Thursday, May 28, 2009

"Financial Careers Come at a Cost to Families"

From The New York Times
Published: May 26, 2009

The big influx of highly educated workers into finance in the last two decades has been the subject of some national hand-wringing lately. President Obama, college presidents and economists have all worried aloud that Wall Street has hoarded human resources that might otherwise have gone to science, education, medicine or other fields. 

Now, new research is suggesting that the shift also brought another cost — a cost that fell mainly on the people, especially women, who took jobs in finance. Among elite white-collar fields, finance appears to be uniquely difficult for anyone trying to combine work and family. 

Finance, on this score, is worse than law and worse than academia. It is far worse than medicine, which emerges from the research as the highly paid profession with the most flexibility. Near finance at the bottom of the list is consulting, another field that became more popular in the last two decades. 

The research, by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, answers a question that college students, for all their careful career planning, rarely consider: which jobs offer the best chance at balancing work and family life? A decade or two after college, however, that question often comes to dominate conversations among friends and between spouses.

On almost every aspect of work-life balance, finance and consulting look pretty bad. People who take time off in those fields suffer large penalties, both in terms of money and career opportunities, once they return to full-time work. And part-time jobs are hard to come by, which often forces people to make a choice between working a 70-hour week and leaving a job entirely. 

One set of statistics neatly summarizes the findings. After surveying Harvard College alumni 15 years after graduation, Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz estimated the average financial penalty for someone who had taken a year and a half off and then returned to work. In medicine, that person earned 16 percent less than a similar doctor who had not taken time off. Among people with no graduate degree, the gap was 25 percent. For both lawyers and Ph.D.’s, it was about 29 percent.

For M.B.A.’s, a group dominated by finance workers and consultants, it was 41 percent. Given how much money many make, they can probably do just fine even after such a pay cut. Yet the size of it suggests that time off puts them on a completely different career track. 

“The good news is that there are at least some professions where women have been able to carve out a set of policies that are compatible with family life,” Jane Waldfogel, a Columbia professor who studies families, told me. “The challenge for the next generation — and it isn’t just about women — is to extend this to other occupations.”

Ms. Goldin and Mr. Katz, who are two of the country’s leading labor economists and have published the crux of these findings in the American Economic Review, studied Harvard graduates from the last 40 years. That allowed them to compare a fairly similar group of students over a long period, but had the disadvantage of creating a decidedly atypical survey group. 

So the two economists compared their results to two other surveys — the National Survey of College Graduates, run by the National Science Foundation, and a study of University of Chicago business school graduates — and found broadly consistent patterns.

According to the most recent National Survey, for instance, 21 percent of doctors in their late 30s and early 40s work less than 35 hours a week. The share was roughly 14 percent for M.B.A. graduates, as it was for lawyers and people with Ph.D.’s.

The idea that medicine offers more choices than other elite professions may come as a surprise, given that medical training requires notoriously long hours of study. But once doctors reach their 30s, many of them seem to be rewarded with a wider set of options than their counterparts in other fields. 

When I heard about the new findings, I immediately thought of two friends of mine, a pediatrician and ophthalmologist married to each other and living in Colorado. Their years of training were typically grueling. While they were in medical school and residency in Northern California in the 1990s, they were surrounded by people at dot-coms who were working shorter hours and making vastly more money.

But today, they have the best work-life balance of any parents I know. She works two and a half days a week and is on call eight weekends a year. He arrives at his office early every morning and takes short lunches so that he can work four days a week. He is also on call 10 weeks a year. They have jobs they love, and they spend a lot of time with each other and their children.

As Al Franken, the comedian turned politician, has observed, “Kids don’t want quality time. They want quantity time — big, stinking, lazy, nonproductive quantity time.” And research on emotional and intellectual development suggests that kids are right to want what they do.

Obviously, certain medical specialties still don’t allow for much flexibility. But a significant number do. (The same seems to be true of public policy and a few other fields; among people with a master’s degree in something other than business, the average pay penalty for taking time off was 13 percent, slightly below what it was for doctors.) 

A telling example of a flexible field, Ms. Goldin points out, is obstetrics. It seems to be the archetypal field that must operate on someone’s else clock — a baby’s. Yet as the ranks of female obstetricians have grown, they have figured out how to change that. 

Group practices are now the norm, and the doctors take turns being on call. A family’s primary obstetrician isn’t guaranteed to be the one who delivers the baby. In many practices, every doctor will see a woman at least once during her pregnancy, so she knows everyone who may deliver her baby.

Wall Street, consulting firms and law firms have resisted this group approach to work. The partners claim the work is too complicated to be handed from one employee to another. In some cases, that’s no doubt true. Often, though, I bet it isn’t. “Why are women’s bodies less complicated than someone’s account?” Ms. Goldin wryly asks.

The general resistance to group work — and to flexibility — instead seems to stem from old habits, much as obstetricians once would have scoffed at the notion of a group practice. The downsides of allowing people to share work would probably be outweighed by the benefits of being able to hire talented people who want satisfying careers and aren’t willing to work 70-hour weeks. 

For now, that group remains largely female. But there is some reason to hope that fathers will be increasingly drawn to such jobs as well. Over the last four decades, according to the economists Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst, men have increased the average amount of time they spend taking care of children. (Harvard men, however, have not, the Goldin-Katz data show.)

The question of how to balance work and family is almost inevitably a thorny one. Easy answers, free of compromise and sacrifice, are rare, especially for people who don’t earn nearly as much money as doctors. 

But if you’re a teenager or college student trying to decide what to do with your life, you at least may want to start thinking about the question. I promise: Most of you will spend a lot of time thinking about it later.

1 year anniversary!

It's been a year since I started this blog, and I'm surprised myself that I'm still writing and posting on a regular basis. Well, not as regular as when I first started, but still, I'm amazed that I'm still coming up with ideas to blog about, as opposed to expounding or rehashing the same stuff over and over.

When I was first started, it was project in equal parts devoted to organizing my thoughts but also to see if it was possible to acquire a growing readership. The first goal was met easily enough, but the second has been a little more elusive. Still I will continue blogging as I've always enjoyed writing.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Policy Schizophrenia

A few days ago, my colleagues and I headed out to lunch. Our workplace sits within one of the universities, and for whatever reason, campus was filled with China Chinese students that day, so we had to squeeze with a whole busload of them on the shuttle.

One of my colleagues raised the question of whether Singapore "needed" so may foreigners to support our economy, and a few of us basically ran through the rash of (not exactly fresh) arguments on why we did or did not need foreigners, why the situation isn't exactly ideal, and what are possible ways to alleviate problems that arise.

That got me thinking. Not about the foreign talent issue per se, but something which I've mulled about in the past, and that has to do with how schizophrenic some of our government policies are. (See a previous post of mine that is related, well somewhat, to this. You'll have to dig to the relevant section for this).

Take the foreign talent issue. Presumably, we need foreigners to help our economy grow, and the underlying assumption is that we want the economy to grow because it improves the quality of life for Singaporeans. Yet it has become increasingly obvious that growth in the past several years has resulted in considerable income inequality, rising inflation (particularly in real estate), crowded living spaces and public amenities, and depressed wages for the lowest income earners. Native Singaporeans are also increasingly expressing disquietude about so many foreigners living amongst us, in particular in areas such as employment competition. It calls into question why we are letting so many foreigners into the country when it does not unequivocally improve quality of life for all Singaporeans.

This isn't the only schizophrenic policy.

We encourage home ownership, but apartments (you can forget houses) are incredibly expensive in Singapore, and practically all but unaffordable if you are unmarried (since singles are barred from owning public housing). The reason behind high home prices is scarce land. You would think that this would curtail immigration, but no, our government has a pro-immigration policy.

Similarly, we encourage work-life balance and having kids. Especially having kids, since we are producing way below the replacement rate of 2.1. Yet we stress to Singaporeans that we have to remain 'hungry', that we should learn from the industrious China Chinese and India Indians. Translation: by all means balance life and work and have lots of kids, just continue to put in 12 hours at work everyday, keep your nose to the grindstone and wages competitive to avoid your job getting oursourced to China and India, and purchase HDB flats that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and years in crippling mortgage payments. Yeah, real conducive to work-life balance. 

As an open export-dependent economy, we are told that the government can't do much in the face of a collapse in external demand. Yet instead of working to reduce our dependency on such a cyclical economic model, we do the opposite. We have gigantic government-owned companies, welcome massive amounts of foreign direct investment, neglect our local SMEs, and push the idea that a rising tide of >5% GDP growth lifts all boats, when in fact growth is felt unequally at different income levels. You would think that the government would want to attenuate the effects that come from depending too heavily on exports and a globalised economy; instead we seem determined to accentuate the pro-cyclical nature of such an economic model. Always either a feast or famine...

We stress the importance of Singaporeans remaining loyal to their country, but it wasn't so long ago that the highly polarizing, accusatory, and frankly bad PR, if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us phrase of "stayers vs quitters" was uttered by a prominent minister. Ditto the large slate of privileges that permanent residents and in some cases foreigners (such as student scholars) receive vis-a-vis Singapore citizens (who have obligations that foreigners do not have). It is not the lack of entitlements for Singaporeans but rather the disparity of treatment (and concomitant cold brush-off or dismissal as whining) that rankles Singaporeans.

These are just a few of the schizophrenic policies that we have, but the point is the same. Why can't we have policies that send consistent messages and that don't lead to frustration on the part of Singaporeans? And in some cases, a little honesty would be refreshing (if politically unwise).

Monday, May 11, 2009

"Data, Not Design, Is King in the Age of Google"

In yet another sign that Google is starting to ossify. Oh, it's not quite Microsoft (yet), but it's getting there.

“Customers sometimes do not know what they want,” said John Seely Brown, the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, a research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley. “It can be dangerous to just listen to what users say they need.”

“It is more from engaging with users, watching what they do, understanding their pain points, that you get big leaps in design,” Ms. Dunn said. 

You can say that again.

From The New York Times
Published: May 9, 2009 

CAN a company blunt its innovation edge if it listens to its customers too closely? Can its products become dull if they are tailored to match exactly what users say they want? These questions surfaced recently when Douglas Bowman, a top visual designer, left Google. 

In a rare display of independence among otherwise tight-lipped current and former Googlers, Mr. Bowman laid out on his blog the reasons for his abrupt exit, creating a bit of a commotion in the technology blogosphere. There was no sugarcoating. Mr. Bowman essentially said that Google was not friendly to designers.

Mr. Bowman’s main complaint is that in Google’s engineering-driven culture, data trumps everything else. When he would come up with a design decision, no matter how minute, he was asked to back it up with data. Before he could decide whether a line on a Web page should be three, four or five pixels wide, for example, he had to put up test versions of all three pages on the Web. Different groups of users would see different versions, and their clicking behavior, or the amount of time they spent on a page, would help pick a winner. 

“Data eventually becomes a crutch for every decision, paralyzing the company and preventing it from making any daring design decisions,” Mr. Bowman wrote. 

Google is unapologetic about its approach.

“We let the math and the data govern how things look and feel,” Marissa Mayer, the company’s vice president of search products and user experience, said in a recent television interview.

The Web, of course, offers designers and innovators an unprecedented and powerful mechanism to test their ideas. They can mock something up, throw it up online, and get immediate feedback from users. Better yet, they can mock up multiple designs and test them quickly. Then, they can repeat the process until they home in on the design that seems to be most popular. 

The approach may be the ultimate experiment in crowd-sourcing — letting users collectively design products. But experts in design and innovation say the approach has limitations and downsides. 

“Getting virtually real-time feedback from users is incredibly powerful,” said Debra Dunn, an associate professor at the Stanford Institute of Design. “But the feedback is not very rich in terms of the flavor, the texture and the nuance, which I think is a legitimate gripe among many designers.”

Adhering too rigidly to a design philosophy guided by “Web analytics,” Ms. Dunn said, “makes it very difficult to take bold leaps.”

And as much as it may sound jarring, the customer is not always right.

“Customers sometimes do not know what they want,” said John Seely Brown, the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation, a research and consulting organization based in Silicon Valley. “It can be dangerous to just listen to what users say they need.”

None of this means that input from users is unimportant. Indeed, Ms. Dunn, Mr. Brown and others say designers must find a multitude of ways to understand users’ needs at a deeper level. 

“It is more from engaging with users, watching what they do, understanding their pain points, that you get big leaps in design,” Ms. Dunn said. 

That approach informed a redesign at Cooliris, a start-up whose software offers a way to view pictures and videos on a three-dimensional virtual wall of thumbnail images. In the new version, which Ms. Dunn helped design, the company includes headlines and other text next to images.

“Even though it changes the visual impact, it is critical that people have access to that information as they are scanning the wall,” Ms. Dunn said. “Now that it is out there, we can do the kind of micro-testing that Google talks about. But the broad design decision was not made that way.”

It is hard to criticize the results of Google’s data-centric approach. The company is hugely successful. If a certain hue of blue causes users to click on ads at even a marginally higher rate, it can translate into millions of dollars flowing to the company’s bottom line.

What’s more, many of Google’s products are utilitarian. They are meant to help people complete tasks quickly — not to dazzle them the way, say, an iPhone dazzles users.

Even Mr. Bowman insists he never meant to slam Google. “Google’s approach works really well for Google,” he said. 

BUT Mr. Bowman has found a place that better suits his sensibilities. He is now the creative director at Twitter, where he says he has a greater opportunity to shape the look and feel of the service. Already his team has unveiled a major design overhaul. On the margin of users’ pages they added a search box and a list of “trending topics,” subjects that are most popular with tweeters at a given time.

He has also found a new way to listen to customers: reading their tweets in reaction to the new design features. 

“Using data is fundamental to what we do,” Mr. Bowman said. “But we take all that with a grain of salt. Anytime you make design changes, the most vocal people are the ones who dislike what you’ve done. We don’t just throw the numbers in a spreadsheet.”

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A change of search

Like most people, the default search engine I use is Google.

I can't remember when exactly I started to use Google on a consistent basis, but it was almost certainly during my years in university in the early 2000s. Before Google, my preferred search engines were Infoseek and Altavista.

It requires an investment of conscious effort to experiment with new technologies and tools, particularly after we are already comfortable with using something else consistently. But sometimes it's well worth the effort. For instance, I made the switch from Internet Explorer to Firefox and then to Opera a few years ago and I have never looked back. This was before tabbed browsing was the norm among browsers. In contrast, changing search engines isn't a big deal really. I can think of bigger changes people make, like switching OS (e.g. Windows to Mac OS) or office suites (e.g. Microsoft Office to Open Office).

I have a professional as well as personal interest in new technologies because part of my job involves looking at how new tools can improve the productivity and efficiency of how people work, perhaps even in revolutionary new ways. Second Life, Facebook and Twitter are just some examples of the new collaborative technologies that have achieved mainstream status in the last few years.

So what's today's post about?

I've been looking at and thinking about the next generation of search engines, and I believe that it's time to start experimenting with them. There have been some spectacular flameouts (such as Cuil) in the last few years, with an allegedly new Google-slayer proclaimed practically every few months, but it appears that some of the more recent arrivals have started appearing to be more than just hype.

So, starting from today, I'm going to make a choice. I'll start all new Internet searches on Kosmix and Wolfram|Alpha (after it launches later this month) instead of Google. Twine may be a possible third option.

Of course, I'll probably still use Google a lot, but diversifying my search options will allow me to get a feel of how useful these new search technologies are, and whether I should incorporate them into my life and my work.

It's actually not a huge change for me. Wikipedia is already my first point of reference for a lot of things, and I formerly used Pubmed a lot in my previous department, so this is just a continuation of the trend in diversifying my search options for information.