Year in Review (2022)

Year In Review




January 26, 2023

Hello again!

The reports of my blog's death are greatly exaggerated. If you’ve really got nothing better to do, you might want to read my year in review post from last year.

At this point, I’ve collected a long list of interesting topics/ideas that I would like to research and write about, but as it turns out, the resolve to sit down and write for this website has so far eluded me. When I am writing it’s not uncommon for me to spend a full hour composing, editing and re-editing a small paragraph until it's perfect. Writing shouldn’t be this inefficient, surely?

I wonder if I’m destined to have a lifetime allergy to writing or if I can get better at - and learn to love - the writing process itself? At work, I find myself having to do more and more technical writing each year that goes by. Whilst the act of writing is like pulling teeth to me, I have come to love the gratification of reading and sharing the finished product with others. I imagine that writing would be a lot more tolerable if this gratification was not delayed until the end of the exercise.

Writing from a personal viewpoint creates another layer of resistance for me to overcome. It’s kind of daunting when you don’t know which friends or acquaintances are going to read - and judge you for - your personal thoughts. It’s probable that I have some unresolved trauma from growing up in Ireland, where Tall Poppy Syndrome is the fifth fundamental force. This will leave you with a tendency to shy away from ever standing out, doing anything original or promoting yourself in any way. It often feels like having “notions” or being a “try-hard” is the ultimate transgression in the eyes of the Irish. Who knows, perhaps this little act of writing will be therapeutic?

To my readers in the year 2050: you might be having a chuckle at the quaintness of me composing this blog post. Is it hard to believe that we used to have to grapple with our lizard brain for long enough to string a few coherent sentences together, without using AI to write our blog posts for us? Anyway.. I for one welcome our new LLM overlords.

What gave me energy?

Travel • It was so nice to travel again after a few years locked behind the Australian border.

  • I was able to go back to Ireland twice: in March and December. The contrast of life in Sydney versus the west of Ireland was incredibly stark, especially after the novelty of the first trip back home was gone. I really don’t miss the cold and damp mornings where it takes a genuine 10 minutes to dry yourself after a shower.
  • Driving through the snow covered Bavarian mountains, staying at a mountain lodge and spa where the staff don’t speak any english and I had to eat Käsespätzle for dinner three days in a row.
  • Two Berlin trips, which are always short and always sweet. I’m convinced that I would either love or hate living here, with no in-between. Who knows if I’ll ever get to find out?
  • My third trip to Rome. I’ll never get tired of the history, cathedrals, museums, pasta and wine. It was nice to visit in March before the summer heat and post-pandemic tourist booms hit.
  • A (wet and humid) Queensland trip to Airlie beach and Magnetic Island that left me with a serious case of the post-holiday blues.
  • The annual pilgrimage to Melbourne.. I always love the chance to wear more than one layer. This excuse might not hold up to scrutiny, but I swear it’s hard to dress stylishly as a guy in Sydney when it’s shorts weather for 10 months of the year.
  • Hanoi trip was short and sweet. The streets were initially a challenge for me; I normally can’t cross the road until the little man goes green. I definitely want to check out some more places in Vietnam in the next year or two.
  • Hong Kong is unique and I think I finally know what real skyscrapers look like. I’ve been learning small bits of Cantonese and it was fun to get to practice, although I think I need to learn less insults and diversify my vocabulary a bit more.
  • We finished off the year with a magical break in New Zealand. Got to spend Christmas with friends I haven’t seen in years, followed by a road trip on the South Island. It was so nice to sit on a veranda with a glass of wine overlooking a field full of sheepy bois. I think we might be hiking people now?

I also spent a lot of time in Singapore visiting a special someone..

Love • The most impactful - and happiest - change this year was having an actual love life again. She’s intelligent, adventurous, fiercely independent and most importantly she laughs at my jokes. For the last few months it’s been intermittently long distance, which can be challenging but we make it work. You tend to make the most of the times when you are together; we definitely did our fair share of traveling this year. Looking forward to another year of adventures!

Live Music • After a frustrating couple of years of postponed and cancelled concerts, international artists are finally visiting Australia again en masse. Despite this, I still managed to miss a bunch of artists because tickets were sold out before I even realised they were playing. I need a better system for staying on top of concert data announcements..

Canva • For the entire time I’ve lived in Sydney, I have found myself working within 200 metres of the Canva HQ in Surry Hills, and as a result the company had been living rent free in my head. After a lot of humming and hawing, I eventually got around to applying to join Canva this year. Thanks to a good roll on my interviewing skill check, I was able to finally make the move!

My experience so far at Canva has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s a great product that people love to use (115 million active users at time of writing), and a company that people genuinely love to work for. When it comes to company culture and inclusion they get so many things right, and I’m constantly impressed with how the company continues to grow, hitting higher and higher targets, whilst still keeping the “vibe” alive.

I think it’s fair to say that working on the Data Platform at Canva is a unique opportunity (with unique challenges) in Australia. The platform itself is massive, growing exponentially on almost every dimension you can think of. Tens of petabytes of data, ~250 Data Analysts, Analytics Engineers and MLEs. 5,000 dbt models. Hundreds of data pipelines. 15,000 PRs to the Data Warehouse repository. Data is percolated across the entire business, with a large proportion of teams having embedded Data Analysts and Analytics Engineers, and there’s a lot of great work being done in the ML space with the unique datasets that are generated by Canva users.

In my previous role at Rezdy, I was the sole Data Engineer for the first year. So you can imagine joining a team of ~20 or so engineers on the Warehouse Platform team at Canva is a huge change. Such a vast data function means there’s ample opportunities for collaborating and working with a collection of the most talented, enthusiastic and good natured data people in Australia.

I'm very grateful for the new era of WFH/remote flexibility in the tech industry, but after 2 years of predominantly working from home I’ve begun to find WFH quite draining and I now really enjoy going to the office 2-3 days a week. I’ve come to realise that the office doesn’t suck.. it’s just commuting that does. I guess the commute is the price for the great food we get at Canva. The no free lunch theorem still holds for now!

It’s not all sunshine and roses however; "unique challenges" can quick turn into annoying problems. Things can move slower than I would like. Canva is no longer a startup: not yet corporate, but somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. When I joined, the company’s valuation was at an all time high ($40 Billion!) which leaves very little room for upside in my equity. Working on a platform team, can lead to more "integration and support work than I would like. Being part of a huge team is great for office banter and zoom shit posting, but it means we have to spend a lot of our time managing projects, stakeholders etc. Distractions are everywhere. I’m scared to count how many slack channels I’m in, but it’s at least 150 :(

Miscellaneous • We won our Sunday football league, with an unbeaten record again! I may be one of the least talented players on the team, but I’m claiming the W here regardless and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I went to a couple of standup comedy gigs and laughed out loud more in a couple of hours than the rest of the year. Need to do more of this.

We got really into Catan, in particular the Seafarers expansion. After around ~50 games our enthusiasm levels are beginning to dwindle a bit.. perhaps we need to find a new game?

What took my energy?

In the spirit of being less cynical/negative, I began this section last year with a pledge to keep the section short. This year, I come to with no such commitment!

Media Consumption • I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my smartphone usage and media consumption. My daily diet of podcasts, audiobooks, Spotify and Youtube videos has steadily grown over the last couple of years, to the point that I’m rarely ever alone with my own thoughts. This year in particular, I feel like it has become a problem that needs to be acknowledged and maybe confronted?

Airpods have made it far, far, too convenient for me to spend the entirety of my waking moments with a steady stream of media circulating into my brain. I’ll go to great lengths to avoid a dreaded few minutes where I might actually have to think for myself, or god forbid, be bored. Getting dressed, making breakfast, walking to the shops, on the morning commute, waiting for my coffee order, resting at the gym, eating dinner, sitting on the toilet, shaving my face, lying in bed. At all times, my airpods enable me to have some form of media playing, hijacking my thoughts and my consciousness, filling my brain with noise.

Taken in isolation, the media itself is often informative or educational - I mainly listen to history, science or technology podcasts - but I feel like my consumption has become habitual and addictive. I’m sure this parasitic urge to be constantly consuming media must be terrible for my attention span and wellbeing in general. Perhaps the road to hell is paved with inattentions?

We’ve all heard about the dangers of social media and smartphone addiction. I often feel like I’m in an episode of Black mirror when on the commute home, watching hordes of zombies engrossed by glowing mini screens. As a digression, I regularly wonder what it must have been like to be in public, or on a bus, before we had mobile phones.. did strangers talk to each other more often? Being honest, I used to take a little pride in being somebody who doesn’t really use social media, has never downloaded TikTok and barely watches TV. I would sit with my phone in my pocket, listening to a history podcast, watching others doom scrolling on their phones and thinking I was somehow better than the zombies because I wasn’t viewing the screen itself. I’m starting to think that my own addiction might be even more harmful. At least watching a TV show is long-form, deliberate consumption that’s somewhat timeboxed?

Restlessness • I think a knock on effect of all the media I consume is a profound dissatisfaction with daily life and an overwhelming urge to do something noteworthy. I’ve read tonnes of biographies and history books, and listened to hundreds of hours of conversations with or about brilliant scientists, founders and creators. In a nutshell, humanity's greatest success stories. I've discovered that this can make your regular joe lifestyle seem intolerably dull and meaningless in contrast. This desire to do something worthwhile is everpresent, yet frustratingly I’ve done fuck all about it!

Distractions are everywhere. It feels virtually impossible to carve out a couple of hours to sit at my desk and work hard at something without getting bored or giving in to procrastination. I’ve recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport and I’m hoping to work towards cultivating a deep work habit. No doubt this is easier said than done. Smartphones and TVs are incredibly good at capturing our attention, and our brains have evolved to crave dopamine, conserve energy and take the path of least resistance in every moment.

To do anything truly original requires that you think for yourself, and to do this you need to actually spend time thinking. It’s a bit ironic that I’m here preaching about thinking for yourself when 90% of the shit I’m spouting here stems from regurgitated ideas, cliches and truisms I’ve consumed from others.

When contemplating bold career moves or unconventional pursuits, it’s likely an overwhelming fear of failure that paralyzes us into staying in our lane, holding on to the safe 9-5 job even though we know the work is meaningless. My job is fantastic by a lot of conventional standards, but it amounts to little more than moving bytes of data from one hard drive to another, over and over again. This flame of this desire to break the mold and do something exciting has been lit, and maybe something will give?. I’m forever dreaming of a moment of brilliance in this lifetime of mediocrity.

Toxic Productivity • I’ve also noticed that I spend too much time trying to be productive rather than doing things that bring me joy. Reflecting on the last year, I think that TODO lists, life admin and busy work have become too central in my life. Maybe I need to start playing video games again? On a couple of occasions I’ve chosen to stay home and read instead of going to a social event, and despite the obvious virtues of reading, I’m not sure if this is healthy. You might call this kind of thing toxic productivity? If anything I spend too much time reading or consuming videos, and not enough time in the real world.

Vegetarianism • I’ve been a vegetarian for almost three years now and these last 12 months have definitely felt like a bit more of a drag than the first two years. In an ideal world I would like to be getting ~150 grams of protein per day, which in my experience is basically impossible without relying too heavily on whey protein and/or protein bars. People regularly ask me if I feel healthier since becoming a vegetarian and the answer is probably "No".. I’ve definitely lost a lot of my strength :(

I also feel bad for my girlfriend who often has to compromise or where or what we eat to accommodate me. Sydney is great for vegetarians but traveling (particularly in Asia) can be difficult. Will I be a vegetarian for the rest of my life? I’m not sure. I’m still convinced that factory farming is evil, but at the end of the day I’m still human, and we’re fickle, self-interested creatures with only fleeting notions of morality. In future, I'll likely have to be less strict with myself, especially when travelling.

Fading Youth • I love having a nice environment around me. Reading chair, mood lighting, a clean desk and other creature comforts. The more things you accumulate the more you tie yourself down to a single place, to a single lifestyle. I have ~15 houseplants that I’ve nurtured for years, which have now become a liability since we’re travelling regularly again. How amazing would a little golden retriever puppy be? That comes with a huge commitment tax though. The competing pulls of settling down and accumulating possessions versus freedom and spontaneous adventures are waging a war in my over-active consciousness. On the one hand I love Sydney.. but am I convinced I want to spend the next 5 or 10 years here without living anywhere else?

The next 10 years amount to remainder of my youth if we’re being honest. Would I regret settling down too early? I’m only a few years into a career at a desk job and I’m already struggling with neck and shoulder pain. No doubt about it, I’m an adult now: going gray, horrendous hangovers, falling asleep in the cinema and other responsibilites that seem to materialize out of nowhere. Will aging always feel this shit, or do you get used to it? I’ll stop complaining now and try to get on with the bit of my younger years I do have left on this inexorable march towards death and decay.

Notable stuff

Russian Invasion of Ukraine • Despite the statistics that the world is more peaceful now than ever before, the outbreak of war in Ukraine was a reminder that people suck, and we’re likely never going to get along. I followed the war quite closely for the initial months, and was shocked by how quick a general sense of disinterest towards an on-going war can take hold when that war is in faraway countries. Honestly, this sense of shock has itself been replaced by my own apathy. I watched a lot of actual combat footage from the war and it’s just so far away from my day to day experience that I can’t even begin to relate to what it must feel like being there. Also, drones are terrifying. Shoutout to Perun on Youtube who's made so many great videos covering the war.

Crypto • 2022 was a year of scandals and bankruptcies in the Crypto world. I was glued to the FTX saga. I love the philosophical ideas behind Bitcoin and decentralization, but the space is positively teeming with speculators, scam artists and charlatans. Shoutout to Coffeezilla on Youtube for covering all of these events in such an entertaining fashion.

Machine Learning • In university I fell in love with AI and machine learning for a short time, after I was drawn in by the mystique and allure of “Data Science”. The veil of AI was soon lifted and I became disillusioned: I dropped out of my AI masters halfway through. I discovered that deep learning, for those of us mere mortals with average IQs, amounts to tweaking inputs (somewhat arbitrarily), pressing play and checking how the loss function was impacted. Over and over again. I’m either not smart enough or not interested enough to gain a deep understanding of the inner workings of neural networks; I prefer to build things out of small and colorful lego pieces, not black boxes.

That being said, the wave of developments in generative AI this year have piqued my interest in machine learning again. [We’re being told that] Transformers and LLM’s are impressive, i.e. Stable Diffusion, GPT-3, Whisper and ChatGPT. It’s been funny to watch how quickly the Web3.0 VC bros have jumped ship over to AI in the last few months. Maybe I’ll drink the KoolAid and found an AI startup? Don’t watch this space. Instead watch Andrej Karpathy’s awesome Youtube series.

Random favorites

Themes for next year

When I reviewed my goals from last year’s post - most of which were not even attempted - I realised that pulling goals out of thin air on the 31st of December for a blog post, without much thought given to what’s achievable or if I even want to achieve them, is not very useful.

Instead, I've decided to think in terms of themes rather than goals for this year. The idea being that I can set small goals and milestones that support these themes throughout the year. Disclaimer: this may or may not happen, we’ll see :)

For 2023, these themes are:

  • Consume less and build more. Spend less time reading/watching and more time doing.

  • Win the war for my attention (or at least win a battle or two).

  • Saying no to more things.. less possessions, less commitments, more space.