Sunday, February 28, 2010

Swimming 2010

I had my best yardage total ever back in 2008, the year after I hurt my neck. I topped 520,000 yards for the year. Last year was very good - 405,000 yards, my third-best total ever - but not up to the blowout standard set in 2008.

2010 is shaping up to be a monstrous year for me. I'm only two months in, and I've already logged 115,200 yards. January was my best single month ever, and February was my third best by only 900 yards. One more workout would have made it my second best month; as it was, Feb 2010 was the best February total I've ever had.

I would have made it too, except for unfortunate circumstances on Friday night. I was planning to attend a Masters swim after work. But I just missed catching the first bus from work back to my commuter lot. The snowy conditions and traffic had the second bus crawling along the highway, so I didn't get to my car until fifteen minutes before the workout started. It takes 35 minutes on a good day to drive from the commuter lot to the pool, so I knew I'd be late. And, to top it off, I did a 2500 yard workout before work. I was planning to "double up" and squeeze in two swims in one day.

I was already tired from a long week. So I got into my car, drove home, ate linguini with clam sauce for dinner, and drank wine while watching "Copenhagen", starring Daniel Craig as Heisenberg an Stephen Rea as Bohr.

If I extrapolate this total, I'll approach 700,000 yards for the year.

I don't expect to be able to keep up this pace. Spring is coming, and if all goes according to plan I'll be riding my bicycle to work two days a week. It will shave two workouts off my torrid pace until summer ends.

But I'm very happy with my efforts so far. Three factors have contributed:

  1. I've been healthy. I haven't missed a workday of swimming yet.

  2. I've increased my morning workout from 2000 to 2500 yards every day. The extra 500 yards of kicking and drills only takes another 13 minutes, but the yards add up.

  3. I've managed two Masters swims a week. Those give a big boost to the yardage total, because they're at least 4000 yards each.

If only I could manage to apply the same dedication and consistent effort to other areas of my life, like my technical and learning aspirations. They don't lend themselves as easily to the tracking and measurement that motivate me so much in my athletic pursuits.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Warning

I just finished watching Frontline's "The Warning" for the second time. I'm outraged, bemused, fearful, and saddened all at the same time.

Having lived through that time, I remember how magical the stock market's run-up was. The frightening crash on "Black October" in 1986 had the opposite of the expected reaction: the market recovered quickly. It wasn't a disaster or a wipeout - it was a buying opportunity.

Ironically, it was the first crisis of Alan Greenspan's career as Fed chairman. I wonder how much the orderly, swift recovery validated his ideology?

Everyone I knew was buying stocks, whether they liked it or not. We were all being moved out of fixed benefit retirement plans and into 401k. Who wouldn't want that? Where else could you get 10% annual returns except in the market? You were a sucker to do otherwise.

The apocryphal story of the Great Depression was that Joe P. Kennedy withdrew all his money from the market when he got stock tips from a shoe shine boy. If those kinds of folks were in the market, it was a sure sign to Kennedy that it was time to get out. What about legions of engineers and software developers snapping up Microsoft, Dell, Intel, Cisco, and Apple? That was just smart business. All those companies were in their heyday in the 90s. Remember when Microsoft was a growth stock? Everybody expected 10% returns on their investments back then.

I know my thoughts on the market still reflected the view that fundamentals mattered. Knowing a company's products and markets and financial situation was the key to choosing wisely. I wasn't comfortable with the day trading mentality of ignoring fundamentals and buying on movement.

But I always thought that the dizzying growth we experienced back then was due to the emergence of new technologies like computers and the Internet. I believed the mantra that said productivity was increasing, because I could see it in the industries I worked in. I certainly didn't understand derivatives or the risky behavior they encourage.

I did read the Wall Street Journal, which touted Mr. Greenspan as "The Oracle." His trips to Capitol Hill were legendary. Parsing his obscure statements for clues about the economy took on the character of examining the entrails of chickens to predict the future.

There haven't been many public figures in my memory that have had a more glowing reputation, only to see it tarnished it so badly. Mr. Greenspan has wounded this country twice: once by his encouragement of unfettered free markets and again by backing the Bush tax cuts in 2001. Our budgets have gone from surplus to raging deficits and off-budget war expenditures. The total debt is on the order of an entire year's worth of production and growing.

The Frontline program demonstrates clearly that this is not a problem of Democrats or Republicans. The entire political class is guilty here. Glass-Steagall was repealed on Clinton's watch as Rubin, Greenspan, and Summers cheered from the sidelines. The Community Reinvestment Act of 1978, passed under Jimmy Carter, contributed to our latest housing bubble by requiring banks to require credit to the entire community, regardless of ability to repay. Mr. Obama hasn't done enough to contain and reverse the damage in his first year in office.

It's been eighteen months since the failure of Lehman Brothers. There's a sense of unease caused by high, stubborn unemployment, but the panic that gripped the country has subsided. The rescue effort architected by the Treasury, Goldman Sachs, and the rest of Wall Street has had a calming effect. It feels like we've all rolled over, pulled the covers over our heads, and gone back to sleep in hope of better dreams.

But we still don't have any regulation of derivatives, in spite of the lessons from Long Term Capital Management and AIG. Banks are still too big to fail. Risk is still being masked and encouraged to a dangerous degree. The people who brought us to this place are still wielding power. The fourth branch of government, K Street and lobbyists, have been given a new weapon: their unregulated political contributions are now free speech similar to that of an individual.

There was a time in my life when there still seemed to be individuals running things that still put the general good ahead of their own. But that time is over. We've reached a dangerous spot where ideology and religion are trumping what used to be called rational, liberal thought. (Not "liberal" in the political spectrum sense; more of the "enlightened" meaning it had during Revolutionary times). Global corporations owe no allegiance to the country they're based in. After all, their workers live in many countries.

After watching "The Warning" I believe we're far from done. There will be more, worse shocks to come.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Climbing The Corporate Ladder

I had an interesting experience last week. I was walking to a meeting at work when I thought I saw a woman that my wife and I knew at university. She was two years behind us, living in the same dorm as my wife; a math major specializing in actuarial science. She and her husband came to our wedding. We visited back and forth after marriage, but we lost track after both having children. She visited on her own after her first daughter was born, just before her maternity leave ended. We've exchanged Christmas cards every year since, keeping track of the passage of years and the progress of our children via picture greeting cards.

I recognized her right away, even though she was out of context and the glimpse was fleeting. My memory for names and such is not what it used to be, but I've always been pretty good about remembering faces. I had the advantage over her in this case. She still looked terrific, very much like her younger self. The last time she saw me I had lots more hair that was dark instead of white, didn't wear glasses, and my face was covered with a full beard.

I went back to my desk and looked her up in the corporate directory. Sure enough, my memory was spot on. I didn't realize that ten months ago I'd landed at the same company where she's spent most of her career. She's in a different line of business, which is one reason why we never crossed paths. Another is that she's on the executive staff, just three steps below the CEO of a $30B company. I'm a lowly IT guy, a lifelong cubicle denizen. We move in different circles.

I sent an e-mail, wondering if I'd get a response back. There was a delay, which made me think that perhaps I'd overstepped my bounds. I was delighted to find out that she'd been out of town and would like very much to get together. She asked her admin to put a lunch date on our calendars.

When the day came, something came up that forced her to cancel. I replied back saying that was fine with me, but I didn't need an elaborate lunch meeting. How about a cup of coffee? She agreed, and we sat down fifteen minutes later over tea.

I always thought very highly of our friend, and time hasn't diminished that opinion. It was a fun conversation, filled mostly with our respective pairs of daughters. Hers are both still in high school, so she was pumping me for information about the college experience and life after children.

We talked for about half an hour - quite a gift from a person so highly placed in a large organization. We agreed not to wait so long before getting together again. Our spouses will make the trek downtown for a dinner foursome sooner rather than later. It was a terrific meeting.

I can't think of another person that I know who's done as well in corporate America. The ladder is narrow and shaky. Everyone who joins a big company imagines themselves being quickly identified as superior and swept along to the upper rungs. But we all learn that the ladder is wobbly and narrow, and the gifts that we do possess aren't always the best fit for climbing.

What are the qualities that cause one person to stand out and rise up? These would be true both for entrepreneurs and executives.

I think one of the first qualities is the self-awareness that makes you raise your eyes up from a narrow specialty and take a broader view. You've got to wake up one day and start thinking in terms of steps to take towards a different goal.

Another is a belief that you can and should be in charge. The confidence that's necessary to direct the efforts of others is essential.

Education is necessary but not sufficient. If it was I'd be in great shape. I went to school either as a student or a professor every semester except two from the time I was five years old until I hit forty-three. That's a lot of classes, a lot of grades, a lot of material. Most of it was quite challenging, in areas that I hear our country is falling short in. I wasn't the best student, but I certainly can claim to be dogged.

There are many ways to be smart. Someone who is good at taking that wider view, spotting risks, articulating a path to take or avoid, and anticipating consequences is going to be more valuable than a person who has mastered the latest computer language du jour.

It's a fascinating question. Why didn't it work for me?

Lots of possible reasons. I could have been limited by my working class, union upbringing: "Don't think too much of yourself. Don't get a big head!"

It might be a generational thing, because when I started my working life the idea was to stick with one large, well connected, reliable firm all your life and go as far as you could. I started with that mindset but started hopping around mid-way through.

I don't think I had that self-awareness that told me to aspire to that kind of thing. No matter how many crazy people I met in middle and upper management, it never occurred to me that I could do at least as well or better.

I love technical work. That's what I like to do. Tearing myself away from it and supervising others was losing twice: I'd have to do something I didn't enjoy and give up something I did. When I was asked to do such a thing during my engineering career, I turned it down.

It could be that I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am. There are many ways to be smart: emotional intelligence, reading people, persuading others to take your point of view, etc. It could be that a deficiency in one of those kept me in a cubicle.

Another, more comforting, reason is that there is a price to pay for everything. When you're an executive, you're expected to get into the limo when they send it to your house. Your life isn't entirely your own anymore. Cubicle dwellers generally get to leave it behind when they go home at night. I chose balance.

I hope that my children think seriously about what they want and where they see themselves when they're my age. What do you really value? Satisfying work? Money? Status? Being your own boss? Owning a company? Meeting a payroll? Balancing family and work? Raising children? Having a tribe of friends? Being involved in lots of activities? Being artistic?

I'd love to hear my friend talk at length about her journey. If I get the chance, perhaps I'll write about it.