A new era of creativity

I am a runner, and an early riser by nature, so getting out to run a trail at sunrise is just about the happiest I can be. The sunrise was gorgeous this morning, and I found myself meditating on the creativity of science, engineering, mathematics…we think of poetry and art as the creative arts in our society these days, but when one thinks of the history of these “hard” disciplines they are no less creative. Cuvier had to invent natural history from studying the earth and her bleached-out fossils, Mendeleev invented a methodology to organize the elements of our planet helping us predict the existence of things which had not yet been found, Euclid formulated universal truths about the relationships of physical bodies and then we as humans expanded that through observation to an entirely different field of orbital dynamics and ultimately sent people into space…these are creative arts as much as mathematical truths. We teach these disciplines as truths and forget their inventive history, which I believe discourages the very mindset that breeds engineers to be their most effective selves. For me, I only really began to learn and love my profession in the practice of it. Through working I have seen and been a part of solving some of the most exciting problems in the world of hardware, and I am confident science and technology will continue to solve some of the most difficult problems of our world (global warming, cancer, etc.) through creativity and ingenuity if we can continue to engage and unlock our future technologists.

I guess I started thinking about this because I have heard so many dystopic conversations of late where folks are worried that ChatGPT and similar AI models will displace humans doing complicated knowledge work. Why learn to code? Why figure out circuit diagrams? All of this will be automated! Me being me, it is likely no surprise that I believe these models will unlock even greater creativity and autonomy for humans through automation of the increasingly complex tasks our mounting levels of abstraction are requiring. Code still does and will always matter, being able to understand the physics of how a pump works will always matter (to a doctor trying to understand the human heart and a systems engineer trying to understand the optimal approach for liquid cooling, whether or not surgery or servicing of those servers are conducted by human hands or robots). I fundamentally believe this is the most interesting time to be alive for a technologist (and arguably a musician, artist, teacher, student, etc.) The technology that is being built today has the capacity to unleash human potential in a way formerly unimaginable, and we are the lucky ones who will see what universal truths and opportunities it will create.

I’ve also been thinking about the power of human potential and how work is or is not serving it because I recently finished Drive: The Surprising Truth of What Motivates Us. While I’ve read a lot of pieces in this vein before (Designing Your Life incorporates a lot of the aspects of flow and how you can optimize for that in your career, and several parenting books I’ve read have hammered on the disincentive of “pay to play” scenarios since they decrease the natural curiosity and propensity to learn that children are born with in favor of “unlocking the reward” behavior), I found revisiting these concepts given the current economic conditions, readjustment happening for workers in technology, and rise of more powerful AI models in our world particularly interesting. Some of the key takeaways from the book is that an incentive leads to short term results: e.g. “eat your vegetables and you will get dessert”, but less positive outcomes in the future: e.g. they don’t learn that vegetables help them feel healthier and grow stronger vs. eating dessert, which tastes good, but may ultimately make them feel sick if they eat too much, or even feel out of control negatively impacting relationships. One of the analogies used in the book is if you pay your kid to take out the trash, they will never do it again unless they are paid. It is good to have an allowance to help kids learn how to manage budgets and save. It is good to have kids do chores to help their family out of a sense of belonging and contribution to the communal needs of the family. If you correlate their chores to their allowance, then they learn to only do chores for money in perpetuity, which likely won’t help them much when they have to build their own homes and families.

This thought then make me think about my journey into engineering (the natural wonder of building my first server and playing with robots and gadgets as a kid, and how poorly my formal education fostered that same wonder), and then how my experience in work actually made me fall in love with technology and learning all over again through mentors and advocates who enjoyed what we were building. Honestly the worst parts of work have been the rote activities (writing verification tests with walking 1s to make sure there were no sticky bits–THESE TESTS SHOULD BE AUTOMATED! And then I moved to a company who built tooling to do exactly that!), and it is the complex problems, and puzzle pieces “clicking into place” where you know you are on to something and you make it WORK that make work fun. If we believe that AI will help automate the rote tasks in knowledge working (not the creativity of thinking through the problem and formulating the algorithm, but maybe the scripting to ensure that you are accessing all the right databases for the right information) and continue to expand the capacity of humans to find those big picture “aha” moments, quite possibly the future will be brighter for the individuals working to solve these problems than ever before.


Strength Through Hope

About this time last year, I remember a conversation with my sister. She was worried about my nephew–he was feeling nauseated regularly, vomiting daily, and it was not improving. He had been through a battery of tests (he started complaining and having symptoms in November of 2020), but by January of 2022 there still was no clear diagnosis. This wasn’t our first conversation: we had been on the journey with them for nearly a year and a half as he lost weight despite concerted efforts to healthfully “bulk up”. Then he was starting to have regular headaches, issues with double vision, and all of that reinforced her conviction that something was very wrong with her son. She had been sent home from the doctor’s office regularly, but by the end of February he had trouble seeing out of his right eye, which lead my sister to the Nurseline of her insurance, and finally an Ophthalmologist telling them to go to the ER as soon as possible. There they finally diagnosed him as having a medulloblastoma, stage 4, and they had to do immediate surgery to relieve the pressure in his brain.

The next 10 months are a blur…brain surgery, PICU where he stayed for nearly two weeks, and we didn’t know if he would make it, then a medivac to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego where a second surgery would more completely remove the tumor, which had spread from the cerebellum to the brain stem. This led to my sister and her family applying to enter St. Jude’s study for medulloblastomas, into which Jamie was accepted, and temporarily relocating to San Diego for his treatment and recovery. He went through two rounds of proton radiation, rehabilitation, and then four rounds of intense chemotherapy.

All of that culminated in a blessed visit with all of us together in Sacramento for the holidays, from which I got home about a week ago. We did our best to make our family traditions happen: big meals around my parents’ table, cuddling on the couch to watch holiday movies, going on some outings together, and just generally trying to find a bit of normalcy in a world that makes so very little sense.

Then a few days ago we got word that the treatment was not successful. We don’t know what comes next yet. The pain of knowing everything my poor nephew has suffered was not successful in getting him to remission is devastating, but I find my most deep and profound feeling is anger at how unfair this situation is. As with all things in my life, I find myself running and reading to process…running out my anger, reading about options for my nephew, ways to provide support and comfort to my family, healthy techniques to address the feelings I have. I, like most engineers I know, intellectualize my life: ‘x’ happened because of ‘y’; therefore the key learning is when ‘y’ occurs again, step back, question assumptions, think through the outcome desired, and attempt to do ‘z’. Sadly, I don’t have a great ‘z’ for this situation. I can be angry at my sister’s healthcare provider for not taking my nephew’s symptoms seriously, not diagnosing him sooner, etc. but none of that makes this situation more bearable. It is an outlet maybe, but not a solution.

There is in fact no solution or reason for why and where this terrible disease strikes. Despite all my general positivity there is no silver lining that I can see, which is not to say that I lack hope, love, and gratitude for all the blessings in my life including this precious time with my nephew, but there is no fairness or reason that I can find, and I am angry. To cope, I find myself meditating upon resilience and acceptance. Acceptance for my anger and my inability to fix things, and resilience to be there for Jamie and my family. To build that resilience, I read, I write, and when I cannot do either any more, I run. The books I have found most comforting of late are:

If you have other recommendations, I’m all ears. I recently read this article on the psychological basis of hope and found this quotation particularly resonant, “According to these theories, hope is related to goals, anticipating obstacles, acceptance, self-worth, social support, and finding meaning in your situation. However, it’s important to note that hope must be rooted in reality, for fear of being false hope. False hope is denial. Hope itself is simply determination.”

I don’t want to have false hope, and walking that line between reality and denial is hard. I find myself determined to believe that there is meaning in this even if I don’t yet understand it. I’m just running, reading, reflecting, and seeking to understand what the greater meaning is.


On Leadership

Yesterday I was asked to give a presentation to the Women in Infrastructure group here at Cloudflare. They had asked me to chat about my path to Cloudflare and leadership as a woman in technology more generally. It was a nice opportunity to reflect, and I wanted to share some of the key nuggets because it really was the highlight of my day:

1. Did you have a plan for your career?

No, I didn’t have a “plan” (whether 5-year or otherwise); I have always optimized for learning, and tried to get systematically better at understanding the factors that contribute to my happiness and efficacy at work. We are all works in progress; a good career allows you to grow and change your job as you do (and that growth is rarely linear). So I tend to take an inside out approach to understanding where I am and what I want. Practically that manifests as monthly 1:1s with myself, yearly assessments of my job: what’s working, what needs to change and why, and semi-regular check-ins on what else is out there and why it might appeal, not necessarily because I want to make a change, but to see if I get excited, and if so why, so I can look for ways to build that into my job and keep choosing that path everyday. Ultimately, you have to take ownership in the outcome of your career, and if you are not reflecting on what “right” and “best” are for you, you cannot achieve happiness (you likely cannot even define it!) I have only exceled at my work when I find the intersection of my passion and what the company needs.

2. What is the best advice you received along the way?

  • Be authentic: you cannot do your best work if you are not comfortable in your own skin. This “comfort” can be hard to achieve when you don’t look or feel like everyone around you, it is a mental load that some folks don’t have to carry and that may feel less fair, but honestly I’m not sure why we expect fairness (a post for a different time). Only you can know who you are. You have to take the time to understand your strengths and your weaknesses, and try to avoid self-bias. As a leader, I have found showing vulnerability is actually a feature. I tend to be pretty open with the good and the bad, and invite my team to show up that way as well. The number one contributor to successful teams is psychological safety, and authenticity can be a critical part of that journey.
  • Build sponsorship: much has been written about the difference between mentors and sponsors, but my short summary is a good mentor will help you process what you are thinking, be a sounding board, help you reflect on whether your actions are yielding the outcomes you want (we all need these folks in our lives!); sponsor will advocate for you when you are not in the room. They are the people who will recommend you for a project, job, etc. The challenge is that sponsors cannot be sought explicitly, they really have to find you. Ideally you start with mentorship, build a relationship in context, and then that person decides they are your sponsor, and you put in the effort to maintain that relationship. So follow up, ask for advice from a person you respect, and recognize that even if it makes you uncomfortable, you have to be your own champion.
  • Bring empathy: let’s admit it, sometimes it is just hard to be. With the pandemic these past few years people have lost loved ones, had to assume more home responsibilities as schools and childcare were less predictable, have had to renegotiate the boundaries of work and home with changes in travel, socialization, hobbies, connection, etc. If someone is not showing up in a meeting exactly the way you wanted them to, maybe you can cut them a little slack. Similarly, maybe you can give yourself a little space to be less than perfect (often the folks with the least empathy for others treat themselves with little empathy as well). When we assume good intent, we give people space to be authentic, build better teams, and have better outcomes.
  • Work smart: Find what you are good at and do that as often as possible, partner with folks who excel where you are less strong, and recognize the accomplishment of the company/team/etc. is what actually matters. Success comes when goals and roles are clear: who is driving what, where are there dependencies, and seek to learn what isn’t working. Focus on the outcome the team needs to achieve, and ignore any organizational barriers that may exist. Remember we all work for the same company so the barriers are artificial: the mission is what matters, not the individual.

3. What do you wish you could tell your 22-year-old self?

Find your cohort: self-development is a journey, and you will need witnesses, cheerleaders, and coaches along the way. Even if you are an introvert, you need your people who will help you walk your path to your best self. It may be a running buddy, a friend from childhood, a group you met in your maternity class, your former colleagues from work, your sister, your mom, your spouse…when life gets busy, we often stop taking the time to connect with others, but it is our lifelong partnerships that actually help us see who we were, who we are, and ultimately guide us toward who we want to be. The best leaders seek to know who they are and have a trusted cohort who advises them along the way. If you are more introverted or just prefer a “structured” approach to this endeavor, I highly recommend Designing Your Life as a book to work through as you build your cohort.