My first guest post in a few years: Havingtime.com

I used to write a lot at some point and even guest post on other sites. Recently, I started writing again, and with the intro of a friend, I was invited to contribute to HavingTime.com, a platform for people with stories to tell.

I chose to share my thoughts about my own impostor syndrome, and how I managed to overcome it. I found it very ironic that it was the very first thought that struck me while I was searching for a first topic to send them for review. It was basically telling me I have no authority and that my story is not interesting enough to be shared there.

Plot twist, it is and you can find out how I did it by reading about my take on What is Impostor Syndrome & How Can You Manage it?

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Some personal news: I went back to AI and Machine Learning

It was an opportunity too good to refuse, that’s what I said about two years ago, when I left AI for the crypto world and joined Civic Technologies to help build what now is a decentralized marketplace (identity.com) and the for-profit startup on top of it (civic.com), that eventually expanded from identity to identity and finch – decentralized finance / defi. It was a great journey, with an amazing team and I’m sure they will do well moving forward.

Now for the personal news. This October, I have joined the Figure Eight team, part of Appen, as the Director of Marketing Communications. The group is the biggest ML-assisted and crowd data labeling platform for machine learning. I can’t share too much about the journey ahead, but I can tell you big things will happen in this industry in the next 5-10 years. Machine learning is at a point where it has become productive in a few industries and more and more giants are now looking at their data sets, their processes and trying to figure out how to optimize and improve efficiency. 

Data is the new energy, and it’s likely we will see a similar revolution with ML departments as we have seen with the IT function. It (and IT, ha!) started out in the basement, with the servers, and evolved from a fringe function to the core of many of the most profitable businesses in the world. The best jobs out there rely on IT today and will do so in the future. I see the same future for machine learning, now elevated from curiosity/research only domain to part of the engineering team, where it plays various roles, from marginal to core business, depending on the company. Soon, with enough data and understanding of ML processes and principles, any enterprise will be able to scale faster and more effectively. 

You might wonder what data labeling has to do with all this.

“During the gold rush it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business,” Mark Twain reportedly said

Think of it like the gold rush, where people flock to gold bearing mountains to find the prize, gold. They need food, supplies, clothes, fuel, picks and shovels, mining gear and machines, cars and planes. It this case, the prize is profit, the gold rush is the digital age and data is the energy powering everything. The more energy you have and the more refined/adequate it is, the better your chances to find gold. Same goes for machine learning, the more high quality data you have, the less of it you need to train an efficient model, the less resources you spend on computing power. Also, data, unlike fuel, comes in all shapes and sizes, and there will always be more data to be labeled as it is being created. 

Long story short, I’m excited about the journey ahead and looking forward to sharing more stories along the way. 

Photo by David Edkins on Unsplash

And as always, opinions here are solely mine and don’t reflect the views of my employer

The thing with Americans and their attitude

I met with a friend at the best coffee shop in town while I was in Baia Mare, visiting my family. She had just returned from Indonesia after years of traveling and living abroad. We both shared stories about how alien we felt in this town and how travelers always feel like this when surrounded by less traveled people. She told me about the people in Indonesia and the beauty of their culture, and then she asked me about the US, about life in California.

After delivering the classic picture of a tech manager in Silicon Valley, along with a few observations about the cultural differences between Eastern Europeans and Californians, I shared something that I found remarkable about people in San Francisco that I had encountered both professionally and in a friendly setting.

But first, a little context – I grew up in Northern Transylvania, attending public schools and being brought up in a very Romanian fashion. You were supposed to be great in school, get top grades, not get overtaken by your neighbor. Sports was secondary, but I still took up competitive basketball for awhile. The coach was tough, the team was demanding and there was little pleasure in playing, except for the winning moments and training with the girls’ high school team.

I dropped out of the competitive part of the sport mainly to pursue random teenage things like partying, smoking, drinking and being rebellious — for the duration of my high school years. It was only in London that I picked up basketball again, playing with startup co-workers and investment bankers at Canary Wharf’s Reebok gym every week. When I eventually left London for the US, I tried to find the same thing in San Francisco. A few months in, through friends, I found the basketball group that plays in the Presidio every weekend and I’ve been going there ever since.

You’re probably wondering why all this context, what’s the catch? It’s about basketball.

You see, I am not a professional player, nor am I a great amateur. I’m average, even considering my 6ft 6in advantage over others. When I was back in Romania, or even in the UK, playing and missing or failing to pass resulted in disappointment comments and bad looks from fellow players. You were expected to punish yourself with some down talk, too. That diminished the fun of the game, but supposedly kept your competitive spirit up and in the game. In San Francisco, I started playing, but something was missing. I would miss shots, fail to pass, but the only person talking down or frowning was me. Everyone else was trying to encourage me to go again, “good try”, “great shot”, “good look” – even though I knew and they knew I was way off. That made the game more enjoyable. Slowly, I started getting rid of the self talk that put me down on the basketball court.

But it’s not just in basketball. I’ve seen this type of behavior all over, where your peers, your bosses and your employees give you positive reinforcement and encouragement, even if things are going south. That, too, was a cultural shift from the mostly negative, sullen offices I had grew up in as a professional. This type of attitude not only makes things more fun and enjoyable all around, but push you to do more things, take more risks and ultimately grow — ironically the same goal of the other type of behavior I was used to, but significantly more effective.

This reflected in my writing too, because when I started doing it, it was more of a rebellious spout, a manifestation of my personality, in Romanian and very stream-of-consciousness, even with the more trade pieces.

I lost that when I moved to the UK, and then to the US, and it took me a long time to get it back, since I felt I had to “impress” my past readers in English and held back from publishing due to fear of looking like a fool. I forgot the fun in blogging. And it was this observation of how people react to mistakes in pickup weekend games that showed me I have a different public this time.

My friend asked me if I like America. I said yes, and used this basketball story. She understood why.

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Life as an improv game

Last year, I accidentally got myself and my wife into a walk-in improv class in San Francisco. It was one of those things that I had never done before due to cultural reasons and wanted to put myself out of my comfort zone by doing. We got there early, so we chatted with a few of the people there – some had done this before, others were new, just like us. The instructor then led us up there, in some old conference room belonging to the SF Chronicle. The instructor was a guy who worked as an Engineering Manager at Google and lots of the participants were techies, so we felt right at home.

The setup was not amazing, but we quickly forgot about it with a slew of games that made us more aware of each other, more in the moment.

More importantly, it showed me that I’m potentially good at this acting thing. I had thought the opposite my whole life. So I decided to double-down on it, by booking a full 6 week class of Improv I. If you’re in San Francisco, you can do it, too. It’s really easy, 3 hours every week, and if you miss a class or two, you can easily reschedule. To graduate, you need to attend at least 5 of the 6 classes.

I went there with an open mind and I got a lot more than I was expecting, hence this article. Improv, unlike standup comedy, is more about creativity and playing than it is about being funny or making jokes. Being able to play a scene and be consistent, authentic is what matters more than to be witty or crack the best punchline. Often, the best punchlines were the ones unplanned, the ones that came naturally as part of the relationship being played there.

I recently finished a book called “The Triangle of The Scene” – spoiler, it’s about improv. The author, Paul Vaillancourt, who’s an improv veteran, gives a little bit more structure around these plays and what makes them work – the relationships being built and played in the scenes

What I’m doing // What you’re doing // What we’re doing about it

Triangle of the scene

Reading this book and doubling down on my experience with the first improv class got me thinking about life and how we approach our relationships with others and with ourselves. There’s much to be learnt from the power of “yes, and” and the focus on relationships rather than the narrative. Try following your vocabulary at home and at work, see how many “yes, and”s you say and how many but’s, however’s, no’s and other negations we use on a regular basis.

I bet you’ll find the negative most often outweighs the positive. Try to flip that ratio for a week and see what happens. You may be very pleasantly surprised. Many leadership books and talks focus on getting people to prioritize positive relationships. Improv takes a different look at things.

Wish I had done this earlier in my life. Worth it and scheduling the next modules as soon as possible.