Coder at work (from home)

A memo of last four months of lock down in Beijing

In the past few months, life has turned upside down for more than half of the people around the globe, yet we here in Beijing are close to the end of it (hopefully).

It’s Sunday afternoon so let me try to recap on some of the moments that went by…

Staying at home, watching and observing

After returning from the (abruptly interrupted) spring festival holiday, we returned home in Beijing in early February, and then for the next four months we were basically locked up at home, working or not.

I can still remember early on we were quite eagerly following up with how situations unroll, first in China and then spread out across the world (Italy, Japan, U.S., etc.). Then I think the video from 和之梦 (【感染者为0的城市—南京】日本导演镜头下最真实的南京防疫现场) blew up and marked that transitional moment (or transitional week) where things are stabilizing in China while the world outside starts to turn upside down.

From there, we also see a train of outside blames against China, and also some of the influential opinions that are criticizing the blames themselves. Amongst them Daniel Dumbrill and Stratechery. I encountered Daniel’s talks via a strange path - since 和之梦 interviewed the bar owner Ben who speaks only Chongqing dialects, and then YouTube recommended his interview by Daniel Dumbrill. I specifically enjoyed his sit down interview in American PhD Student in China - A Discussion about China & More where I was amazed on how well read that PhD student was. Ben Thompson has always been an inspiration (and I recently was sold on his Dithering.fm with John Gruber) but in that very episode he and James did a great job giving an independent voice upon what did Beijing, Taiwan, and the US do right and wrong.

Sometimes it gets a bit overwhelming to care about the virus 24x7, so while jogging or walking my dog I mostly listen to other Podcasts. I continue to find Lex’s Artificial Intelligence Podcast a gold mine, where he interviews in person (amongst many others) with Jack Dorsey, Andrew Ng, Ilya Sutskever, David Silver, Donald Knuth, Michael Jordan, etc. The topics are all very interesting but what I find most unique about were the ones that you don’t usually get to hear on other occasions, anecdotes that you can only hear in a fireside chat style conversations, e.g. Andrew Ng mentioned that some of the early videos on Coursera (the Machine Learning course) were recorded after he finished weekend dinners with friends and returned to the lab after 9pm; and that Michael B. Jordan did meet with the other famous Jordan, etc. It was also a pleasant surprise when Lex did the interview with Melanie Mitchell only a week after I finished her book on AI, a perfect timing and you’ll feel lucky to have the chance to shadow talk to the author with your questions in mind while reading her book.

Sebastian Thrun is one badass entrepreneur and researcher

I especially enjoyed Karpathy's talk on how Tesla handle the long-tailness of different stop signs

Also I believe I’ve done a tone of binge watching on Wang Gang’s channel, Liziqi’s channel, and even the funny TechLead. Many people watch their videos for their soothing music and elements but I find myself enjoying most of how people outside China talk about seeing many things for the first time while totally understanding the culture and food and relating to them. Well, not for the tech lead videos, which I was just for the many “as a millionaire” humor.

Layoff, and how that affects work

Airbnb did a large layoff, amongst many other companies (Uber did two so far, before and after our round, and there was also Lyft and Cruise, etc.), and many people were affected. Airbnb China was also equally affected. Luckily I’m not one of them but I do see many talented people had to be let go. 

Saying goodbye is hard, being put into that situation was harder, but as someone who had had a startup before and had been through a layoff (by ourselves), the experience is a refresher to that memory and this time I get to be more focused on non-emotional parts, i.e. learnings.

I believe Airbnb’s and Brian’s actions during the layoff are well executed if not impeccable. Sure there was some miscommunications that could’ve been done better, but in general I would rate the execution a humane, considerate, and meaningful one. Being part of the organization I am surely not seeing the full picture but people around me did say that the severance package, the fact that our recruiting team did go extra miles to set up a talent directory, and all those smaller things like letting people keep the computers is a good choice. What’s more, you can’t cover all the negativities (since people who got impacted were impacted) but the co-founders put a lot of effort on cheering people up and adjusting the focus of the company, and that is indeed a more important post layoff. I think one of my colleagues was right on point: it takes a layoff to see the difference between companies run by founders versus hired executives. It really does.

Things are still unrolling, and there would be more repercussions as the world gradually gets back to its foot, but I think that was a good lesson and hard-to-get experience to learn.

Work life balance is shifted, tilted, and redefined

Throughout the lockdown I’ve probably gulped down 3 kilogram of grounded black coffee, bought in via 4-5 batches, each bagged in 150g, some dark roast and some more light ones. I’ve learned somewhere that coffee is better filtered, so I’ve tried to drink pour over (drip coffee) instead of using, e.g. my old French press. I think at least my taste has improved to the point where I can taste the difference of myself on a good day v.s. a bad one.

Book reading as a habit is back and thriving!

There were many discussions on e.g. a16z and Stratechery podcasts of remote work, new startup ideas, and the new paradigm of work. Now that companies like Facebook, Google, Shopify, Box, etc. are releasing policies to allow employees to work from home permanently or for the next few years, I am getting to see more of those “I told you so” tweets from e.g. BaseCamp’s DHH and Jason, and digital nomad lifestyle promoters. I personally think this is a wonderful thing to happen (of course after all it was a sad thing that many lives were lost due to the virus), that the world now can embrace this new paradigm with at least less doubt. Of course the WFH thing isn’t for everyone, as there are just types of work that can’t be done so. If we restrict the discussions on tech related jobs, at least it is much more approachable.

I personally think people need to take this trend more carefully, as you have to test the water first and decide whether this is or isn’t working for you. Our Airbnb Beijing office has been partially open since last week and as a cautious measure we are split up into A/B groups, each is allowed in the office every other week. I went to the office every single day last week, partly because I have been away from the office for too long (4 months! and magically my rubber tree is still alive!) and more importantly I just found that Zoom’s bandwidth just isn’t comparable to meeting people in person. People should really be educated that long term working from home requires tremendous communication skills as well as regular breaks where you do get to meet in person - after all people are social animals and there isn’t any technology immersive enough to give you all that. On that front, I think Facebook did right in requiring that only senior level and above have more freedom where people in their early career are still required to go to the office.

Having said all that, I’m glad that I get to work from home this next week and go back to the office the week after - every other week is a good balance. But also being a manager I’m still a bit worried on how my team members adjust to this new pattern. Work life balance was not well defined before (and even ridiculed in China’s 996 context) but now that it is no longer being redefined, rather it is tilted, reshaped, and the whole concept is no longer the same.