Freedom is not free (2 lessons from 2 years of working)

8 minute read

February 1st 2021 marked my two year work anniversary and I wanted to take some time to reflect on the last two years.

Of course last year was a bit special because of the global pandemic but I still learned a ton.

The two most important things that I learned:

  1. Freedom is not free
  2. Share what you know

Before I tell you why that is, let me give you some background.

Background

Before I started working, I dropped out of a PhD program in financial engineering (econometrics) without any idea what to do after. After a bit of wandering, I stumbled upon Marc Andreessen’s career guide which said this:

When you are just out of school – and assuming that you are relatively free to move and have a low burn rate – is when you should optimize for the rate at which you can develop skills and acquire experiences that will serve you well later. You should specifically take income risk in order to do that. Always take the job that will best develop your skills and give you valuable experiences, regardless of its salary. This is not the time in your career to play it safe.

I took this advice to heart and started looking for companies that would allow me to optimize the rate at which I could develop skills and acquire experiences, in other words, freedom. I interviewed with several companies and Cognizant came out on top, so I went with them.

When I started working there on February 1st 2019 I told myself: This is going to be a two-year experiment for me to learn as much as possible and see where we end up.

This is what I learned.

Freedom is not free

The first and most paradoxical lesson for me is that freedom is not free, it comes at a price. Freedom is good, yet too much of it is not.

Coming from a very structured academic background with well-defined problem sets and an exam every eight weeks this was quite a culture shock. I took the plunge and started working for a firm that gave me a lot of freedom.

And oh boy, did they deliver. When I joined there was a graduate program in name but behind the scenes it was a free-for-all. I’ve spoken with many people that told me that they actually suffered because of all this freedom. I wish I could say that I was not one of those people, but then I’d be lying. I quickly learned that freedom is a double-edged sword and you need to be careful not to cut yourself with it.

I now firmly believe that I love the feeling of freedom, yet, to achieve a) long-term goals and b) make sure that I perform optimally over the long run, I am convinced that I need to reign in this freedom in exchange for some structure to guide my energy in the right direction.

Share what you know

The second lesson for me is that sharing what you know has a lot of benefits.

Sharing what you know is a very good way of scaling yourself. Instead of helping someone once you can help them ad infinitum in the future by simple referring to the stuff that you made.

It’s also a lot of fun because you get so many wholesome comments and messages that more than make up for the mean comments that you get.

To show you what I mean let me give you two examples.

Example 1: Regex for noobs

I wrote a tutorial with hand-drawn graphics about regular expressions and it exploded. The night I posted it, it got read more 10.000 times and got featured on the front page of HackerNews.

Judging from the analytics, last month more than a hundred people visited the tutorial to read it. Just think about that, I wrote this tutorial more than a year ago and it is still providing value to people! That’s amazing!

Let’s go to another example!

Example 2: Video tutorial

At some point I was stuck on this issue. I even remember making a comment on the Github issue.

A year later or so I fixed it. Then I thought to myself “why not make a quick video and share it with people?” So I did! It clocks over a thousand views now which is simply amazing to me and I’m very glad that I was able to really help others with the same issue.

Make something shareable

The lesson here is that you should make something that a) provides value b) can be easily shared. Blog posts can be easily read and shared. Videos can be easily watched and shared. If you make something truly valuable (like I did twice) technology can help you easily distribute it, helping people at scale.

Highlight reel

Now that’s out of the way. Let’s have some fun!

These past 2 years many things happened:

  • Met so many great people through work
  • Visited 3 countries for client work
  • Worked for more than 9 different clients
  • Learned how to write production-ready Python and JavaScript code
  • Learned how to do “real” machine learning on client projects
  • Learned how to communicate, manage projects, and lead teams
  • And of course: COVID-19

This is a highlight reel of some of the projects and activities that I got the opportunity to be involved in!

European Induction weeks

(Picture: All my fellow European colleagues)

What’s pretty amazing is that they fly out all new European colleagues to a 5-star hotel in Spain for company-wide training. Our days were willed with seminars and corporate trainings and our nights were filled with… let’s just keep it at “team building”.

Lessons learned:

  • Cultural differences are no joke. Pay attention to the cultural differences workshops.

DeepSwipe

(Picture: Giving a talk about our model to students)

My first internal project. We built a machine learning model for gesture recognition. It turned out to be quite a challenge. Doing real-time model interference is … hard. I gave a talk on this to some university students which was a lot of fun!

Lessons learned:

Hackathon in Greece

(Picture: The team doing some late night prep)

We participated in an international hackathon! Our multidisciplinary team of data scientists and UI/UX designers did sentiment analysis on tweets and came up with a product around it. I made a vlog style video about it which you can view here.

Lessons learned:

  • It is better to make a shitty draft, get feedback, and revise, than to spend all your time on a single version. Iterate, iterate, iterate!
  • I made a video for fun and shared it with the team and before I even knew it it was shown at the quarterly company all-hands. Creating content (such as videos) is one way of scaling your own experiences.

Regex for noobs

In late 2019 I wrote this article on Regex and it became really popular. It even hit the front page of HackerNews which I still can’t believe. I have no idea why it took off so much but I was very happy it did. I think it’s because I took something that is difficult and made it simple and approachable.

Lessons learned :

  • There is a lot of value in making difficult things simple.

AI-powered chatbot project

(Picture: Team pic with silly hats!)

For this project I worked on the chatbot team inside a mobile application. Here I basically learned everything from writing JavaScript to writing tests to writing code that is ready to be pushed to production. I also got a lot of informal mentorship here which I’m to-date still very grateful for.

Lessons learned:

  • How to write production-ready code (functional, simple, tested)
  • How to resolve team conflicts
  • Good mentors are worth their weight in gold

Hackathon in France

(Picture: Drinks with part of the team)

Hackathon number two! Here we worked on a prototype to reduce duplicate work by using machine learning. While I was participating in this hackathon the servers at another client started crashing so I had to fix production issues while abroad… fun times!

Lessons learned:

  • How to engage senior stakeholders
  • How to fix production issues from another country

Building a conversational AI chatbot

My first remote (due to COVID-19) project. For a client we built a Facebook Messenger chatbot. I learned a lot about how to set up a project from scratch and the importance of proactive communication.

Lessons learned:

  • If there is anything (and I mean anything) that is stopping you from being productive, talk to your project manager.
  • In remote projects it is important that you overcommunicate! At the minimum you want a daily standup and a weekly team meeting where you discuss milestones, status, and progress. Don’t assume this happens naturally.

COVID-19

This blog post wouldn’t be complete without a mention of COVID-19.

The global pandemic has been hard on me in terms of motivation, ambition, and productivity. I love being around people and a lockdown doesn’t really help with that. At the same time I feel incredibly blessed that most people I know in my environment are safe and healthy.

Story time: I was working at a client 5 days a week and I begged the client manager whether I could work from home 1 day a week (this was just about when COVID-19 was starting to come up). He wouldn’t budge because he was convinced we couldn’t do our job remotely and I had to be there 5 days a week butt-in-seat time. Anyway, then COVID-19 came and we were all forced to work 5 days from home and suddenly we did everything remotely … oh well.

Closing remarks

All in all I’m very grateful for the last 2 years and they’ve flown by really! To summarize:

Freedom comes at a price. Nothing in life is free, especially freedom. To do my best work I need to impose strict rules and guidelines on myself. I found this really paradoxical but it’s a lesson I’ll take along with me for my whole career.

Share what you learn. Sharing what you learn benefits you (as you learn it better) and other people (because they can learn from what you’ve learned). Share what you’ve learned, everyone was a beginner once, and enjoy the journey!

If you made it this far. Thank you for reading!

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