April 24, 2013

Puedo tomarle una photo?

I just got back from a fantastic week-long photography trip to Cuba and am slowly, and somewhat reluctantly, reacclimating to normal life. Being unplugged for a week among a bunch of photo geeks in a new and unique country was so... lovely. Does Walgreens carry anything for post-vacation withdrawal?

I didn't have (make) time to do a lot of research about Cuba going into this trip, which meant I entered with few expectations and a strong dash of ignorance. I knew the country is still under Communist rule, there would be lots of old cars, and I should enjoy my cigars and rum on vacation because I wasn't allowed to bring any back with me. The history and current politics between the United States and Cuba are complex, and it's something I've only started reading about more now, post-travel. I don't know enough to have any strong opinion on what should be, or even is, but I do know that my time in Havana was spent among many welcoming, smiling, and friendly Cubans. It was the safest I've felt on a trip south of the U.S., and I'd gladly return to explore more of the country if given the opportunity.

Now, back to photography.

The trip was organized by Santa Fe Workshops and led by David Hobby (the Strobist!). Since the primary motivation of our trip was to photograph life in Cuba, we were all permitted visas as part of a group participating in a cultural people-to-people exchange. My friend Brandon snuck me on to a prestigious and more accomplished shortlist of 13 other photographers that made up our group.  Brandon, I owe ya!

Our photography group in Viñales, Cuba. Taken by David Hobby
Our base for the week was a hotel in Old Havana, and excluding two day trips out of the city, Havana is where we spent most of our time. There was a loose structure to the week's itinerary. Every day we met with Laura, a representative of the Cuban government, Jennifer and Dustin, two photographers from Santa Fe Workshops, and Leysis and Ramses, two Cuban photographers. As a group, we would visit an interesting site or two in Havana to shoot and meet people. Many of us also went out separately for a dawn patrol, sunset walk to catch the softest light on the city, or evening shoot to catch Havana under city lights.

We were asked to pick our top six photos from the trip for a final photo presentation, and here are mine (also on Flickr):

Incidentally, none of my top six pictures were taken during any of the organized group trips. I found myself a bit overwhelmed by the presence of so many photographers at these sites, and was more successful taking interesting pictures when I was by myself and could absorb the environment and interact with people at my own pace. One personal takeaway is that my most successful pictures, excluding the last shot from the market, were all of subjects that I was actively engaging with. It's something I plan to keep in mind and keep doing going forward.

This was the first organized photography activity I've ever participated in, and it's made me want to do more. My photography approach to date has been to buy a camera, learn the basics, and take pictures. Aside from the infamous, "Rule of thirds," I'm fairly ignorant to best practices or common teachings and rely on whatever visual literacy and instinct I've picked up over the years from random artistic endeavors. I wish I can say I had more intention in my shooting, but I've just never put in the time, so it was nice to go on a trip with a more experienced group of photographers to learn from. There wasn't any structured classes, but it's amazing what you can absorb from casual conversation during the week, and it's made me want to participate in more group shoots. It's also made me think about a few areas of development I'd like to focus on.

Don't try to do it all. I've gotten into the habit of wanting to go on a trip to a new destination and leave with a set of great pictures that comprehensively represents all areas, moods, and activities of the area. It's just not a practical goal. Great pictures often take patience and thought and work. Next trip, I think I'll try and separate whether I want to just take a picture of something as a memory snap, or whether I'm trying to get a great and interesting photo.

Back off the bokeh. I'm not afraid to admit it, I love me some bokeh! Independent of the setting or light, my default f-stop is almost always under 2.8. I don't think this is absolutely bad, but there is something to be said for a picture whose composition doesn't depend on a shallow depth of field. Also, too frequently, I've erred on the side of too shallow and inadvertently changed the subject of a picture. In the following picture, I lost the girl's eyes, which results in the orange soda can being the primary subject. I'm going to push myself to shoot more closed more often.

Push your subject and composition. As I mentioned, composition isn't something I've studied or put any active thought into. Instinct can only bring you so far, and the following represents a pretty typical shot I'll take. As I look back through my pictures, I can't help but focus on the fact that this is a picture, taken by a nice camera, of... carrots. It's in focus, it's balanced, it has some nice colors, but at the end of the day, it's carrots. I can do better.

Alternatively, the following is a picture I would not have taken before Cuba. I'm not totally happy with the result, and wish I would have gotten something more interesting or attention grabbing from the woman, but as a picture, it has more potential than ole carrot bunch above.

Curate. I learned a lot from the exercise of picking my top 6 photos, just as when I've done other "Top n" set selections. It's a forcing function for self-critique, and something I should just do more of to push myself and improve.

Lighting. I still know next to nothing about it, and I should change that. Apparently this guy knows what he's talking about, and has an awesome example from Havana of what command and understanding of light can result in, off camera.

The rest of the pictures from my trip are on Flickr.

Hasta la próxima!

April 6, 2013

30b30#13: Learn how to be a better manager.

One of the things I wanted to actively work on was becoming a better manager, so that got a spot on my birthday bucket list. (Note: the big three-oh came and past, and there remains plenty of unfinished items I still want to do, and some I have no interest in anymore. A list update is imminent.)

I first became a manager of the security team I worked on at Google in September 2011. I was excited and terrified. That team is an amazing group of engineers (and people) and it was a privilege to move into a role where I could help lead the group. I also felt a huge pressure not to screw up so much that was already working.

There's no easy way to measure manager good-ness, and I never had an end state in mind, but I knew I wanted to do more than just wing it. After a year and a half, I don't know where I fit on the scale of Lumbergh to Management Sage, but I do feel "better" - more aware of aspects of management I struggle with and those that come easy, more knowledgeable and experienced, and most of all, more confident in doing this pointy haired thing. I ended up transferring to a new team a month ago, and am still digging the manager role, so I'm going to cross this one off the list.

Like many skills, improvement happens over a long period of time, and most often, from a lot of learning the hard way. I'd say that experience, missteps, and shared anecdotes from other managers were most helpful, but for any other newbie engineering managers, I also checked out these books:

High Output Management. This is an older one (published 1995), but it was a worthwhile read. Much of Google's management is based on the principles outlined here, and it provides a simple overview of the author's philosophy on compensation systems, meetings, performance reviews, and personal motivation.

Managing Humans. I gleam Rands' blog. His writing style is a bit stream of conscious, so it's less organized and edited than something you'd expect on management. For example, the book's first chapter is titled, "Don't be a Prick." I like this candid, honest style, but unfortunately, Managing Humans is not a lot more than a concatenation of his posts, which range in quality. I don't regret the read, but I don't think I got much out of this over just reading his blog.

Crucial Conversations. I quite liked this book, and I found its lessons relevant beyond just work or management. Having trouble in a relationship or with a family member or best friend or your landlord? Read this! It's a quick read and really helps break down common reasons communication breaks down when emotions and stakes are high, and how to go from a mindset of total resignation or anger to something more empathetic and constructive. Having just finished it and not had many opportunities to practice the lessons, it's hard to credit its effectiveness, but I enjoyed it.

Good to Great. This book quickly became a page turner. Not because it was captivating, but because I started skimming more and more aggressively, eventually just reading each chapter's grey box summaries. It's hard to take the content seriously given a few of the "Good to Great" case studies are failures today (e.g. Fannie May, Circuit City), but the book just reinforced common sense with some new jargon (e.g. Hedgehog concept, Washing your cottage cheese). It's been over 10 years since this was written, so maybe it was more revolutionary back then. Today, wouldn't recommend it.

Team Geek. I'm biased. I know both authors, and consider them manager mentors. I also know they have thick skin and could handle any criticism, but conveniently, I liked their book. It's a quick and entertaining read, and provides practical and frank advice about how to succeed as an engineer and be or deal with a manager in a software engineering company. In particular, "The Myth of the Genius Programmer," "Dealing with Poisonous People," and "The Art of Organizational Manipulation" should be required reading for software engineers starting their careers.

I don't consider myself a prolific reader in the first place, and certainly not for self-help or skill improvement books, so I've stopped seeking out books on management. Happy to hear any other personal recommendations others have though!

March 20, 2013

Nowruz Dinner

I've wanted to experiment with cooking some Persian food for awhile, and what better excuse than Nowruz (Persian New Years) dinner with friends!

Haft Seen Table
Growing up, my mom cooked Persian food about half of the nights of the week. She's American, thus learned everything from my grandma (Dad's mom) during her infrequent visits from Iran. My grandma doesn't speak any English and my mom speaks no Azeri (or Farsi), yet the cooking skills transferred despite the language barrier.

Some of the regular staples at our house include pita bread, feta, walnuts, and greens (parsley, mint, green onions... whatever you can pull up from your backyard garden). Together, they make a mean, healthy, and refreshing appetizer sammich.

Dried mulberries, sabzeh and walnuts and feta, kahk bademjan
One of our favorite foods growing up were dolmeh, or stuffed grape leaves. Given the labor required to wrap all of these little guys, we had them infrequently, and it was always considered a special treat.

Dolmeh (and pickles and salad Shirazi)
Kookoo was something I didn't really love when I was young, but since my diet has become so much more plant heavy, I've found a new love for this dish. It's a lot of chopping, but it's so worth it. I plan to make this one a lot more regularly.

Kookoo Sabzeh

March 16, 2013

Iron Mike

My brother is competing in an Iron Man tomorrow. I always suspected crazy ran in our family gene pool, but this makes for clinical evidence.

Good luck Krej!

January 27, 2013

To Malibu and Back

I just got back from a solo trip down and up the 101, which wraps up my buffer break between jobs. (I'm changing teams tomorrow to work with the awesome Chrome Security Team!) Outside of a few cell phone pictures, I stayed unplugged for the whole week (how this human recharges) and spent my days doing sun salutations and 60ish miles of hiking in the gorgeous Santa Monica mountains.

Bixby Bridge (en route to Malibu).
The view from Chamberlain Rock.
No clue :)
Pacific View Road
And now, I'm happy to be back to my warm, buzzing grid.

Note: I used the 1960's G+ Photo filter on all these phone panorama photos. I was listening to Travels with Charley on audio book while driving and in a sixty's mood. Also, G+ has a lot of fun photo editing options available now!

January 26, 2013

Bolivia: La Paz, night buses, and the southwest circuit

I finally got through posting some of my "lost" pictures from Bolivia. Thanks (thanks, thanks!) Dawn for backing them up before they were snatched!

Back in September, Dawn and I met up in La Paz and spent a few days taking in the local food and culture. In La Paz, this includes, among other things, a witches market, lucha libre, and striking miners.

Fighting Cholitas in El Alto
Miners striking for safer work conditions.
Dried baby llama carcasses at the witch's market.
The miners blocked all roads out of La Paz the day after we left on a night bus to Tupiza. Lucky for us, or we would have been stuck there for a few more days and I would have subsequently missed out on visiting the salt flats, our motivation for the trip.

We decided to take the no frills local night bus, which met most of our expectations - it was freezing (despite someone admirably trying to cover some of the window seal cracks with tape before we left), left late, made a number of unplanned stops, had a token sketchy man that stared at us for a good portion of the trip, and made a single passenger stop in the middle of nowhere during the 14 hour trip for all of us to take a bio break (first time I had to pee in an open field with a friend and busload of strangers).

Happy to arrive in Tupiza, we spent an evening there before heading on a 4 day tour of the common southwest circuit: flamingos, red lakes, llamas, bubbling geysers, salt flats, cold nights, little oxygen, tree-shaped rocks, and more.

Llamas rule in these parts.
Árbol de Piedra. No climbing!
Pink flamingo in red Lago Colorado
Pink flamingo closeup.
Our tour group in the Salt Flats.
Isla  Incahuasi
Per travel custom, Dawn and I tried to find a cooking class to take during our time in La Paz. Neither of us found any options from travel guides or the Internet, but it turned out that Grace, a girl working at the front desk of our hostel, was a chef in training and offered to give us a cooking class at her home. Perfect!

Dawn is a vegetarian, and meatless dishes aren't typical for Bolivian fare, but Grace was flexible and showed us how to make a number of quinoa dishes in her home kitchen.

Quinua / Quinoa
Quinoa has become trendy in the U.S., so much so that we're apparently creating a new and damaging demand for the wonder grain. Everyone we made was yummy enough, but I've yet to repeat any of the dishes at home, so don't blame me!

Grace's modest kitchen.
Quisotto (Quinoa + Risotto)
Pastel de Quinoa
Sopa de mani
Compota de manzana
And then I flew to Buenos Aires...

December 18, 2012

Forbes 30 under 30 in Tech... Moi?!

I seemed to have randomly and undeservedly slipped in among a heavy list of CEOs and Founders in the Forbes 30 under 30 Tech list. Ah, the perks of being a royal.

(And for the last time, no, I didn't hack their site.)