I feel like I’ve seen more personal reflections on 2020 than usual. Considering the year that has been 2020, I’m not overly surprised. Since I was able to complete (just) one of my 2020 goals in launching this site, I figured my own reflection of that past year would serve as a proper inaugural post. For tomorrow (or the next day), I’ll follow up with my thoughts and goals for 2021.
Generally speaking, 2020 has been a pretty crappy year, I don’t need to repeat the details. However, I am cautiously optimistic for the future. The pandemic and the resulting shelter-in-place did come with a silver lining in the acceleration of digitalization and technical advancements. These trends hold the potential to improve the lifestyles and work environments of many going forward. On the reverse side, the challenges of 2020, the pandemic, our continued struggle with racial equality and our incompetent government at all levels, provide us the opportunity to reflect on and decide on what kind of future that we’d like to see for ourselves as a society.
When we look back on 2020 with the hindsight of history, I’m hoping we see it as a pivotal year of positive change, a crucible that we survived and that made us stronger. Many have made the connection to the Roaring ‘20s following the Spanish Flu. We have the potential for progress if we are mindful and make sure we seize opportunities. History doesn't repeat, but it does rhyme; nothing is guaranteed. Similarly, we need to be conscious that the Great Depression and WWII followed decades later and make sure we don’t rhyme that part of history again.
Stepping off the soapbox, I’m grateful that my family and I have ended 2020 mostly better off than we started the year. Let’s get into the specifics, in alphabetical order:
Table of Contents
I didn’t create much this year. Even with the extra down time from shelter-in-place, my attention was drawn elsewhere. I did finally launch this very site, after a few versions that failed to launch over the years. There’s still some features I’d like to add and a lot of rough edges that I’d like to polish, but it exists and it’s public and I no longer have an excuse not to write anymore. I did decide at the last minute to archive all my past writings and move them to subdomain to simplify this site and keep it focused.
With my focus on launching this site, I didn’t write a single thing this year. I didn’t even finish this post in time to post for 2020, though I may backdate it for historical purposes.
One of the silver linings to shelter-in-place is the end of the theatrical window and the direct release of movies to streaming platforms. I’ve enjoyed the ability to watch first run movies from the comfort of my home. I don’t mind having to pay for the privilege, via Disney+’s Premiere Pass for Mulan (though that specific movie was a bit of a letdown).
Ted Lasso was the only outstanding new release to television this year. I highly recommend it, it’s good natured, warm hearted and a spiritual successor to Parks and Recreation. Speaking of such successors, I did finally get around to watching the final season of The Good Place (I didn’t realize Hulu was only keeping the last few episodes, while I waited to binge the entire season). It was a fitting ending to a show that attempted to reach for greatness and came pretty damn close. The Mandalorian remains solid, and I continue to love/hate Westworld. I’m disappointed that the pandemic put an early end to GLOW, as I felt that show was hitting its stride.
After getting a bit obsessed with Claude Debussy’s Suite bergamasque, specifically the third movement, “Clair de lune,” (you’ll probably recognize it from the Ocean’s 11 fountain scene) and stumbling upon Vox deconstructing “that famous cello prelude” (the prelude to Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major), I decided to give classical music a try. I’ve been a fan of orchestral music via the soundtracks of John Williams, Alan Silvestri and James Horner. So far, I’ve focused mostly on Beethoven via the Complete Piano Works of Martino Tirimo. I don’t mind the music, but I’ve yet to fall in love with it.
With a mix of luck and proper risk management, I survived the year COVID-free. With even more good luck, my close family and friends also avoided infection. Continuing the good news, 2020 was my second full year cancer-free.
I should have known that 2020 was to be a trying year, as I started the year in the emergency room having rolled my ankle while packing and moving. I kept packing and moving for the next few hours until I could no longer bare weight on it. Not a great decision on my part.
Controlling my weight saw mixed results, or rather it became a tale of two halves. In 2019, I committed to a goal with a plan to get my weight into check. If I didn’t hit a certain target weight within a year, then I would look into bariatric surgery.
In the translated words of Robert Burns, “The best-laid schemes of mice and men Go oft awry.” Needless to say, COVID-19 and the resulting shelter-in-place did not help me stick to plan, and my diet devolved into the worse I’ve behaved in years. Instead of losing weight, I gained five pounds, peaking at three hundred and seventeen pounds. I decided to give myself a mulligan for the year, but also questioned if I could ever pull off getting my weight under check.
After surviving cancer in 2018, I felt the need to be more proactive with my health and I asked my doctor for a fuller workup in my yearly physical. On one hand, I’m glad we did as the results were not great, or good or even okay. On the other hand, more bad health news. I’m not going to get into the details now, as I don’t want to tempt fate at the moment. The one bit of good news is that my health problem was completely in my own control. That’s great motivation to make a change, and so I did.
Once I have confirmation on my progress, I plan on providing the full details here. For the short story, I committed to intermittent fasting and a very low carb and high fiber diet. The fasting comprised of four twenty four hour fasts per week and two eighteen hours fasts, or to put it in simpler terms, I alternated days consuming just a single meal (usually dinner), with days of restricted eating (lunch and dinner) and one day of unrestricted eating (usually Saturday into Sunday).
In respect to physical activity, shelter-in-place has provided both challenges and opportunities. I’m far less active during work hours, as I now mostly sit or stand at my desk Zooming for eight hours each day, while previously in the office I would actually remain fairly active hopping from meeting to meeting, often across different buildings. On the other hand, I’m always home and available to walk my dog, Jedi, every day. We started walking about one to one and a half miles each day, but have worked up to a daily two miles with longer walks on the weekend.
The results have been strong so far, as I’ve lost twenty six pounds in a little more than three months since starting the new regimen, though I did recently hit a bit of a plateau as the last five pounds have been the hardest. Ultimately, I started the year at three hundred and thirteen pounds, peaked at three hundred and seventeen pounds and closed the year out at two hundred and eighty four pounds. Most important, I feel that I have strong momentum and real faith that I can finally get my weight under control, which will only be of more importance as I age.
You could say 2020 was the year of hobbies for me. I had more time than usual, and I didn’t spend much of it productively, but I do end the year in good mental health and high spirits, so maybe I was productive in the end.
At the end of 2019, my wife and I decided to put It Starts with Grapes on hiatus. Shelter-in-place extended that hiatus and I’m not all that certain if the project will return, though I’m sure that if it does it will need to evolve as my wife just did not enjoy that level of that type of writing and I did not enjoy that much time-sensitive editing.
We didn’t attend any wine classes together this year, though I did attend a virtual class on wine cellar strategies solo. We did enjoy multiple virtual wine tastings–the highlights include Ferrari, Krug, Ridge and Arpepe–together thanks to the wonderful folks at Vina Enoteca. With my new health regimen, we’ve practically become teetotalers, though we did cheat on the holidays.
We’ve also canceled most of our wine clubs, as we had overdone our club memberships, I think at our height we belonged to a dozen. We’ve done a better job buying wine that drinking it, almost all of our storage is full at home and in offsite storage locker. We’ve kept just four clubs, our favorites at Ridge (three bottles of estate wine per year and a futures allocation of six bottles), O’Shaughnessy (six bottles per year) and Ashes & Diamonds (just three bottles per year). Strong hint to other wineries, notices that the clubs we’ve kept not only produce outstanding wine, but don’t force all that many bottles on their club members. Our last club is Vina Enoteca’s, so we can add some Italian diversity to our mostly Californian cellar and support our favorite local restaurant.
We enjoyed expanding our horizons cooking at home as well, both self-directed and via Vina Enoteca’s virtual cooking classes.
To pass the time during shelter in place, my wife “completed” a few puzzles, I helped a bit, though most ended up missing that one final piece. We also saw a month or two obsession with sudoko. I completed a few more LEGOs than usual, though not necessarily because of the down time. I received a LEGO “Iconic Brick Calendar” and Yoda sets for my birthday. I impulse purchased “Dom’s Dodge Charger” from the The Fast and the Furious. My wife surprised me with San Francisco and New York City Architecture sets. Lastly, I’ve accumulated a few Christmas sets that were fun builds the weekend after Thanksgiving. I'll backpost image galleries of these builds when I get a chance.
In the genre of “reliving my childhood, but with money,” I rediscovered my baseball cards during a house reorganization. Surprisingly, I actually had a few unopened boxes, all junk wax from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Still, I had fun opening them, organizing my existing cards and then realizing that eBay exists and perhaps spending a bit too much money buying boxes of the cards I wish I was able to afford as a child. I’ve decided that I want to box this hobby and ensure that it’s not an ongoing money or time suck, so I’m stopping when I get to sets from 1997, which is the year I stopped collecting as a child.
As I mentioned briefly earlier, we started 2020 moving into our new house. We closed on the house just before Christmas in 2019 and moved in right at the start of the year. This was fortuitous for the short term, as shelter-in-place has been bearable to even comfortable in this new house, and would have been difficult and uncomfortable in our previous rental.
Even though the house was “move in” ready, it became a new hobby for my wife and I and provided plenty of projects throughout the year. Some of the house projects were simply due to too much free time, we started converting the house to a “smart house” starting with light switches, and with a doorbell and carbon monoxide/smoke detectors to come. Since we converted some switches, we also decided to upgrade the remaining “dumb” switches and outlets at eye height (mostly in the kitchen and bathrooms). Many of these projects are still in progress and slow moving since they require us to shutdown the power at the breaker.
We’ve made two large investments this year, one we planned on right away and the other was unplanned. We knew at purchase that we wanted to fix the backyard and landscaping. The patio was unnecessarily multi-leveled with both cement and pavers. While, the backyard still had the smallest of grass yards that required upkeep. In the front and on the side, bushes and trees were in need of trimming and maintenance. We paved over most of the backyard with stamped concrete, so we no longer needed to maintain a back yard. Jedi is happy to potty on mulch, as that’s what she was used to from our prior rental. We did expand one of the mulch beds into a dog run.
After learning about the expiring tax credits for solar investments, we decided to pull that purchase forward into 2020. The continued wild fires and resulting power outages also pushed us to take more control of our own power supply. Plus, I’m a big believer that residential solar is part of the answer for climate change, and I’m good to do my part. That decision was a bit last minute and the project has continued into the new year. Luckily it sounds like the new stimulus bills extends the prior tax credits, so we should qualify for the 26% credit for the full purchase, just split across multiple tax years.
My Year in Books via goodreads.
I only read twenty books, missing my yearly goal by four. However, I consider this year of reading mostly a success. When I look at the books that I completed, I’m really happy with the quality of book and what I’ve learned from them. My average book rating has improved to 4.2 for 2020, after a 3.6 in 2019 and a 3.3 in 2018. I’m getting better at choosing books that I enjoy reading, or at least derive value from if enjoy isn’t the appropriate word. I can still get better at simply choosing to read books instead of mindless consumption like reruns on YouTube TV or the following the current outrage on Twitter.
It’s hard for me to name a favorite book for 2020, a positive sign that I’m choosing multiple high quality reads. The Dream Machine by M. Mitchell Waldrop is one of the reasons that I’m simply not worried about failure to achieve my quantity goal for 2020. I really enjoyed this book and learned a lot about the creation of both early interactive computers as well as the Internet. This book provided some strong inspiration as well. On the other hand, it was long and dense and took me three months to read, a time that I could usually read three or four other books. In the end, I’m happy to have invested the time to read this book, even at the expense of missing out on a few others.
Reflecting on my 2020 reading, there’s two high level types of books I seem to enjoy the most, STEM histories like the aforementioned The Dream Machine or The American Moonshot or books that provide specific, concrete information, like Salt Fat Acid Heat, The Elements of Style, Software Engineering at Google or Seven Languages in Seven Weeks.
Tyler Cowen’s Stubborn Attachments doesn’t really fit either category, as it was more a philosophical treatise on economics and politics. However, I highly enjoyed the read, learned a lot and most importantly it helped my question and thus shape some of my own beliefs.
On the other hand, I’ve learned that I don’t enjoy the book genre that I’ll simply call the “extended blog post.” These are books that may contain one good idea, but really only need an extended essay of maybe ten thousand words to clearly and succinctly get the point across. But since books usually need to hit two hundred pages to publish, the authors have to cram a lot of fluff into the book to extend the length. These aren’t necessarily bad books, or at least bad topics, just overly verbose and puffy. For example, the core essence of The One Thing was strong and well worth the effort to read. It was just ironically, not well focused. I think these books are the reason a service like Blinkist exists, though I’d rather just introduce the pamphlet as a short book format and make it acceptable to sell a book at thirty to fifty pages if that’s all it needs, even at the same cost.
I hesitate to put Accelerate into this category, as I think it may have had less fluff and instead I was simply the wrong target reader as from my vantage it preached to the choir too much and presented a lot of information that I already knew.
After surviving cancer, and now surviving a pandemic that has forced us into close confines for almost a year, with little other human contact, I am fairly confident that my wife and I can take on any challenge together. Please note, this is NOT a challenge to fate or the Powers That Be to bring more. I would be very appreciative of a few easier years. Our relationship and marriage is stronger now than ever before.
Oddly, I think Jedi has been most affected by the human pandemic. She hasn’t been able to socialize much with other dogs. Puppy socials are obviously out of the question and when we near a dog and their human when out on a walk, we quickly move to avoid, rather than previously letting the dogs meet and sniff each other out. Dog parks have been rather empty as well. Jedi does get to play with a few of her friends, though they do have the tendency to move away…
Speaking of which, the Silicon Valley exodus has hit our friend group hard, with one family moving to back home to Chicago and another couple trying a new adventure in San Diego. I also imagine that it won’t be as easy to meet new friends for the short term at least. I’m hoping things get back to normal eventually. Since there’s historically been a constant stream of new transplants, this is a pretty good area to meet folks new to the area and looking for a new friend network.
I served as officiant for the marriage ceremony for one of our friend couples in December. This time, I was the legal officiant, as California has fairly lax regulations when it comes to who’s allowed to officiate weddings, e.g. they accept online efficient registrations. I am now an ordained minister of the American Marriage Ministries.
The pandemic has also prevented us from visiting any friends and family or vice versa this year, save for my mom who visited in late February, and departed the day before tech companies started closing their offices. Luckily, Zoom and FaceTime are things now, so connections have remained.
Travel and Dining
There has not been much travel or dining out this year, for obvious reasons. We did get in a visit to Ridge Vineyards when my mom visited in late February. I also discovered Sundance The Steakhouse on my birthday, the first steakhouse that’s actually worth a repeat visit. And then shelter-in-place.
Despite shelter-in-place, when the pandemic was most under control in the local area and things opened back up just a bit, we did take advantage of the opportunity to book a short visit to Napa, and landed a reservation at The French Laundry. We dined in their courtyard and I quite liked the experience, potentially even more so than their normal indoor service. As for the food, I can see why it’s consistently awards three stars by Micheline, but I was a bit disappointed. Only about half the courses blew my mind, and for three Micheline stars and the cost of that reservation, I’d expect every course to blow my mind. I also feel that the sommelier misread us, perhaps because we mixed wine lovers with civilians, but the pairings were a bit on the tamer side and not all that adventurous.
While in Napa, we took the opportunity to book some of the wineries that have been on my list for a while, but who tend to be harder to score a reservation with, at least at the notice we usually are able to give. We visited Schramsberg, Spring Mountain and Tank Garage Winery, thoroughly enjoying each. We’ve learned that with Napa, less is more, so we no longer try to overbook as we know we’ll be back for others soon enough. Spring Mountain was the second-to-last “whites” Judgement of Paris winery that I visited, at least in California. Perhaps one day, I’ll visit the ones in France as well.
Most of our dining for the remainder of the year was limited to take out or home cooking, or both in the case of the Vina Enoteca cooking classes that I previously mentioned. We were able to dine outdoors at Chez TJ, right in our backyard of downtown Mountain View, for our anniversary before shelter-in-place became more strict. Another great outdoor dining experience, as they just renovated their patio area for the pandemic restrictions. The food was solid and the wine pairing adventurous and delicious.
I’m not going to get into specifics here, as this is not a financial blog, but let’s just say that the numbers moved in a positive direction and we did hit a major milestone that I hadn’t specifically planned on hitting until “sometime before turning 40,” which I guess 36 counts for. Anyway, I like to concentrate more on good financial behaviors and hygiene than on specific numbers and milestones.
One failed behavior is that I’ve yet to write down my actually financial and investment plan. I have it more or less authored in my mind, but it’s important to write it down as memories can fail and when turmoil hits, it’s important to follow the rules that we decided with careful consideration during the calm times. Also, without writing down the exact behaviors and rules that I want to follow, I’m not certain if I’m following them well.
That said, I did follow the number one rule, I did not panic earlier in the year when the pandemic first spread and shelter-in-place was first instituted. I learned my lesson the hard way once (but with very little at stake) early in my investing days during a flash crash in the summer of 2011. I had less than ten thousand dollars at stake, but I do believe selling at the bottom and then having to buy back in after the recovery cost me a good two or three grand. I consider that a more than fair price for the lesson I learned.
In investment news, I did put my accredited investor status to use and became an LP at Earnest Capital. Their unique take spoke to me, and I’m aligned with their thesis that the traditional VC model is not for everyone, you can create a successful business that isn’t a rocket ship and a bit of capital can make that task easier and benefit everyone involved. I had the opportunity to invest directly in a seed round of a startup, but I declined with immediate FOMO. However, I’m fairly sure that I don’t know enough right now to make good investments at that stage, nor do I have enough capital to create the necessary portfolio to de-risk the chance of success. So I’ll stick to being a micro-LP for now and let the experts pick the opportunities.
Lastly, with my life in relative success and the current state of the world, we wanted to give back more to others in need, so we decided to super charge our givings to charity this year and grow that going forward. In a nice coincidence, my employer, LinkedIn, decided to also supercharge their charity match, so I was able to do more with my giving this year.
For the future, I want to put more time into crafting a charity thesis, as I want to ensure my contributions are doing as much good as possible. I’m particularly interested in causes that drive human progress and create flywheels, e.g. $1x donation today, creates $10x value in the future. For the time being, we decided on a few areas we wanted to ensure we gave to, and then used Charity Navigator to find the most reputable charities in the domains of health and medicine, animal rescues, social justice, global impact, direct giving and human progress to split our contributions amongst.
To provide the context I need to explain this year at work, I need to step back a bit. I feel that my story is a somewhat common one, from the start of my career in tech, I became accustomed to a promotion a year (or more); web developer to senior to tech lead to senior manager to director… But then they stopped and I hit a bit of a wall. Part of that was simply because the company I was at, eBay Enterprise, at that time hit a wall and stopped growing before it was ultimately divested in parts as part of the eBay/PayPal split. It’s simply harder to grow, when the company around you isn’t growing as the opportunities become scarce and hotly contested. The other part is more natural, eventually you rise to your level of competence (or incompetence if you believe in the Peter Principal). Anyway, the trend break was difficult to accept and led me to many short term optimizations seeking that next promotion that ultimately set my career back over the long term.
Eventually, I came to understand and accept my situation. I moved teams internally at LinkedIn to a good, but challenging opportunity managing developer productivity teams for API and Web that would place my previous weaknesses of collaborating across organizations front and center. This ended up being one of the best career decisions that I’ve made as I’ve thrived in this role since starting it a little more than two years ago. I finally achieved that next promotion that I had been after for a few years.
For the first time in a long time, during 2020, I was content and happy with exactly where I was at my career, keeping my focus entirely on the challenges in the work itself, rather than moving up a ladder. Now, this doesn’t mean I entirely ignored my future career, but I was able to look at the larger picture without obsessing over a short term outcome.
I’m also very conscious of how much further I have to go in my career. I’m currently on the management track and I’m not certain my final ambition lays in managing hundreds of humans. So there’s a potential I hit a ceiling of my own creation soon enough, and I need to work through how to do that, while keeping the work challenging, interesting and continuing to grow.
This was the second full in year in position managing API and Web developer productivity, and I’ve learned from the past that two years is about right at each position before taking on new challenges. This doesn’t mean that I need to leave the company, or even find a brand new role, just that it was nearing time to either expand or change my current role. As luck would have it, there was a re-organization of the larger group I was in that provided me this opportunity to change and even expand my role.
As part of the change, I lost my responsibility for API productivity, but gained responsibility for Web infrastructure and the UX infrastructure across all clients, Mobile and Web. I’m fairly happy with this outcome. I’m sad to lose the engineers from the API team, but I know they are in a great place and joining the API infrastructure team will provide them new opportunities and challenges that I wasn’t able to present to them in the previous org structure. I’m happy though that I get to focus on the holistic needs of our Web engineers and our member’s experience on the LinkedIn desktop Web app. I’m also happy that I still have exposure to other platforms, mobile in this case, because I do want to remain a well-rounded technical leader and not lose focus on other layers of the technical stack.