Sunday, December 31, 2023

2023 - A lemonade stand

Achoo!!!

I had been under the weather the last couple of days as a sneeze echoed across the apartment the moment my nose met the smell of fresh ink of crispy paper. I had had this thick notebook for over a year, perhaps two. Skimming through the pages, I found interview notes I had long forgotten, sketches of the apartment that had not been built then, and outlines of essays long and short I might never publish. It was the perfect amount of nostalgia to start a usual year-end retrospective.

What kind of year was 2023, you asked future readers? 2022 was a straight-up dumpster fire. 2023 was harder to describe. It was a mixed bag. The earth had its hottest summer since the Anthropocene - the era of man. The war in Ukraine progressed to a stalemate. And another one started in Jerusalem (or had it ever ended?). In Vietnam, car registration took more than a week, and hospitals ran out of medicines and equipment as a result of attempts to address corruption in these fields, thus proving the corruption in this country was systematic and superficial reactions wouldn't make anything better. The domestic bank interest increased, but housing prices remained high, if not higher, so the real estate market was broken. But it was also the year OpenAI became the world's sweetheart. India landed on the moon while SpaceX made important progress on its prep for Mars. Vietnam FDI continued hanging on to the tailwind of manufacturing moving out of China. 2023 was a year that life kept a steady intake flow of lemons but some had already started adding soda into their lemonade.

An engagement ring

I was down on my knee and proposed to Vy by the bank of Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan. Taiwan has always been a special spot in my heart as my adult life started there. I hope Vy would appreciate that ceremonial meaning. I first planned to propose in a fine morning at Taiwan National University which was my hood the entire time I was living here. That fine morning a system incident broke out and I was stuck in the hotel room till it was time for a train.

The main plan was out of the window, I played by ear. That day we went on for a bicycle tour around the lake, 30-something km. If I proposed at a random spot in the middle of the ride, we wouldn't be able to revisit the exact spot later. I bid my time. Later in the afternoon, toward the end of the ride, we reached a patio area waving around the bank, I thought this must be the place they put a giant pin saying "Sun Moon Lake" on any map. There was no chance in hell I couldn't miss that spot even with my faulty memory.

I think I did well across superficial social criteria for a proposal. Meaningful location. Surprise. Ring. All checked. Vy kept complaining that of all the days we were in Taiwan, I picked the day she dressed worse and was sweaty... Could have been worse, darling. She also said she didn't see this coming. Didn't see it coming? We poured our life savings into an apartment over the last couple of years. What was that woman thinking!?

Still, this was a big move. Conceptually I understood that it would set the course of my life but that didn't necessarily mean I got it intuitively. Like when you are signing up for a 50-year life insurance contract without a single clue where your life is going next year. You know what you are doing, doesn't mean you can fathom the impact it has on your life for better or worse. But I have been compatible with Vy the whole time and more often than not we managed to come up with a solution for what life gave us. Doesn't mean I am looking forward to troubles though, can certainly do better without some of those. Hope this will fare better than life insurance. My office is next to a Manulife building and oh boy there is something like a weekly rally there.

So yeah I think I am getting married at some point.

Health

The last quarter of this year was not a great time for me. I had mild pain where my backbone and my hip meet. It wasn't too bad that it brought agony to my life - my work has already done that - but was enough to let me know its existence. I haven't played badminton for the last 4 months. I missed a mountain marathon to which I made a public commitment to my colleagues. Heavy lifting would intensify my pain 5-10 minutes after the act. My running routine is now down to 5-6 km a week and I usually tip-toe the whole run as I am afraid a bad move is all what it takes to make the matter worse. Oh and everyone is telling me to do more swimming. I do, I try, oh gosh I hate swimming in a (small) pool. Before I can get tired, I will realize I am moving back and forth in a pool of water literally not getting anywhere. Once that feeling kicks in, I get 5min before the exercise becomes terminally boring!

As of this writing, I haven't experienced constant pain in the last 2 weeks. I am exercising more often. I start to play badminton again in January. I hope I will get better and can do serious running again. I am watching my diet. 5 days a week my supposedly healthy food comes in plastic containers. I hope they are biodegradable but knowing Vietnam that is a best-effort commitment only. At a ripe old age of 34, I have had enough signals from the universe that I am far from invincible and if I am not careful, I won't live to see my 100th birthday or I might not like how I get there. 

The apartment, again

Urggg no, I am not moving to a new place. Last month marked the first full year of Vy and I living in that apartment. I absolutely adore the place. It was designed to the tee so naturally it met all our needs and made living there a bliss. It is also visually pleasing, we got compliments from our friends and family. It showed up in a magazine at some point.

There was one problem though. We wanted a polished concrete floor. Our architect suggested a microtopping floor. I looked it up, and it seemed to be a nano layer to protect the floor... so a construction technique I guessed. I was fine with that as I assumed it was just one of the methods a concrete floor could be polished. Opposed to my best intention, the first iteration of the floor seemed soft. Like wax. Dragging a heavy chair on it left a dent. You probably picked up from the previous sentence that there was more than one iteration of it. The second was an absolute disaster, it looked like a painting of a 3-year-old, patches of color didn't blend together and the floor was uneven, worse yet, it peeled. Like my skin after a day of sunburn, except no one expected that from a frigging floor.. The third iteration fixed most of the problem, except that it still peeled in small freckles when in contact with wheels which my coffee table and office chair happen to possess in plenty.

This was the point where I threw in the tower. Redoing the floor was a major operation, we had to leave the apartment empty for at least a week, vacant our belongings, and spend the following couple of weeks dusting the whole place. We are letting go of the hu-tieu cart and getting a carpet for my home office. I had always been fond of the cart and the only time a carpet is clean is when it comes out of the wrapper. But my idea of a house is more of a utility than a work of art. I might like the place a bit less (hardly) but if I can cruise through my day stress-free of wrinkly peeling floor, that seems fair.

Vehicles

In 2023, I seem to have more vehicle-related stories than average.

I was left strangled in the highland of Vietnam when my rental - a docile Honda XR150 - ran out of oil, literally. There was no black smoke from the exhaust nor any leak on the engine case, I must have gotten a unit whose maintenance schedule was neglected. Because we started the trip with 2 bikes, we managed to ship the broken one back and continued the rest of the trip 2-up. Still, this has never happened to me before so it left a distinct mark in my memory. So much so I could cite the precise behavior of the bike and the riding experience up till the point of breakdown, I won't bore you with the details though.

Hero to Zero

I bought a used bicycle from TuanAnh's wife as the maternity left her little time and it was sad to have the thing collecting dust in the basement. I used it for my commute for a while. So far so good, till I realized the security at the office building was prepared to handle motorbikes and cars, anything else threw them off. They couldn't even decide where the bike could be parked so every morning someone would tell me to park it in a different place. Things gradually got worse from there as more ad-hoc rules were introduced. I got a lot of stress in my line of work and the last thing I wanted was to have my workday ruined before it started just because an incompetent guard decided to be creative that day. Now the bike is collecting dust in my basement...

Lastly, after years of procrastination, I finally got my driver's license. I was in no rush, have you visited Saigon? I live here and everyday commute on a car is such a hassle I can't picture myself doing so. But when my father retired a few years ago, I co-financed with him to get a car. It made me feel better that my parents could travel around with comfort and safety. The car was an absolutely positive addition to their lives. I saw that given the right environment, driving could be enjoyable and I thought that Vy would appreciate some road trips where she didn't need to don half a dozen safety gears. That was enough of a nudge.

Work

I am not sure that I have done a good job this year. People tend to overestimate what can be done in an hour, but routinely massively underestimate what can be done in a year. At times, I couldn't help but feel like Parcel Perform was not moving as aggressively as we could. However, in retrospect, there is clear evidence that we have made bold strides in improving our organization and system.

We consistently invested more than 20% of our developer time into various tech investment topics. None of the incidents in 2023 were rooted in performance bottlenecks. We managed to downsize the busiest database and spend less on infrastructure than in 2022. All that while sustaining a 50% YoY increase in traffic.

We gained more and more understanding of DDD and the importance of bounded context to our squads. We have been discussing, communicating, and refactoring to make boundaries clearer and more intuitive to ensure the size and complexity of our projects don't become our weakness. We are gradually getting better at running projects across squads and departments. We learned that there are times for crystal clear interfaces between teams, and there are times when interfaces are just blockers preventing people from making progress together. The little book Team Topologies certainly helps.

We still have a long way to produce a world-class software team. Heck I don't even know what world-class means nor do I care. What I mean is that we can still do better. We need to internalize what we have learned the hard way into muscle memory of the organization - which means not just within our tech hub but across Parcel Perform as a whole. It will be hard to invest developer time at a greater ratio for tech investment, the quantity is there, it is now time for quality. Training is back on the agenda for both leadership and technical content. On average, we have one squad on the verge of collapse a year. A squad can be still recovered from that stage, but it won't be quick. It takes a lot of time and dedication, and nothing guarantees the effort will yield results. We can get better at all of those.

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I think 2023 was an eventful year, at least for me. It was still bloody hard but the feeling of helplessness had vanished. Gone was the feeling that we were dealing with forces beyond our control, as it felt in 2021 and 2022. The world was an uncertain place, it was also a fertile ground to sow effort. The better of us human have already been back on their feet changing the world. What the hell are we waiting for?

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