Nick Ang profile picture

Nick Ang

Employment sweet spot

How to be a great employer/manager?

You need to understand that people want to be useful and they want to grow (sometimes this means trying new things).

The best illustration of this is a Venn diagram I saw at Smartly.io. It looks something like this:

employment sweet spot venn diagram The Employment Sweet Spot

This diagram depicts the employment sweet spot. There are three areas: competitive advantage, true motivation, and impact for the company.

As long as an employee finds him/herself in the sweet spot, both them and the company will prosper from the magic that ensues.

At any time, an employee may feel like the work they have been doing recently is not in the sweet spot where they can leverage their competitive advantage, align with their current motivations, and maximise their impact on the business. This is why talking about how you’re feeling about work with your manager is important; vice versa, for managers to know to occasionally ask, “how are you feeling about work lately?” (Read more of what I think are useful 1-1 questions here.)


Specialist or Generalist?

photo of black coffee in a mug A nice & warm batch brew. Mmm…

I realised something this morning when buying coffee at my local café — the person who pumped the batch brew coffee into my mug was not the barista, and she didn’t pre-heat my mug with hot water before pumping coffee into it. It didn’t bother me much; it was simply something I noticed. I don’t mind my coffee being slightly cooler than piping hot anyway.

But the point is this: a barista would have done it better. I know some coffee lovers who would be upset by this broken ritual. They want their day’s coffee as close to perfection as possible, and it usually takes a barista — i.e. a specialist — to make that happen.

Now consider this: if there were only specialists, who would keep an eye on how their cafe business is doing and, if the business is faltering, try and figure out what might be wrong beyond less than ideal coffee temperatures and incorrect grind size calibration?

That would be the job of a generalist.

Perhaps the woman who pumped coffee for me today was one. She looked like she was waiting tables, taking orders at the cashier, and, well, serving batch brewed coffee. When I was checking out and noticed the bill to be 3 euros instead of 2.50 euros because of the 50 cents “bring your own mug” discount, I mentioned this to her and her colleague — the barista — told her how to key that into the POS system, and she said with some warmth, “I learn something every day!“’

I imagine that at some point, a barista would notice the missing step in her coffee ritual and casually mention to her, “You should warm the cup with hot water first, discard the water, then pump coffee into the mug. That way we serve warm, not lukewarm, coffee! :)” Again, she will learn, and over time, a generalist like her is much likelier to become a store manager than a barista focused on his craft.

Generalist vs Specialists in Tech

I think about this specialist versus generalist division quite often. (Here’s an article I wrote 4 years ago.) It’s partly because I don’t know which one I am more of. The other part is that I don’t know which one I want to be more of.

An example of a super generalist would be a CEO, and a super-specialist (in tech) would be a Principal Engineer. In between, there are Team Leads, Managers, Directors, and VPs. As natural law, the more generalised you become, the less specialised you are, and vice versa. So an Engineering Team Lead is almost always less of a specialist than a Developer in that team, and an Engineering Director is even less of a specialist than an Engineering Team Lead.

Years ago, I was a more specialised software developer at Altitude Labs; now, I’m an Engineering Team Lead at Smartly.io. So this means that I’ve become more of a generalist.

When I was a developer (i.e. specialist), I was regularly publishing posts about technical things like how the bubble sort algorithm works, how to implement a queue in JavaScript, what is a binary search tree, and so on. I even started a Medium publication called Bite Size Programming to house the growing collection of technical articles meant for a specialist audience.

And then what happened when I started as a team lead? I wrote more about people topics like questions to ask during 1-1s, problem-solving, and drawing analogies between things like bugs in software and city trash.

Predictably, with this shift to the general, I’ve noticed that I have less time to keep up with the latest in the world of web applications development or to keep my fluency in JavaScript (and React, Redux, TypeScript, and so on). This occasionally makes me slightly uncomfortable.

I think that discomfort stems from the fact that I don’t like being the person who directs a musical but doesn’t know how to sing, dance, or act. It’s the reason I quit my startup. I have to know at least one subject somewhat deeply to not feel like I’m lost. Also, it’s clear to me that knowing once doesn’t mean knowing always. Every skill needs upkeeping!

So now what?

I’m still working that out.


6 Things I’ve Learned from my Second Year Living in Berlin (away from Singapore)

In a few days it will be my second full year having relocated to Berlin. A lot has happened. A full year of grappling with covid, for one. And our first child was born here last month! Here are some of my learnings from the past year.

You can read my first year reflections here.

1. A welfare system provides peace of mind, and it’s priceless

Being Singaporean, I’ve been brought up to see everything from an economic point of view. I can’t shake it off even when I want to — it’s like a pair of permanent contact lenses. The only respite is in Berlin, away from everyone I know, immersed in an environment completely different from the one I grew up in. Even here, I’m haunted by my upbringing.

On the occasions that I break free from evaluating everything as a cost-benefit transaction, I see just how tiring it is to live like that. I just think, you don’t need to calculate everything.

But, in a place like hyper-capitalistic Singapore, I don’t see that people have a choice. You have to be calculative. You have to take all costs into account. Because if you don’t, you just might not be able to afford things that you really need, like regular and emergency healthcare, or food to keep your family fed during an economic crisis brought on by, say, a new coronavirus.

In Germany where I’m currently based, I’m receiving more or less equal treatment as citizens (in terms of public insurance, on paper and in practice). Here, I just pay my taxes and know that the welfare system has got my back. Mine and my wife’s and my newborn child’s.

Seriously, I work one job and my statutory health insurance covers both of them at no additional cost to me. And this is the way it should be because, in reality, a family is literally on the same boat. If it sinks, everyone goes down.

Here are some examples of things during my wife’s pregnancy in 2021 that have been stress-free in Germany but would have been stressful in Singapore:

  • Considering whether to get a custom pair of compression stockings to deal with the painful water retention that my wife was experiencing. The tailor-made stockings were made and paid for by our health insurance. I didn’t even need to submit a claim.
  • We had a midwife who came regularly to visit my wife during her first pregnancy and 2-3 times a week after birth for the first month to give medical advice, assurances, and tips on how to alleviate pain, prepare for birth, and so on. Also paid for by insurance. Again, no need to submit claims.
  • Gynaecologist visits throughout the pregnancy were also paid for. You only pay for additional tests that you want to do that are considered non-essential. The list of non-essentials is fair. And you guessed it, no need to submit claims.
  • In the end, delivering our baby at a public hospital was also covered by insurance. Yes, no claims needed.

I share these examples because they’re freshest in my memory, but there are other instances too, and overall, they make me feel like I am living in the most humane part of the world. If you are gainfully employed and anyone in your family falls sick, you will be cared for.

photo of me carrying my newborn daughter at 2 days old That’s me learning how to carry my two day old daughter at the public hospital!

It’s not just sickness, either! Parents get Elterngeld (literally “parent money”) from the federal government to cover up to 60% of each of their incomes (capped at 1,800 euros per month) for a combined 14 months.

Why? Because they know parents (especially men, who too often try to shirk their parenting responsibilities citing work) need time to be there for their partner and their newborn child.

There’s also Kindergeld (literally “children money”), which is another federal government program that ensures each child gets 219 euros per month in cash until they are 18 years old. Why? Because then there’s no excuse for you to deprive your children of necessities like food.

Yes, I pay higher taxes here, but as I’m in Berlin, I’ve learned to not bother calculating the balance sheet. It could be the case that what I’m paying in extra taxes is more than the amount that the German government is rechanneling back to me. It could be the other way around. Whichever the case, I’m happy because life is short and peace of mind is priceless.

2. The solution to low reproduction is probably paid parental leave

me feeding Charlotte a bottle of milk I have months, not weeks, to learn to be an equal partner in parenting in Germany.

Related to the first point. The Singapore government has tried to appeal to generations of Singaporeans to have more children and yet the fertility rate has remained solidly under 2.

Here’s a guaranteed solution to low reproduction: provide what Germany provides its residents. For every child born, provide up to 14 months of paid parental leave that can be shared flexibly between mother and father. See how much more relaxed young and fertile Singaporeans will be and watch as things go up.

3. The perfect place is completely subjective

photo of me posing a goofy pose against a glaring sunset Berlin for me is the place where I can be completely myself. Exhibit A.

One thing I learned this year in Berlin that surprised me was how little I understood people. The same place can be viewed from more angles than I can think of.

I have a colleague at work who, like me, transferred from our Singapore office to our Berlin office. Within a year, she asked to be transferred back to Singapore.

When we finally got the chance to talk face-to-face (because of covid) and I asked her why she said that she misses the “community feeling” of Singapore.

Now, if you ask me, I’d say there isn’t a strong community feeling in Singapore. And I’m Singaporean and she’s not! I still feel this way even after I learned what she meant by that.

So there’s that colleague.

Then there’s another colleague who was supposed to go to Madrid with his wife but because of visa reasons, ended up in Berlin, and he likes it enough to want to stay here for a while.

So what’s the learning here? I think it’s this: a place is never bad or good; it’s only ever bad for some and good for others. Oh, and the only you’ll know is if you went there yourself.

4. Reuse culture is possible and it is beautiful

Walking the streets of Berlin, I often stumble on boxes with the words ”Zu verschenken” scribbled on their sides. It means “to give away” in German.

photo of one of many boxes I stumble upon when walking the streets of Berlin. It contains things that people are giving away This was a particularly fashionable giveaway, found street-side some five minutes from my apartment.

Here’s a short assortment of items I’ve picked from these giveaway boxes in the last year:

  • Two pairs of branded jeans that happen to fit me
  • A formula milk making machine
  • An IKEA clothes rack
  • Eat Pray Love book (in German)
  • Around 10 children’s books (in German)

And it’s not just the free things that contribute to the reuse culture that is so strong in Berlin. It’s also the things that people list on eBay Kleinanzeigen (the classifieds) that are labelled as free or priced very cheaply.

I find it wonderful that many people here would take the time to list items that they are willing to give away for free, just so that those items end up in the hands of people who are guaranteed to use them. I’ve also started doing that this year to contribute to this beautiful culture.

5. Deposits guarantee recycling behaviour

photo of two women using a Pfand machine in Germany Photo from Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies (source)

In Germany, many beverages that ship in glass and plastic bottles must be purchased along with a deposit at the supermarket. For example, I bought an isotonic drink that came in a plastic bottle from Edeka the other day and the retail price was 0,89 euros, and at check-out, I had to pay an extra 0,25 euros as a deposit.

This process is seamless and I’ve stopped thinking about how much deposit I’m paying. My brain has been rewired to look at bottles as something valuable to be taken back to the store for money. And it’s not just me — everyone does it here. Of course they do; they want their money back!

A Pfand side effect of this is that you can (and people do) leave your bottles on the street and you would be seen as nobly contributing to wealth redistribution as people will go around the city collecting them for their deposits! (Pfand stands for “deposit,” by the way, and is pronounced like ‘fun’.)

6. Car-sharing is a game changer

photo of me inside an Volkswagen ID3 electric car rented from car-sharing app WeShare Me sitting inside the VW ID.3 electric car that is part of the all-electric fleet of WeShare in Berlin.

This one is worth writing about in its own article, but briefly: car-sharing is the future. It works, and it works well.

There are many car-sharing companies in Berlin: there’s WeShare (by Volkswagen Group), Sixt, Miles, and Share Now. Every one of these companies operates a fleet of vehicles that are parked throughout the city that anyone with a driver’s license can access through their mobile app.

The beauty of this car-sharing model is that I can drive any time without ever needing to:

  • fuel up myself
  • fuss with parking at home
  • pay for parking when not using
  • deal with regular car servicing
  • wash and vacuum the vehicle

It’s not just convenient for me as a user. I think letting a business operate the fleet of vehicles that people drive presents a lot of potential savings. They are incentivised to inflate the tires to the correct pressure regularly, for example, reducing the per-kilometre fuel consumption.

A nice bonus for me is that the fleet in Berlin is incredible. (It’s probably because Berlin, Germany; as in, home of Audi, BMW, Mercedez-Benz, Porsche, and Volkswagen.) I drove my first electric cars here, including a BMW i3, Peugeot e-208, Volkswagen ID.3 and e-Golf, and even a Mazda MX-30.

The cherry on top is the economics. My favourite car-sharing company in Berlin is WeShare because their rates are the easiest to understand and the lowest for my kind of use. I pay 10 euros for their monthly subscription called WeShare+ and that makes every rental cost 1 euro to unlock and 0,19 euros per minute. 150km mileage is included and parking anywhere is free.

That means that I can rent an electric car (WeShare operates an all-electric fleet) for 30 minutes and pay just 6,70 euros.

I use all the apps so that I can maximise my chances of finding a vacant vehicle wherever I am in Berlin. Here are my referral links for all the car-sharing apps I’ve been using:


In case you missed it, you can read my first year reflections here.


The newborn bubble

I have an apartment with a roof and plumbing and this is the bubble I have lived in for the last two weeks since my first child was born. A newborn bubble. I don’t sleep much and I don’t do very much other than feed, carry, coax, assist in burping, changing diapers, launder, cook, wash, eat, and shit. Notably lacking: long walks in parks, Netflix, eating out, and meeting friends.

Am I happy?

When I happen to catch Charlotte smiling in her sleep, hell yeah I’m happy!

When I notice that she’s growing, hell yeah I’m happy!

When she lazily stretches her fours after awakening from sleep, nonchalant as the world continues to chug down the x-axis of time, hell yeah I’m happy!

But when I’m unable to decipher her body language and her cries, and it exacerbates her dissatisfaction, I’m not happy. How can I be when she’s screaming in my ears for the second hour straight?

Neither am I happy when, in the stupor of our fatigue, we spill a bottle of painstakingly pumped breast milk (50ml!) and my wife proceeds to cry in the toilet.

When I do look out the window, I’m also unhappy with not being able to enjoy the final days of summer outside. It’s just going to get colder and darker, and I’m stuck indoors with a newborn. A newborn, in case you didn’t know, doesn’t interact much with you. She’s not capable of much of that yet and won’t be until she’s at least 6 months old when she can sit up and eat some solid foods with you at the dinner table.

But I think “Am I happy?” is an irrelevant question to ask yourself as a parent. Better is the question, “Does this suffering feel worth it?”

To that, my answer is a clear yes, because I’ve never felt this kind of love before. That love (which continues to grow and, hopefully, reciprocates) is worth the suffering the newborn bubble.


Retreat

I’ve decided to stop using social media indefinitely. Specifically, I’m not going to use it for engaging in “personal” conversations. That means I’ll not be tweeting at anyone to reply to something they’ve said, or commenting on people’s life updates on IG or Facebook or LinkedIn. I will be keeping my accounts but I won’t be using them much.

This decision is multi-faceted.

First, I’ve become a dad this week. Our first child, Charlotte, was born and she and her mother who is a superhero have filled my heart with so much love I know I don’t need to look elsewhere (like my work) for more, at least for now.

Second, in the rare pockets of time where I could stop and think this week while caring for my daughter and wife in post-partum recovery (with surgery), I have come to realise how shallow my relationships with people online are.

I have a handful of real friends with whom I have eagerly shared “too many” photos of Charlotte. I pick photos that cater to each friend’s interests, one by one although not painstakingly. It was joyful and it was natural, unlike posting on social media.

I find one-to-one WhatsApp messages infinitely more intimate and meaningful than one-to-many social media posts and tweets.

Friends send their thoughts directly by WhatsApp, email, or Instagram direct message where nobody else can see. Online acquaintances do the opposite and mostly reply in public, which I suppose is all part of a game. I no longer want to participate in people’s performances of their identities, and I no longer want to partake in performing my own identity online either. It’s senseless. These friends online will never know the richness in you as a person, unless they cross over to being a real friend. I’ve yet to make one lasting friend through that kind of leap.

Third, my time just got a lot more scarce. Caring for a newborn is a no-joke-full-time job and it is a wonderful time that I want to fully experience. As Charlotte grows, I want to be there as much as I can to witness as many new things with her as possible so that when I’m older we can trade stories of “do you remember that time?” To have those times means I’ll have to reclaim my time from elsewhere. Twitter, for example, where I’ve spent an embarrassing amount of time on lately trying to build friendships. What was I thinking?

Frankly, I believe a retreat from social media will help me think better. No more crowdthink. No more noise. And thinking better means living better.

Alright, so those are the main reasons. So now what?

As I said, I love having deep connections that arise from one-to-one conversations. If that’s what you want as well, then feel free to send me an email. I will reply when I find the time. If that’s not your thing, then you should probably unfollow, unsubscribe, and unfriend me on the various social platforms. No hard feelings; those brittle connections hardly mean a thing to me now.

I will continue to post once weekly on this blog as I have over the last year and half as it continues to be my space for thinking and sharing broadly things that I’m working on and things that I believe matter. This blog works completely differently from social media in that it has no commenting feature and that when a new post goes live, it either goes up quietly, or it lands in your email where you can read and reply to me directly and privately.

Ciao!