Why Smart Drugs Will Start in IT

Note: This was originally published on my work blog.

After seven months of work, my research on cognitive enhancement drugs (CEDs) in IT finally published. It published as part of Gartner’s annual Maverick project, which is a bit like an incubator for fringe research topics. Even publishing as Maverick, there are bound to be questions about the real likelihood of CEDs entering the IT department. That’s not unreasonable, and there are some interesting indicators. I’ll refer to two.

The first is a quote from an engineer at Uber. The context is a Buzzfeed article about the impact of Uber’s culture on employees: “If you’ve been woken up at 3 a.m. for the last five days, and you’re only sleeping three to four hours a day, and you make a mistake, how much at fault are you, really?”

It’s a good question. The reality is, in most companies, the engineer is at fault.

The second example is much more recent. Deeplearning.ai, a startup in the AI space recently posted a job description stating the employee would be expected to regularly work 70-90 hours per week:

Deeplearning job posting

Are those working hours sustainable? Can you reliably produce high quality work when working 11-12 hours per day? (Although with 24 hours in a day, working just 12 hours could be considered only working half days.) It’s not unreasonable to assume that, with these expectations for working hours, some form of cognitive enhancement is expected, if not demanded.

Don’t dismiss this as some Silicon Valley anomaly. Every company feels the pressure to digitalize, probably because of the work of some Silicon Valley startups. This increases pressure everywhere, especially in IT as it bears the brunt of the transformation effort.

Work pressures are only one reason people take smart drugs. Others include interested experimenters, who I call “pharmanauts” in my research, as well as others. But the people taking prescription drugs for cognitive deficiencies they may not have just to survive punitive work culture is the most dangerous scenario for both the employees and the employer.

If you’re working in tech and are either taking CEDs or thinking about it, I’d like to hear from you. Please respond in the comments and I’ll respond to you privately.

And if you’re a Gartner client interested in this research, you can find it here: Maverick* Research: Cognitive Enhancement Drugs Are Changing Your Business

Should Cognitive Enhancement be Compulsory?

Research supporting the use of cognitive enhancement in healthy people is, at best, inconclusive. But it’s easy to imagine a scenario in which some type of cognitive enhancement is effective at maximizing executive function and working memory with little to no negative impact. This scenario is admittedly far-fetched, but it introduces interesting questions: If cognitive enhancement methods are effective, should certain professions be required to use them? This is the question posed in a 2014 research document.

As the authors point out, progress in science and technology has already impacted countless jobs and created new obligations to use practices and methods that improve outcomes. The counter argument is that these innovations, like antiseptics, are external. They don’t force a professional to alter his or her brain chemistry to possibly deliver better outcomes.

If cognitive enhancement were safe and effective, should those enhancements be used in every situation? Would you want a cognitively enhanced surgeon or pilot?

How I Work (Productivity)

This is the second in a series of posts about how I do my day job. You can find the first post here: How I Work (Tools)

At this point, I feel like I’ve tried every available productivity tool and method. I still experiment when I see something new, but I’ve finally refined my process for getting stuff done on a day-to-day basis. There are several pieces, but each is generally simple on its own. Actually, the whole process is simple. Otherwise I wouldn’t follow it.

Project-Based Planning

Today, my go-to for planning projects is the iOS/macOS Reminders app. It doesn’t have a lot of features, but it syncs across my devices and prompts me with annoying notifications when I’m behind on deadlines. I’ve tried things like Todoist, and spent weeks trying to get OmniFocus integrated into my workflow, but I didn’t have the patience to either adjust how I worked to meet the limitations of the software or spend weeks customizing it. Ad hoc projects also land on my plate on a regular basis. I needed something easy and fluid to adapt to that. Lastly, I’m not going to pay for complexity when simplicity is free.

In Reminders, each project I’m working on gets its own list of deliverables, and each deliverable has a priority and due date. If it’s a publishing or presentation project, I also create a notebook in Evernote to store web clippings, notes, PDFs, etc. When a project is completed, the Reminders list is deleted and the Evernote notebook goes into an archived notebook stack. Why don’t I use Evernote’s reminders instead? Because they’re impossible to find across devices. (For such critical component in the way I work, Evernote is a disappointing piece of software.)

The Reminders app is really a staging area for everything that I have to get done, but it can be overwhelming to see everything at once. That’s when I use a simplified bullet journal.

Bullet Journal for Daily Processing

Each morning follows roughly the same pattern. I look through the list projects and see what’s languishing and add the next project-specific deliverable in the list to a notebook  – with actual paper and pen. I might add 3-4 work-related things and 1-2 things around the house I need to get done (clean the litter boxes? yay!). I don’t add more because 1) I know I likely won’t get that far and 2) something else is always waiting in my inbox.

While there are certainly examples of elaborate bullet journals, mine is a simple list of the day’s tasks with boxes to the left. Completed tasks get an ‘x.’ Things that I didn’t complete get an arrow indicating a carry-over to the next day. Sometimes things don’t go my way and I end up carrying things over for days at a time.

Aggressive Time-Boxing for Individual Tasks

This last part is the most recent addition to my productivity process. I received an Esington pomodoro timer as a gift, which forced me to learn about the Pomodoro Technique. Pomodoro is a simplified time management method in which you work for 25 minutes at a time, then take a short break. That’s it. With the 25-minute timer in front of me, it’s easier to avoid distractions and focus on the task at hand. Add some noise canceling headphones, and I’m set.

Why This Works for Me

With hundreds of productivity methods and best practices out there, I find this simple method works for me because:

It’s not overly digital. Notifications flashing on my phone and other screens don’t create a sense of urgency for me. The digital parts are just there to store tasks  until I add them to the treeware notebook. Writing things down and crossing them off gives a sense of satisfaction that checking off a digital box doesn’t. And the physical act of flipping over a 25-minute timer helps me focus in a way that a timer on my phone doesn’t.

It’s simple. Many productivity methods, like GTD IMO, focus on the method instead of the result. Often, they’re so intricate and rigid that they fail to reflect the messy reality of most peoples’ work lives. My cobbled together method may not look pretty or win any awards, but it doesn’t have to. It only has to help me get stuff done.

Does this sound like your productivity method? Did you get OmniFocus to work for you? (If you did, I’d like to know how.) Let me know in the comments.

How ICOs are Regulated

My previous post on ICOs and venture capital led to a question about how ICOs are currently regulated. I spent some time last weekend looking at the regulatory environment for ICOs. While I was bewildered by much of what I read, I managed to learn two things:

  • Existing cryptocurrency regulations are primarly concerned with AML/KYC, not consumer protections.
  • Regulating ICOs as securities is still nascent, with varying approaches by jurisdiction.

The Current Regulatory Environment

In most jurisdictions, cryptocurrency exchanges have to comply with existing anti-money laundering (AML) and know your customer (KYC) regulations. ICOs, as cryptocurrencies, fall under these existing regulations. Implementing these requirements can be difficult. Since tokens are transferred using generated addresses, identifying the parties in a transaction can be difficult. Other networks, like Zcash, support fully anonymous transactions, potentially obviating things like KYC.

Entities conducting an ICO may also face regulations from multiple jurisdictions that classify ICOs and cryptocurrencies in different ways. Cross-border tax implications have yet to be reconciled.

Future Regulatory Directions

In the U.S., the SEC issued an investor bulletin for ICOs. The bulletin didn’t offer any proactive advice on ICO regulations. Instead, the bulletin simply advised investors that, depending on the circumstances of a given ICO, the tokens may or may not be securities. As I understood it, tokens that return capital gains or profits back to the token holder are more likely to be considered securities.

ICOs issuing tokens that are deemed securities will face more scrutiny and overhead. Sales must be registered, as will secondary markets that trade in tokens. Local laws will also apply, which can vary in each state.

At least in the U.S., this should be seen as promising. Regulators effectively went with what they knew: securities. They didn’t overreach in their guidance to investors or ICO issuers, but they also left a number of areas yet to be defined. At least in the U.S., I believe these open regulatory areas will eventually be covered. Other jurisdictions are also actively outlining how ICOs will coexist in their markets, but this will take time.

Sources

  1. Investor Bulletin: Initial Coin Offerings
  2. Understanding Initial Coin Offerings: Technology, Benefits, Risks, and Regulations

Linking Mindfulness with Cognitive Performance

Mindfulness has been a hot topic lately. Even the Harvard Business Review recently published on the topic. I’ve also been thinking about mindfulness and how it might relate to cognitive and athletic performance. The most current research I’ve found explores the link between mindfulness and cognitive performance and attempts to build on previous research work. I’ve attempted to summarize the journal article below.

What is mindfulness?

There are varying definitions, but arguably the most common is “awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained and particular way: on purpose, in the present moment and nonjudgementally.” (Kabat-Zinn). Mindfulness is a state of awareness, but is also viewed as a skill that can be improved. Using the Five Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire (FFMQ), mindfulness is an aggregate of five factors: observing, nonjudging of experience, describing, acting with awareness, and nonreactivity to inner experiences:

  • Observing: aware of and recognizing thoughts and feelings
  • Nonjudging of experience: objectively considering thoughts and feelings without assigning value
  • Describing: recognizing and labeling the thoughts and feelings an individual experiences
  • Acting with Awareness: staying present and aware in the moment; disregarding distractions
  • Nonreactivity to inner experiences: ability to remain calm and objective when facing thoughts or feelings that may prompt an emotional response

How does mindfulness relate to improved cognitive performance?

Despite the belief that mindfulness impacts cognitive performance, few studies sought to determine the relationship. Earlier mindfulness studies that attempted to link mindfulness to cognitive performance were specific to intensive mindfulness training in the context of mediation, but links either weren’t found, or no significant difference was discovered between test and control groups.

By contrast, the Klein and Lancaster study explored dispositional, or inherent, mindfulness, rather than the effectiveness of mindfulness training. Specifically, the study researched if:

  • higher observational characteristics would predict improved perceptual ability
  • higher nonreactivity scores will relate to improved cognitive flexibility
  • actiing with awareness and describing facets would not impact cognitive capabilities

Unfortunately the study was unable to reproduce the mindfulness work of previous studies. The study also found that nonreactivity, not observability, was a better determinant of perceptual abilities. Further, none of the five facets of mindfulness was associated with cognitive flexibility. While additional research should be performed, the connection between mindfulness and cognitive performance and enhancement looks tenuous at best.

Raising Capital: ICOs or VCs?

So far in 2017, there have been 92 initial coin offerings (ICOs) that have raised over $1.2 billion. That surpasses the amount raised by startups from angel and early seed rounds. This hype has me thinking about how startups may fund themselves in the future, and what role VCs might play, if any. I don’t pretend to be an expert in either space, just interested in both.

ICOs aren’t a transfer of equity or ownership

Unlike VC funding, ICOs do not transfer company ownership from the issuing organization to the buyer. ICOs issue tokens (“appcoins”) that you can use within a project’s ecosystem, usually in the form access to some product or service that either exists or will exist at some point in the future. If the service is desirable and demand goes up, the value of the appcoin goes up due to presumably limited supply.

Holding an appcoin doesn’t allow you to influence the company or drive product direction. That’s one likely reason why startups are taking the ICO route over angel or early seed investors: why give up equity – and control – if you don’t have to?

Appcoins can be considered an asset, even if they’re completely unregulated. It’s not unreasonable that VCs will start buying and holding appcoins, hoping for appreciation. Appcoins are also more liquid than startup investments, which take several years to pay off (if they ever do). What happens if VCs start making more money from appcoin trading than from traditional venture investments? Will LPs just take their money to dedicated appcoin firms? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the eventual answers will be interesting.

In the short term, the ICO hype will continue as an unregulated, poorly vetted source of crowdfunding. Hearing how some ICO’s are pitched by eager supporters, it feels like today’s ICOs are a shared speculative fiction largely driven by greed, without accountability for the issuer. Over the long term, my guess is ICOs will become regulated or outlawed by entities like the SEC. If regulated, launching an ICO will likely carry as much overhead as an IPO, and VCs are back in business. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has already banned ICOs. Additional regulatory agencies will likely follow suit.

Everyone seems to have thoughts about ICOs and what they’ll mean for the financial industry and the broader population. Let me know what you think in the comments.

How I Work (Tools)

I’ve always been a fan of the “How I work” posts on curated sites like Lifehacker. And since Lifehacker isn’t likely to knock on my inbox anytime soon, I figured I’d roll my own. Reading about how people in various professions structure their days and design for productivity or creativity has helped me construct my own strategy. My intent is to keep the conversation going on new tools or methods I might try, and to see if my processes may work for you. This will be a short series, starting with tools.

Hardware

Most of my research and writing happens in my home office, on a 13″ MacBook Pro (late 2015) and 27″ Apple Cinema Display. The display has been showing its age lately, with USB and audio problems. Although I suspect the audio problems are mostly due to some awful Plantronics software. A good chunk of my day is spent on the phone, which is where the Plantronics Savi 700 comes in. My desktop is rounded out with a Logitech Performance MX mouse and Apple keyboard.

Even though the MBP is on the lighter side, I still need the power adapter and mouse when traveling. I’m actively looking to reduce the amount of stuff I travel with. To that end, I recently got the new iPad Pro 10.5″ with Smart Keyboard and pencil. The iPad Pro with iOS 10 is already excellent, but iOS 11 should greatly improve productivity. After a few months with the new iPad, the battery life is excellent and I’m much happier with the Smart Keyboard than I thought I’d be. The Pencil is basically useless for the kinds of tasks I do, but I haven’t fully integrated it into my processes.

I’m still using an iPhone 6s with no plans to upgrade unless something happens to it. I also wear a series 1 Apple Watch, which is mostly just a fitness tracker and timer for whatever’s cooking.

Software

My software toolchain is a bit of a mixed bag. Evernote is an essential component. I’m always clipping web pages or saving PDFs. But Evernote’s PDF annotation capabilities are abysmal (and frequently broken), so I supplement it with PDF Expert.

I rely on the Microsoft Office suite for content creation. I’ve tried G Suite and found it lacking when it comes to niche Office features I’ve come to count on.

Of course, I also use WordPress.

For todos and reminders, I use the iCloud Reminders app. (Hey, I don’t judge you.) I’ve run the gauntlet of OmniFocus, Todoist and a dozen others, but Reminders gives me just enough detail without becoming a distraction. It also syncs across all of my devices – and it’s free.

The Rest

Admittedly, digital reminders don’t motivate me to do things. For that, I go analog. A simple notebook and pen for a trivial bullet journal helps me get things done.

What am I missing? How does your tooling differ? Let me know in the comments.