An international student’s perspective

As a young boy growing up in India who dreamed of traveling and learning in the wide-open world, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to study in America. In my time here, I have often been asked what my impression of the country is. I’d like to share my perspective — and obviously, this list is not comprehensive — of how America is different from what I’ve experienced growing up elsewhere.

First, the work ethic in this country is all about integrity and progress. Rarely have I come across anyone resorting to plagiarism or cheap shortcuts. Progress is defined and measured through performance on clearly outlined objectives.

Second, Americans don’t shy from using the right resources to achieve their objectives. Be it the optimum quality cellphone, iPad, computer, chair, car, printer or whatever else you might require to get the job done, you get those resources. This does lead to wasteful spending at times, but as long as you get your work done, you’re justified in your spending.

Third, Americans have respect for the law. I was pleasantly surprised when at 4 a.m. on a deserted Route 1, the few cars on the road respected traffic signals. These cars’ drivers actually stopped at the red light. I found that fascinating. Elsewhere in the developing world, such occurrences are rare. Beyond that, highest respect for contracts — meaning not breaking the law to suit one’s convenience (marijuana use and underage alcohol consumption are exceptions) — is common practice here, whereas it’s not abroad.

Fourth, Americans have intellectual freedom and utilize a data-based approach. The problem-solving approach in general is to have a hypothesis, gather data and then validate or invalidate that hypothesis. In most of my classes, I was required to hypothesize about a given problem/situation/scenario/set of data — not to stick to others’ formulaic viewpoints — and write papers making an argument for what my hypothesis.

Fifth, building on that, America is a truly democratic society. People from the Occupy Wall Street school of thought may argue otherwise, but the fact that they can make that kind of argument is itself a testament to America’s thriving democracy. If you can debate your side and channel it through the right medium, more often than not, you add value to the debate.

Sixth, for better or worse, Americans value doing their own work. You get your own groceries, fix your own furniture, etc. Perhaps this ethic is derived from the Protestant philosophy of love of labor. Perhaps it’s derived from economics (expensive labor). Perhaps it’s derived from both.

Seventh, in this country, people work hard and play hard. No one will deny you the moral right of partying hard or doing whatever you want within legal bounds — to have a good time so long as you have met your work-related responsibilities.

Eighth, physical fitness is important here. Contrary to many reports, the Americans I know, on average, are not obese. Most of the people I’ve come across are very healthy and give a lot of importance to being fit by working out, running, playing some sports and eating right (measured by caloric intake).

Ninth, Americans have a sense of modesty. In general, people here don’t go around flaunting their achievements. You actually never know what the person sitting next to you, or even one of your friends, has achieved because people prefer keeping a low-profile. 

Tenth, America has a high standard of living. No matter what class of society you’re from, most people have access to food, shelter and health services.

Finally, on a slightly cynical note, America is overcommercialized. I still don’t understand why Americans shop on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

The power of the white board

This piece was published in a college newspaper

On Oct. 30, Wall Street Journal technology columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote about the power of the whiteboard. He discussed how high-tech Silicon Valley companies that have been responsible for creating a vast array of sophisticated digital products ironically rely on nondigital mediums to sort through their ideas and visions. In particular, he wrote about how one of these tech companies, popular note-taking app creator Evernote, has its office walls painted in such a way that the walls function as whiteboards — or “whitewalls” — and how that helps the company boost productivity and innovation.

That got me thinking: We should have this system implemented on our campus as well. And to confirm whether this enhances student productivity, collaboration and creativity, university authorities should run a round of experiments. Imagine what having these whitewalls in McKeldin Library or any one of the dorm lounges would do to student productivity. The direct benefits of having whitewalls in our student community are as follows:

First, increased collaboration. Right now, in my experience, the model for most group assignments has been dividing a project into as many parts as there are members in the team. Each team member is responsible for completing one part of the assignment, and everyone compiles their work into the main project document for submission. Cross-sectional collaboration is minimal, and to a large extent I think the reason for that is not having a large enough canvas onto which we can throw all our ideas. The whiteboards available to us help but do not promote the level of collaboration that could be facilitated by large whitewalls.

Second, improved creativity. Tools like Google Docs that allow people to collaborate on shared documents online are great for teamwork. And most of them are free, too. But such online platforms are largely limited to text, so we can’t intuitively draw our ideas into maps, which inhibits our ability to lay out our thoughts. Besides, all of us who use these online platforms are all too familiar with the accompanying distractions of the Internet.

Finally, heightened performance and quality of work. The result of improved collaboration and creativity should lead to an improvement not only in the quality of the work we do but also enhancement of the entire learning experience.

In March 2011, The New York Times explored the science behind human intelligence, sociality and success (in comparison to lower primates). As per the survey its journalists conducted of academic studies on the subject, humans have been able to build rockets not because of big brains, but because “10,000 individuals cooperate in producing the information.” Collaboration is a human instinct. In a learning environment like our university’s, creating tools to improve that collaboration should be explored.

The cost-benefit equation on this also works out. Contrary to what you might think about the economics of such an experiment, the costs of running the whitewalls experiment will be minimal. Fifty square foot of IdeaPaint, a market leader in whitewalling, costs $225. Accounting for labor and miscellaneous costs of the project, in under $10,000, we could have 1,000 square feet of whitewalls.

I urge the university authorities to explore the possibilities of conducting this whitewalls experiment.

The problem with Power Shift (and environmental NGOs in general)

This piece was published in a college newspaper

I received an email a few months ago from my department’s adviser about the Power Shift conference in Pittsburgh that was going to take place around that time. Power Shift is a grassroots organization that mobilizes college students to help the environment and fight against climate change. 

At first glance, Power Shift’s main objective is noble. Universities, it argues, are the foundation of American excellence and technology, and they also play a major role in influencing public discourse on nearly all political, economic and research-related issues. If such institutions withdraw financial support in oil, coal and gas companies, Power Shift argues, then those companies will lose billions of dollars in funding — which will somehow reduce pollution — and public discourse on climate change would increase. Two birds, one stone.

This line of reasoning, however, may ultimately prove to be flawed. Here is my message to all who think they are supporters of the Power Shift ideology.

First, if universities began divesting stakes in fossil fuel companies, all that would do is temporarily lower the stock prices (market price), or cost of investment (function of market price), in these companies. Strategic investors on Wall Street and elsewhere would all jump at this opportunity and flock in to buy undervalued fossil-fuel stocks because, by themselves, fossil-fuel assets do not lose value; as a result, the prices would drive back up to normal. So who profits if universities were to adopt Power Shift’s charter? Strategic investors. Who loses? University endowments, by taking on the risk of selling cheap.

Second, what is the goal of a university endowment? To support academic learning, not to push forward social or political agendas — however noble they may be. A university’s fund management team decides in which areas of the market to invest the university’s money in order to deliver the best possible financial results to the institution. These financial gains will pay the bills and enable the institution to achieve its academic goals. If that means investment in Exxon Mobil, why not? 

Third, this agenda is somewhat short-sighted. Power Shift may counter-argue that universities can invest in so many other market-based avenues such as stocks of thousands of other profitable corporations, government or municipal bonds, etc. But here’s something it fails to observe: Human society today is driven by fossil-fuel based energy. Nike, Apple, Sears, you name it — all corporations have a supply chain system that is built on the basis of fossil-fuel energy. This even applies to governments or municipalities: What do they use the money they raise for? Construction, powering up their offices, cleaning up neighborhoods. All of it requires energy that is predominantly fossil-fuel based. By not investing in British Petroleum, and instead parking precious capital in government bonds or another corporation’s stock, may not solve the problem.

Finally, this agenda may also be a little hypocritical. Power Shift supporters want universities to divest stakes in fossil-fuel companies. However, in our personal lives, all of us consume fossil-fuel based energy in one form or another. We drive cars, we live in homes, we use electricity, we fly commercially, we consume goods, we eat at restaurants where natural gas is the primary source of fuel, and so on. Why should an academic institution make poor financial decisions — to the merry of market arbitragers — to support a cause that, in itself, is ultimately a zero-sum game?

What we need is clean and renewable energy, yes. I’m confident that with time, the clean energy industry will figure out a way to deliver clean energy at competitive prices. When that time comes, the market will rearrange itself. Until then, all the hullabaloo is going to amount to nothing.

Learning to code, part II

This piece was published in a college newspaper

A few months ago, on this page, I made the case for learning how to code. I primarily addressed readers who, like me, have no background in coding whatsoever. My argument was that it is extremely beneficial from a professional standpoint to learn how to read and write a computer language in our highly tech-oriented world. From buying a simple cup of coffee at Starbucks to trading billions of dollars on Wall Street, understanding what goes on behind the scenes is an extremely useful skill.

In this column, I’m going to argue the importance of attending events organized by the student tech community and how those events can help you learn coding more easily – both in terms of the quality of your code and how fast you master some of the basic concepts.

First, hackathons. These are large gatherings of members of the hacking community where people come together to transform their computer coding ideas into reality in a matter of 24 to 36 hours. This could involve building anything from web applications to hardware. When I attended my first hackathon at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., a month ago, I didn’t have to pay for travel, food or lodging. In our “no free lunch” world, where else are you going to get such excellent perks while improving your skills?

The other evening, I met a senior economics and marketing major whom I encouraged to register for a hackathon at Yale. She told me that she needed to attain a certain level of expertise in computer programming before she felt comfortable registering. If you feel this way, too, then I must borrow the metaphor used by David Fontenot, the director of Michigan’s MHacks, which is the largest student hackathon in the entire country. He says that going to hackathons is like going to a gym. You don’t need to be an expert bodybuilder to use the gym. Doing a few push-ups or squats at home isn’t going to take you far. Going to the gym helps you get inspired, pick up new exercising techniques (not easily accessible to you at home) and improve on your fitness in a systematic and scientific way.

Even if you know little about how a computer operates (and I can safely assume most people reading this do), you are ready to start learning at a hackathon.

The second option at your avail is Terrapin Hackers. The club recently became the 2013 hackathon season champions, beating out 110 participating schools, including MIT, Stanford and Carnegie Mellon. They have hack nights every Wednesday from 6 p.m. to midnight where you can practice with experts, ask questions, get feedback and, in general, accelerate your learning. You should definitely start attending their events if you think you want to learn how to code.

Computers are involved in most important things you can think of in our economy today. Knowing the mechanics behind coding is going to be useful. You do not have to be an engineer or mathematician to learn coding. Coding need not be your primary skill set, but you will definitely catch employers’ eyes if you have it as a complementary skill. All you need is desire and willingness to learn. With that, I encourage you to sign up with the Terrapin Hackers Club for the Spring hackathon season, which will start at the beginning of next semester.

Learning to Code (Part 1)

This piece was published in a college newspaper

I’m an energy guy who likes economics, politics and history. For the past three years, I’ve focused on and developed these aspects of my professional personality. For whatever reason, I didn’t give much attention to computer programming.

But I was wrong. And I’m here to tell you two things: First, I’m making amends. Second, if you’re in a situation like mine, you should make amends, too.

Why is computer programming so critical, and why should everyone learn something about it? Computers do things humans can’t — or do things in ways humans can’t — which is why most human functions are increasingly being taken over by computer systems. The guru of Silicon Valley, Marc Andreseen, wrote a valid and powerful essay in the Wall Street Journal two years ago. To paraphrase his opinion, from purchasing a cup of coffee to trading billions of dollars on Wall Street, every transaction is done using some kind of computer code.

You watch movies on Netflix, purchase anything man-made there is to purchase on Amazon, bank using web or mobile applications — heck, you even do your schoolwork on cloud softwares like ELMS. And, of course, you spend a bulk of your time browsing the Internet on Facebook, Twitter and communication on mobile applications like WeChat and WhatsApp. That’s a rough picture of where we are right now. The future is going to be even more tech-oriented, from driver-less cars to brain-implanted microchips. In Japan, scientists are developing robots you can have sex with.

Let me pause here and emphasize that I’m not making the case for quitting traditional career paths or your area of interest for a career in the tech industry. No, definitely not. But knowing the language of computers is going to be an essential skill no matter where you go or what you do. Combine your expertise — biology, math, music, psychology, whatever it may be — with skills in computer coding, and you’ll do very well for yourself. It’s similar to how English is a prerequisite to whatever you do today. Without English, it’s difficult to communicate and you have very little to no value in the market. Similarly, you’ll be left wondering and wandering if you can’t communicate in tomorrow’s language, computer code.

All right, so that’s making the case for the importance and value of computer programming. But how can you get on track if you don’t have any tech or math background whatsoever?

Self-learning. Really, that’s the answer.

There are dozens of websites that offer free tutorials, and many of them are really effective. To get you started, I’m going to recommend signing up for a course on Coursera.org or doing the entire “Learn Python The Hard Way” course. Both are free and well regarded by the tech community. Honestly, there are dozens of top-quality tutorial forums online. You’ll be fine regardless what you use, so long as you put in the time and effort. Khan Academy’s free online math training program is also a good way to restart your tryst with math.

A few pointers (taking from Learn Python the hard way): I’d recommend you first learn the basics of Command Prompt (on Windows) and Terminal (on Mac). Command Prompt and Terminal are like the alphabet of programming. You’ll also get a taste of what the language of computers is like.

Power to you as you start this journey. More on Hackathons and surrounding yourself with experts at local hack meetups in my next post.

A good friend of mine who self-taught himself programming put it this way: Coding is very French. There is humor in it if you shovel deep enough.

It’s all about the money, honey

This piece was published in a college newspaper

Costs, revenues and profits. That’s what drives all of human activity in our part of the world. It’s a pretty bold thing to say.

But think about the last time you went on a date, the last time you bought a present for someone, the last time you got wasted at a bar, just for the fun of it. Everything you do, from travel to food, health to education, no matter how luxurious or mundane, involves — directly or indirectly — money flowing out of your wallet and into complex layers of businesses, professionals and the government. For simplicity’s sake, it’s all collectively referred to as “the economy.”

Look at our simple morning and evening schedules, for instance. You sleep on an IKEA bed with a mattress, pillow and comforter; you wake up and brush your teeth and wash your face using your preferred toiletry brands. You fix yourself some coffee or cereal, using a coffee maker or a microwave purchased at Wal-Mart. You open your MacBook or surf your iPhone (Android for the win, by the way) to check email. You use a Targus backpack and you walk to your class in Nike shoes, wearing clothes purchased at a few of the hundreds of retail outlets in that business. And then you go to class to become a critical thinker — a sophisticated way of saying you are training to become part of this system.

Such simple processes consist of industries employing management consultants, tax consultants, investment bankers, marketing professionals, designers, drivers, mariners, salespeople, cashiers, accountants, educators, administrators, etc. (Phew!) For them to make their dollars, you need to spend your dollars. For you to make your dollars, they need to spend their dollars. Your costs are their revenues, and vice versa. See?

What got me to think this way, for better or worse, about our society?

The past summer and this semester, I’ve been working at an energy consulting company where I work with small businesses, primarily restaurants, to help them manage their energy use. What I observed, after working with about 40 such businesses, intrigued me. The simple energy needs of a restaurant — gas and electric — are served by a complex market of hundreds of energy companies, each vying for as many businesses and as wide a profit margin as possible. In Prince George’s County alone, at least 5 suppliers of natural gas and 15 suppliers of electricity compete for business.

So, you may ask, what’s my point? Depends on how you look at it. Different people may interpret this message in different ways.

For the entrepreneurs out there, my point is that the best way to create value (aka make money) is to create something people will buy. An idea that’s archaic or ahead of its time will not work because people will not pay for it.

For those aspiring to be working professionals, my point is that the best way to make a living is to develop skills that will be useful for the entrepreneurs who create the things people buy.

For those who seem to be disillusioned by the pointlessness of all this, my hippie friends, reconsider your life philosophies — to survive, you need to be a part of this system. It is how it is. Whoever said “No money, no honey” was a very wise person.

 

Working hard, working smart and Google Glasses

I was in Washington about a month ago attending a three-day entrepreneurship blitzkrieg of sorts, Startup Weekend DC. Aspiring entrepreneurs huddled together, chalked out ideas and built basic products based on their ideas — all in one weekend.

To give you a few examples of some of the products hammered out: Someone built a smartphone app to help consumers buy wines; another entrepreneur built an online marketplace to digitize the banner advertising industry; curiously, someone also programmed an entirely new alternative to Minecraft.

As the pool of 17 entrepreneurs present demonstrated their final products, I could see certain trends emerge that perhaps explained why some of the entrepreneurs were more successful than others. In the larger scheme of things, these trends could also explain the difference between working hard and working smart.

That Sunday evening, only one product received a truly emphatic response from the judges (who also happened to be investors): They offered to put their money in the company right then and there.

That product was an app designed for Google Glass, the hi-tech hardware slated to roll out perhaps as early as the end of this year. The idea behind this app was to provide a platform to connect Google Glass users (who literally put on spectacles and use them as a smartphone, except that everything is hands-free, runs on voice command and is right in front of the users’ eyes) with experts from all around the world.

This is the scenario the founders of the app used in their final demo: Your car broke down in the middle of the road, and you don’t want to call a towing company. So you put your Google Glass on, go to this app and then visually demonstrate your problem to a connected expert on the other side, and voila — your problem is solved.

Sure, there were many loopholes in the idea, but it was still received successfully. And that brings home the point: These guys were working on a commercial-scale project ahead of the curve, which is what made the judges salivate with wagging checkbooks in their hands. Seriously.

So what’s the point? The first thing that came to my mind was that while developing mobile apps, which is what everybody else did that weekend, is cool, it’s an overheated market and in a sense already passe. There are countless engineers working on building upon existing mobile apps. On the other hand, it is the truly cutting-edge ideas that attract money almost instantly. In all likelihood, developing apps for Google Glass will be passe in another few years, and something more cutting-edge will command premium.

And that’s where the whole issue of working hard versus smart comes into question. Clearly the guys working on building the application for Google Glass were working smart. But why don’t many other intelligent people choose to work ahead of the curve to multiply their gains? Perhaps there is a trade-off. The more cutting-edge the idea, the riskier the proposition. And in risky propositions, you get all or nothing. On the other hand, when developing something that is already established, spectacular success is beyond reach; but you are more or less guaranteed stable returns. And that is what attracts most people to being risk-averse. There is nothing wrong about it — in fact it is a much more sensible way of living in this world. However, it is always useful to be aware of the distinction. Cause if you feel the entrepreneurial dissatisfaction with the status quo, you’d know you are on the wrong side of the fence. So which side of the fence are you on?