The Glamorous Geek's Guide to Surviving the Real World
Winning Money, Success, and Love on a Planet Full of Jocks and Charmers

What's This?

Some truthy things to say to nerds.

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Oct 22, 2015   [permalink]

Education, Part III

How little is too little?

Obviously there's also such a thing as not enough education. People like Gates and Zuckerberg are the exception; most college dropouts don't end up as billionaires, and indeed if you're forced to drop out of school and get a job for economic or family reasons, it can be really hard to go back, and the majority of employers will see you as uneducated no matter how much you actually know. There are meritocracies out there that really only care about your ability to get things done, but even these places are likely to underpay you if they think your outside options are limited. That's a simple matter of supply and demand.

Gates and Zuckerberg

Billy and the Zuck. Note: most college dropouts are not as successful as these guys. (Wikimedia)

Therefore, you should definitely get an associate's degree at the very least, and most tech professionals really should have a bachelor's. What you do beyond that depends on your ambitions; the problems and benefits of a PhD are very real, but a master's degree will often split the difference. I personally have a job as Chief Technology Officer at a tech company valued in the tens of millions of dollars, but on paper there is no way I would have qualified for that position if I hadn't co-founded the company and (literally) written the book on the subject. That book got the company funded and taken seriously.

For better or worse, I'm a grad-school dropout. I worked my way through the undergrad years, carrying 17+ credit hours per semester and working 3 jobs to pay the bills. Then I went to work for a major defense contractor, where a bachelor's degree was the ticket to a solidly middle-class existence. The transition was abrupt and left me with a lot of free time, though, and most of my friends had gone on to graduate school (in part, I think, because they hadn't gotten hired right out of undergrad), so after a year I started taking courses on the side. At age 23 I was halfway to a master's degree, right at the point where the work was starting to get difficult, when my personal life fell apart and I just couldn't finish out the semester while still holding a job. So, I dropped out of school and never went back.

For most of my career this really didn't affect me, and seemed in retrospect like the right choice. I've published papers in peer-reviewed journals, held intelligent conversations with Nobel prize winners, and done some fairly serious work with heavy duty quantum mechanicy stuff, and had nothing to prove to myself or anyone else. Yeah, right. Founding a startup meant I had to look credible to potential investors, and many of them -- perhaps even most -- wanted to see at least an M.S. beside my name. Suddenly, that bachelor's degree was an anchor weighing me down. Worse than that: it was weighing down the whole organization, including the early investors who had believed in my skinny bachelor ass.

These days, it's mostly back to not mattering again. With a bunch of patents to my name, and my inventions (and co-inventions) rendered as actual products in the hands of actual real-world customers, I'm sufficiently credentialed that the subject of school rarely comes up anymore. But that's after ten years of ridiculously hard work, and it's fair to say I almost didn't make it across the gap. If I had it to do over again, I would definitely have gotten that master's degree, and you, dear reader, should consider doing the same.

On the other hand, my wife dropped out of school three separate times through no fault of her own, and never did get a degree, and she's been responsible for billions of dollars in payouts and millions of database records and up to a dozen direct-report employees, so maybe it's not such a critical thing after all. Even in today's world, the undereducated still have options that don't involve selling off a kidney or starving to death in the gutter.

More Anon.

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Oct 12, 2015   [permalink]

Education, Part II

The Self-Taught Genius?

I'm not opposed to the knowledge that comes from a good education. Far from it! However, I tend to think knowledge is all around us all the time, in books, journals, in the minds of our nerdy friends, and even on TV shows. People like to diss TV, but on any given day a tremendous amount of cool stuff passes through it, and if you dip in to watch the right things even occasionally you'll be soooooo...

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Oct 12, 2015   [permalink]

Education

How much is too little?

The amount of schooling you need, and in what subjects, is one of the most personal choices a human being can make. Only you can decide what path you want to follow in life, but if you're still reading this blog, I'm going to assume my opinion is useful to you, so here it comes:

PhDs are for losers.

Thumbs up!

PhDs are for losers

Well, not always, and not completely, but follow my reasoning here: in physics or chemistry, you're ...

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Sep 21, 2015   [permalink]

On Being Late

It is your fault, but only sort of

Around the world, in businesses and governments, militaries and nonprofits, people wearily acknowledge that projects nearly always take longer and cost more than you expect. It's worst when you're doing something completely new (i.e., all the best and coolest projects of your career), but even if you're just turning the crank on a process that's been done many times, the real world has an uncanny habit of tossing sabots into the gears. Mathematician Douglas Hofstadter even codified this as Hofstadter's Law: "It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law." Recursive snarkiness, ha ha.

As to the question of why things are late, people have been surprisingly incurious, or at least incapable of satisfying their curiosity. However, the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb provides an important clue....

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

On Being Wrong

How inevitable an error?

Nobody is right all the time—not even you!—and depending on what you do for a living and whether you're a married male, you may actually be wrong more often than you're right. Of course if you wash dishes or mop floors to earn your keep, then as long as you show up for work and attempt to look busy, there's a limit to how wrong you can be. However, shame on you. Get a real job, pussy! Washing dishes is easy and even sort of fun, but there's someone out there with three kids and an IQ of 90 that needs that job way more than you do.

Now, actual technical jobs fall into two broad metaphorical categories, which I'll call "airline pilot" and "fighter pilot." As an airline pilot you ...

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Unemployment

Those aren't gaps in my resume, they're wormholes!

One problem with the technology sector is that it's subject to gigantic boom and bust cycles, frequent assault from disruptive newcomers, routine bankruptcy for once-mighty players, and of course steady leakage of jobs and knowhow to third world countries where your competition doesn't expect shoes, much less free health care. This is not exactly a stable foundation for your greatness to build on. As a result, you're quite likely to experience one or more periods of unemployment between the end of college and the start of your voluntary retirement.

This is a problem, not only because it interrupts your income, depletes your savings, gets you behind on your mortgage and trashes your credit rating, but also (more seriously) because every day that you spend unemployed decreases your perceived desirability as an employee. The effect is exponential for the first twelve months or so, and then levels out into a classic S-curve.

Lookin' good

The longer you're unemployed, the less hireable you are. Don't let this happen.

At the time of this writing, 46% of the unemployed people in the United States are "long-term unemployed", meaning they've been without work of any kind for six months or more. Tough sledding ahead, I'm afraid; many of these people will be forced to accept pay cuts and demotions, retire early, or go back to school and train for new industries. Tech is an industry that eats its young; for every ten graduates that enter, maybe two will make it to retirement in the same basic sector where they started.

This means (a) you've got to...

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Public Speaking

Even when you're not joking, you can still be a horse's ass!

In the working world, you'll frequently be called on to speak in public. I don't mean standing behind a podium and delivering a lecture (although that may happen as well), but simpler things like speaking up in meetings, answering customer questions, and explaining to the boss' boss what the hell went wrong with that project you were supposed to complete last month.

Geek Speak

All tech jobs will require you to communicate clearly with Luddites and Cave People. (Courtesy of Art Line)

So, here are some easy speaking lessons for you, in order of importance.

Lesson 1: Fess to your sins. Don't lie, evade, make excuses, or attempt to lessen the importance of whatever's happened. If the first words out of your mouth are "This was my responsibility, and I screwed it up," you immediately put your audience in a more sympathetic frame of mind, so when you do get around to explaining how things went off the rails, it sounds like a sober forensic analysis rather than a stream of lame excuses. I can't emphasize this enough; even if you've committed a firing offense, you're a lot less likely to get fired if you're honest about it. Conversely if you're caught in a lie, you'll not only lose your job but also any chance of a good reference. And you need a good reference!

Even where you haven't committed offenses or made overt mistakes, you should never be afraid to admit you don't know something. No matter how inexcusable bone-headed your ignorance may seem, it's better to ...

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Decorating Your Workspace

Sexist calendars say "fire me"

Whether you're a grad student, phone monkey, security guard or Grand Vizeer of Techno-Awesomeness, you're going to have some amount of workspace set aside just for you. And whether it's a truckload or a shopping bag, you're going to have a certain amount of personal stuff you don't want to haul to work and back with you every day. You know: calendars, coffee mugs, pictures of your family, a change of clothes in case you spill something, and of course that TARDIS-shaped mint dispenser you picked up at Comic-Con.

But listen up, Dilbert, because how you express yourself here is just as important as what you say and wear, and even more important than what you drive. The Eye of Sauron is ever upon you, and the enemies of nerdkind are vigilant for reasons to dismiss you as a hopeless cause. On the other hand, if you blend in too well, then...

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Personal Grooming

You catch more flies by smelling bad

What you wear under your clothes is at least as important as the clothes themselves, so make it a point to bathe and shave daily, take care of your teeth (bad breath will kill your cred faster than leprosy and Tourette's combined), use deodorant, sit up straight, and generally keep yourself tidy. A lazy Sunday is all well and fine, but if you plan to slink from your Fortress of Solitude and face the real world, you never know who you're going to run into. Looking and smelling like a homeless person is not going to help you, ever.

I shouldn't have to say any of this; for most people it's so basic it doesn't get discussed at all, past about the fourth grade. But I see nerds all the time who fail this test, who stink and slouch and look like they slept in a hedge, are unpleasant to stand next to and embarrassing to be seen with, and nobody ever seems to tell them. They get that they're unpopular, but...

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Aug 27, 2015   [permalink]

Clothes

A fashion statement using actual fashion

I once watched a daytime talk show where a bunch of angry, pierced, leather-clad punk kids with green hair were complaining about how badly the world reacted to them.

"People treat you like the clothes you wear," one young woman complained.

Well yeah. Hate to break it to you, sweetcheeks, but aside from holding out the weather and covering the reproductive sockets, that's what clothes are for. Oprah (or Rikki Lake, or whoever was hosting) clucked sympathetically at these kids when she should have smacked them upside their chrome-studded skulls. Clothes make the man—even cave people knew that!

This is also reflected in how police treat suspects; no one doubts that if you dress like a thug you're more likely to be treated like one, whereas if you dress like a golfer or a movie star, you'll at least get arrested politely. And guess what? When it comes to fashion,...

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