Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Tracks (Android) - App Review


I tried to find a review of this relatively old software, but there isn't much available online. It's one of Google's lesser-known app in the Play Store.  Which is a bit unfortunate because the multipurpose GPS tracker works well; it is intuitive and simple (the basic interface is just 2 buttons: start and stop), and unlike similar apps it doesn't try too hard, doesn't try to sell you things, or bombard you with ads before you even hit start.  I'm talking about software like Nike Running, Endomondo, or Strava. Some of these apps are more "social" than others, allowing you to easily share (brag) about your time and route on Facebook.  (If I was a 3-hour marathoner, I would be more "social")

My Tracks is more focused than that, and this is why I like it best.

The Good
  • Statistics include calories, speed, distance, time, and elevation -- basically everything an athlete may care about.
  • You can track your jogs (or runs, walks, hikes, skis, cycles, drives) in a real-time map.  Most similar apps do this, I know, but some make it more difficult than it needs to.  This is important if you're hiking, or in unfamiliar territory, so you can find your way back.
  • It's made by Google, which gives me bit of comfort that it's somewhat optimized for Android.  Battery usage is OK. My normal 1.5-hour jog would run down ~5% of battery life, which is reasonable.
  • It syncs with Google Drive, so even if you change devices (or if you brick your phone), you won't lose your workout history.  In the past 2 months I have ran 45km -- which isn't much to brag about, but at least it's there for me to see.  In Drive, the workout history is saved as a .KMZ file which you can open in Google Earth.
  • You can set route markers on demand, or opt to set them automatically. I set mine for every single km, so I can see my pace broken down by km.
  • There's even a homescreen widget you can use.  If you're an avid daily runner, this is for you.

The Bad
  • When you press Start, the timer starts even before GPS locks on, which is fine, except my phone (2013 LG G Pro running Kit Kat 4.4.2) takes about 5 minutes to lock on.
  • Sometimes during my runs, the app seems unresponsive.  I don't know if it's busy trying to lock GPS or what. But it always comes back to life after a couple minutes.  

The Ugly
  • Since the timer/log starts before the GPS locks on, the chart looks funny in the beginning of runs.  Every single time, it shows my run's maximum speed at 35km/h.  Right.
Update: It's rainy season and I've been having problems fixing in to GPS -- I've gone whole 1.5hr jogs without My Tracks locking and recording anything.  Based on some forum suggestions I've downloaded an app "GPS Status & Toolbox" by MobiWIA in the Play Store, it seems to help but I'll test it some more.

Friday, November 28, 2014

How to be a good boss


I've been an employee for 10+ years.  That is almost too long, and face it, nobody wants to be an employee forever; someday I want to be boss -- I'm sure you would too.  Maybe I'd start small -- acting as supervisor to a number of trainees, until such time that I can lead my own division, department, and eventually companies.  Having worked for a number of bosses, I'd like to identify what characteristics I look for in a boss-- what I would aspire to be like in that spacious corner office.

1. Well-prepared
Being a boss means you need to be well-versed in the strategic direction of your division, of your company.  Not only that, you must have razor-sharp focus on cash flows.  I've seen many businesses derailed from its long-term strategy, just because it had to deal with short-term cash straps.  Without cash flows, you won't have much ammo for incentives and motivation.  It's kinda like entering into the Battle of Stalingrad with no weapon, just waiting to pick up a rifle from the guys up front who get killed first.
PRO-TIP: If you argue about budgets, then it means you don't have a budget.

2. Focused
Highlight a limited number of tasks you will deal with at any given time.  Stop acting like you know all the answers before taking a deep dive. Spend the time to understand the problem at hand, don't be dismissive.  People will tell you bull***t, you need to look at hard data.   If you don't spend the time and go deep, you will make the wrong decisions.  Your instincts are wrong more often than not.  Don't kid yourself into thinking that you can handle so many things at once.

I've had bosses where I -- a direct report -- would tell my supervisor point [A], and s/he won't believe me.  An outsider, perhaps someone s/he meets the first time, would then say the same point [A], and s/he would trust the outsider more and drive the point back to me.  It's annoying, but I've seen it so many times that I guess it's just how people are.  Lesson learned: the first time you tell them point [A], bring a lot of evidence, hard numbers, so you can later say "I told you so".

3. Humble
Always be aware that you are bound to make mistakes, and must make course corrections along the way.  It's not always due to poor decision-making; sometimes you make the best decisions based on the known facts, then some unexpected event throws your a wrench your way.  Commit, implement, review, and reflect.

Know your limitations.  If you see an issue you can't handle, go seek help -- that's what consultants and service providers are for.

When you do make a mistake, own up to your decisions.  So many times I've heard, "if I had my way back then, I would have done [B] and we would not be in this mess."  It doesn't matter who wanted to do what back then; as a boss, it is your responsibility regardless. Leaders get credit in a success story, the flipside is be the same.  Acknowledging past mistakes is the first step in learning from them. If you point blame, you lose the opportunity to gain critical knowledge from history.

4. Just be there
This is a very simple point, but somehow seems very difficult to some bosses. You need to just *be around.  Face time shows your employees that you care.  If you show care, your employees would produce something more than half-assed work.

5. Communicative
To be a good boss you need to be open and transparent. Hiding things will only make your employees despise you.  Some bosses hide side businesses, side benefits, or side arrangements (either with the company, or with certain clients).  The fact that all of those are "on the side" means you owe your employees transparency and accountability -- you need to show that despite these things, you are still 100% committed to them.  Show them that you are open, attentive, and available.

Some bosses hide the fact when the company is having issues -- perhaps it's financial strain, legal issues, disagreements between partners, etc.  This is counterproductive.  It is important to discuss these matters in an open forum, because of three things: i) the alternative, office rumor-mongering, is an order of magnitude more destructive to morale than the actual issue, ii) sharing internal issues show your employees that you respect them as adults, instead of treating them like children, and iii) having an open discussion can generate productive discussions, perhaps somebody may have good ideas for resolving the main issue.

6. Provide a sense of ownership
This doesn't just mean giving everybody stock options.  That's important -- don't get me wrong -- but if your employees are savvy, they'd want to diversify (instead of having their steady income and wealth so highly correlated).  This also doesn't mean forcing everybody to use the company's products -- if the product is good, people will use it without instruction, plus it may be good to understand what your competitors are offering.

Providing a sense of ownership means involving your team on strategic decisions.  Bad leaders make instinctual decisions in isolation, without getting buy-in from their stakeholders.  Good leaders gather inputs and make informed decisions. If it turns out great, then everybody should get a share of the benefits.   If it turns out disastrous, then at least the whole team knows they have deliberated and considered all the costs and benefits known at the time.  If you just make everybody execute on your instinct and unilateral decision, then any unforeseen disasters would just lead to inevitable finger-pointing. 

 - -

These are some traits that I, a longtime employee, wish I could have when I am in charge.  The overarching theme is that bosses really need to be leader and motivator, in addition to solving problems and making good strategic decisions.


Thursday, November 13, 2014

Congratulations ESA Rosetta-Philae


Congrats ESA Rosetta-Philae on the historic #cometlanding @ESA_Rosetta @philae2014.
Lots of science to get you where you are, and still lots more to come.
This is history being made and rewritten all over again...

I still don't know how the craft navigates; it's not like there's GPS signal in interplanetary space.  How does it know the distance to the comet (my guess: laser rangefinder?), how does telemetry work (ground telescope observation? Hubble?).  Somebody please enlighten me.

I also don't know if we could (theoretically) put a guy up there.  Would Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck puke their brains out going at 50,000 miles/hour chasing the comet?

I also wonder how they can take such detailed picture, with a 10 year old camera, in the dark of space, of an object going 40x the speed of sound.  I can't even take a good picture of kids playing soccer in bright daylight.  They must be using some special edition Go Pro or something...


Sunday, November 09, 2014

Thoughts on the Antares space probe explosion

I've wanted to write more about astrophysics, but as usual, real life has gotten in the way.  Well, last week the unmanned Antares space probe exploded upon liftoff.  Then the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing its crew members.  These accidents were major setbacks and huge dismay, but it doesn't change my confidence that this and the coming decades will prove some very interesting developments in our understanding of our universe.

It's important to take a step back and see where we are in the age of space discovery.

The Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes, launched in the 1970s, has successfully explored the outer planets Jupiter and Neptune.  Now both are exploring the interstellar space, more than 15 billion kilometers away from Earth.

The Cassini space probe visited Saturn's system, and its Huygens lander touched down at Titan in 2005, bringing us tons of data which will take years to analyze.  Yes, you heard that right.  We have taken terrestrial pictures from the surface of Titan, which is a moon of Saturn, which is a gas giant planet really far away. Don't forget this gorgeous picture of Earth (tiny dot on the lower right with the arrow) taken from Saturn.

View of Earth from Cassini, Saturn in foreground

In 2015 the New Horizons space probe will pass by dwarf planet Pluto, and subsequently enter the Kuiper belt at the outer edge of the Solar System for another 10 years before its nuclear power runs out.  The data we receive from the probe will lead us to discovery of countless findings, bringing our understanding of the universe to a more complete picture, while most likely raising many new questions altogether.

These are costly missions ultimately aimed at exploring the outer worlds.   I shudder to think what would happen if these missions never happened due to a launch explosion.....

Saturday, November 08, 2014

I got to see more movies


I haven't had much time to go see movies recently (that's what having children does to your free time).  Despite how juvenile it seems to be writing about movies, but oh well I'm just gonna put it out there. So here are my watch list of the past 20 years or so.

Gravity (2013)
The storyline is quite shallow, many scenes were unrealistic, but it's a thrill ride with gorgeous pictures.  Just ignore how Sandra Bullock glided from Hubble to the ISS only with a small jetpack and half an oxygen tank.  Or how she, after launching herself from a Chinese space station, conveniently plunged into a small lake in Michigan, just close enough to the shore -- as opposed to somewhere in the deep Pacific Ocean.

The Sixth Sense (1999)
Ridiculously well-made concoction of horror, tragedy, tears and comedy.  This movie is all about tying up loose ends and facing your biggest fears.  One of M Night Shyamalan's earlier movies turned out to be his best.  Bruce Willis had hair.

School of Rock (2003)
Jack Black movies typically insult the viewers' intelligence.  In this gem, not only does he successfully lead a cast of children, but he does so while respecting their talent.  The end result is a children's movie that appeals to adults as well.

The Kingdom (2007)
My favorite of the "kill Arab terrorists" genre. Note the cameo by country superstar of yesteryear Tim McGraw as the grieving widower in the opening bomb attack.  Also, I wish I was more like Jamie Foxx and less like William Hung.

Romeo Must Die! (2000)
Some of the most awesome people all in one movie.  Jet Li as the ex-con trying to avenge his brother's death, only to find his own family responsible.  Delroy Lindo as the big boss trying to fight the Chinese mafia.  Anthony Anderson as a fat guy.  Aaliyah as I don't remember what she's supposed to be, but who cares.  I miss Aaliyah...

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Forgiveness

Forgiveness does not change the past, but it enlarges the future.
  ~ Paul Boese

Saturday, November 01, 2014

On Private Equity Investing ....


Preface: This post has taken the longest time for me to write, because it summarizes my entire 10-year investing career. I'm trying to recap things we have done right, and also things we have done wrong. 

As investment professionals, we are obligated to uphold the highest ethical and professional standards in making our investment decisions.  As opposed to public equity analysts or mutual fund managers, private company investors don't have the benefit of public companies and their SEC-sanctioned disclosures and regulations.   So the burden lies on us to identify strong investments, companies with good potential.  I've grown to appreciate several Do's and Don'ts to keep in mind during the investment process:

1. Don't fall in love with a deal
If you force yourself into doing a deal because of external pressures, then you're not doing it right; I'm talking things like sector allocation ("I need to do a coal deal because everybody else does"), timing ("the market is so hot and I haven't done a deal yet") or even something trivial ("the CMO can hook me up with VIP football tickets").  Listen to your own team, is there any dissenting opinions about the deal and why.  Keep in mind at the end of the day, none of these pressures matter and investors only care about realized returns. And don't forget...

2. Don't skimp on due diligence
For large investors, due diligence means hiring an alphabet soup of BCG, PWC, OMM, or other consultants to write 100-page reports evaluating everything from industry trends, legal status, and financial accounts of the target company.  For smaller firms, due diligence means the team of analysts and associates run around talking to suppliers and customers.  Either way, don't skimp on DD.  Sure, if you end up striking it big it wouldn't matter, but if you end up losing money then your investors will grill you on how much or how little you spent on diligence.  Spend the brainpower, whether it's BCG's or your analysts'.

3. Dive deep into the strengths and weaknesses of management
Unless you're putting in an entire new group of people to run the company, you need to gauge how strong (or weak) your frontmen are.  If they are lacking in some aspects, you need to identify talent that can gel with and augment the rest of the team.  Just like football, investing is a team sport; and you happen to be GM, head coach, and head of PR concurrently.  After the team is set, you need to....

4. Carefully set proper incentives 
If profitability or sustainability is your target, don't set top-line growth as your benchmark.  PEs differ from VCs in this aspect.  VCs only need to usher the team to the next funding round.  PEs need to get to either sustainability or a liquidity event.  Whatever it is, the goal determines the incentives that need to be set.  Formulate the incentives for top management, then work down and determine the middle and lower rank's incentives.  Regular employees may not appreciate stock options; whereas entrepreneurs may prefer a larger portion in them.

5. Spend time with your co-investors/partners 
How do your partners see the investment.  What do they think about the current management.  Of course there is a risk of herd mentality here, but it never hurts to venture outside of your cave and know what the rest of the world sees. Do this in the beginning  and throughout the investment life, even if you are the lead investor.  *Especially if* you are the lead investor, because leaders are most prone to pride and tunnel vision.

6. Just like in real life, prepare for the unexpected
If you are expecting financing at some stage, prepare for if it doesn't happen or gets delayed. These things happen, sometimes no fault of your own.  Perhaps you don't get your license in time.  Perhaps the bank has to go a different strategy.  Whatever the worst case scenario is, you need to prep for it.

Long story short, the investment process does not stop when the SPA is signed and payment is wired.  In fact, it is just the beginning.  It is what you do afterwards that creates (or destroys) value.