Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Things I learned

Cameron, the Data Science manager at Facebook, dropped an innocuous-sounding question at the intern goodbye dinner last Friday: "What was the most interesting/important thing you learned this term, not necessarily at Facebook?"

I would have responded with something witty, except I'm obviously too slow for that. Thinking back though, enough had happened this term for me to give a non-idiotic answer. In fact, I can list three pretty important things that I learned this term. Here they are, in no particular order:

1) Famous people are famous because they do things. There's nothing more to it, and nothing less.

Being intimidated by people who are famous is something I still haven't gotten over, but between accidentally cutting in front of Zuck in the dish line, asking Donald Knuth a stupid question in his Christmas tree lecture*, and seeing my friend Paul Butler become famous, I realized that their ticket to fame is actually really simple: when they had an idea, they followed through.

Simply put, they did things. They executed.

There really is nothing more to it. I'm sure more of my friends will decide to do things, get noticed, and as a side effect, become famous. There's nothing intimidating or far-fetched about that.

2) I don't know much about statistics.

I was learning statistics in a pretty non-standard (a.k.a. "hands-on") way, which was basically (a) try to solve problems with what I know, (b) fail, (c) read, (d) fail a little bit less. While this had taught me a LOT, the process was the best at teaching me exactly what I don't know. No, I don't mean the cliché and unhelpful "I learned that there's so much more to this subject!" bullshit. The process helped me build a concrete to do list of what subjects to research, what books to read, and what fun projects to attempt. For now though, I'll survive by knowing that logistic regression is the answer to 99% of questions in statistics.

3) When you decide to do things, opportunities come.

Our world is really a land of opportunity. Especially at Facebook, the difference between saying "yes" to something and saying "no" is astronomical. Saying "yes" or just doing interesting things seems like such a simple thing to do, and those who did it (e.g. Paul, Gurrinder, etc.) got great results. I'll be honest though: I haven't been as keen on saying "yes" this term as compared to last term, and it really showed. We worry so much more about macro-decisions like where to go to school and where to do the next internship, so it's funny to notice that micro-decisions such as "should I do this today or next week?" can be just as life-changing.

Well, for better or for worse, that was my term. I did some things I'm proud of and a few that I'm not. I failed a lot, but learned a lot too. Hopefully, in 2011, I won't let trivial fears set me back: I'll do more, try more, and say "yes" more. There's just too much to lose otherwise.

And yes, Facebook was awesome.

End of Entry

*me: "You used n in two different ways!" Knuth: "... to show an equality."