Reflections on 2019
Updated: Dec 22, 2019
Writing has always been a way for me to structure my thoughts and reflect on things that happened in my life, whether good or bad. Especially now as we are approaching the end of 2019, I'd like to get into the habit of writing an annual reflection before kickstarting a new year. So, here it is, the first one of hopefully many to come!
This year has certainly been a tumultuous one for me, both professionally and personally. It was the second year for me as a full time AI and data science consultant at IBM, the year I ended two relationships, unexpectedly lost my professional mentor and friend, dealt with cultural family issues, a large unfair financial claim and almost had a complete bore-out.
It was also the year that I travelled to Oman, Spain, Munich and Switzerland for the first times, helped developing eight AI and business automation projects, organized a successful executive board visit to IBM's Watson IoT innovation centre; joined and performed with an '80s rock band; and resigned from my job at IBM and signed for a new one. Moreover, I have been working a lot on my writing skills, starting with my IBM THINK blog on technology adoption through behavioural change which was reposted on the global IBM LinkedIn page. Not to mention the five full blogs published on this personal website (including this one)!
Such a roller-coaster year demanded me to take a moment to pause and recharge for new challenges ahead. Here you will find a highlight of my lessons learned in 2019.
Why I decided to leave IBM for a Dutch fintech company
First off, a major change starting next year will be my new role for Strategic Product Innovation at a small Dutch fintech company called Perseuss. Although I never felt particularly attracted to the financial sector, this opportunity will allow me to delve deeply into technological research and development for one specialist product in an exciting start-up environment. I am therefore very much looking forward to this fresh new start in 2020.
However much I fully support IBM's mission as a company, I realized that a large corporate organization is not for me. The dangers are to be sucked into the vortex of organizational processes, becoming just a single utilisation metric, getting deployed on projects outside of your expertise and losing people focus. For me, this eventually led to a mental breakdown over this year's summer period which manifested itself as a condition labelled "bore-out". This is when you feel stressed, demotivated and exhausted, because you are not doing or not getting enough work for your calibre for too long.
Not many people know about this mental state. One may instead be more likely to experience an overload of work and get burned out in this modern world. I did not tell many others about how I was actually doing and pretended to be feeling fine for a long time. While at my lowest point, I was hiding rather pathetically in a secluded office space crying out of self-pity. Quickly after this I took almost three weeks off to unwind and do other things, which saved me from more long-term effects typical for these kinds of stress disorders.
Fortunately, I also got to meet some great colleagues and mentors who supported me as much as they could, of whom some even became close friends. They were of enormous help to make situations more bearable. All in all, this experience taught me various important lessons about my values, different leadership styles and business acumen. Hence, I remain grateful for my time so far at Big Blue.
My 2 cents on diversity & inclusion
These days my teeth often start to clench a little when people talk about diversity and inclusion. I always regarded it as a symptom of a general lack of respect and understanding for other people. Why does it take so long for organizations to acknowledge that variance in people is a good thing? Why do we need to keep reminding ourselves that we should be diverse and inclusive? If we would primarily focus on the actual and potential strengths and abilities of people, there really is no need to recognize what gender, race, colour, sexual orientation or whatever other (physical) feature someone has. Because honestly, I do not care if you are female, Dutch, gay, senior, black, tall or fat - as long as we can respectfully work together to get things done.
As a young Dutch female with Chinese roots in a largely white middle-aged male dominated IT sector, I have experienced my fair share of discrimination and "alternative treatment", too. My view is that the problem lies in a biased establishment that reinforces their own stereotypes, afraid of welcoming someone unlike them. Great leaders will recognize and constantly know their team's strengths and capabilities and build on that - rather than starting with presumptions about them and wishful thinking. As the saying goes, (unvalidated) assumptions are the mother of all fuck-ups.
Why I am writing this? Well, not because I particularly love the topic, but because based on first-hand experience I feel the need to once again affirm its importance. It is also because one of the lessons I learned in 2019 is to be less shy and more confident in my abilities to speak up and to use my experience with bad managers to become a better one myself.
The underlying sentiment is that I am more than tired of the cultural stereotype for women that I grew up with to always be caring, apologetic, forgiving, pretty, modest and moreover, non-technical. That is, for instance, why I love being part of initiatives such as Women in AI (yes, that is me in the header image!), still having a female CEO and seeing the population of female data scientists grow. The number of "diverse" role models is increasing at last. Something like if life does not give you the medium to shine, create it yourself.
People focus & finding purpose
I have been writing parts of this post in various places. From airports, trains and a university campus, to my friend's apartment's balcony in Zurich (whom I met during my studies in London). What strikes me after two years of not seeing each other in real life is how familiar and comfortable everything is here in a completely different country for both of us.*
One important realization I had is thus the importance of our dearest and loved ones. When life seems a bitch, these people show that at least you are not alone. I am therefore very grateful for the new people I have met over the past two years and my friends and family who helped me put things into perspective - even the ones who turned out to not be my significant others. It encourages me to continue focussing on making life better for people and planet through human technology. Whether we live in a simulated world or not.
As I am building my professional experience and knowledge, partly by maintaining this website and continuing conversations with different people, I am slowly finding my sweet spot as a connector between human cognition, AI, data science and innovation. Which sincerely is a great feeling.
* Globalization drastically affects our mental map of the world. One may wonder how our hippocampus efficiently extends these maps... I see a new blog coming for next year.
Bonus: Musical discoveries of 2019
Celebrations are never complete without music. That is why for these festive times I am excited to share a taste of my personal musical discoveries of this year with you as a bonus.
The music industry has drastically changed over the past decades which has inspired various artists to criticize the industry's current state of art. Of course, by responding with songs about it (e.g. Leela James, Gregory Porter, Alain Clark to name a few). When you read comment sections on YouTube music videos you will see there is a sentiment amongst listeners too, that detest current mainstream pop music because of a lack of musical skill, superficial commercial "artistry" or simply outrageous lyrics. Although I am not as radically opposed to mainstream pop music, I am more inclined to agree with these views. There is one easy solution though. Just find great non-mainstream music by digging a little deeper!
Through this, I discover new artists who completely blow my mind every year. Sometimes they are new kids on the block whom did not break through yet and could use some more exposure. Sometimes they are artists who were popular before I was born. Therefore, here is my most delightful list of musical discoveries of 2019!
1. Maggie Rogers
Initially gained more attention due to a video with her in a Pharrell Williams master class that went viral. Ever since, doors have started opening for her everywhere in the US to share her artistry.
The video that went viral:
One of my favourite Maggie Rogers songs that could easily be my 2019 anthem:
2. Yohan Kim
This 17-year old guy is the Korean Jacob Collier to me. He is an absolutely amazing pianist and arranger for the funkiest, most groovy, jazzy and soulful renditions of contemporary standards, who is gaining more and more traction via his YouTube channel.
3. Nubya Garcia
I came across this fierce female saxophonist when I was looking at Ronnie Scott's jazz club concert agenda in preparation for a brief visit to London in the beginning of this year. At the time, Nubya Garcia was promoted on Ronnie's web site as a rising new jazz star. Eventually, I did not end up seeing her perform live, but kept coming back to her intricate compositions via recordings. My favourite by far is "Lost Kingdoms". Check out this kick-ass live version:
4. The Allman Brothers Band
This extremely competent band has already been around since the late '60s, but I (re)discovered it through a flabbergasting cover of their song "Whipping post", sang by Michael Lee on the Voice US in 2018. Ever since, I started listening more and more to their music, as well as the likes of Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac. Still, the tight classical rock vibe of the amazing Allman Brothers Band hits me the most every time I listen to them.
5. Michael McDonald
Michael has such a distinct voice one could recognize out of thousands. I could not believe how his name stayed off my radar despite knowing the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, until just a few months ago when I heard one of his solo hits in my friend's barbershop. By now I must have listened to this song a thousand times already, but it remains an indescribable soulful gem to me.
All in all, I can say I am feeling good right now and look forward to closing off this year on a happy note. Although 2019 has not been the greatest, it taught me more about myself and where I want to go in the longer run.
Looking forward, you can expect at least one new post per month. I will also experiment with creating video footage, as well as sharing coding examples from personal projects I want to work on. Certainly, my critical tone will remain and the goal will continue to be to provoke and inspire your thinking.
For now, I wish you a wonderful holiday season and a smashing start of the new year!
Until in 2020.
All finalized blogs posted this year (next to this one):
Introducing syzheng.com: What makes machine learning techniques similar to human types of learning
On Privacy & Big Data Part 1: Manipulation at scale demands for critical ethical revival
On Privacy & Big Data Part 2: How to deal with manipulation in the digital age