Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Getting Real


I recently finished reading Getting Real, which is written by the geniuses at 37signals.  This book basically talks about re-thinking the approach developers take in building web applications; with an emphasis on focus and simplicity.  My favorite quote from the book is: "It's not brain surgery, it's a web app."  I know it sounds cliche, but this is so important.  One of the advantages we have in developing web applications (vs. bundled software or any any other product, really) is that there is only one copy of the product; your clients come to you... you don't distribute or mass-produce anything.  This means that you have the ability to change on the fly, and be completely agile.  Getting Real addresses this fact and preaches that we should harness this advantage to it's utmost potential.  There is no point in trying to build something that is all things to all people.  Rather, try and build something that does one thing really well!  If you're ever going to have your hands involved in developing a web app, read this book! Seriously!

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Lessons from the GMAT

A few weeks ago, I finally went to battle against the GMAT (Graduate Management Assessment Test). Studying for this grueling 3-hour exam was an "interesting" process (to say the least). But the more I think about it, the more I start to realize that the lessons I learned from this process actually apply to every aspect of my life. Learning from these lessons has truly made me a stronger person, and hence, has inspired me to write this post. Below is a summary of the key "learnings":

Time Management
This was honestly one of the hardest challenges for me to overcome. The average study time for the GMAT is estimated to be about 3 months. Now, 3 months sounds like a lot of time to study for a stupid test, doesn't it? As a result, it's very easy to be passive about your studying in the first couple of months. Furthermore, it's also very hard to be aggressive throughout the life-span of your studying. Knowing this, I finally did what I've intended to do for so many years...make a schedule that I could actually stick to! The trick here is to be REALISTIC! Just like when you make a gym, reading, or diet schedule, the harder and more aggressive you make it, the easier it is to fall out of it. Don't tell me you haven't tried making that 6-day-a-week work out plan and dropped out half way through the first week:P Making realistic schedules (with benchmarks along the way) is absolutely critical when you want to introduce something into your hectic/busy life.

The art of Persistence / Never Give up / Keep a Possitive Attitude
How many times have you heard these clich├ęs? Maybe to the point where they have lost their effectiveness? Is there even a point to me mentioning them? Maybe not, but I'm going to do it anyway. When I first wrote a practice test (2 weeks before the real test date), I scored terrible! So terrible, that I'm not even going to mention my score. To make this situation worse, I had talked to many people that bragged about how well they did on practice tests without even studying...I had already been studying for 2.5 months:S This was quite a low point for me, but I sucked it up, and told myself that I'd do better next time. Funny thing is, I actually did worse on my next attempt. At this point, I was so close to giving up that withought a ridiculously positive attitude, I would have canceled/rescheduled my test date. I'm not going to delve into the details, but eventually my scores started to go up...and up...and up...all the way until the real test. Just like this experience, we face so many low points in our lives. It is our attitude, and what we decide to learn from these experiences, that will push as forward... Oh man, that sounds like something from Quotes of the Day.

Verbal Skills
This one is a little cheesy, and not quite as generic as the first two...but I think it's worth mentioning. The GMAT forces you to re-learn the foundations of the English language. Anything from subject-verb agreement to dangling modifiers. Coming from an engineering background, I never realized how many grammar mistakes I made on a consistent basis:P Learning all these rules again was tedious and quite annoying, but extremely useful!

Quick Thinking / Swift Decisions
This is an important one. GMAT questions are all about speed. You have to be able to break down problems very quickly, sometimes even make educated guesses. If you spend too much time on one question, it could ruin your entire score. (You get penalized for not completing the exam in time.) In business, this is actually a pretty crucial skill. I know it may sound completely opposite to the "never give up" rule...but they actually go hand in hand. Let me use an analogy to explain. I think of the studying part as a representation of the work you do on your own time in business. It's great to solve problems until they're finished, even if they take you hours, even days... because you find out what you did wrong, and tell yourself you'll never commit those errors again. On the other hand, writing the test is like a crucial meeting with your boss, or even an interview. In these types of situations, you'll have to be able to make swift and intelligent decisions...otherwise you'll come off as incompetent. The ability to do this is actually a the result of all the hours you spent learning and building your aptitude. So in summary: be meticulous on your own time, but be swift at game time. Making this distinction is so vital to success, and studying for the GMAT has taught me well:)

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Back from the Sunshine...

So I'm back from my trip to Cuba...and before I go on a rant, I must admit, I did not fulfil my initial promise of a computer-less vacation. You see, as soon as I finished my last post, and was leaving my house for the airport, I realized that I'd be bringing my camera with me...and ofcourse, a camera is categorized in the class of technology which I specified. So I said to myself, "what the hell, might as well bring the DS as well." Pretty weak huh? (I gave in before my vacation even started:P

I stayed at the beautiful Barcelo Solymar in Varadero, Cuba, which is probably one of the most popular resorts on the peninsula. We had an ocean view (which was spectacular), and the staff were extremely friendly.
cuba 2007 007
There was an abundance of activities, and we took advantage of the scooters, snorkling, special dinners, paddle boats...just to name a few. Although I enjoyed getting inebbriated, I spent a great deal of time reading on the beach, which was probably one of the most relaxing things i have experienced in a long time.
cuba 2007 154

By far, the greatest, and most exciting part of the trip, was our visit to Habana (the nations capitol). This city is full of life, and if you go without a tour guide (like we did) you get to experience some of the "real cuba". When we arrived by bus, it was pretty clear we stuck out like a sore thumb. I don't know if it was the bright green resort braclets we had wrapped around our wrists, or the 500 page Cuban tourist book we were carrying:P Regardless, we ended up taking cabs from place to place. Cuba's Revolution took place in 1959, and it is pretty clear that a large part of the country is still stuck in that era. The city was full of 60's vehicles and building that have not been touched since that time. At points in time, we wandered into residential districts and were thrown into shock by the condition that people were living in. It almost seemed like we should have been scared walkign the streets alone, but what a lot of people don't know, is that Cuba is a lot safer than it appears to be. No cuban is allowed carry a gun. Locals are not legally allowed to talk to tourists unless their job permits them too. Knowing this, walking the streets of the ghetto felt a lot like a roller coaster - You're scared, but you know you're safe.
Che and Me
The thing that puts most people in shock is that we stayed at the house of a local in Habana. This may seem strange, but it is perfectly normal. Legally, Cubans are allowed to rent upto 2 rooms in each household to tourists. Each household is also certified by the government, so there is regulation. The next time you're in Habana and want to stay the night...ask for a casa particular...i promise you won't regret the experience. In my mind, every historic site in Habana is a must see, and is vital if you want to get a true sense of the way Cuba has transformed into the nation it is today.

So in conclusion, the vacation was relaxing, exciting, life-changing, and fun all in one...mission accomplished.

-Zak

Sunday, June 03, 2007

The Sweet Escape

My msn nickname for the past week has been "looking forward to a computer-less vacation". This is interesting considering my degree, job, and life basically revolve around computers:P But today, finally, I leave for Varadero, Cuba for a week to enjoy the sun, have some fun, relax, and most importantly, escape from the pressures of everyday life. I've decided to make minimize the amount of technology I'm taking with me, just so I can give myself a "true escape". This consists of, no laptop, ipod, nintendo DS :(, or even cell phone...To tell you the truth, its gonna be tough, but hopefully I can loose myself in the sunshine and the great novels I'm bringing with me. I gotta catch my flight now, so I'll be sure to give an update when I get back.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

I Love Rewards Company Retreat

Our company (I Love Rewards Inc.) went on our semi-annual retreat this past week. It was a two day getaway that was located at the beautiful *cough* Bricker Residence in Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Ontario. Aside from the tiny beds, and window-less conference room, this experience was nothing but positive!



There was a huge focus on team building and over-communicating the company vision and goals for the next six months. By far, my favorite session was Brutal Facts. This basically consisted of our VP of Operations stating a couple "brutal facts" about the current state of the company, and clearing the way for boundless discussion. I won't reveal what the facts were, but they definitely erected a lot of opinions. At this point there was a no holds bar brain storm, where people could state how they feel, and suggest improvements. What impressed me the most was how open and honest everybody was. I Love Rewards has fostered an environment of open communication...smoke before fire they always say... This 2 hour session flew by, but at the end of it, I felt some what rejuvenated. We also had the chance to play an intense few games of soccer right after. Now, I don't know if the timing of this game was planned strategically to give employees the chance to let out their frustration, but it was absolutely amazing.

What did I learn from this retreat?

1. Communication is an integral part of GREAT organizations, and you can never have enough.
-Even in a company that has daily company-wide meetings, rhythm meetings, department meetings, etc... people still felt they were not being communicated to enough...which is ok.
-They even gave us top-secret financial information, other companies wouldn't even dream of!...you have no idea what effect this can have on an employee

2. Working with people you actually WANT to spend time with outside of work hours is priceless.
-I knew this before going into the retreat, but these couple days jsut reinforced the fact. At one point, there were 35 people hanging out in one residence room, playing games, and singing along to a guitar...I remember looking around and being completely mesmorized. "I can't believe these are my co-workers", i said to myself.

3. People tend to invent their own vocabulary...
-learnings: Razor Suleman, CEO
-generify: Amin Lalji, Director of IT
-optionary: Me :P

Well, now that the work week has started again, I feel like my battery is recharged. There is a buzz in the air, and everyone seems to be a little more focused. If thats not a successful retreat, then i don't know what is.

If you want to learn a little bit more about the company, we were just featured on Workopolis TV...check out the video below:


Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ishmael

I recently finished reading a book that has changed my life; Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. It's a timeless classic that's extremely well written, and nearly impossible to put down. The novel really makes you re-examine the way we perceive the history of mankind, and presents edgy and thought provoking concepts that will question the way you live your life. I have provided a quick summary of some of the key concepts in the novel to give you a little taste and refresh my own memory.

Takers vs. Leavers: Quinn presents the idea that the world is separated into two types of people; Takers and Leavers. He argues that in modern society, "Mother Culture" refers to these people as civilized and uncivilized. Quinn is pro-Leaver throughout the novel, and eventually defines them as the "ones who live in the hands of the gods."(229)

Taker Mythology: We (the Takers) are living a myth. This is a pretty strong statement, but Quinn elaborates by explaining that Takers are living the myth that "the world was made for man, and man was made to rule it."(72)

The knowledge of the gods: The knowledge of the gods is the knowledge of 'who should live and who should die.' This encompasses the control of food supply, agriculture, captivation of animals, and everything... basically everything the Taker society needs to sustain itself. Quinn implies that we have conjured up this knowledge ourselves and imposed it on the world around us.

Agricultural Revolution: This time in history (also known as the Neolithic Revolution) was the transition of early human societies from hunters and gatherers (who were Leavers) to agriculturalists. It started approximately in 8000 B.C. in the heart of the Fertile Crescent, and Quinn claims that it has never ended. The revolution was also the birth of Taker culture because agriculture was the first sign of humans taking "the knowledge of the gods" into their own hands.

Biblical References: Quinn links two biblical stories to his concepts, and actually argues that his interpretations are the true meanings of the stories. The first is the story of Adam and Eve. He says that the forbidden fruit was actually the "knowledge of the gods" described earlier. Therefore, when Eve ate the forbidden fruit, it represented the birth of the Taker Culture. Quinn also takes this one step further, and states that the story of Cain and Abel was the story of the Takers killing the Leavers "so that more land could be put under cultivation."(173) The details and arguments backing this theory are quite intricate, but very well communicated. According to Quinn, these stories are still being enacted by today's world because "Adam is still chewing the fruit of that forbidden tree, and wherever Abel can still be found, Cain is there too, hunting him down, knife in hand."(216)

This novel really does a good job in presenting these arguments. The only problem I had was that there is no real solution expressed by Quinn. The novel is pretty negative (with reason) but does not give you a real direction in which to head if you want to fix the problem. The only solutions presented are to "teach a hundred what [Quinn] has taught you, and inspire them to teach 100."(248) He also suggests to stop killing off the Leavers because they are the only ones that can "show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live."(248)

I spent a long time pondering what I could do to make a difference, and implement something I've learned in this novel. Surely, Quinn is not suggesting that mankind completely back-track and return to hunter-gatherer societies...is he? Then I started looking at what others have done...Pearl Jam’s entire "Yield" album was inspired by this novel, and the premise of that album was that mankind should give in to nature... interesting, but once again, what does that even mean? Surely the band hasn't given into nature, or they'd be living in a jungle somewhere. This is what is suggested by the movie "Instinct" that was also inspired by Ishmael. In this movie, the protagonist (played by Anthony Hopkins) is an anthropologist that ends up finding solace with a bunch of apes in and African jungle.

Aside from the lack of a solution, no piece of literature has ever made me realize how fucked up the world is, and how we really have no right to impose our culture and beliefs on anyone. Maybe one day I will be able to look at this novel in a different light, and suggest a new solution to the world's problems, but until then, I will continue to search.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

A Full Circle

I visisted my alma mater this past weekend for a couple reasons:

The first was to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. There is no better place then a university town to celebrate this ridiculous holiday, and completely let loose. Although I'm a Queen's alumni, I still have many friends there who are more then hospitable when I decide to pay a visit. Without those friends, I think it would be a little awkward, and I'd just be the "old-guy-on-campus" :P

On a more serious note, the second reason I visited Queen's this weekend was to attend the annual Engineering Iron Ring Ceremony. For those of you who are avid readers of my blog (and I know there aren't that many), my first post ever was based on this very same event, exactly one year ago. To summarize, ALL CANADIAN ENGINEERS WEAR IRON RINGS ON THEIR PINKY FINGER, and this ceremony is a where they receive it. If you read my post from then you'll see that i was a little reluctant and indifferent (silly me). The ceremony is very cultish, and isn't open to the public (you basically have to have a ring to get in). What made this event so special was the fact that I actually got to "ring" a good friend of mine...it was a refreshing moment that replenished my love for the engineering community.

Since this event was the anniversay of my first blog post, it forced me to look back over the past year, and realize how much things have changed. For one, I was receiving the ring last year, and was 'giving' it this year. But foremost, I have to acknowledge how much my perspective on life has changed. Unlike last year, my thirst for knowledge and drive to succeed is uncontainable...and this has improved every aspect of my life!

Thanks you Queen's! Thank you Engineerng!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Inconceivable Sanctuary


Don't laugh...but do you ever find that some of your best thoughts come to you while you're in the bathroom? Whether it's at work, school, or even at home...a few minutes in the can always seems to clear my mind and stimulate great thoughts. I've solved intellectual predicaments and even pondered about philosophical dilemmas...seriously. My theory on this is, when you're in the bathroom, it's a true feeling of escape from the rest of the world. Not only are you in your own 'space', but you're also cognisant of the fact that it’s completely acceptable. What I mean by this is, no matter how busy you are, or what situation you're in...the world will always give you a few minutes to go to the bathroom...because it would be inhumane not to. Knowing that, (you're in a true escape), it's a lot easier to let your mind free from the pressures of everyday life...This, I believe, is what triggers clear and concise thinking.

Maybe I'm just crazy...


Monday, March 05, 2007

Invent...

Have you ever had the urge to create something, and then said to yourself "all the good ideas are taken". As an engineer/developer, this is probably the most dangerous mentality to have. The most succesful people in the world have learnt to throw away this ideology. Ofcourse, as the world evolves technologically at a such a rapid rate, many great ideas will be taken. But what we have to understand is, with everything that's invented (whether it's technical or not), more oppoortunites arise to be innovative...and as engineers we must always strive to be innovative.

In short, there is no reason to be afraid to create. Possibilities are endless.

-Zak

Sunday, February 11, 2007

I'm Back

So it's been about 10 months since my last post...and a lot has changed in my life since then. I've gone from unemployed to workaholic, and have a ridiculous thurst for knowledge that has pretty much evolved from my new surroundings. The company I work for is I Love Rewards Inc. Yes, I said it correctly, I Love Rewards. This small company of 35 people has a work environment like no other, and a culture that is unheard of in most work places. I'm not gonna get into the details of the company (partially because this is my blog, and not their's :P ) but one of my favorite aspects of the place is their approach to learning and training. I have never been pushed so hard to learn and develop my skills both technically and personally. This narrow-minded engineering grad, has transformed into an open-minded, avid reading , passionate individual.

With all these new influences in my life, expect some intense blogs in the near future. I promise I will have compelling stories to tell, intelligent advice to share, and thought-provoking theories to disclose. But this blog is more of an ice-breaker for me...something I have been putting off for a long long long time, and needed to do. But now I feel fresh again, words are flowing like water, I can't wait...