The Value Mindset – Explained

At the core of the Value Mindset are the principles of value investing. Essentially it can all be boiled down to one simple statement “pay a fair price for proven outcomes and compound the results over time.” As simple as this sounds, it is often elusive for investors, and quite frankly the statement is far too simple to accommodate the needs of an executive looking to make value based decisions.

Within this entry, we will review some of the common value investing principles, specially tailored for the Value Mindset, to focus on strategic choice making. We will discuss the common methods for evaluating and measuring value (i.e. Valuation and Appraisal Approaches). These methods should be deployed depending on the situation and scenario, however, in most cases, value based evaluation will be based on cash flows, income, or relative cost. And finally, we will discuss a few considerations which will help frame up how choices are determined, evaluated, and selected.

Value Mindset Principles:

  1. Value is a function of price and return. This gets to the heart of whether a choice is expensive or cheap. If you drive down the street, you may drive past 2 gas stations, one which is offering a gallon of gasoline for $3 and another which is offering an equivalent product for $2.90. In this example you have a pretty clear understanding of which gas is cheap and which is expensive – it is plain as day. Or is it? If I then articulated that the $3 per gallon would get you an additional 3 miles per gallon because it is higher octane, then you may completely reassess the value proposition. Understanding “what you get” is the most important thing when comparing the price / cost of choices. This same concept applies to almost any strategic choice. Don’t be afraid to spend a little more if the benefits are substantially greater.
  2. Value is a function of quality. People generally understand the concept of value when making choices in their personal lives but this notion of quality is often overlooked when it comes to strategic choices in the enterprise. When picking between two seemingly equivalent pieces of furniture, you can check the hinges, the handles, the wood, the seals, facets, and binding materials – when it comes to a strategic choice – sniff tests look a little bit different. For strategic choices, quality should be based on the reliability of the prospects of your choice. Ask yourself…For others who have made similar choices, have they yielded consistent returns over time? Are my returns protected or are they at-risk to competition? What is the certitude of positive outcomes for my choices?
  3. Value is a function of time. A great speculator can probably make a sizeable profit in a short amount of time; however, I firmly believe that time is the great equalizer. It makes both the exceptional and underperformers seem average. With that in mind, each executive has a different time horizon by which they evaluate a series of choices. Big bet choices can take as many as a decade or two to realize positive returns. Occasionally choices may deliver results in a relatively short period of time. When comparing options, it is important to adjust for duration. I believe the adage is “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” For the most part this is true but also consider that the value of the bird anecdote is also relative to the time and potential of your ‘birds in the bush’.
  4. Value is a function of risk. In value investing, investors often try to isolate alpha. In other words, isolating the risk or opportunity that is specific to an investment over another investment. Typically, it is referred to as firm specific risk. Properly framing the risks and opportunities of a specific choice or series of choices helps to narrow the field of vision and properly adjust for shortcomings. When analyzing risk there are a variety of different methods which can be deployed including adjusting for confidence, establishing risk adjusted returns, factoring in market / financial risk into your discount rates, and modeling out stress test scenarios that may threaten your decision. This one is typically often overlooked in the world of consulting because often time capturing risk adjusted returns may have a significant impact on each of the choices. Creating a substantial margin of safety in the financial case helps to overcome both known and unknown risks which are either inestimable or unfathomable. Also, know that black-swan events exist, protect against their impact, but don’t overburden your case for things with unbounded liability.
  5. Value is a function of analytical integrity. Being honest with the prospects of a choice or series of choices is often the most difficult thing to do. It is easy to change an assumption here or there, round a figure up or down, or over project positive benefits and understate risks. Often certain choices cannot be validated based on the numbers but are the right thing to do. Understanding the qualitative benefits and how those can also be measured is important to helping make the value case when frankly the numbers may not add up. The worst thing to do, however, is to manipulate the numbers to tell a false story.
  6. Value is a function of management and ability to execute. While I don’t’ believe that management can overcome all, the difference between good management and bad management becomes apparent when things don’t go as planned – as they undoubtedly will from time to time. Not only is good management essential for deploying the Value Mindset when making choices, it is also essential to ensuring that value is realized once the decision has been made. Often decisions are made and many of those individuals who were part of the process move on. Someone must carry the torch. That responsibility typically falls on management. Also, transferable management principles also help to ensure continuity of value realization.

Value Mindset Methods:

  1. Income: The most common analysis for the Income Method is a discounted cash flow or DCF analysis. This typically identifies the net cashflows associated with a decision projects them forward and discounts them back to the present. A cost based equivalent of a DCF is a business case model which considers one-time costs, recurring costs / savings, time, and the firm cost of capital. Both types are effective at estimating the economic prospects of a choice. This is encouraged in pretty much all situations when comparing options – particularly those with different time horizons and risk profiles.
  2. Market: When evaluating investments, there are typically public and private markets available that you can use to compare prices and valuation based metrics. For strategic choices, this is often a bit more challenging, however, using 3rd Parties, Consultants, Financial Statements, and Press Releases, leadership can identify market signals from competitors and other firms who have already started the pathway of executing a choice. This helps to provide some market perspective on the value and potential areas of improvement to better estimate, plan, and execute a choice. For things that are not entirely identical, you can use sample cases as a proxy for value to measure yourself against and even to test / validate assumptions of value.
  3. Cost: The Cost Method aims to determine what it would cost to replace an asset or investment (as it stands today less accumulated depreciation). For example, if you bought a house built in the 1950’s that was refurbished, how much would it cost you to actually replace it today? Occasionally, choices can be evaluated by assessing whether you have a specific cost advantage (adjusted for capability) relative to what it would cost to replicate your choice elsewhere? If you already have elements of a choice implemented or capabilities built, then replicating that choice may be prohibitively more expensive. That has value.

Value Mindset Considerations

  1. Income vs. Market vs. Cost Method. Selecting the method for evaluating is probably one of the easier considerations of the Value Mindset. At a minimum, you should do an income based analysis and augment this with both a market and cost based method. This provides both an inside out and outside in estimation of value for your choices and helps to affirm or invalidate assumptions and known risks. Where asset appreciation is the primary driver of value then more market based methods should be deployed.
  2. Retained vs. Distributed. Determining if the returns need to be retained and reinvested or distributed is important to making a choice. If a choice is a multi-step function, the it is important to articulate the use and need of the benefits and when they may be able to be returned to shareholders – if at all. Knowing what your stakeholders expect regarding accumulation of value and how that value is deployed is essential – particularly, for complex choice cascades that are complex multi-step-functions.
  3. Consensus vs. Contrarianism. Determining if a choice is in alignment with the broader market sentiment or if it is contrarian is important. Justifying choices which are often not part of the standard or status quo are often viewed as “risky” despite the fact that they may be inherently less risky. Understanding the enterprise position and dynamics between consensus and dynamism is important before making choices. Knowing stakeholder expectations and your own personal style in this regard is also important to understand before self-selecting options.
  4. Diversification vs. Concentration. Understanding when to put your eggs all in one basket versus when to diversify choices is a critical consideration. Imagine if you invested all your time and resources into a major financial transformation and neglected to invest more broadly in choices that would drive innovation and other operational productivity benefits. Warren Buffett often says, “I put all my eggs in one basket, and watch the basket.” Most if any, don’t have the true autonomy to make those kind of large scale bets – and quite frankly it likely doesn’t make sense to do so.
  5. Short-termism vs. Long-termism. Evaluating the appropriate time horizon for realization of returns is really all dependent on the nature of the choices that you are evaluating. Again, certain long-lived assets require substantial investment periods before they accrete value and therefore your returns must reflect the deferred nature investment – account for all associated risks. It is important though to properly understand the true duration of a choice and not just the period analyzed. Often with technology, it is very easy to evaluate an investment over a very short life span, however, true technical capabilities do have lives that extend upwards and beyond 10 years.
  6. Market vs. Liquidity vs. Economic Catalysts. Understanding what if anything will make your choice valuable is important as part of the evaluation and assessment process. A market event like sizeable reduction or increase in the cost of steel may significantly affect your choice. Similarly, changes in your ability to transact, or buy / sell an asset may also affect your prospects. Additionally, things like monetary and economic policy could have sizeable impacts on your analysis if not properly assessed up front. A catalyst without real potential is just a risk.
  7. Singular vs. Cascades. Understanding which choices will drive economic benefit on their own and which require other choices to maximize value is important. It is very rare that a singular choice or decision ultimately results in the outcome. Additionally, be prepared to evaluate and re-evaluate along the way to ensure that as information is gathered learnings can be applied to refining the plan and the analysis. Complex choice cascades may require pivots in a different direction as they are validated and invalidated in the market.

In the next section, we will explore a few anecdotal examples to determine how the Value Mindset can be applied. Think of this as just the starting point. A juncture to ground yourself in how to think about choices and how they accrete value. Unlike value investing, the Value Mindset offers a framework to define the intercepts between complex, interrelated strategic choices, and the decisions that are required to deliver results.

The Value Mindset – Origin Story

Between semesters at college I held a summer job as a busser at a local restaurant on the lake. Unlike my peers who were living it up during the summer months, I usually worked 2 or 3 jobs to pay for school, my car, and other essential items.

*cough” Beer.

Every couple of weeks or so this gentleman would dock his yacht outside the restaurant and walk in with his wife and young kids. I was perplexed by this situation. It seemed like the guy never actually worked. Come to find out – he didn’t. At least not in a conventional sense.

One day I mustered up the courage to inquire about his background by asking a few regulars at the bar, “What is that guy’s story?”

They responded in kind. “He day trades.  Supposedly he made $10 million by the time he was 40 and decided to retire early. From then on he has been traveling the world on his boat with his family”

“Wow! How I’d love to be that guy.” I thought.

That fall I returned to school to continue my pursuit of a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I struggled. My heart was no longer in it. Engineering wasn’t my thing. In the back of my mind the whole time was this notion of “retiring early”. I was certain that engineering wasn’t going to offer me that possibility – unless I became an inventor. It sounds appealing but…no thanks.

It was after that summer, year 2.5 at Michigan State, that I decided to pull the trigger and pivot from Mechanical Engineering to Finance. It wasn’t going to be easy. I literally had to start over. And I did.

Other than some introductory Finance courses, conversations with my dental hygienist (a surprisingly informed investor), brief interactions with my financial advisor, and the story from the guys at my summer job – I really didn’t know anything about Finance.

I generally thought “how hard could it be?”.

After all, I literally just finished taking courses on Differential Equations, Multivariable Calculus, Engineering Physics (with this guy), and Chemistry – the math will not cause me any reason to worry. I figured Finance offered me my best chances at early retirement. I went all in.

Before I officially became a Finance major, my girlfriend at the time, who was already in the business school heeded me warning. She would reassure me, “Business is very competitive. You need to get involved with student organizations. And you need to try to be a leader in them as well.”

I joined all of them. At least the relevant ones. And I tried to lead them all. All attempts failed.

Being the late entrant into an election process that has been ongoing for several years doesn’t typically go well. Despite it being an “election” for the most part there was a well-established succession plan. I got it. At least I tried.

It was this pursuit that again altered my entire thinking, perspective, and understanding of Finance.

The group was called Student Investment Association. It was composed of a series of member-groups who were responsible for evaluating publicly traded companies each semester and pitching a buy, hold, or sell recommendation to the organizations leadership (aka investment committee). The organization had real money to invest and I certainly had a lot to prove so I pitched an idea every semester – from the day I joined until graduation.

Before I could pitch anything useful, I first had to figure out what the hell I was doing. The leadership team offered a brief introduction to financial modeling and analysis to get me started. Typically, they looked for the teams to develop an investment hypothesis by leveraging a Discount Cash Flow (DCF) or income approach to evaluating each opportunity. I became a sponge. And a learning machine.

The notion that the market may not accurately reflect the price (cost) of an investment completely blew my mind. It has been something that intellectually challenges me every day and has become the catalyst for me dumping my initial philosophy of “getting rich quick”.

After I graduated, I joined a boutique consulting firm, and since have been working on applying many of these principles to the work that I do. Aside from a brief stopping off point in valuation services, I have mostly been supporting clients by helping them strategize, plan, and execute large enterprise impacting transformations – particularly those that include technology. Interestingly, it is this notion of value that time and time again I constantly visit and revisit. Ultimately, I have adapted many of the concepts of value investing into what I refer to as the “value mindset”. Or more simply put, a value based framework for making strategic choices. Below are the foundational questions which are at the core of the framework.

  1. Is the company making choices that increase the firm’s ability to generate returns above their cost of capital? What is required to ensure this excess can be maintained over time? Does this choice accrete or deplete value?
  2. Is the company efficiently deploying capital? Is the best place to invest capital in the business? Buy back shares? Release a dividend? Is this choice a good use of limited resources? Will this choice free up capital to reinvest in area with higher returns?
  3. Is the company taking advantage of disequilibrium of price and value to benefit shareholders? Making accretive acquisitions and divestitures? Buying distressed or discounted assets? Balancing perception and reality? Is there an inherent upside that may create more benefits than initially anticipated?

I think recently I have reached a moment of clarity. Everything seems to make sense. The irony of it all is that the path to getting there was a little messy. From a student and young professional perspective – the process was a constant struggle. But here we are with a formed idea. A decade later.

In the next entry, I will explore the value mindset framework which helps clarify the above questions.  Additionally, I will explore various scenarios and examples where the framework can be applied in different scenarios to understand how “all” decisions can be measured by the extent that they “add value”.

Something to Consider. Value is in the eye of the beholder. The intent of the framework is to ground the dialogue on what should be considered value in the context of the enterprise (economic value) and how decisions / choices should be evaluated on their own absolute value contribution. Standalone professions exist which are dedicated to appraisals and valuation. I don’t claim to be one of those people. Nor do I pretend to be. If your problem or opportunity is specific I recommend reaching out to someone with expertise in your area of need, particularly if the decision exceeds your core competence and knowledge base. If you need assistance with that feel free to shoot me a note. Otherwise, enjoy!

What Evolution Tells Us About Everything Else

For the last several of months I have been reading the book titled “The Ancestors Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution” by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (yep. that guy.).  I have come across Dawkins’ name several times through my readings related to artificial intelligence and evolution. Dawkins not only provides an explanation based on evolutionary theory but also introduces a variety of perspectives spanning disciplines including genetics, archaeology, anthropology, biology, and many others.  While there is a lot to be drawn from the book, specifically subject matter insights, what I have learned during my evolutionary journey, is that facts change.

So what exactly does that mean?

Scientists make educated guesses too….it is called a theory. According to Dawkins, the Pre-Cambrian period of history is kind of like a giant black box when it comes to archaeological records – the extent of fossil records just seems to disappear. Therefore, archaeologists and geneticists are forced to make some wild assumptions about the extent or pace of evolutionary change that happened during that period. Since we know what happened before and where we ended up after, scientists have generally concluded that the rate of evolution accelerated during that period? Is that true? Probably not. But again, it fits the narrative of the data until some other logical explanation or scientific method is invented to fill the gap. I guess statisticians are not the only ones who put plugs in their model until they have a logical explanation.

We often make pretty basic observations to determine comprehensive frameworks. When the author references early biologists, he often references that the earliest taxonomic classifications were based primary on the visual representation of animal species. Basically, we consistently use our basic sense of sight, touch, and hearing to make some routine assessments of species. As tools and resources improve, we could go to various levels of understanding regarding species – particularly when assessing ancestry at the genetic level. Case in point, a hippo is more directly related to a whale than an elephant. Who would have thought?

There is no singular pathway for success. One of the themes that is littered throughout the book is how each of the Concestor species was known or is known to select mates. Interestingly, as time progresses, the norms within species changes regarding what specific characteristics of a mate represent “fitness”. In one example you can think about all the warriors who go off to war, leaving behind the weaker candidates within the population to continue their genes. In that case, the most “fit” of the species are more likely to die off while the more intelligent and useful will carry on. Each species, throughout time, has adapted and created new ways of passing on their genetic material. Some species have even found ways to directly clone or replicate themselves for millions of years – one would think that this lack of diversity in the gene pool would fail – in some cases it proves successful.

No one seems to know when and how. I find it incredibly interesting that there doesn’t seem to be an scientific record explaining how and when we evolved away our tails and formed the Coccyx. Every time I sit down from now on I will always be wondering why I don’t have a tail. But I won’t wonder too hard because with time we will likely solve that mystery. Sometimes things are just entirely un-explainable – is it really that big of a deal?

As you can probably tell, I find that multi-disciplinarianism can help to solve a wide variety of different challenges – particularly when it comes to applications of scientific methods. The next time I run into an issue solving a problem at work, much like Dawkins, I will focus on the big leaps (Concestors), existing methods and tools, and go from there.

 

 

Reflecting on 2017…

Like many of you, I too took some time over the Holiday’s to unwind and reenergize for the New Year.  For me, the best way to go about this is to take some time to reflect on both my accomplishments / failures for the year, along with my aspirations for 2018.  To me, success is about the little things, the small wins, and the big failures. Below are a few of the things that I feel proud of for 2017 along with some things I need to work on for the next year.

What did I accomplish in 2017?

  • Made mead. Over the course of the last year, I have increased my knowledge and experience with making fermented products.  While it is not quite there yet in terms of the flavors I am looking for, I can proudly say that I have produced consumable versions of honey, strawberry and cherry mead (pictured below). The best piece of advice that I have regarding alcohol production is that cleanliness, sanitation, and patience go a long way.  Also, it takes awhile to get the proportions right – something I am still working on.

Mead

  • Smoked a Turkey. I have decided that I will no longer be making a traditional turkey every again.  The beauty pictured below was smoked over the course of 5 hours using hickory wood chips and game out quite beautifully – tender, flavorful, and juicy.  I will say though that I would like to explore some more creative ways to smoke my meat that help to avoid the gaseous flavors that are slightly imparted from a propane smoker.  For my second try and smoking food, I am very satisfied with the outcome. Win!  

Turkey

  • Published an article. Earlier in the year, I was honored to have an opportunity to write an article for the CIO Journal through my company’s sponsorship entitled Fakers vs. Makers.  I really enjoy writing, both personally and professionally, and I hope that further opportunities present themselves to share my thoughts, perspectives, and experiences. Worst case…I will spend a little more time updating my blog.
  • Learned a lot. A little about cloud. A lot about obscure things like malting, collectible wine and spirits, fermentation, distillation, evolution and ancestry, food, and finance.  Did you know that there really isn’t an explanation for why humans do not have a tail? At some point we [humans] formed a coccyx (tail-bone) and it is unclear precisely when that happened. Despite that useless fact, I actually learned a lot about some really cool topics. Things can become boring and stale when I am not learning something new…this year was definitely exciting.
  • Hosted the family. At the ripe old age of 33, I held my first family gathering.  While it may sound trivial, this is kind of a big deal.  I have always been a bit timid to have people over, including friends and family, mostly because I never quite know how everyone will act or interact with one another. I guess the best way to ensure everyone has a good time is to provide good food and a lot of drinks. This formula proved to be successful in 2017!

What do I want to accomplish in 2018?

  • Be present. One of the biggest challenges I often face is trying to be present. It is not fair to the people I care about to be constantly distracted by thoughts, ideas, or work. 2018 offers a fresh start to be more present – both physically and mentally.
  • Listen more. Talk less. Admittedly, I have a habit of seizing moments of silence to pontificate. I also have a habit of not paying full attention and even multi-tasking on things that are generally outside of my capabilities. For 2018, I want to be better at listening, both visually and verbally, and spending more time thinking about my responses instead of impulsively responding. This also means I need to be more patient about letting things run their natural course.
  • Additional sources of income. Throughout the year I have been spending some time reading about rare earth metals and wine / spirits collecting and have accumulated a small portfolio of “investments”.  This is something that I would like to continue to explore further as another source or income.  I may also look to build out a few of my digital properties as a means for creating sustainable income in addition to my “Job”. Independence permitting.
  • Learn how to program. For the last decade I have been squatting on a few web domains that I hope to actually convert into profitable online properties – the only hang up is that I don’t know how to program. I know that I don’t necessarily need to be a master programmer to create a few websites. If I want to them to be great, however; this is certainly something I need to work on.  Following AWS re:Invent, I am definitely inspired and motivated.
  • Travel abroad. I have been watching my frequent flier miles and hotel points accrue for the better part of the last 24 months. Despite all of the political volatility, I want to spend a good amount of time abroad in 2018.  A trip to Asia is certainly in the cards at year end.  I am thinking Hong Kong, Singapore, and possibly Japan or Korea.

Naturally, most of my accomplishments couldn’t have been done without my better half.  So I have to thank my wife Jessica at Eat.Rest.Repeat for putting up with a lot of my nonsense throughout the year.  Here is to a more attentive, present, and adventurous 2018!

 

So, I Spent a Week at AWS Re:Invent

AWSSo, a few weeks ago I was priveleged enough to attend AWS re:Invent in Las Vegas.  This was the first technology conference that I have ever been too unless you include trips to the swap meet with my dad as a child to pick up radio parts like diodes and vacuum tubes.  With that said, other than the enjoyable parties and venue, what exactly did I learn from AWS re:Invent?

  1. There are a lot of people chasing careers on the back of AWS.  Yeah I said it. Most of the people at the conference were either kicking off the vibe of 1. I need to learn this public cloud stuff ASAP so I can stay trendy and not lose my job or 2. I need to figure out this public cloud stuff ASAP so I can sell more and not lose my job. Either way, everyone there was either trying to sell or learn…but not really doing either in the purest sense of the words. More of the learn / sell or die kind of vibe.
  2. Creating is better than consuming.  After about a day, I started to form a pretty serious case of programmer envy.  I wanted to immediately run out and start stickering all of my technology with all of the cool brands like “chef”, “puppet”, and “jenkins”.  I listened to all of these cool applications of Alexa and the AWS analytics platforms and really started to feel kind of shitty about how insignificant my contributions generally are.  PowerPoint slides versus visual recognition programming.  I think we all know what sounds cooler.  Anyway my slides are pretty awesome so I won’t downplay the skeelz quite yet.
  3. Las Vegas is cool and all. It is also kind of shitty for a conference. Walking to and from and inside and around casinos across the strip really really sucks. On my first day in Vegas, I pretty much walked 1.5 miles to a conference room, instead of taking the shuttle. Huge mistake. Pretty sure I blew my ACL just walking. Thats really how you know you are getting old.  Although I can’t blame the conference for that. Twas already known that my knee is like a 90 year old’s.
  4. The technology industry is still composed of a lot of middle aged white men.  This doesn’t necessarily become apparent until you are standing next to a bunch of middle aged men while watching a famous DJ perform.  I don’t think I have seen that level of immobility at a concert in a long time.  Except for maybe Lynard Skynard.  Everyone pretty much sat and smoked. The special cigarettes of course.  But I guess the general demographic profile really highlights the current status of legacy technology.  Very very white.  I don’t have the actual demographic data. It could be possible that I am bias. At the Replay event to finish the week, I did for a brief moment or two feel incredibly youthful. Thank you for that.
  5. Rovio is kind of a cool company.  Out of all the sessions I attended, I found the session by Rovio to be the most interesting.  The level of analytics that they deploy for their gaming platforms is very enlightening. As a freeware user, I never really realized the level of sophistication that goes into the behavioral analytics and user satisfaction.  The brief amount of commentary on this model was worth its price in gold. And the data lake architecture was kind of neat as well. Although I don’t fully “get it”. At least not yet.

So I guess the big question is “Was the event worth the price of admission?”.  I think the answer to that is Yes and No.  In the sense that I feel like I got $1800 (plus travel expenses) worth of value – Nope.  I guess if you look at it from the perspective of what the event symbolizes and the opportunities to network and meet people – then Yes.  I would certainly go again, but I think next time I would like to come better equipped with some more advanced skills that I can build upon at the event.  Or at a minimum identify where I have some gaps in my understanding to fill them in.  I likely also would replace my knee cap before going as well.

For the average person out there, you probably have no idea what this event is or what I am referring to, but I think over the next year you will start to hear more about the “cloud” – particularly AWS.  What they are doing over at AWS, and quite frankly what all players in the cloud space are doing in general, is really quite impressive.  You can pretty much check the box on the utilitization of computing. Done and Done. Next stop…..applications. Like applied computing….not codification.

 

What if Albert Einstein became an Investment Banker?

Every day, young people are graduating from high school, facing tough decisions about their future. Do they choose a career path in STEM with uncertain prospects or choose opportunities in a field with better financial outcomes like business? For those looking at STEM careers, there will undoubtedly be struggles to achieve notoriety, success, and to make an impact. For some their aspirations to affect the world positively may ultimately fall short and they may end up updating radiator cap specifications for the rest of their life instead of solving the world’s most prolific problems like cold fusion. Alternatively, recent graduates could pursue a corporate job in business like marketing, sales, finance, accounting, or human resources, where the prospects are much more certain – even for the mediocre. Admittedly, business is not easy by any means; however, by rolling up your sleeves and working hard you can achieve moderate levels of monetary success. To put this whole thing in context, let us take an extreme example and play it out as if instead of pursing science, he or she decided to choose a career in investment banking. Enter Albert Einstein.

If Einstein became a banker instead of a philosopher / physicist…

What impacts would this have on science?

Until Einstein, there was no explanation how act / react in the universe relative to one another. His intellect and contributions also led to key advancements in the United States arms race to the nuclear weapon, although he did not personally participate in the project. Modern science would have changed in a big way and it is debatable if many modern physical theories would exist today in 2017. Even today, his unifying theories are the underpinning of such concepts as string-theory, which aims to interconnect all physical theories of the universe.

 

What impacts would this have on the course of history?

Einstein did not directly work on the Manhattan Project; however, he did have significant contributions via his theories. Additionally, it is debatable whether the United States would have explored uranium options, if Einstein did not draft a letter to Roosevelt warning him of the German weapons program progress. If the nuclear bomb were delayed, the United States would have been on the opposite side of history. Undoubtedly, Germany and / or Japan may have established themselves as world powers and we likely would not have the EU as it exists today.

Would someone else have stumbled on the theory of relatively, potentially reshaping our understanding of the universe, as we know it?

This one really depends on your perspective. A fatalist would believe that Einstein himself would ultimately stumbled on the ideas eventually because that was his fate. I am not a fatalist and therefore, I do not believe he would have established his intellectual curiosity had he not worked in the patent office. The patent office, was a formative experience for Einstein and without it, one could seriously question whether he would have ever become the physicist that he became. Access to all that knowledge and insight, inspired him to create and run his own experiments and challenge existing hypothesis. Would he have gotten that experience and exposure as a banker? No

Would have been any good at banking?

This one is debatable. At points in his life, Einstein became incredibly isolated and reclusive. While this may work well for a while, it is a recipe for disaster in business, where people have expectations and interpersonal relations are expected. Banking may be one of the more individualistic fields, which may suit his ego well, but I am pretty he may have gotten bored charting basic formulas all day, and likely quit to become a trader. As a trader, he would be mildly successful and free to apply his own logic and intuitiveness to making decisions. I do not envision Einstein working for others for very long without autonomy to some degree. Monetarily, he would have done well for himself, although to what extent is hard to say.

 

While this example is extreme, the reality is that the next Einstein may be currently siting in a classroom somewhere weighing their options on what to do with their life. The sciences, particularly in the United States are no longer as attractive as they once were, and people are making point in time choices to choose careers with more certain prospects. In my opinion, this view point needs to change, and we, collectively need to provide better economic incentives to ensure that the best and brightest are funneling into STEM careers and not undervaluing their skills and potential in overserved fields. We cannot go back in time and run scenarios on what would happen if Einstein took a different career path, but we can help shape the future generations of inventors by encouraging and promoting intellectual curiosity and STEM professions.

I chose a career in business and am now trying to rekindle my interest and passion for the sciences through some home experiments (which I hope to share in future entries) and readings. I am not Einstein. Nor am I a banker. I am I. And I reserve the right to wonder what my contributions could have been in a different field. Virology, mycology, or botany may have been in the cards.

The Solution for Education is Simple. Implementation is not.

For most of my lifetime, I recall hearing through political coverage in the media that the educational system in the United States is broken.  Schools within poor socio-economic geographies are failing to meet the standards.  The standards themselves do not adequately cover the base of knowledge commensurate with a 21st century education.  Teachers are underpaid, overworked, and underappreciated.  Students do not have access to the tools necessary to learn.  The school systems cannot afford to provide the facilities and resources to offer a balanced educational experience. And the criticisms go on and on….

And then there are the proposed solutions.  On one hand, you have democrat politicians who want to double down on public schools.  After all, increasing the scale of public schools enables the districts to create larger schools and spread the fixed costs across a larger base of students.   In the long run, this ends up creating a genericized experience for students in a government oligopoly for education services.  On the other hand are the republicans with their school of choice and voucher based options.   After all, what is better than to create a market for educational services, where tax payers (aka the consumers), can choose the best school for their children. This has opened up a whole host of new options including for profit schools, charter schools, and private school subsidies for the well to do.  While this is great in concept, it truly undermines the public school system, potentially depriving them of the necessary student body to fund and finance their fixed costs.  After all public schools rely on “students in classrooms”.  For the last decade, we have gone around and around on the voucher / charter school vs. public school debate, and in this process nothing has truly changed.  American students continue to fall behind in STEM related professions relative to the rest of the world.

Before we dig into some of the solutions, I think we should frame a few questions to answer to understand the root of the problem instead of focusing on the symptoms.

What are some of the challenges we need to solve?

  1. Education outcomes are highly dependent on your socio-economic background
  2. Students learn at different paces
  3. Students have varying levels of capacity to learn
  4. Education problems are not only financial problems
  5. Teachers are undercompensated for their contributions
  6. School related violent incidents continue to occur (increasing pace or otherwise)
  7. Incentives are not effectively aligned with outcomes for students, teachers, and administrators

When looking at the list of main issues, it is clear that the whole public, private, charter, voucher conversation is really not going to address any of these problems.  Basically by giving people options, they will ultimately re-assimilate in a different setting with mostly the same outcomes – the only difference being that those schools are likely to be selectively less diverse.  Therefore, logical objectives should include the following:

  1. Educational classroom settings should be focused on instruction and not lecturing
  2. Education must be technology enabled to adapt content and materials to students
  3. Students must be able to proceed through their educational experience at their own pace
  4. Educational standards must be universal in nature
  5. Educational experience must be the same regardless of socioeconomic background
  6. Incentives for students, parents, teachers, and administrators must be in alignment (and focused on outcomes)
  7. Education environments must be safe places to share ideas (whether you agree with them or not), represent personal authenticity and creativity, and free of violence.

What exactly am I proposing?

As you may note, I have placed a lot of emphasis on the educational experience. I believe this experience starts at home, segues into transportation to and from school, continues into the class room, into a nutrition based lunch, into physical activity and fitness, and into safe social environment that encourages exploration of ideas and concepts.  No proper education system in the 21st century is complete without technology enablement.  The vast number of resources available on the internet to shape and design a curriculum, educational content and delivery, and course pacing are astronomical.  And on a per student basis, these systems are incredibly cost effective.  One of my favorite examples in particular are the resources available on Khan Academy or academic earth.  By leveraging these scalable technology tools, education systems are able to increase the number of students guided and advised per teacher, reduce the overall classroom size and footprint, and increase the overall investment in salaries per teacher.  Additionally, by aligning students and teachers around advancing intellectual capacity, teachers then can then be incentivized further to expand their educational base and earn more by progressing students and assisting students with overcoming their conceptual challenges.  The tools and the resources are there; however, the barriers are not in educational capabilities in resources but in the bureaucratic process of transforming education.  Additionally, to keep environments safe, incentives for students should be drawn around collaboration, team building, and complex problem solving along with thinking through the potential role that firearms have in schools.  In regards to firearms in schools,   the level of accountability to keep a school environment safe should fall on the same people or person who is ultimately responsible for the outcomes of the school – the principal.  In my opinion, principles and vice principals should be trained to use a firearm and have several lockbox sites throughout the school where they are able to access a firearm in the case of an attack on the school.  Much like a ship captain, someone must be prepared to defend children in case of an emergency.  I am not particularly fond of the concept of unmitigated or uncontrolled access to firearms – this could potentially lead to escalation of issues which do not require weapons.  Nonetheless, I think my school proposal for the future solves many of the issues of the future. And note that I did not mention anything about private or public or charter schools.  Quite frankly. It doesn’t really matter.

Why is execution of my solution such a big challenge?

Like all controversial topics, education reform is one of those things that is highly politicized.  On the left side of the aisle, you have significant constituencies of unionized teachers who have professional incentives aligned with the maintenance of the status quo.  The status quo being tenure and education based compensation, minimal accountability for student outcomes, and general public institutional norms.  On the right side of the aisle, you have a free markets philosophy which believes the best way to drive outcomes is through economic incentives.  This may be the case, but realistically the incentives are drawn around increasing the leverage per teacher, hitting and exceeding state mandated targets by any means possible, and reducing cost.  These market driven incentives are quite in conflict with the notion of achieving a universal educational experience and quite frankly the verdict is out in regards to whether these institutions “add value”.  Either way, both sides have principally vested interests in keeping things the way they are without change “maintaining the status quo”.  They both view the educational experience as a primarily financial decision working within the same parameters they always have.   There are some really technology enabled alternatives which could really improve the educational experience for all students regardless of socioeconomic background, unfortunately, this would require politicians to think different, think dynamically, and understand individual student needs.  So where should we start…

 Rethink the role of the teacher and the classroom

–        Shorten instructor time by half (use for knowledge application)

–        Leverage computer based learning for labs / content consumption

–        Leverage home for follow up, deep dive, and problem solving

Rethink the complete learner experience

–        Point of entry to point of dismissal

–        Lifestyle and living (health and fitness)

–        Self-paced learning, progression, and peer groups

Rethink educational safety

–        Safety of ideas and perspectives

–        Non-intrusive physical safety

–        Conflict avoidance / mitigation

Rethink accountability through incentives

–        Alignment of student, teacher, and administrator outcomes

–        Protection of educational experience and safety

–        Culture of continuous education

Once these priorities have been planned and laid, administrators should then focus on deciding the best platform for driving the agenda – whether that can best be promoted with public institutions, private institutions, or both.  Additionally, the method of payment, either through vouchers or direct government funding, really does not matter all that much once you have defined the core of the educational system.  My only recommendation would be to choose the approach that best aligns with the solution.   This type of transformation could take decades to accomplish, so in my opinion it is probably best to get started on this…..yesterday!

For those exploring several of the concepts identified herein in more detail, please feel free to visit the following links for additional perspective.

https://www.khanacademy.org/

http://academicearth.org/

https://www.2mminutes.com/about.asp

Life Hack: Taking Control of your Email Box and your Life

I am probably one of the few people on the planet who maintains a 100% read email box with absolutely 0 files at the end of the day left in my Inbox. For those of you in the business world, you may be thinking to yourself things like “that is absurd!”, “why would you do that?”, “wtf!?”, or “how does that even happen!?” Over the course of my 10 year career I have learned how important it can truly be to manage communications with customers, colleagues, leaders, and friends and family. If you think about it, often times email is the only communication that you may have with someone, and therefore it is key to be responsive and self-aware of your digital presence. With that in mind, let me share a couple of relatively simple tips that help with sorting through the noise and focusing on the email communications that matter the most.

Why is it important to maintain your email box?

As I stated, often times, email is the only communication channel with which people may engage with you. By not maintaining minimum levels of attentiveness, people may feel as though you are intentionally ignoring them or are not valuing their contributions, workload, and insights. Important tasks, follow up items, and inquiries can get buried in your email if you are not up to date or attentive. At one of my previous employers (a sales job), employees were taught that all customer inquiries must be responded to within 8 hours (1 business day) – no excuses. If more people treated their colleagues, peers, and friends / family with this same level of professional respect, I truly believe that productivity levels would spike quite precipitously and the overall level of personal frustration would diminish significantly. Aside from common courtesy, it is also important to know where to spend your time and resources as well – a messing email box can make it very difficult to sort through the noise.

How to go about cleaning an email mess?

For me, the simplest way of managing my inbox is by following a few simple rules which help me to keep on top of my emails, prioritize tasks, and set expectations with people as to when I will be able to respond to their request or inquiry. My tips and tricks for reducing complexity are as follows:

    1. Index Recurring Communications – While those daily, weekly, and monthly newsletters may contain useful information, they are not critical to performing day to day responsibilities. Therefore, I set up rules within outlook to send them to a folder or folder(s) for discretionary / non-critical emails. If I get around to reading them……great…..if not……no harm no foul. It is important to sort the noise out of your inbox to avoid bogging down the important and critical messages and actions.
    2. Respond to Set Expectations – When I receive an email for a request, I add it to my queue and respond immediately or within a reasonable amount of time with the expected completion time frame based on my understanding of my resources available. If you let people know when you will get around to their request, it can help to significantly reduce email volumes down the road. When you don’t respond the number of contacts increases 10x with follow up emails. People should not have to worry about whether or not you received, read, and are processing their request. Everyone sleeps a little better when you respond. Once you respond though, it is critical to follow through on your committed time frames or else those follow up emails will continue to flow. If priorities change, it never hurts to send another email to reset expectations.
    3. Leverage Task Lists – For emails that require action, it is always important to document the request as a task in outlook. This helps to clear inbox and move your actions into a more manageable queue. Nobody wants to spend a lot of time interpreting and reinterpreting emails, so try to do the interpretation quickly and move it into an action list. With the task lists you can also change priorities, dates, and scope of the requests.   Also, for managers, it is a very helpful tool to set reminder notes and document outstanding actions from your team. The important take away here is to move things out of the mailbox into a more manageable and controllable list.
    4. Get the Quick Wins Out of the Way – Occasionally, requests that require minimal effort on your end but create maximum impact on the senders side of the equation can get lost in your email box. Small priorities / tasks with maximum impact should not be overshadowed by the larger priorities on your list of ‘to dos’; in fact, in most instances these smaller activities should take priority. Imagine that you have a team who needs a deck or example to get going their client deliverable, their progress is entirely hindered by your ability to respond with relevant content and examples. The 5 minutes it takes to pull examples is well worth delaying a higher priority item to get the team on track. Again, the importance of maintaining a manageable inbox really all comes down to how effectively you help others reduce their anxieties and uncertainty.
    5. Maximize Email Recipients – One of my biggest peeves is when someone sends a note to one person and then the nearly exact same note to 4 or 5 more people. By using the functionality in various email tools, you can send the same request to multiple people without each of them knowing. For scenarios where it is not critical that recipients don’t see each other’s contact information, crafting a well thought and organized email to all involved can help to reduce the amount of follow up email flow. This is critical and essential to ensuring that you don’t compound the overall correspondence within your email box. Fortunately, in this scenario, even if the responses are compounded, it is much easier to move read emails into various folders because they are all indexed with the same title. Being logical about the downstream impacts of correspondence is key to taking control of yur email.

 

I know I sound a little bit obsessive compulsive about communication management, particularly when it comes to email, but I find that this is an area where folks are completely inefficient. When my Inbox is empty and my task list is full, I find that I can sleep a little bit better at night. I also find that others are much more productive and efficient with their time as well. Taking control of your email box not only helps you simplify your work but it also helps you to take control of your life. Closing the loop can give you back wasted time and allow you to focus on what really matters to you!

If you find these tips helpful or if you have any that have worked well for you personally, please feel free to share. I am always open to life hacks.

Ethical Considerations for Technological Advancement

Knowing my deep passion for reading, a friend and colleague  gifted me a copy of the book In Mortal Hands: A Cautionary Tale of the Nuclear Age by Stephanie Cooke.  While nuclear proliferation is a topic with which I am fairly inept, I am able to some extent to decipher and extract many of the themes which are not only relevant to topic of nuclear proliferation debate but also are relevant and applicable to other technological advancements as well.  Not knowing what to expect from this author, nor from the subject matter, I found the book to be extremely informative as well as disheartening.  There are a couple of things that stand out quite vividly to me regarding this subject matter.  The first is the constant perpetuation of nuclear development even after acknowledgement of the lack of understanding regarding the externalities. The second is the explicit damage that the pursuit of nuclear developments have had on the global environment and human health, and the third and final point is more broadly related to inherent ethical questions regarding pursuits of technology advancements which we have little to no understanding of.  The last point is equally if not more important today as it was 70 years ago, as advancements in artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cloning, and financial engineering continue to accelerate beyond our comprehension of the risk.  Underlying all of these points, however, is a fundamental assumption that humanity, will adapt and resolve problems fast enough to ensure the continuity of life.

Without going into to many details of the book, there are a couple of implicit questions that I think, we, collectively as a moral society, should ask ourselves as we continue to pursue technological advancements which exceed our ability to mitigate and resolve the risks.

  • Should technologies be broadly promoted and implemented without technological capability to reverse engineer or return compounds to their simplest, biodegradable form in nature?
  • For technologies with significant and broad impacts around the globe, who is responsible for assessing and minimizing risks associated with implementation?
  • Who weighs in and resolves issues of global survival? Is it an issue of morality or sovereignty?
  • What controls can be put in place to avoid externalities with which we truly may have no fundamental understanding of the impacts?

Unfortunately, I do not have an answer for these questions.  In my opinion this is something that collectively as a society, we must demand higher standards from our leadership in public and private enterprise, and look beyond our borders to set moral and ethical standards on a global basis.  With that in mind, I do, however, strongly believe that the future of industry lies in de-engineering or deconstruction (i.e. the process of breaking down complex compounds, systems, and processes into their simplest form).  It is interesting how as a species, we can define the most complex and robust processes to develop advanced organic and chemical compounds, however, our solution for breaking them down is as simple as burying it in the ground for hundreds or thousands of years.

We can do better.

Artificial Intelligence – What are we really talking about?

Lately, I have been hearing a lot of chatter about the future of artificial intelligence (“AI”) and the implications that developments within this space may have on front-office, middle office, and functional operations. While I am not much of an expert on this subject matter, I have become somewhat enamored by the thought of artificial intelligence, spending quite a bit of time absorbing as much content on this subject as possible. Over the last several months I have rekindled my love for all of my science fiction favorites, in addition, to checking out a few interesting new selections, including Ex Machina, The Singularity, and the anime classic Ghost in the Shell.

Unfortunately, this post is not about my love of sci-fi flicks. It is however, about the reality of artificial intelligence in the workforce, and what this will likely mean for the worker of the 21st century.

To explore this topic we must first answer a couple of rudimentary questions about artificial intelligence, which in the context of the workplace is oft referred to as autonomics or robotic automation.

So what exactly is meant by the term Artificial intelligence?

The AI from the movies, is better known in the biz as general AI. This is the type of AI which is intended to replicate human-like intelligence, movement, emotion, and dare I say it – even consciousness. Given that we are likely centuries away from mastering the human brain and body, I think it is safe to assume that we won’t be “playing god” any time soon. Let’s take manufacturing souls off the table and focus primarily on the type of AI which is developing at quite a rapid clip.

The type of artificial intelligence that is referred to in the context of business automation is called specific AI. This is the type of AI which creates rule base machines capable of learning and adapting behavior to perform a specific task. With specific AI, you should be thinking less Terminator or Johnny 5 (love Short Circuit) and more Watson – the IBM omnipresent computer.

Despite being disappointed that Watson defeated my man Ken Jennings, the future of fairly routine processes, is definitely going the way of Watson. Specific AI, will create learning computers which are capable of performing routine or rules based tasks which require learning to alter or change behavior. It is likely that this type of AI will be more programmatical and less mechanical, although, if you are comparing this to manufacturing processes, specific intelligence may be able to perform some pretty interesting manual processes – although this will require significant advances in the area of robotics and material science.

Imagine smart systems in your home which monitor and record your behavior as you come and go. This “smart” home built around specific intelligence would be able to up the heat or air conditioning without the home owner even having to lift a pinky. I think this type of AI could also be referred to as intelligence for the lazy man. But for corporations who hire a lot of people to do routine work, this type of technology is and will become very economical.

What kind of work would this intelligence do?

Since the intelligence of the next decade will be primarily rule based, intelligent systems are mostly constrained to solving very specific problems. To date, there are a couple of very interesting “intelligent” like applications which we use on a regular basis. For example, the airline industry is built around the auto-pilot. Without the software to essentially guide and fly the plane while you are in the sky, I imagine that the pilots may be putting in a lot more work hours. The fortune thing about flying is that the plane, takes in environmental parameters which trigger a series of decisions. This type of automated system is really the beginnings of “intelligence” v1.0. Think of systems capable of making decisions based on external outputs.

If you think of Watson as the next evolution of AI, you end up with a computer that is capable of processing information faster than the human brain. Essentially Watson is capable of taking unknown inputs and quickly querying data sets to produce a statistical model for answering questions. Again all rule based, but Watson’s primarily logic is based on probabilities and sequencing of questions. This type of AI would be incredibly useful for linear input and output type equations.

When we start talking about specific AI today, we are talking about computer systems which are capable of making decisions. These decisions are not made based solely on programmed “logic” nor are they based solely on probabilistic expectation. Instead these machines would base their decisions on “experience” along with probabilistic expectation. As these machines continue to perform tasks, they will continue to get “smarter” and more efficient at their jobs – similar to the way that human beings become more productive today. This is where modern Ai, what I would call v3.0, is distinguishing itself from previous examples of adaptive and smart technology.

Ultimately later phases of this type of specific AI would start to incorporate new features including mechanical and digital integration to not only perform tasks which are codified but also those which are manual or physical in nature or even those that require some moderate level of intuition.

What are the implications of artificial intelligence?

The future of artificial intelligence will have significant implications to the social, economic, and political fabric of the world and the people / institutions that make it up. Today, while aspirational, we are still quite a ways away from having humanoid robots walking the earth. I would venture to guess, however, that we are on the cusp of focused implementations of artificial intelligence for rudimentary process oriented or rules based work. Think any type of transactional type processing work which may happen at home or within a business. Further down the line, we may see more advanced implementations like autonomous vehicles or fully integrated smart systems – although these types of intelligent systems may require significant upgrades to underlying infrastructure.

Ultimately, artificial intelligence will continue cross over between logical and physical systems via integration, however, the future of humanoids is really a long way away. I do not imagine that we will have walking, talking, humanoid surrogates roaming the earth within my lifetime or even several lifetimes thereafter. I do expect, however, that many of the advancements made in manufacturing automation and intelligence to make their way deeper into the workplace and even our homes – ultimately, making our lives much more convenient. On the other side of this coin, I could be way wrong and we could be looking at a dystopic future similar to that of The Matrix. I guess the point here is that if artificial intelligence can be thought up, it will ultimately become a reality – at least under conditions where it is commercially feasible and ethically bound.

For additional examples of robotics and artificial intelligence please feel free to visit the following hyperlinks:

Paro the Therapeutic Seal

Pleo the Robot Dinosaur

Aibo the Robot Dog

Machine Intelligence Research Institute

Artificial Intelligence will not take over Businesses