Monday, December 29, 2008

Moment by Moment

As the year draws to a close, a mood of quiet reflection sets in. One finds that even the festivities of Christmas and New Year acquire a tinge of melancholy as one grows older.

It is time to take stock and reexamine one's course in life. Where have we faltered? What could we have done better? Hopefully one learns from one's mistakes and resolve to do better in the coming year.

In life, we should never have any regrets. Every experience that comes our way, arrives at the perfect moment to teach us what we needed to learn at that particular point in our lives.

Each experience is a cumulative effect of all our past actions. How we act and react to them determines our future experiences. Pain and pleasure are but feedback signals that nature provides to help us steer our way forward.

By themselves, experiences are neither painful nor pleasurable. They are what they are: stimulus and information fed into our nervous system. It is our reaction to them that determines whether they translate into sometime pleasurable or otherwise. The wise sees them as what they are--data, that are to be analyzed for their informational value.

Why do we experience pain and pleasure? Most of the time we have no control over how we feel. Something happens, and it feels painful to us. You lose someone you love, immediately an emptiness, an ache arises in your heart.

Pain often arises when we are exposed to uncertainty. Can I cope living alone? Who will help me when I'm in trouble? Where can I find solace and comfort when I'm down?

To borrow a phrase from Obama, we have to look at these as "teachable moments". Pain is the teacher, and we must be alert students who are ever-ready to lap up every drop of wisdom distilled.

Do not avoid the truth. Blame and denial are the most common tricks of the ego. Stare truth in the face. That is the only way to learn.

A year ends and another begins. Beginnings give us fresh hope. If we see a new year as a new beginning, that's good. But a beginning by definition is only a moment. It's gone as as soon as it arrives.

If we can treat every moment as a new beginning, then wouldn't we lead lives with so much more purpose and enthusiasm?

How is it possible to have a new beginning every moment?

Every moment is a new beginning if we treat every experience as a fresh lesson in life, ripe with wisdom and possibilities.

Take this moment.

What have your learned from it? Then go on to your next moment. Apply what you have learned from the previous moment. By applying what you have learned from the previous moment, the next moment begins with fresh possibilities. Each moment compounds the wisdom gathered from the previous one.

And that's how we grow, moment by moment.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Achieving Quality

In a previous blog entry, I mentioned how an ideal worker would always strive for quality in whatever he does. How does one go about achieving that?

There are a couple of things that one can do to guarantee outstanding results:

1. Strive to over-achieve
The surest way of guaranteeing quality is to over-exceed it.  If you are working with a client, try to understand clearly what are his expectations. If you fail to do this properly, you will always risk falling short.

Some clients don't exactly know what they want, so getting it right can be difficult. That is why it is extremely important to set a very high standard for yourself. Never compromise, even if you think the client has very low expectations. Always set a very high bar for yourself. Only by overachieving, do you have a margin for error.

2. Pay attention to details
Details make all the difference between a mediocre and a quality piece of work. Pay attention to things that you'd think people won't bother to notice. Even if you feel that your client is not one who would fuss over certain tiny details, never overlook them.

Details always matter subconsciously. For example, even without reading the content of a proposal, the collective effect of proper chapter organization, the right choice of fonts and carefully chose diagrams and images already exudes a feeling of "quality".

Professionalism means never compromising on the little details that make a piece of work stand out. Never cut corners, always assume that your work will be subjected to the scrutiny of an expert or a connoisseur.

3. Leave no stones unturned
Never assume. Explore every possibility, no matter how remote. The consumers of your product will use it in ways that you could never imagine. So strive to consider all the "impossible" scenarios, and tackle them proactively.

For example, a computer programmer will always try to come up with a user-interface that takes the dumbest user into consideration. At the same time he will also provide shortcuts for the power user to easily access his frequently use functions. Nothing impresses a customer more than to find out that the creator has taken the trouble to consider scenarios that are considered highly unlikely.

If you adhere to these few simple principles, you can be assured that the results will stand a good chance of being of "good quality".  Sure, quality requires a lot of hardwork. But it's worth every ounce of your sweat. For what is the purpose of work, if not to produce something of good quality?

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Celebration of Truth

The history of mankind, for better or for worse, has been shaped by religion. Everything from great acts of charity to horrific atroscities have been committed before in the name of religion. Religion is an inescapable fact of the human condition. To understand human nature, we have to understand this religious impulse that stir from deep within our psyche, a force that is as strong and primeval as sex itself.

Why do we need religion? Agnostics and atheists argue, sometimes quite convincingly, that religion has done more harm than good to mankind. Wouldn't the world be a better place if such a thing as religion doesn't exist?

Those who are on the other side of the fence insists that without the guiding light of religion, mankind would degenerate into a loathsome state of moral debasement, where all our actions are driven by selfish needs, where it's every man for himself and the ruthless law of the jungle rules supreme. In other words, we will be no different from animals--a world without kindness and compassion.

Is this true?

Maybe the agnostics are correct. Religion does poison everything. Religion does not guarantee good moral behaviour. Its teaching and practices are so open to interpretation that it only provides a convenient vehicle for individuals in authority to manipulate them for their selfish aims.

But I can hear the man of faith protesting. Those who have had a spiritual awakening would know. Once you have caught a glimpse of the divine, you see the world differently. There's love, light, beauty and compassion. There's a purpose in existence; the soul of a spiritually awakened person soars in exaltation.

I've blogged on this subject many times in the past. Spirituality is an "irrational" but basic human impulse. Falling in love is "irrational". Listening to music is a "useless" activity. But human beings spend a great deal of their waking life falling in love and listening to music, sometimes even blending the two together, to great effect.

Wipe out the entire human race and let another species rise to dominate earth. Inevitably, as this species evolves, it will develop a spiritual impulse and invent religion. Emotions, intelligence and spirituality. These are the flowers of civilization. Our great works of science and art arise from the creative force inherent within these basic human impulses.

Religion is nothing but institutionalized spirituality. It provides a framework for spirituality to find its expression. Some frameworks work better than others in certain geographies and epochs. Some grow so powerful that they forget their original intent, and attempt whatever means to perpetuate themself, by subsuming the individual and suppressing all opposition.

Let's not forget that. Religion serves humanity, and not the other way round. Human beings need a platform to express their spirituality. The institution of religion is for the sole purpose of providing this platform. And we must admit a plurality of platforms for human spirituality, like music and art, finds its expression in diversity.

No religion is truer than the other. No religion has a monopoly of truth and salvation. Every religion is but an expression of being human--a response to the yearning spiritual impulse within us. Every culture respond in its own unique way.

The doctrines of religion is not Truth, but a celebration of Truth. What is Truth? We don't know, and we need not bother ourselves too much about it. By insisting on our version of Truth, we divide. By celebrating Truth together, we unite.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Lost World

I remember a whole without TV, without the Internet, without cellphones. Was it a better world then?

I read a lot as a child because my parents had a lot of books and encouraged me to read; my neighbours read; my friends in school read. To me reading was like breathing, eating and sleeping--it was something natural, something that everyone did.

It was only when I entered the university that I realized how wrong I was.

As a child, I was also fanatical about football. I used to wake up early in the morning, before the sun rose, to play football with my friends. I even recorded the team list and details about all the goals scored in every match we played in a dog-eared exercise book, which I still keep.

I played barefoot for many years before I saved enough money to buy myself a pair of second-hand Puma boots. I remember paying 25 bucks for it, and I still keep that pair of boots back home.

I used to take penalties for my team, because I was good at it. I had a very accurate shot. I spent many hours practicing how to place the ball just inside the goalpost. Most of the time I aim to hit the inside of the upright--if you hit it at that very sweet spot, not even the best goalkeeper in the world could save it. I knew the basics of soccer better than many of my friends because I had learned them properly--from books.

Yes, it was a world without the Internet, without cellphones, without satellite TV. But I had friends who read and friends who shared my passion for soccer--Malays, Chinese and Indian friends. It was heaven to me.

It's a different world now. I spend my days and nights staring at a computer screen. I attend meetings. I listen to podcasts while I'm driving. And I watch EPL matches beamed live to my living room.

I have more books than I could ever read in my lifetime. Why did I buy so many books? Why do I have to suffer the pain and joy of watching Liverpool play every weekend?

I know now: It is to recapture that world which I had lost.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Scheme for Pain

How does one deal with suffering? With acceptance, equanimity and a resolve to transcend it.

And attitude of anger and rejection towards suffering only intensifies the pain. Let the pain take its course. By allowing it, one finds catharsis.

A friend's wife once called me, crying. In between sobs she told how she caught her husband with another woman. She was utterly heartbroken.

I asked her whether she would forgive him, if he was repentent. She was willing, but she told me the pain was too much for her to bear. How do you make the pain go away?

I told her to let time dissolve the pain. By allowing time to do its work, pain fades away. Accept that certain things have happened and nothing one does will change or erase the fact. Allow pain to take its course. In due time it will fade away, like everything else in this world. Even love.

There's no antidote for pain. Pain has to be suffered, consciously. To suffer pain consciously means that you understand its causes, and that you have the determination to ride through all its phases, taking every lesson that it throws at you.

Only then will you understand that what you thought was love, was mere attachment. Selfish attachment. It is your need to possess something or someone so that you yourself feel more complete, more fulfilled.

We love ourselves more than anything else in this world. That is the root of all pain. We want to build an environment where we think our personal wellbeing and happiness can be guaranteed--a well-paying job, a loving partner, children who will look up to us and take care of us in our old age.

We think the rest of the world are like props on a stage that we can place wherever we choose. Then one day we realise that these props don't always remain where they are: they move. They have their own idea of "happiness". That is how pain arises.

Are we mature enough to live in a world where things don't always go according to our plan? A world where our vision of a perfect life don't always match with everybody elses? I'll end with a quote from The Dark Knight:

The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger):

You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are...It's the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and uh, look where that got you.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Food Talk

I don't normally blog about food, but when you've only had a piece of toast and a cup of tea since breakfast, food is the first thing that comes into my mind when I opened my blog editor.

Here in KL, I try to stick to my regime of two full meals a day: if I take breakfast, I'd normally skip lunch. I'll still go for lunch when invited, but purely for social reasons. Today I skipped lunch and I also went for a jog in the evening. It's 7.30pm now, so you can imagine how hungry I am!

Breakfast is usually my favourite meal of the day. The choice of food for breakfast in Malaysia is much better than what they have in Indonesia simply because there's more variety of Chinese food here.

For breakfast, I'd normally go for some Chinese noodles or porridge. Indonesians would go for things like mee goreng, nasi goreng or bubur ayam. Here in Malaysia, the Chinese hawker fare is rich and varied: wonton noodles, beef/fishball/pork noodles (dry or soup), char koay teow, chee cheong fun, loh mai kai, char siew bun, pork/fish porridge, claypot yee mee, pan mee, hakka noodles, curry noodles, curry laksa, vegetarian noodles, loh see fun--the choice of noodles is nothing short of astonishing. It's something we Malaysians take for granted.

If you're old school like me, you can also go for the half-boiled egg and toast with kaya and butter. And if you feel bored with Chinese, you can always go for Malay or Mamak food--the nasi lemak, mee goreng, roti canai and tosai. Hey, there's even hawker-style Western food here in KL.

In Jakarta my favourite breakfast used to be kopi tubruk and Indomie rebus. But usually I would skip this meal. Lunch and dinner however were always occassions to look forward to: nasi timbel, soto betawi, rawon, gado-gado, soto sulung, soto Madura, nasi padang, nasi uduk, sop buntut, satay padang, nasi gudeg, nasi liwet--a fascinating array of offerings from all the different provinces in Indonesia.

I'm a porridge lover. Indonesians, unlike the Malays in Malaysia, are also quite fond of porridge--bubur ayam stalls are everywhere. The Indonesian porridge is usually served thick with a generous topping of crackers (krupuk).

Chinese always categorize food based on their "heatiness". Anything fried and spicy are usually considered heaty. When you have consumed too much heaty food, you'll need to balance it with something "cooling"--like herbal tea, which is served in many Chinese coffee shops.

I don't bother so much about the "heatiness" of food. Subconsciously I adopt the Indian system of seeing food in terms of the 3 impulses of nature: rajasic, sattvic and tamasic. But that will be the subject of another blog entry.

The one thing I like about Indonesia is that, you can get beer almost anywhere. Go to a Muslim Sudanese or Javanese restaurant, the local bir bintang is always on the menu. The only place to drink cheap beers in Malaysia are the Chinese coffee shops.

And that's where I think I'm going for dinner tonight: hmm...stir-fried venison cooked with ginger and spring onion, washed down with a huge bottle of Tiger beer...that's my idea of a good Chinese dinner in KL!

Monday, September 08, 2008

Gymnasium of the Mind

I'm on leave and that gives me a bit of space to think more clearly.

When I was in Jakarta, I used to blog daily even though I didn't even have a notebook PC at home then. I blogged from the Internet cafe: an hour there was just enough time for me to put down my daily reflection and to catch up on the latest Malaysian news. I even wrote longhand in my diary everyday.

I've lost a lot of these habits since I came back to KL (5 years ago?). Slowly, I need to cultivate these good habits again. Writing helps me to think--it puts space in between thoughts and helps me to see them with greater clarity.

I haven't been watching movies at the cinema regularly too for the past few years. This is another activity that I miss a lot. Movies give me lots of ideas and I often get inspired by them. Books, movies and music -- these things enrich life, adding colour and tone to our humdrum existence.

And of course people too. Meeting friends and strangers add to the myriad of possibilities that life has to offer. Every movie watched, every blog entry written, every conversation with a stranger or friend is another brushstroke in life's canvas.

To blog is to to distill and to savour the essence of life's experiences. It also helps to keep my writing skills sharp. Now I'm like a footballer during off-season break: my fitness is at its lowest and my agility gone.

A blog is like a gym for the mind. You have to use it regularly to keep yourself in tip top condition mentally. I'm certainly not in good form now. But give me time, slowly, I'll regain my touch...

Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Art and Science of Proposal Writing

I spend most of weekends working from a nearby Starbucks cafe. It is here that I grapple with my multitude of programming problems and hack out my technical proposals and presentation slides.

One thing I've found out being an IT professional all these years: writing code is a lot easier than writing proposals. Coding can even be fun sometimes but technical proposal-writing is always a chore. In programming, most of the time, you know what needs to be done. The challenge is executing it in the simplest, cleanest and most elegant way. Writing code that works is a no-brainer, it's writing good code that's the real challenge.

A proposal is essentially a sales pitch. You are basically putting forth your value proposition--bringing the potential customer's attention to your strong points(and taking the opportunity to indirectly highlight your competitor's weakness), reemphasizing your expertise and commitment and justifying your pricing.

In any IT project, pricing is important. But what's more important is being able to give the customer the confidence that you or your product can do the job. The decision-maker's job could be at stake here. Put yourself in his shoes: can you trust this vendor to help you look good in front of your bosses?

Confidence is an intangible thing which you subtly project through your approach and professionalism. A professionally-written proposal goes a long way towards achieving this goal.

It's easy to hire programmers but finding a good proposal writer in the IT industry is like looking for a needle in the haystack. Writing is a lot of hardwork, especially technical writing. It requires someone who appreciates technology and enjoy stringing words together to illuminate difficult concepts.

Besides being able to understand technology and being able to sell them using words, there's a third skill that's required of a good proposal writer: the ability to illustrate technical architecture and concepts using diagrams. Most engineering diagrams that I see are very badly drawn. Engineers are usually obsessed with getting the interconnections between different components right but they don't have a sense of proportion, balance, contrast and colour coordination.

You see, a good diagram is also like a good proposal. It organizes things systematically for the eyes and the mind of the reader. What does the reader see at first glance? It must work like a good advertisement billboard: the main message must be immediately evident. Example: it's a star topology, or there are 3 major components in the overall architecture or client components are grouped on the left-hand-side, server components on the right. A good technical illustrator must be aware of all these things.

My personal philosophy on good proposal writing is this: it must read like a comic book. The first thing a person does when he receives a proposal is to flip through the pages. In the process of flipping, it's usually the diagrams that catch the eye. If you have a sufficient number of well-captioned diagrams scattered all across the proposal, they alone should be able to convey the gist of the story.

Does that mean that a good IT proposal writer must be a salesman, an engineer, an artist and a writer all in one? Yes and no. Yes, because all these different elements must be present to produce a good proposal. No, because these skills need not necessarily come from a single individual. If a team of people with different skillsets can combine them together effectively, then they can come up with a good proposal.

And one more thing: if you have a team of people working on a proposal, you also need a good proposal manager. He is the person who carries that big picture in his mind, understands what needs to be achieved, sets timelines, ensures that everyone delivers their portion on schedule and integrates them together into a coherent whole. This is a very challenging task, especially when a proposal involves components from multiple vendors and partners. In other words, the proposal manager must be someone with good project management skills.

Does such an ideal proposal-writing team exist in most IT organizations? Very rarely. Usually the task of coming up with the proposal is dumped onto the pre-sales engineer. He's expected to be the salesman, the engineer, the writer, the artist and the project manager. Good luck to him!

Friday, May 09, 2008

My Path

Evgeny Onegin: Can't you see where this leads? A declaration, a kiss, a wedding, family, obligation, boredom, adultery.

- from the 1999 movie Onegin, directed by Martha Fiennes
I'm single and intend to remain so for the foreseable future. Some may think that I'm a bit cynical in my attitude towards love and marriage. Some even say, I'm selfish.

Let others think what they like. I've always believed that we all have an obbligation to find our own path towards Truth and Understanding. For some, it is the path of marriage (and possibly divorce). That is the course that they have to attend to graduate from the School of Life. For some, it is the path of monkhood.

I'm neither a householder nor a monk. I'm just a fellow explorer, trying to learn and understand as much as I can about life and our place in the larger scheme of things. That to me, is the whole purpose of existence. The rest are just coursework and exercises that you choose, based on their suitability to your temperament and nature, to help you progress towards this goal.

The path of marriage is a good path. Because it has a challenging mix of pain and pleasure. And there are useful lessons to be learnt from both types of experiences. At the end of the journey, your soul advances.

To become a monk is to become a spiritual athlete. You are a professional. You live in a controlled lab environment where special experiments and trainings are performed to slowly perfect the mind and soul.

I'm not a worldly person. The everyday cares of marriage and family bores me. I'm also not fond of organized religions. Hence I'm not eager to become a spiritual athlete in any of the traditional orders.

I've chosen a path, which is kind of like a kind of spiritual humanism. I'm a student of all the spiritual traditions in the world. I believe in tackling issues the rational and scientific way, with a liberal application of Occam's Razor.

Nothing delights me more than understanding. I seek to understand. Understanding gives me a high. Life is but a quest for greater understanding. To read and to converse with people is to seek understanding. The more I understand, the more compassion and love I feel for the world around me.

I enjoy life because the pleasures that are crave for are easily attainable. I don't need a lot of money to enjoy life. Books, art, knowledge and Nature itself--these are my playthings and objects of my lust.

A lifetime is finite. The challenge is to make every moment and every experience in life count. Every moment and every word that I type brings me insight and clarity.

And I shall end this blog entry, with the satisfaction of knowing that I'm a better person than who I was when typed the first line:

"I'm single and I intend to remain so for the foreseable future..."

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A Good Worker

Many employers complain about the difficulty of finding good workers these days. We produce a lot of graduates every year but how many of them are of good quality?

What then is a good quality worker?

As an employer, this is what I'd normally look for:

1. Willingness to learn
I don't expect a new hire to be immediately productive on day one, especially if he or she is a fresh graduate. But if the candidate shows a passion for work and a great desire to learn, then half the battle is already won. Anyone with average intelligence is capable of learning anything if they put their hearts and minds to it. All one needs to do is to sit down, focus, analyze and start taking small steps. What disappoints me most is an employee who has now desire to improve himself.

2. Takes the initiative
There are employees who will just deliver the bare minimum of what they are told to do. That's fine if your job merely involves sweeping the floor or washing the dishes. What employers expect from an executive is not just execution of tasks (because that is a given) but also the ability to think beyond that: Is this the best way of approaching the problem? What are the possible outcomes? What could be better ways of doing it? Have we taken every fact into consideration in making this decision? What are the possible pitfalls? In other words, use your brain and not merely act like automatons.

3. Takes responsibility
This may seem obvious but a truly responsible worker not only takes full ownership of the task assigned to him but he is also cognizant of the fact that his work does not exist in isolation. He is part of a bigger picture: to be responsible means that you care how your work affects the whole. Executives are not merely assembly stations on a factory production line. Most of the time they have to work as a team, and they are are expected to be flexible and proactive enough to take whatever steps that are necessary, sometimes even beyond their scope of duty, to ensure the entire team or company delivers the end product.

4. Strives for Quality
A good employee takes pride in delivering good quality work. I've always believed that the only way to guarantee quality is to over-exceed it. An employee is expected to constantly better himself. No task is ever routine. If you have been doing something well in the past, doesn't mean there's no room for improvement. In a way, work is never ever done, because there's always a better way of doing it.

If you adhere to the principles mentioned, then you, as the worker gains the most. It is not only the pay, promotion or recognition accorded to you by your employer but more importantly, you gain skills and experience that will stand you in good stead for the future. No one can take that away from you. Your value in the marketplace increases and you gain a good reputation in the industry. That to me is more valuable than anything else.

Friday, May 02, 2008

A Ripple Arises in the Mind

What could be more sorry-looking than a blog that has not been updated for more than 8 months? Of course I have the usual excuses - work, work and more work. What an unbalanced life I lead now!

But never mind all that. It certainly feels good to be typing these words again. Since my last entry, so much has happened in Malaysia. And yes, I'm still marooned here in KL. And no, I'm not going to blog about politics, even though it is the fashionable thing for people to do these days.

It is easy to rant and rantings make interesting reading. But that is not the intention of this blog. I'll remain true to my original goal (if ever there was one): which is to explore and examine my innermost thoughts. Blogging to me is an act of meditation.

I've said it before, my blog is my "Buku Latihan"--an exercise book for me to "conteng-conteng". The act of writing sets into motion certain forces in the mind. The moment I type a word, an act of creation happens. A mental Big Bang that triggers a serious of action and reaction.

How powerful is the mind! The more one meditates, the more one is aware of its unexplored depths. This entry is just one ripple in the citta of the mind. There'll be more to come...