Sunday, November 30, 2008

Career: What I'm Looking For

My career adviser at Deere asked me to come up with some things that I wanted out of my next position. Here's what I sent her.

Lead-in to an MBA program. I intend to pursue an MBA from a Top-5 MBA program within the next five years; my next position must be directly relevant to this goal. I applied to several programs last year, but found that it was extremely difficult to get into the programs that I want to attend without having business-, finance- or management-related experience. When I apply again, I will be competing against consultants that have experience at big-4 consulting firms, people who have experience in investment banking, people with family connections to elite universities and 3.9 students from Harvard-class universities. I intend to compete aggressively and do not want my work experience to be my application's weak-point.

Travel. I love traveling and get away whenever I can. An international assignment would not be out of the question, but I would certainly like to be on the road at least 75% of the time. By far, the most enjoyable weeks at John Deere have been when I've been on the road. Whether it's recruiting in Moline, or going to a conference in California, I find being in a place where I am constantly discovering something new extremely stimulating. To give you an idea of how much I enjoy travel: currently I have firm plans to visit Minneapolis, Seattle, Japan, Germany and Hong Kong in the next six months.

Varied experience. In my current position, I have spent the last two years working on the same project. I find working on the same project for so long very stifling. My "Predictive Index" states that I am "unable to do routine work". I need variety in my work, or else I get bored. I would much rather focus on developing a wide range of competencies, rather than becoming an expert in one area. What has made my job in engineering tolerable is that I have taken the initiative to work on projects involving customer support, desktop software engineering, training, program management and process improvements.

Exposure and an opportunities to build relationships. I would like a position where I can get wide exposure within the enterprise. By exposure, I mean at all levels, from executives to individual contributors. Whenever possible, within the confines of my current position, I try to develop relationships with colleagues. When our German colleagues come over, I always try to be in the group taking them out to dinner; for several Indian colleagues, I've been the one to pick them up from the airport. Building relationships takes time and commitment, but I see the value in this.

Flexible work environments. I have found that, often, I am able to do my best work outside of "normal business hours". Some times, I am ready to get going at 5:30 am on Monday, some times, I work best at 10:30 pm on a Sunday night (though probably not both in the same week). I don't feel that I am as productive as I could be when I am forced to work a standard work-day. I would greatly prefer the consulting lifestyle; new hires at Deloitte Consulting, for example, end up working 10-12 hour days frequently, but start with 24 days of vacation and can take Fridays off in the summers. An arrangement like this works nicely with my desire to travel. Also, I would prefer a job where I can do work on a laptop at Starbucks (maybe a Starbucks in Kiev, Berlin or Sydney). Best Buy allows flexible work arrangements (yes, even allowing employees to work with a laptop from wherever they want) for all of its corporate employees and they've found that it increases productivity.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday

Well, the day has finally come. Black Friday. Midnight shopping, lines wrapped around Best Buy for $350 laptops, people buying junk simply because it's on sale . . . I used to be a big Black Friday shopper, but no longer. As I have come to think about it more, I have found our culture of conspicuous consumption to be rather disgusting. We give so much social clout to the owners of McMansions, flashy cars, designer purses and iPhones. Why?

Conspicuous consumption is perhaps the greatest problem in American culture. In an effort to keep up with the Joneses, Americans (including the Joneses) have mortgaged their futures and are on the brink of collapse. The average American household has almost $10,000 in credit card debt, and the national savings rate occasionally flirts with positive numbers. What does this mean? This means that, on average, our creditors own our future. Rather than step back and ask why, Americans simply charge ahead, becoming more aggressive, even to the point of trampling people to death to save $10 on a DVD player. (Sadly, this happened again this year

How do you explain to someone that his/her loved-one was trampled . . . to death . . . at Wal-Mart?

Merry . fucking . Christmas .

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Financial Advice / Book: The Four Pillars of Investing

I am truly flattered by the number of people who ask me what to do with their money. Most people know that I'm fairly financially savvy and have quite a history of making fiscally prudent decisions. (Although, I have slipped up on occasion; I am a sucker for a rebate.) Over the past few years, I've been asked my opinion on everything from individual stock picks to complicated investment strategies, involving carry-trade leverage, shorting stocks and international real estate (all at the same time). (No, I'm not kidding about this.)

I'd like to be clear on one point: I do not give investment advice. (Unless you want to invest in me . . . financially, romantically, as an employer, etc . . . but caveat emptor, as there are vested interests at work!)

Now that that is out of the way, I do want to share with you a particularly valuable book that I read this week. "The Four Pillars of Investing" by William Bernstein was recommended by a colleague recently; I found this book to be practical and insightful. In fact, I would suggest that anyone with an investment portfolio (which should be anyone who is over 18) should read this book. Here are some of the main takeaways:

You are not smarter than the market. - You are not smarter than the market. You are not smarter than the market. You are not smarter than the market. You are not smarter than the market. This makes sense; the people you're playing against have PhDs from top universities in economics, mathematics, physics and business. They have access to much more information than you or I will ever have. The idea that you or I can beat them at their own game is pure lunacy. Since neither you, nor I, nor your broker, nor your mutual fund manager is smarter than the market, you should never expect to be able to beat the market in the long run.

Minimize your expenses. - The price you pay to have your funds managed is one of the only things you can truly control about your portfolio. I'll be honest, for the past few years, I have been getting fleeced by Fidelity in my retirement account; I've been paying almost 2% in fees and expenses on everything I own. This will change in the near future, as I am moving to no-load, low-management-fee, low-expense mutual funds.

Have an asset allocation appropriate to your nerves. - I'm looking at rebalancing my portfolio to an 80%/20% stock/bond mix. If you're thinking, "WHAT?!? Stocks?!?! In this market?" then you probably should have a mix more slanted toward bonds. If, on the other hand, you've seen the recent market downturn as a buying opportunity (I have), then you might think about being this aggressive. In every case, you want to be able to avoid getting nervous and selling out after the market has tanked, because you'll only be making your losses real.

Investing should be boring. - Jim Cramer can kiss my butt. Managing your nest egg should not be exciting and I generally am going to prefer a portfolio with just a few asset classes, rebalanced annually. Honestly, I have many more exciting things going on in my life; I'd much rather focus on my trip to Japan at the end of December, than worry about whether I have too much money in the Whateveristan Small Cap Technology Growth Fund.

Of course, this book contains much more than the three points, so go and get yourself a copy. (The Des Moines Public library should have a copy available in about a week.) Happy investing!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Book: Now, Discover Your Strengths

Last week, I completed Marcus Buckingham's "Now, Discover Your Strengths." In this book, which is mostly targeted toward the individual contributor audience, Buckingham asserts that one is most successful when he learns what his natural strengths are, and positions himself to take advantage of those natural strengths.

Honestly, I was a bit disappointed in this book, finding it little more than a plug for his StrengthsFinder assessment. Of course, his plug was apparently successful, as I did purchase and take the assessment.

My five strengths are (descriptions are from my StrengthsFinder report):
Communication - People who are especially talented in the Communication theme generally find it easy to put their thoughts into words. They are good conversationalists and presenters.
Woo - People who are especially talented in the Woo theme love the challenge of meeting new people and winning them over. They derive satisfaction from breaking the ice and making a connection with another person.
Futuristic - People who are especially talented in the Futuristic theme are inspired by the future and what could be. They inspire others with their visions of the future.
Strategic - People who are especially talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
Activator - People who are especially talented in the Activator theme can make things happen by turning thoughts into action. They are often impatient.

No surprises; I really don't think that assessments like StrengthsFinder reveal anything terribly profound. They are helpful because they help to clarify, reinforce and put into words what you already know. In the end, it was worth the $13 for the book and code on Amazon. Several of my colleagues at Deere are taking the assessment and we're charting our strengths.

My next books are:
Robin Ryan, "Soaring on Your Strengths"
Herb Cohen, "You Can Negotiate Anything"

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

United Way

It’s United Way time again and my inbox is stuffed with solicitations for donations. I don’t take issue with this; I somewhat enjoy the pirate jokes that grace my inbox in the mornings.

I do take issue with the enormous social pressure to contribute. At every turn, we are all but told to contribute and much effort has been taken to make it obvious who is contributing and who is not. As an example, this week and next, all who gave $10 to United Way may wear jeans. While many of my colleagues are walking around in jeans, wearing United Way buttons, I am dressed in my standard one-step-above-business-casual work clothes. This makes it obvious that I did not contribute to United Way and I have been asked by more than one colleague why I’m not participating.

I do not give to United Way and I will not again this year, for the following reasons:

1. United Way supports several charities which discriminate against gays. I can not, in good conscience, support an organization that does this. I hate to pick on the Boy Scouts (I was a Boy Scout) but they have been very publically ant-gay. If I give to organizations that do not spend time (and money) discriminating against gays, then more money goes to providing services.

2. United Way supports a disproportionate number of faith-based organizations. While faith-based organizations often provide valuable support to our communities, they also have a duty to promote their religious beliefs. I believe that this creates a conflict of interest; secular organizations don’t have this conflict of interest. If I give to secular (or more-secular) organizations, then more money goes to providing services.

3. I see no need to give to United Way, when I can give directly to charities, without the 11% overhead. United Way takes 11% of your donation right off the top as an administrative cost, before it reaches any charity. If I give directly to the Red Cross, more money goes to providing services.

You will notice a common theme here . . . this is about more money going to providing services. In the past year, I have made contributions to the Red Cross, Youth Emergency Services and Shelter, and UNICEF. Certainly, I do feel that service organizations play an important role locally and globally, and I am happy to support them in their missions, but I prefer to direct my giving to charities which reflect my values and have less overhead.

If you have been asked to give to United Way in Des Moines, before you write the check, you should look at the charities that United Way in Des Moines supports:

I’d be interested to hear what others (including my colleagues) think. Feel free to comment below or send me an email privately.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Day

Well, it's finally here and thank goodness.

Especially in the last 24 hours, I have seen so many negative attack ads against Barack Obama; I didn't know that there were that many 529 groups in Iowa. I have to give kudos to the Republicans, for producing some very nice ads, but it's all for naught; America has decided and Barack Obama has an almost insurmountable lead in the polls. In retrospect, I am so glad that Hillary and company brought Jeremiah Wright out during the primaries so that we could decide that he was irrelavant and move on.

Today, Barack Obama will be elected President. I heard something on NPR last week that really touched me. A gentleman said, "Rosa sat so that Martin could walk. Martin walked so that Barack could run. Barack's running so that our children can fly." I think that, more than anything, this statement expresses how this election *is* about race. Barack, as a prominet American politician, will become a role-model for a generation of black children; he's highly educated, successful, influential and a family man. Who did you look up to when you were younger? What kind of difference did having that role model play in shaping your life?

Of course, this election isn't only about race, it is also about America coming to the realization that we are all in this together. For too long, we have embraced the idea that each person is independent from his neighbors, while turning a blind eye to the fact that, to get to work, to go to school, to check Facebook, we are standing on the shoulders of hundreds of thousands of others every day. We are starting to realize that we all play an important role, from the janitor to the CEO, everyone is an important part of the system. There has been so much talk about the redistribution of wealth, but folks, for the last 30 years, the redistribution of wealth has been upward, with the rich getting the best healthcare, the largest salary increases, the largest amount of influence, while the rest of us have lived with stagnat (relative to inflation) wages, an increasingly more selective healthcare system and disenfranchisement in our democracy. This is about to change.

Today, we will also see the worst in our country; as the richest nation in the world, we will see hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people discover that they were dropped from voter registration rolls, wait in hours-long lines to cast a single ballot, have their votes switched by electronic voting machines with no paper-trail, or be otherwise denied the right to vote in myriad other ways. You think 2000 was a mess? I predict that the problems with this election will dwarf even the butterfly ballots and hanging chads in Florida. Fortunately, Obama will win in a landslide and the corruption and intimidation won't be enough to affect the outcome of the election.

Today, we will change the direction of our country. Over the next four years, we will ensure that all citizens have access to healthcare, we will strengthen our unions so that we can see real wage growth, we will reform our election laws so that our elections are more accurate and verifiable, we will become stewards of the earth and we will end the pointless, misdirected war in Iraq.

The road ahead is long and won't always be easy, but the future looks very bright; I am excited.

If you haven't already voted, please vote for Barack Obama. Something historic will happen today; I invite you to be part of it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Book: First, Break All the Rules

One of this weekend's projects was to read . . . err . . . listen to Marcus Buckingham's "First, Break All the Rules" which parses through a bunch of studies by the Gallup organization to find out what the best managers consistently to do find and retain the best people.

In the book, Buckingham defines and highlights the differences between skills, knowledge and talents. He argues that skills and knowledge can be trained, but that talents can not. He defines talents as the things that we are naturally good at and and like to do. Intuitively this makes sense; we can not be (easily) trained to like something, or to be naturally good at something. His argument (backed up by data from the Gallup organization) is that the best managers hire talent that aligns with the requirements of any given job and then focus on developing talents, rather than "closing competency gaps." In my experience, this flies in the face of what most companies end up doing, but it makes sense.

There are many other points made which range from the intuitively obvious to the absurd, but there is a lot of wisdom in this book about being an effective manager. I certainly would recommend this book to anyone in a management role, looking to improve his/her effectiveness.

The follow-up book, "Now, Discover Your Strengths" will probably be next on the list.