Month: February 2013

Who will I be in 10 years time

Still on the Dan Gilbert bandwagon, I’ve been pondering this article tonight and wondering where I’ll be in 10 years time.

“Middle-aged people — like me — often look back on our teenage selves with some mixture of amusement and chagrin.  What we never seem to realize is that our future selves will look back and think the very same thing about us. At every age we think we’re having the last laugh, and at every age we’re wrong.”

— Daniel Gilbert

Looking back on my life, 10 years ago I was in my last year of a Biomedical Science degree, dating my future husband, looking forward to a future in my home country South Africa.  I had gained so much more self confidence during my degree, I loved the course and was excelling at it.  But looking forward to my perceived future career, I was having major doubts.  The feedback from the lecturers was that graduates would file into low wage laboratories around South Africa, and most would decide to rather continue studying to do Honours and Masters.  The feeling I got, was that you had to complete another year or two to get any useful experience.  The lab vacancies had many applicants, and affirmative action was heavily in place, favouring black and Indian applicants over the non-pigmented variety of human.  Even some of my Indian friends were considering another two or three years at a Technikon, to get a more hands-on course and hopefully better chances of securing a job.

Right, so to cut a long story short, I though to hell with this, I’m going to try something else for a year and see how it goes.  Turns out it was the best decision I ever made.

I signed up for a bit of an “elitist” programming course.  It was ridiculously expensive, but fortunately funded by my Grandfather’s generous education funds for me (I whipped through University mostly with scholarships).  Thank goodness I didn’t have a study loan from the BSc to drag me down.  The course was very well run, with a knowledgeable lecturer, and at the time put me in a great position to get into programming.  I entered the workforce as a “QA” with no experience, and clawed my way into a development team, again with little experience, but having studied a second University programming course part time.

So what did my 21 year old self know about the future?  Darned little I’m afraid.

Didn’t know she was not going to head off into Biomedical science, but into computer programming.  Didn’t know she was going to land a lucrative job at one of the most drool-worthy IT companies in Durban.  Didn’t know she would get married at 27 to her University sweetheart.  Didn’t know most of her friends would goof off overseas.  Didn’t know that she should would decide in 2011 that she would much rather work in a first world country, and successfully plan and execute a fairly risky move to New Zealand!  This coming from a 18 year old that didn’t want to study away from home, because she’d miss her family too much!

Other than that, life hasn’t changed too much.  Was briefly addicted to an online multiplayer game, which I think set back my career quite badly.  Got into horse riding enthusiastically for a few years – that was a surprise.  Started investing in the stock market in 2003 and rode it all the way up, lost some money on some ridiculous stock picking, and made a mistake in investing in a South African Retirement Annuity, which I will now lose 20% of because of the Retirement Annuity company sharks taking their “early surrender fee” (I’m not even kidding, this is legal! And was somehow signed into my contract back when I signed it as a tender and naive 23 year old!)

So what do I have in store for myself in the next 10 years?  Well, planning on getting my career on track to become a better software developer.  And planning on a few overseas trips while we’re young and restless.  And trying to save like mad so we can retire in 12 years time.

And maybe when I get there, I won’t even want to stop working?  Or perhaps I would have started my own company? 

What makes us happy

I am re-reading Dan Gilbert’s excellent Stumbling on Happiness.  I was actually quite surprised to find out that he’s a full on academic, working as Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, and has a long list of Journal articles and psychology textbooks to his name.  That’s because this book is a really great read, his writing style is very charming, and the ideas accessible.  I just assumed he was another journalist that investigated and compiled these clever ideas from other individuals.  Turns out I should really read the author biographies too!

Stumbling on Happiness explores the limitations of our human minds when it comes to estimating how happy we will be with future occurrences, and how that leads us to mistakes when making choices today.  Like deciding to become a lawyer, because you think you’ll be happy with all that money, and then it turns out that you’re desperately unhappy anyway.  Or in my case, charging into a BSc in Biomedical Science, and on completion deciding that actually, I’d rather be programming….

Happiness has a base level, and we tend to revert to that level no matter what happens – good or bad.  The paraplegic is basically as happy as the Lotto Winners (For various reasons: humans rationalise unhappy outcomes to make them more acceptable, and more freedom of choice can actually make you unhappy in the case of the Lotto winner with suddenly increased purchasing power).

Unfortunately the book is not a self-help guide on how to become more happy, it just points out the flaws in what you *think* will make you happy in the future.

His Ted Talk is also very informative, he explains that we have a “psychological immune system”, which tends to produce artificial happiness.  This is the real deal, even if it was manufactured by our brain, since we can’t tell the difference!  He shows an example where participants were asked to rank various Monet prints, from their least to most favourite print.  They were then offered to take a print to keep, from either their 3rd or 4th favourite option.  When asked several days/weeks later to repeat the ranking, the print they chose went from 3rd favourite to 2nd favourite, and number 4 went down a ranking to number 5.  In other words, their brain decided the print that they chose was actually much nicer, and the one they didn’t choose was favoured less. This is the “artificial” happiness that the brain creates.

A second example shown is a study where photography students were allowed to choose between 2 photographs to keep, the other one going towards their “course results”.  One group was allowed to change their mind over the next few days and swap, the other group was not allowed; the students were told the photograph was being sent immediately to central headquarters.  Evaluations several days/weeks later showed that the students who could change their mind were significantly unhappy about their photograph, and the students who couldn’t were overall very happy with their choice.

Another highly interesting and amusing Ted Talk by Mr Gilbert, is “Why we make bad decisions“:

It starts with this equation : Expected value = Odds of gain x Value of gain

Sounds simple, except that we are terrible at estimating the odds, and the value of a choice.  He gives some reasons why we make errors in estimating the odds of gain – for example, unusual events come quickly to mind because of their rarity, so disasters seem more probable to happen, than something ordinary like dying of asthma or drowning.  The Lotto is another example of making bad estimations – we see all the winners and think there is a chance for us to win as well, when the odds are fantastically small.

For errors in estimating value – one of the reasons we make mistakes, is because value is compared to the past instead of the possible.  The act of comparing changes how we perceive something’s value.  For example, the comparison made when choosing between items at the store, based on prices, will not really impact our enjoyment when we’re actually using the item.  Comparing eating french fries with eating cake, makes you think that you’ll enjoy the fries less, than if you compare eating Fries to eating spam.  But when the act of eating fries is actually measured, both groups enjoy the fries equally.  So the experience doesn’t change, but the prediction of how much you will enjoy something changes depending on what you’re comparing it with. It explains the strange phenomenon of why people are blissfully ignorant of high investment fees in their portfolios, up to 2 or 3% but will go to a lot of trouble to clip coupons to save a few cents.  Or why we keep going on camping trip holidays, thinking that we will thoroughly enjoy them, only to be disappointed when yet again, we are bitten by sand flies, burnt by the sun, eaten by ants, and freeze during the night.

To finish off, I’ll leave you with this thought : our brains evolved in a very different environment than we exist in today – we lived in small communities, and our daily priority was hunting, eating and reproducing.  We now live in a global environment, with huge “monkey spheres”, and our immediate needs for most first world citizens, is very easily met through steady employment.  No wonder we are such an unsatisfied lot!

More on Stumbling on Happiness in later posts, once I’ve read through it again!

2013 Goals and planning for the future

So I’m a bit late for any New Years Resolutions unfortunately, I’ve never really made those – it’s not like anyone actually goes through with them right?  What I would like to do this year, is get a bit more upskilled in my profession.

A bit of History

I’ve always been an above average, competitive person.  At school I was in fierce competition with my best friend and rival for the Dux award (top scholar), and missed it by 0.5%!  I was top of the class at University and graduated “summa cum laude”.  I went straight from University (BSc in BioMedical Science) to a 1 year software programming course, where I of course had to be top of the class again 😉

I took to programming like a duck to water, it was as obvious and straight-forward to me as breathing.  Nothing like the BioMed practical work where I had to follow instructions carefully and had to study very hard to remember the work.

Anyway, from there I got a job in a great company in their software testing department, and over a few years moved into a team management role and then into their development team as a C++ (programming language) junior developer.

Current Work

At the moment I’m in a C# role (A different programming language to the one above), and even though I have about 5 years development experience I still feel like a “junior developer” in terms of ability.  My main problem is that I’ve always maintained big, complex systems, or added functionality to an existing system, and haven’t done my new design and greenfield work myself.  I hardly did any personal projects, not having any motivation to do so.  I used to be happy and felt competent in my field (8 years domain knowledge, so I had a ton of information up my sleeve), so was happy to just chug along.

With this new C# job, it’s a completely new product, new design and development, with a language that I’m competent in, but by no means very good.  It makes me deeply unhappy to feel like I’m the underdog in the team, just trying to keep my head above water when they start getting into design patterns, examining my code or discussing performance strategies.  I’m not the type of person to just “get the job done”, it must be “the very best job” or it will keep me up at night.  Yes, I am quite a stressed person at times 🙂

Goals for 2013

So my goal for this year is to finally kick my butt into reading a few excellent books on programming, and to do some personal projects.

One project I have started planning for, is a retirement planning application that you can record your assets and investments in, input your estimated ROI, and see what future nest-egg you can save up for yourself in present-day values.  It will have functionality to be able to enter your yearly savings (with an estimated yearly increase), and I also want to add features where you can see what effect a future event could have on your assets – buying a mortgage for example, or a stock market crash, or high inflation.

Books that I’d like to read this month – Code Complete by Steve McConnell, and How to Design Programs – Matthias Felleisen et al (Available for free online here).

I realised today that I spend way too much time reading blogs, forums, posting messages and just generally mucking about on the Internet.  This is not time learning anything useful, just reading people’s comments.  It counts as “entertainment”, like watching TV.  I’d much rather be more productive with my time developing skills that will add to my paycheck, so I’ll be cutting down on these activities, maybe one hour a day maximum reading on the Internet instead of browsing the entire evening away.

Plans for the Future

So we are saving around 50% of our paycheck, and expenses include $21580 on renting a nice house.  Obviously with such a high rental, we’re thinking about purchasing sometime soon – we’re just saving up a decent deposit so that we don’t need to spend a fortune on mortgage interest.  We’re currently living on one of our paychecks and saving the other.  We have some investments in a few different stock markets around the world, and cash savings in a money market at 3.15% after tax. [Update October – Husband has taken some time off from working to do some studying and destress from a very bad situation at his previous job. So we’re now actually living on a single paycheck, and saving about 20% right now. We’ve scaled back on expenses as much as possible!]

With the 50% savings rate, we’ll need about 12-15 years of savings before we can retire early.  I don’t think we can cut back expenses any further without sinking money heavily into a property, so I’m looking at increasing my salary.  As a software developer, I think I can improve a lot here, maybe get up to 20% more for now, and in a few years up to 50%.  Like I said, what’s currently holding me back is only my laziness, I can easily pick up new concepts and programming languages, but I need more experience and hands-on experimentation to make more progress.

So to summarise :

  1. Get more bad-ass at programming, more programming on my own projects, learning new technologies and techniques, and learning from the masters.
  2. Get a qualification or two (Microsoft certification), and then start applying for senior development positions.
  3. After a year, we’re going to start looking at the housing market, hopefully by this time it will have cooled down, and not gone into crazy bubble territory.  (It only  had a little dip in 2009 and is starting to creep up again, but is highly unaffordable compared to median salary).  This will help with the high rental expenses at the moment.
  4. More salary + Less expenses means we might be able to shave off a few years on TTR (Time to Retire), I’m happy to continue for a while longer, but the DH is hating work at the moment and is eyeing retirement like a bull on red cloth.