Category Archives: General advice

Married once shame on you, married twice…

Last week my sister Sarah got married.  I thought long and hard about the appropriate wedding gift and decided that I should give the newlyweds some unsolicited advice. Here it goes.

No, it’s not a compromise

Someone once told me that marriage is a compromise. I disagree very strongly with this notion and yet it is somehow almost conventional wisdom, so I must explain. To see why, suppose that instead of a lover you have a very close friend. It helps to think about a specific person in your life. This person is so close to you that you can share your innermost secrets without embarrassment or fear of being judged. You can ask and respect their opinion on subjects that are important to you. And so on. Now imagine that you view your relationship with this person through the lens of compromise. I bet you will not be friends for very long. There is no quid pro quo in friendship, and there should not be one in marriage. Do things for each other because you want to, not because you have to.

No expectations

Some of my biggest disappointments in life came from expectations. In my field of work, statistics, we love expectations. We can not work without them. But in relationships, I found, it helps not to have any. Think about it. You come home from work and you spouse was home all day, but the dinner is not ready. Do you get immediately mad? Why? Because you expected dinner. Too bad for you! You should instead ask if maybe you partner wants to go out to eat or cook something together, or heavens forbid, skip a meal. But what if the dinner had been made? Be surprised and be thankful. Personally, given the choice, I would rather be pleasantly surprised than severely disappointed. Wouldn’t you?

Relationship changes, people not so much, but there are exceptions of course

There are some people who are capable of change. For example, I know people who used to vote for Republicans and now they vote for Democrats. But these cases are quite rare. (It had been shown for example that one’s political opinions are formed in the 20s and tend to stay constant over your lifetime.) So what does that have to do with marriage? Everything! If you think that your partner will change for you, you are crazy! Most likely they will be the same person they are today. Love that person, not the person you think he or she will become.

Two marriage stressors: kids and money

Tolstoy said that: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” There had been a lot of studies trying to figure out what breaks marriages apart.  Two things stand out: kids and finances, but wait, I am not trying to convince you not to have kids or chase after money all your life. Instead recognize that having kids will put a lot of stress on your relationship and if you choose to have kids, you should be ready for it. I know I was not, and my (first) marriage suffered as a result. Psychologist Daniel Gilbert in his book “Stumbling on Happiness” showed the following chart of marital happiness.  All four studies point to the fact that once families start having children their marital satisfaction decreases (*). So what to do? Get a lot of help! We got some help when my kids were young, but it was not nearly enough. When kids are young both of you will be stressed and tired. It’s not a very romantic time. If you can afford a live-in or more or a less full-time help, do it! Make sure to schedule regular date nights, when the two of you can go out without the kids. Go on weekend getaways. In short, do what you can to protect your relationship from stress. Which brings me to the second stressor, finances, or lack thereof. Here, I am not much of an expert but having a budget and a financial plan will likely help. Today there are lots of services that are not too expensive and will help you with that.

marriage

[(*) Statistically speaking, the figure is missing a control group: people who were married but never had any kids. If that group shows similar pattern as above, we are likely observing some kind of a generic marriage fatigue, but if it is more or less constant (straight line), then perhaps the change in satisfaction is due to kids.]

Don’t go to bed angry

Jacki told me about this one and I like it so much I thought I would throw it in. Don’t go to bed angry means that you should try to resolve your disagreements before going to sleep. Don’t hold it in, talk about, understand each other’s point of view, and only then go to sleep. As a side effect, you will probably sleep better.

You are married, but you are still individuals

Back in the old days, people assumed their partner’s identity. Women were especially prone to this because they were relying on men financially and often emotionally. We don’t have to go too far back into the past to find examples. My maternal grandmother lived her life in the service of her husband. She relied on him for everything. He made all the important decisions and she did not question any of it, at least to my knowledge. It was not a very happy marriage, but they survived as a couple. When my grandfather died of cancer, my grandmother fell apart. She could not stop talking about him, she was lost in every possible way. Thankfully, her daughter was there to pick up the mantle. I have no idea what would have happened to my grandma if my mother was not there for her during that time. Nothing good I suppose. What is the point of this story? Don’t lose yourself in one another. Even though you are married you are still thinking, feeling, contributing individuals. You are stronger together, but you don’t collapse when you are apart.

Time together, time apart

Sometimes being apart is great. You can get lost in your own thoughts, reevaluate your decisions, reflect on all the good and bad things that happened. This summer Jacki rented a small apartment by the beach and spent almost an entire week there by herself. I was very supportive of this and happy that she was able to do it. I missed her a lot and she told me she missed me too. Towards the end of the week, I took the kids and joined her. We had a great time together, but we did not collapse when we were apart.

Last words, I promise…

In closing, let me say that I have made a lot of mistakes in my life. Some, I can not correct, but I can learn from them and I can change, for the better I hope. I also hope that you can learn from my mistakes, if only a little. I wish both of you love everlasting, respect for one another, and a strong enduring friendship.

Good luck.

How to Get a Job That You Don’t Hate

First of all, if you have not seen the movie Office Space, stop reading this blog post and watch it. I will wait.

Welcome back.

I am often asked to give career advice. This is strange since I don’t think I ever had a career. I had jobs, some terrible, some pretty good ones. I started a company in 2010. I am starting another one now. But a career, never. OK, so with that out of the way …

Earlier this month I was invited to discuss job search strategies with students in the MA in Statistics program at Columbia University. After the discussion, I posted the following blurb on my Facebook page.

Talking about careers in data analysis and stats with students in the MA in Statistics program at Columbia. My key messages: 1) if you want to work for banks, make sure you know what you are getting into; 2) think of an interview as a two way street: they interview you, you interview them; 3) if you hate your job, quit (if you can) and don’t worry about what it would look like on your resume; 4) don’t apply online, get a referral, go to meet ups, etc.; 5) learn some Bayesian stats — you will be a better human and know more than most of your peers.

I thought it would be useful to people if I elaborated on these a bit so here it goes.

If you want to work for banks, make sure you know what you are getting into

A lot of students in the MA in Stats program want to work for banks. I am not sure why that is but it must have something do with the geography and expectations of high earnings. Whatever the motivation, it is a good idea to know what you are getting into. Not everyone hates working for banks, but in my experience, technical people who end up working there are not very happy. I think they find that the culture does not agree with them very much. My advice is always to ask to speak with your potential future peers and ask them, the future peers, about three things they love and three things they hate about their work. You would be surprised what you will learn. Having said that, I have met people on the “business” side of banks that absolutely love it. Like with anything else do your research and make your decisions based on conditional probabilities, not population averages.

Think of an interview as a two-way street: they interview you, you interview them

This should be obvious, but most people don’t do it. The thing to recognize is that there is an inherent risk asymmetry between you and your prospective employer. You are just one candidate or employee out of many. They can make a mistake with you and they would probably be ok, but you are about to commit several years of your life to them (in expectation) and so you should be the one doing the interviewing! Of course, the realities of the sparse labor market is such that usually, you need them more than they need you, and so the roles are flipped. This fact, although daunting, should not deter you.

You want to find out what it would be like spending most of your waking hours at a job you do not yet have. This is not easy. To get started, make a simple two-category list: 1) culture; and 2) technical. For example, if you want flexible working hours, put that in the culture column and if you just must program in R, put that in the technical. Once you are done making the list, rank order the items. Do this before you take any interviews. After the interview, try to score the prospective employer along those dimensions. Where is the money column, you ask? That part is easy: know your minimum number and don’t be afraid to let them know what that is … but be reasonable, which means know what the market is paying and where you are on the skill / experience curve.

If you hate your job, quit if you can and don’t worry about what it would look like on your resume

Some jobs are just plain awful. If you do what I recommended above, you will probably avoid most of those, but every now and again one will creep up on you. What to do? Quit! Sure, this is easier said than done, but at the very least immediately start looking for a new job and make some notes about how you were duped with this one. Introspection is a great tool and I use it often.

A friend of mine spent years working at a company for a horrible boss and even though he eventually quit he still has emotional anxiety over the whole affair. Life is way too short to work for assholes. Get out now. But what about the resume, you ask, and I answer: if you are a technical person, github (or something like that) is your resume.

Don’t apply online, get a referral, go to meet-ups, and so on, but I am sorry I can’t refer you because I don’t know you

When I was working for a bank we had an opening for a business analyst. Now, here is the thing: business analyst does not analyze the business. What does she do? She writes requirements for a proposed piece of software. Anyway, that’s beside the point. When this job was posted by the HR department we received over 200 resumes! I don’t remember if we hired anyone, but you can imagine your chances of getting such a job. (Well, you can just compute them, but whatever.) The short story is, don’t apply online.

The best jobs I ever got were referred to me by my friends and classmates. Meetups are also some of the best places to get technical jobs. New York Statistical Programming Meetup is a great one for stats people and they often advertise jobs during their events. Another great way is to start contributing to some open source software. Where can you find great open source projects? Github, of course.

But Eric, why can’t you introduce me to some of those friends of yours that have all these great jobs? The truth is that they will not be my friends for much longer if I started doing that and you should not do it either. Your referral is a reflection on you — use it wisely and only introduce people you know well.

Learn some Bayesian statistics — you will be a better human and know more than most of your peers

When I was getting my MA in Stats at CU, they did not have a masters level Bayesian class. This is a tragedy of modern statistical education, but things are getting better. My friend and co-founder Ben Goodrich is teaching an excellent Bayesian class for masters students in the QMSS program. The stats department also offers the class and Andrew Gelman teaches a PhD level Bayesian course. If you are not at Columbia, Coursera recently started offering Bayesian classes. This one looks particularly interesting.

So why all the hype about Bayes? It’s a long story, but here were my initial views on the subject. I now work exclusively in the Bayesian framework. In short, Bayes keeps me close to the reasons why I fell in love with statistics in the first place — it lets me model the world directly using probability distributions.

Even if you are not a statistician you should learn about conditional probabilities and Bayes rule so you do not commit many common fallacies such as the prosecutor’s fallacy, especially if you are a prosecutor.

Bonus feature: why do you want a regular job anyway?

Recently I was on the Google hangouts call with a friend of mine who works as a contract programmer. His arrangement with  the company is that he works remotely. For most people remotely means working from home. For him, it means working from anywhere in the world. Right now he lives in a small apartment in Medellín, Columbia. He showed me the view from his window. It looks approximately like this:

2670489_full-lnd

To quote Tina Fey: I want to go to there.

The idea that an employer dictates both the hours during which you must work and the location of where the work must be performed is somewhat outdated. Sure, there are lots of jobs out there that legitimately require this kind of commitment, but it is no longer the norm. Take a look at that culture column I mentioned before and see where you stand relative to hours / location flexibility and choose accordingly.

Note to people seeking H1B visa

A lot of people I speak with are in the US on F1 (student) visa. It is really tragic that the US does not award work visas to foreign graduates, but this is unlikely to change anytime soon. The common misconception is that you need to find a large company to sponsor your H1B (work visa). You do not. Lot’s of small companies can and do sponsor H1s. When I was working for a small startup in San Francisco in the mid-90s, we sponsored several H1Bs for Eastern European immigrants. The key is finding an experienced attorney who processes many applications and ask her for advice. Reputable attorneys will not charge you for the initial consultation.

If you have any other questions, please ask them in the comments.