at the same time.  I also finished (and loved completely) Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”, a novel that explained my own mind and soul to myself like no other book has, and in a way I did not believe was possible.

I also found several great books in Spanish. César Aira’s “Cómo me hice monja” and “Las curas milagrosas del Doctor Aira” are whimsical gems. Enrique Vila-Matas’ “Una casa para siempre” is a fascinating crime and guilt novella in which neither the crime nor the guilt are mentioned nor alluded to in the text whatsoever. On the other extreme, the confessions of the repugnant philosophy professor gone bad in Guillermo Fadanelli’s “Lodo” are told with a dirty, captivating voice, and they are a great read too.

As a new father, it was pretty hard to keep track of new movies in 2011. Val and I watched lots of older stuff though—among them, I liked Broken Flowers and Persona a lot. We’re currently caught up with Breaking Bad, a great TV show about a chemistry professor that is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and becomes a crystal meth manufacturer to leave money to his family. And if it was hard to keep track of new movies, it was practically impossible to try out new boardgames. I’m still playing a lot of Go, though, and I enjoy it even more as I peel out more of its layers.

I’ve been growing tired of most of the webcomics I usually read, but Zach Weiner’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is still frequently brilliant, and Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship is again updated, now and then, with some great strips (Gurewitch’s collection of strips, “The Perry Bible Fellowship Almanack”, is wonderful too).

For my computer, I used and liked f5 for transcribing interviews. Backblaze works great for backups; I don’t even need to think about it anymore. On my phone, after Scott Leslie‘s pointer, I’ve lately been using buddhify to help myself learn to meditate, and I’m really enjoying it.

That’s it, I think. Let me know if there’s something you found that I might enjoy, too!