What would you do if you had 5 months off?

Editorial note

I will be phasing out the deliber .at domain from this newsletter, and the blog. Everything will be transitioning to piszek .com, and here is why:

Automatic (the company I work for and have written about) has a very generous parental leave policy. Within the first year of your child’s birth, you can take up to six months of paid leave. That’s what I’m doing since last Monday, and I am exhausted.

This is not a vacation of course. Babies tend to have their own ideas about what to do with your time and my chief concern will be keeping my newborn safe and somewhat entertained. But I cannot help but treat this as kind of a sabbatical. I hope to strengthen the bond between my child and me, but I hope to do other stuff, too.

The case for sabbaticals

When I was studying in Sweden, I learned that it’s quite common to take a gap year between high school and university. I did the opposite – took on the second master’s degree, to get ahead. And it probably did. In the game, I shouldn’t even be playing.

I started contract work when I was 15, and I haven’t had a break longer than 3 weeks since. During that time I got a total of 3 different degrees, and the constant feeling in the back of my head that I have to hurry because the cargo train of obligations is going to catch up with me.

My Friend Paul Millerd has done a fantastic deep-dive exploration of Sabbaticals and their benefits. He concludes that they are essential for knowledge workers to be productive, but more importantly – for humans to live a sane life:

Taking a break is scary but from what I’ve seen it’s probably one of the simplest ways to grapple with one of people’s biggest fears: that they didn’t live a life that they were capable of. Taking a break is a way to take a different perspective of your life, remember the things that mattered to you, and sometimes simply rest and be with the ones that matter to you.

So what are your plans Artur?

  1. Take care of the Baby, of course. I am aspiring to be a lazy parent, and I hope to just go about my own life, with her by my side.
  2. One of the hopes for my newly acquired time is to change my relationship with well, time. I promised my baby not to rush her, but first I need to learn how unrushed time looks like. I know the crying baby is not a perfect catalyst, but we’ll see.
  3. We bought an RV and I hope we’ll roam around Europe soon! Early plans point to Southern Tyrol, Switzerland, and Northern Italy, but that depends on COVID, of course.
  4. Focus on my fitness, particularly nutrition.
  5. Finally, writing. In case you missed it, I was running 2 blogs: deliber.at (pronounced “deliberate”), where I would post about Remote Work and “living the deliberate life”, and piszek.com where I would just explore what strikes my fancy. After COVID, I don’t have to tell anybody about the existence of Remote Work anymore and I struggled to find the new “glorious purpose” for deliber.at.
    As Paul points out in “Case for Sabbaticals”, writing is a common theme amongst the curious folk on leave. That makes total sense – writing helps you think and explore ideas. I am purposefully unbinding myself from the previous shape of this blog and newsletter, and I’m taking you on that journey.
  6. As part of writing, I want to explore my relationship with intellectualism. I am deeply disappointed by the crowds of educated theoreticians’ performance in real-world problems. COVID response has made it abundantly clear that nobody knows anything. I became so tired of “Sitting And Talking About Important World Affairs“™️ that it has interfered with my writing. I still value intellectual curiosity very highly, but mainstream intellectualism has turned into a virtue-signaling circus.
  7. What would you do if you wouldn’t have to work for the next 5 months?

This is the 50th issue of my newsletter, so it’s as good as time as any to change the format into a little more free-flowing. In order to simplify and leave me more space to explore, I’m going to move all my web properties under piszek .com.

Interesting things from around the web

Do you know any good podcasts not about tech?

I am on the prowl for whacky stuff from outside my bubble. I started with “Overheard” by National Geographic. So far, I’ve learned all about the Beavers are moving into the Arctic as the permafrost is thawing, how a group of villagers in Kenya has built a “GiRaft” to safely transport a giraffe off an island, and listened to crazy stories of underwater photographers hanging out with Orcas. I am definitely going to stick with this show. I’m also trying out “Utopian” about failing utopias and Revisionist History

Contemporary Art

My wife has a fantastic thread with contemporary Polish artists, including my favourite Tytus Brzozowski.

Bootstrapping society

1729.com is an interesting project aimed at bootstrapping society of technological progressives with incentivized tasks. I’ve gotten $10 in BTC for working out and writing up my thoughts about habit-forming, and you can win $10 and $100 every week. My favorite task was generating crazy inventions.

The price of free time: programmer’s guide to helping a Non-profit

Congratulations! You have decided to help out a Non-Profit. Full of energy, and good intentions, you have embarked on a journey to use your professional skills to help a cause.

It’s a win-win: Surely, with a better website / CRM / tech, they will be able to help a few more people. You, on the other hand, will meet interesting folk, do something purposeful (as opposed to optimizing button colors at your day job), and learn a few things.

Here is what you need to know to not go insane:

The benefits of helping a Non-profit

You probably have personal reasons to help a Non-profit. Working on hard problems with friends is one of the most fulfilling things you can do with your life. If you are not working on a world-changing startup and you need a respite from the drudgery of corporate existence, a Non-Profit may be your best next bet – the purpose and mission are plentiful.

Non-profits are also a great place to meet interesting, like-minded people. Working side-by-side you can make real friends and create deeper connections, than you would build by exchanging the latest plots of TV shows over coffee at work.

But there also are powerful benefits directly translating to your career.

My entire programming journey started from helping a Non-profit – a scout team I was a part of. I made my first website in 1998, graduated to building one for dad’s business, and later launched a WordPress web agency. Now I work at WordPress.com, periodically reporting to the creator of WordPress himself. During that journey, I helped my high school, a local TEDx chapter, and a non-profit supporting remote work.

Working on projects is the best way to learn – you get to experiment with real-world problems and you get to try out different approaches and fail; building that tacit knowledge that makes one an expert.

Since you are not paid for your contributions, there is a shared understanding of what can be expected of you in a Non-Profit. You have a mandate to play a little, try out things your way, and goof off. To further boost learning, it feels more like play than work, encoding the knowledge much more effectively.

The traps

As with everything in life, the downsides are directly correlated to the upsides. Yes, in a Non-Profit, you can be a bit unpredictable and inexperienced. It does not feel like work and you get a breather from a corporate feel of a professional workplace.

But guess what – other people get to do that too. If you have just reserved a weekend to finish that signup page, and the people preparing the copy (texts) decided to be unprofessional – it suddenly becomes a problem.

The Hero’s (that’s you) Journey

Let’s assume you volunteered to create a website for your favorite Non-profit. Don’t be surprised, if the whole process goes like this:

  1. You start full of energy and ideas.
  2. The non-profit is eager to launch a new website because they have project X coming up.
    Project X is the most important thing, and the website (meaning you) is a blocker.
  3. You jump straight into work! You cannot be a blocker, right? You ramp up and are ready to implement the most important piece.
  4. The texts and promotional materials are not ready, despite previous promises.
  5. You try to work around these requirements – project X is most important, right?
  6. You get a call. It seems that the “About the Team” page is most important now.
  7. Let’s do a photoshoot for the Team!
  8. You still don’t have materials for project X, but you got 10 pages of UI corrections, including a bigger logo, different button colors, and some creative ideas about the slider.
  9. You start implementing those changes, still have no materials about project X.
  10. Wait, there are changes to the changes now. Can you revert to the old button color?
  11. Sometime, after a few weeks, we finally got the Project X page to work.
    The placeholder photos you chose are still there.
    “About the Team” page that got 3 meetings, photoshoot, and 12 hours of your time has gotten a total of 100 visitors this month.

Things to watch out in a Non-profit

The price of free time

Professional environments have learned a long time ago, that time is money. If everybody is salaried, the easiest way to turn a profit is to stop wasting people’s time. The correlation is clear and obvious.

I do realize that corporate environments waste mindblowing eons of their employees’ time. This is due to the scale. Big organisms being less nimble is a law of physics called inertia.

Non-profits, however, have a peculiar relationship with money. They are called Non-Profits. Duh! They get funded through donations, grants, and sometimes sales – but they are incentivized not to run a tight operation. Volunteers’ time is treated as free, so wastefulness is not controlled. It’s up to you to say no, which is hard because non-profits attract precisely the people least likely to defend their time.

It’s everybody else’s side-gig, too

As I mentioned – you can learn, and experiment with new techniques and approaches. But other people do too. If your work depends on graphic design, don’t be surprised when the designer comes up with something out-of-the-box, which naturally will be harder for you to implement, than the run-of-the-mill website.

Other people, like you, will cut corners. The designer has a family to feed, probably a day job and the thing called life. She can’t check every resolution, think about dimensions of headlines when you cram 100 characters in a title and give the proper attention to everything.

Last, but not least – without salary, recognition becomes the currency. Don’t be surprised, that “about the team” is treated as the most important page on the entire website (even if the visitors don’t care) – this is the equity paid to volunteers. Being paid with recognition also drives some folk to seek more of that compensation – they will contribute to discussions, where they have not much expertise nor understanding. These are perfect bikeshedding conditions. Beware.

Non-profits are passion-driven

Most non-profits have a mission to fix a particular problem in the world. Hunger, poor education, lack of equality, climate change – these are all areas society is failing at and non-profits are stepping in to help.

Many people are driven to work on these problems because they feel strongly about putting up with the collective screwups of society. Non-profits tend to attract people who approach most of the problems with passion and purpose, with no patience for tedious reasoning.

This leads to: 

Passion-driven-project-management

  • Urgency is the sole method of prioritization. Things are made urgent to ensure their completion, not because they actually are time-sensitive.
  • Since urgency=priority, the priorities are fluid over time.
  • Yesterday’s priority is forgotten today because somebody who feels more strongly comes in with more passion.
  • Flashy things are more important than fulfilling the initial purpose. If you are working on a website, prepare for multiple CTAs.

Non-profit survival techniques

These techniques helped me stay sane while working within a few organizations.

  1. Find a senior member of the organization to “report to”. Ideally somebody with corporate experience, and some tenure inside the Non-Profit. You don’t want to report to a committee.
  2. Never agree to do anything ASAP. Chances are, that before you get to it – the original request will change or be forgotten. Save yourself the revert.
    Bonus points for batching change requests into sprints.
  3. They will promise you texts, materials, and whatever else you’ll need. You WILL NOT get them on time. Plan accordingly.
  4. Record yourself changing stuff in the interface – this will be a good v1 for documentation so that everyone else can implement tiny changes themselves
  5. If you are creating a website – for goodness sake, use WordPress. It will save you from reinventing the wheel.
    1. With WP, you have ready tutorials to send people to, so you don’t have to fix every typo yourself. Chances are, that other folks have WP experience too.
    2. The next person dealing with the system will know what to do with it.
  6. Use a ready template, don’t work with an empty canvas.
    Yes, it will be less original than a custom-made design, but you will be able to get off the ground and focus on what’s important – content and functionality. You have no idea how many tiny details come together to make a template work.
    Implementing custom design without an hourly rate will lead to an endless back-and-forth on every detail. It costs them nothing to throw in another change.
    The constraints of an existing template work in your favor.
  7. Every statement you hear will be over-hyped – it’s a function of passion-driven project management. You have to do the mental math of halving the emotional charge of all statements.
  8. Remember to have fun. Despite unreasonable requests, the people you are working with are probably quite awesome. Don’t forget that, and schedule some time to meet them as people – not vendors of website updates.

Working in a Non-Profit is a process of realizing that the corporate environment has its advantages and lessons to teach you as well.

Coming to work on Monday to a well-oiled machine, where every cog (including you) is humming nicely, where the work flows seamlessly through the paths of well-established processes, where everything has its place is a refreshing experience. Of course, sometime around Wednesday you are sick of it all, yearning for the freedom and creativity you get to enjoy in your organization.

How to protect your job from automation

“The robots are stealing our jobs! 😱”

The threat of technology stealing our livelihoods is as old as the perceived menace of foreigners marrying our daughters. We are experiencing a wave of Automation, fuelled by the digital transformation.

PwC has a whole PDF devoted to this topic.

Yes, your CURRENT job is probably going away. What can you do about it?

This is not new.

When you think about important industries today, the textile industry is probably not the top of your mind.

In the 18th century, it was a big deal. It was so crucial for India that they have a weaver’s spinning wheel on their flag to this day.

“The hand-loom and the spinning-wheel, producing their regular myriads of spinners and weavers, were the pivots of the structure of that society,”

Karl Marx

That wheel in the middle is Ashoka Chakra, a spinning wheel

And then the industrial revolution introduced a Mechanical Loom and Sewing Machines. People in UK previously employed in the textile industry started burning textile mills and factories, fearing for their futures. This has given birth to the term Luddite.

Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste, as machines would replace their role in the industry. Over time, the term has come to mean one opposed to industrialization, automation, computerization, or new technologies in general.

„Luddite” on Wikipedia

Fast Forward: The No-Code tools

Journalism, as it existed in the 20th century, is indeed going away. Social Media companies like Facebook and the democratization of publishing brought forward by WordPress.com, Medium, Substack, etc is molding the entire publishing industry into a different form.

(That form, of course, has troubling aspects on the social front – mainly the outrage epidemic, clickbait, and fake news., but this is a topic for some other day).

Career journalists take some solace in pointing out that the programmers face the same threat. No-Code tools and AI are going to take over, and nobody will be safe from disruption.

No-Code tools like Zapier, Webflow, Airtable, and others are meant to reduce your friendly neighborhood programmer into a drag & drop interface.

This is a very poetic vision: The harbingers of the technology snake will themselves face the doom of being made irrelevant.

People losing jobs in numbers is of course, something to avoid. As the weavers in the 18th century and the Horse Manure transporters in the 19th century, overly specialized programmers MAY lose jobs to no-code.

What always struck me in discussions about „jobs going away” is that jobs are ultimately… work. And there is always more work.

This is not even a good thing! Productivity increases in the industrial revolution, and the information society gains could have introduced shorter workweeks and more leisure time.

Instead, they produced more bureaucracy and gadgets. Humanity will always find more work, to a fault.

How can YOU thrive?

The fact that there will always be work to be done does little for your quality of life, does it?

If you have just been disrupted by the advent of new technology, you want to have food on the table, ideally, keep your living standards or improve them. You want a good job.

Generalist skills and Narrow focus is Antifragile.

„Jack of All Trades, master of none” is a shaming scheme developed by factory owners to keep their workers dependant.

An often recommended career trick is to combine two broader disciplines. Most skills can be synergistically combined to create more value. For example, mix Marketing with Computer Science or Sales with basically anything to unlock enormous potential. Warren Buffet recommends combining Public Speaking with any skill under the sun. Writing is another high-leverage skill (see David Perrell or Patrick Collison – Stripe CEO).

A journalist might apply his writing workshop to a new, niche field. Whatever future the new managing technology will bring, analysis, commentary, and explanation will always be needed. It may not look like old-school journalism, but the function will be the same.

Despite being somewhat knowledgeable about WordPress and payments systems, I also paint my job in very broad strokes. I am an Engineer that combines tools to solve problems. If these tools are no-code tools instead of programming languages – that only makes my job easier. Thinking in terms of systems interacting with each other and how they handle data is what Computer Science is about. Not coding in any specific language. Patrick McKenzie explains it beautifully in an essay ‘don’t call yourself a programmer’.

The ultimate power move is to apply this broad identity to a narrow field – something very niche and overlooked, where you can:

  1. Quickly become an expert, by virtue of no competition
  2. Be able to quickly move into and profit from that niche using your broader skill set.

Ben Thompson from Stratechery.com has explored it from a journalist angle in his essay „Never Ending Niches”:

What is important to note, though, is that while quality is relatively binary, the number of ways to be focused — that is, the number of niches in the world — are effectively infinite; success, in other words, is about delivering superior quality in your niche — the former is defined by the latter.

There will always be more work and more niches. The same disruptive force that disrupts the establishment also creates new job titles.

The trick is to be flexible enough to be able to move into those niches once they appear.