Entrepreneurs and polymaths

Entrepreneurs and polymaths have something in common. Entrepreneurs need to be knowledgeable in many areas, though mostly in the management of business, and mostly being knowledgeable enough is enough (delegation then comes into the picture). Polymaths are knowledgeable in many areas, though the reasons for it may be different. I pin the common reason as simply being curious.

Scott Adams (who draws Dilbert) wrote an article on entrepreneurship.

The first thing you should learn in a course on entrepreneurship is how to make yourself valuable. […] The world has plenty of better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. The rare part is that each of those modest skills is collected in one person. That’s how value is created.

We still need better artists, smarter writers, funnier humorists and more experienced business people. But to have one person advise you on art(istic inclinations), writing, humor and business? Priceless.

The Chameleon Consultant

I was reading this book How to Succeed as an Independent Consultant (Amazon link) by Herman Holtz and David Zahn. A consultant is someone with great expertise in a particular field. You can be a software consultant, a tax law consultant, a management consultant (or even a consultant consultant *smile*).

There was a short section on versatility. The authors wrote that it’s hard for someone with many talents to be a consultant. Which field do you become a consultant in? The answer is: all of them.

They gave an example of someone who changed their field of consultancy based on whatever needs to be consulted on. That person became an engineer consultant or technical writer/consultant or management consultant based on whatever their client needed. He’s a chameleon consultant, a polymath consultant.

But there’s a catch. People might associate you with their view of what you should be, if they find out about your other talents.

Herman Holtz himself encountered this problem. He’s a consultant for mainly government agencies, but he’s capable of consulting for commercial purposes too. It’s to do with the client’s expectations. He said there was once where a client refused to hire him after learning about his consulting fees.

“I’m not paying that much to hire a writer.” said the client.
“But I’m also doing this, and that, also those.” said Herman.

It doesn’t matter. The client had it fixed that Herman was just a writer.

I understand the war between versatility and niching. Heck, I’m rationalising that war in my mind. It’s hard.

And then Seth Godin wrote in Small Is the New Big (Amazon link):

The ability to change fast is the single best asset in a world that’s changing fast

A chameleon consultant is probably better at changing fast than a niche consultant. But it also depends on what you’re changing to. I just believe a chameleon is better at adapting and solving our increasingly complex problems, which involves different disciplines, such as world hunger/poverty (sociology, logistics, inter-nation relations) and environmental issues (biology, physical sciences, agriculture).

Anyway, in my quest to feed myself, I’m also offering consulting and speaking services on:

  • online publishing (e-zines, blogs, and dare I say, social media)
  • small online business (how to start, marketing, sales)
  • software (design, coding, management)

There are probably more I could help you with, but the topics are so diverse, they’re buried in bits here and there in my archives. I think of myself like a medical diagnostician. You have a problem, but you don’t know where to start solving it. Present it to me, and the least I could do is point you in the right direction.

Me, a chameleon consultant? Hmm, that’s got to be a new category.

The Inverted PI Polymath

There’s a war going on in my mind. The Specialists, numbering in their millions, were wielding their sharpened, highly honed spears. The Generalists, a motley group in the dozens, stood fast, holding their battered shields and battleaxes.

“Charge!” shouted a Specialist.

A ripple fragmented the front line of the Specialists. In a strangely beautiful pattern, the Specialists swarmed towards the Generalists, an undulating wave upon wave of clanking moving bodies. “Hold tight!” cried a Generalist, as she levitated effortlessly into the air, and materialised a volley of icicles shooting towards the Specialists. Another Generalist moved forward, forsook his axe and shield, and clapped his hands to unleash a thundering tremor, toppling the front line of the approaching Specialists.

“Archers!” And a sleet of arrows flew into the air, formed a graceful arc, and rained on the Generalists. Just before the the arrows hit, shields faced skywards to deflect most of the arrows. A sudden gust of wind blew to disrupt the flight path of the arrows, sweeping them harmlessly to the side.

Then the clash came.

Spears were thrusted, aiming for the head. Battleaxes were swung, some to break spears, some to bash heads, some to disembowel, some to clear a path for others. The Specialists used everything they knew, which was to thrust a spear unerringly into the head, or shoot an arrow unerringly to the eye. The Generalists used everything they knew, which meant using the flat end of the axe to increase surface contact with the head, or the blunt end to smash spears, or the sharp end to slice.

“NOW! Everyone together!” That Specialist appeared to be the leader. The Specialists moved closer to the leader and started charging in an arrow-like formation, intent on splitting the Generalists.

One Generalist near the point of the formation reversed his battleaxe and thrust it downwards. The ground exploded. Another Generalist took the opportunity to blow the dirt towards the Specialists. Yet another Generalist sliced her hand in the air and formed a fire barrier. The front line of the Generalists held their shields together, propped them on the ground, enlarged them, and directed some of the heat from the fire onto their shields and melded them together.


That war is still waging. Everyone says to specialise. To find a niche. To go ever deeper into something. A part of me agrees. Another part of me also says that something is wrong. If everyone goes into a deep hole, how are they going to talk to each other? If there’s an ambiguous problem, who’s to come forth and solve it?

And ambiguous problems we will have, given the increasing complexity of our problems. I envision problem solving then to start similarly to medical diagnosis. Maybe you feel an erratic inability to breathe. You might want to go directly to a Specialist. Which one then? A lung Specialist? Probably a good choice. What if it’s not your lungs, given that you probably don’t know much about the human body? What if it’s your trachea, or a fungal infection, or the ginseng tonic you drank 3 days ago?

My friend had a compromise. It was originally called “PI expertise” or something like that. I can’t remember what’s the vertical axis, so I’m calling it the inverted PI.

Inverted PI Polymath

Out of the range of topics you know, you master 2 (instead of just 1) topics. For the other topics, you maintain a passable level of knowledge. I’ll leave you to decide what “passable” means, since I believe it’s up to the individual.

It just so happens that I write about maths and programming here on the blog. Ok, I’m topic-wandering lately, but I originally just wrote about those 2 topics.

I will also tell you that I’ve met mathematicians who can’t program for biscuits, and programmers can’t do math logic to save their lives. For me, these 2 topics complement each other. If I didn’t write code, I wouldn’t know that for some maths concepts, a workaround is needed (such as “1/3 cannot be represented exactly with floating point numbers”). If I didn’t do maths, forming complicated if-else statements might be tough (I’ve seen programmers who don’t understand De Morgan’s laws, even if they don’t know the name of the concept).

Maybe I just happen to like 2 topics that can work symbiotically.

I’m also not a master of maths and programming. Far from it. In fact, I feel my skill levels in both diluting. But my interest in both is still there. I just happen to like exploring other topics too.

I don’t think that struggle will go away. I’m neither interested enough to only hone just one skill, nor clever enough to master several skills. It’s like neither the Specialists nor the Generalists can accept me. It’s a war I tell ya.

Now I need to get back to experiencing that war again. Tell me what you think though.

Application Polymath

I think I figured out how to improve the general negativity that “polymath” or “jack of all trades” has. But first, let me tell you a story.

I remember back when I was still working in a job, I had a job title. It started with “Systems Analyst”. Then at the end of 2 one-year contracts, I decided I’ll never get free of VB.NET if I don’t do something.

So I jumped ship to a startup, where I get to use C# and was supposed to practise extreme programming. I was excited, for I also had to learn something I’ve never used before: regular expressions. I joined the startup (after I went on that New Zealand trip for a well deserved rest) and had some job title that I can’t remember now and don’t think it matters. Let me ask you, can you differentiate the following job titles?

  • Systems Analyst
  • Systems Engineer
  • IT Analyst
  • IT Engineer
  • Applications Analyst
  • Software Analyst
  • Software Engineer
  • Systems Designer
  • Software Designer
  • Applications Designer (I just made this up. Don’t know if it’s real)

There are probably many more with meanings just as ambiguous. I don’t really know what those titles mean, and don’t know if there’s a difference. I was still writing specifications, designing software and systems and frameworks, writing code, liaising with users and fellow colleagues and supervisors and managers, attending meetings, taking conference calls, giving presentations, doing software/server maintenance, and solving users’ computer problems (whether it’s because of my software or other people’s software or just general computer problems).

Wait, I thought I was supposed to just write code. Yeah, everyone does pretty much the same thing despite their titles.

Where was I? Oh yes, the startup. Well, I got sacked after exactly 6 weeks. The first 3 weeks were still bearable. There were a few interns, so the workplace was more fun. 3 weeks later, the interns left, and I was stuck with the founder/CEO and the original programmer (there were only 2 of us coding when I started. There was another programmer hired, but one programmer story at a time…). Wait, there was the original programmer’s wife as well (don’t get me started…). I didn’t get to write a lot of C# code. I didn’t get to use that regular expressions skill that I studied and practised really hard (because the founder got another PhD intern to do the regular expressions) which was the backbone of how to parse patent text (part of the startup’s product).

What was my mistake? During the interview, I was asked by the founder what I saw myself as in 5 years (you know, a typical HR-ish question). I gave a typical answer, you know, leading a small team of programmers.

So the founder started me on doing all the administrative stuff. I handled the printer setup. I made sure the computers and other assets were properly recorded. I made sure the source code settings were done properly (ok, so maybe that was more related to software development).

And the other programmer was, shall we say, less tactful in how he talks to me. His English was (much) less than fluent (he’s Chinese). He used Microsoft Access as the backend database, and gave me a talking-down when I pointed out that the client might not have Access installed. The .NET Framework would already be a required installation, so the less we impose on the client, the better, right? The data retrieval functions and objects were inflexible (not all SQL statements need a where or group by clause). He called me a four-eyed toad (what are we, 6 years old? I was still wearing glasses then). He gargled water at his desk while coding (it’s not a big office. You could just about fit 2 cows into it. Maybe 3.).

I frequently lunched alone.

So a week before Christmas, the founder called me up for a private meeting. He could see that I was unhappy working with the other programmer. He also suggested perhaps I could be happier working at some place else.

“Am I being let go?” I asked.
He nodded. Somewhat awkwardly I might add. I don’t think he’s fired anyone before.

So for the rest of the week, I began documenting what work I did, and what was already done on the project. I cleaned out my computer (as in wiping traces of me, not wiping all the work) as I didn’t want anything about me left there in that miserable workplace, even if it’s just an Internet cookie.

On my last day, which is Christmas eve, I packed my stuff, ready to go. The founder had a Christmas party planned and stuff. He invited me.

I declined.

After that, I rested for a couple of weeks, and then joined a software house. The team I was assigned to, worked in the Singapore city area. The client was a Japanese company, had security precautions I had only seen in the movies (I needed to pass a fingerprint scanner to get to the washroom. Another story for another time…), and while happier than at the startup, was still longing for something more. I did discover Michael Buble, who’s an awesome singer.

I worked there till the end of my 4-month contract, and I decided to return to the first company I worked at. I was even willing to work with the “evil” boss that was part of the reason why I left. I was hired, and no, I worked at another team. Well, that lasted for 5 years, and that brings us to here and now.

I can tell you now, titles mean very little. It’s what you do and what you’ve done that’s more important.

Which brings us to the original point. How do we improve the general negativity of the term “polymath”? I believe a big part of the problem is that polymaths (and the various terms used) are seen to dabble, never quite committing to anything. Well, I can tell you that, even if a person isn’t dabbling, the person isn’t by definition committing to anything either.

So I believe a solution is that you, me, us, the polymaths, need to apply ourselves. We can’t just keep learning this and that trinket of knowledge and skill without applying it. It’s the “frivolity” of learning that’s the crux of the negativity.

A person learning one thing without applying himself is considered “being focussed”. He’s trying hard! He’s concentrating on just one thing! He hasn’t done anything useful with it, but it’s ok!

A person learning many things without applying himself is considered negatively. It’s not fair, but it’s the way it is. No information is useless, we just haven’t found a use for it yet.

Now in my previous company, the term “programmer” was deemed to be a low position. So if you had “programmer” anywhere in your title, you’re like dirt, just barely above the administrative staff and cleaning ladies/janitors. If you have a degree, you’re a “Systems Analyst”. If not, you’re an “Application Programmer”.

I say we should overturn that kind of stigma. We are going to be Application Polymaths. Because we’re multi-learners who apply ourselves.


I am humbly asking you to be my patron. This will be a long read, so if you want to skip to where the party is, click here. So what’s micropatronage, and how is it different from plain patronage? I’ll explain that in a while, but first I want to share a story with you.

Bread ecstasy

My mom told me that when she was young, she travelled to France. Being frugal, she found she couldn’t afford anything other than bread. The baguettes there were the cheapest food she could find. So she ate that every day while she was in France.

Well, history seemed to have repeated itself. A few days ago, I was doing grocery shopping in the supermarket. Like a man on a mission, I went straight for the kill. My target? A pack of muesli and a giant bottle of fresh milk.

Well, along that unerring route from where I picked up the shopping basket and where my muesli was, was the bakery section. For some reason, I glanced ever so slightly at the rows of loaves of bread and stopped. Hmm. I could check out the bread spread.

As I slipped into the alley of bakery delights, something clicked in my mind. I could eat bread! As a meal! What a novel idea! (I promise to cut down on the exclamation marks) I was ecstatic. Doing some mental calculations, I found that a meal comprising of 2 or 3 slices of bread with some peanut butter or some other spread on it, was cheap! (I’m sorry, that’s the very last exclamation mark, I promise)

I was dancing. There were squeals of delight. I was head banging as was appropriate in a rock concert. I hugged a loaf of bread (it was squishy, and smelt nice). I also scared the living daylights out of the genial grandma beside me.

Ok, I didn’t actually dance. But it happened in my head. The grandma was really there though.

Well, I’m not at the point of stealing bread. Yet. But it would be a sad day if the headlines read

33 year old wrestles McDonald's Happy Meal from 5 year old

Yes, a very sad day indeed. Abraham Maslow (sort of) said it in 1943, Chris Guillebeau said it in 2010,

It’s hard to sit around thinking big thoughts when you’re wondering if you’ll have enough to eat next week.

When you're starving, even bread and peanut butter tastes heavenly. Unless you're allergic to nuts, of course.

Although to be fair, my current lack of freedom is due in some part to a personal choice…

So what’s micropatronage?

Patronage was a word associated most importantly with the Renaissance period. A patron was simply someone who financially supported artists, musicians, writers, philosophers and other persons of scholarly pursuits. Patrons supported the work of the people they admire, typically artists. (There were other types of patrons, such as political ones, but we’ll ignore those in our context)

Patrons then were powerful and extremely wealthy. For example, Lorenzo de’ Medici of the House of Medici, was a patron of Leonardo da Vinci.

And micropatronage? Instead of one powerful patron supporting one artist, think of many less wealthier Medici’s supporting one da Vinci. Yes, I know I’m holding myself up against Leonardo himself, but I also draw now. I’m getting closer to that ideal polymath… Besides, after Seth Godin redefined the word “artist” in his book Linchpin (Amazon affiliate link), I feel I’m up to the task now.

Just to set things straight, no, I will not call you a micropatron. That is like diminishing the value of the support you’re giving me. You’re a patron, regardless of the amount of support. You’re a patron, whether your support is macho or minor, monetary or metaphysical, moral or motivational, mythical or medical, miraculous or mute. You’re my patron. Besides, you can tell your girlfriend (or boyfriend) that you’re a patron. It sounds sexy. It is sexy.

“Honey, I’m home.”
“Hey sweetie, how was your day?”
“It was great. I became a patron.”
“Ooh, that’s sexy. Come here so I can give you some love.”

Or something like that.

Sweet! I'm a patron.

I’m sold. Sign me up.

Really? Uh, for the sake of transparency, let me educate you on the ways of making money online, which is my primary means of support. Actually, that sounds kinda sleazy. I make a living through the Internet. Ok, that sounds better. There are 3 main methods:

  • Advertising
  • Affiliate marketing
  • Your own products and services

Personally, I don’t like advertising (on this blog anyway). It uglifies my blog and intrudes on your attention. You don’t really want to read an article on raster to Cartesian coordinate conversion and half way through that, I ask you if you like a particular brand of cologne, do you? The advertisement will have to be relevant, and my years of writing taught me that is hard for this blog. I’m ok with advertising on my magazine, but I’m skipping ahead about the magazine…

Similarly, product relevance is hard to accomplish here for affiliate marketing. If you’re not familiar with the term, it means you’re selling other people’s products for a commission. The typical rate is 50%, with some Internet marketers offering as high as 75% commission if you successfully sell their products. I write about practically anything under the sun, that doesn’t mean every product is relevant here. (Amazon book recommendations are about the only exception, and only rarely do they fit.)

And I don’t want to write an article talking about a product just so I can make a commission. Even if that article’s well balanced on pros and cons. Even if I disclose beforehand that I get a commission if you buy that product through a link I provide (which has some nifty tracking so that the merchant knows the sale came through me).

The routes of both advertising and affiliate products will subtly influence the way I write my articles. I don’t like that. I want to write articles that you might find interesting and helpful. And if they don’t, hopefully the articles at least made you laugh.

So the final method of making money online making a living through the Internet, which many bloggers are already figuring out, is to sell your own products and services. If I’m going to bombard you with advertisements and product sales pitches, it had better be about my own products and services. In this respect, I consider donations and patronage to be in this category. A donor gives money to you because you sell hope, faith, laughter, or relief from boredom. A patron gives money to you because he supports your work.

What’s the number?

So how much do I need? About US$600 per month. I calculated that as a round number, ignoring fluctuations in US to Singapore dollar conversions (assuming US$1 = S$1.40) and ignoring some miscellaneous expenses, and paring down to survival costs and monthly bills. And almost half of that goes to paying my insurance. Insuring my life and health is slowly killing me. Oh the irony.

A word of advice. If you have a stable job, don’t pile monthly expenses such that if you lose that job, you have difficulty paying for those expenses. Quitting my job might turn out to be the dumbest decision I’ve ever made, but I’m much happier now. We’ll see how it goes…

I’m not asking you to support my work with $600 every month (but it’s so awesome if you do). I’m saying I have a low overhead, and every little bit of support you give goes directly to my survival (other than the small admin fees charged by the payment processor site).

Maybe you find it incredulous that I can survive on US$600 a month. Let me give you an idea of how it works. You might be one of those coffee drinkers who unfailingly visit Starbucks every day. Perhaps you always order a tall latte to go. It might cost you $3.50. That latte you had, after converting to Singapore dollars, is enough to buy me a plate of rice with vegetables and maybe a little bit of meat or egg. I’ll probably even be able to buy a cup of tea (I like teh si siu dai, which is Hokkien for tea and evaporated milk mixed together with less sugar). Your morning drink can buy me dinner.

I have stopped lifting weights. Because lifting weights (and vigorous exercise) raises my already high metabolic rate, and makes me burn energy faster, and makes me eat more to compensate, and up my expenses. There goes my bulging biceps, chiselled chest and daunting deltoids…

My transportation costs are practically zero. I walk. I walk over 3 kilometres a day if I get out of the house. I take the bus only when absolutely necessary (like when it’s raining, or when I have a big bag of groceries). I take the train if the destination is far, and I alight at the nearest train station and then walk.

I’m telling you this because I’m committed to keeping the overhead costs low.

“But you’re not enjoying life”

I’ve gone to bed hungry more than a few times now. I remembered what it’s like to go without satisfying my stomach. (I used to starve to save up money so I could buy video games. ‘Twas long time ago. A story for another time.) It’s not fun.

I walk everywhere. In the drizzling rain or in the bloody murderous hot sun.

Zhai nan

I still try to get out of the house. Otherwise, I’d become a true “zhai nan” (ja-ee nahn). It literally means “house man”. It’s usually used in a derogatory tone, typically describing socially inept males who stay at home whose only form of entertainment is video games or the Internet.

Low social stat

When I go out with my friends (because I still need some kind of social life), I don’t have cake, eat ice cream or even a cup of tea when I’m thirsty. “But you’re not enjoying life.”

The alternative was to go back to a desk-bound job, coding some software that I had no pride in, working with people scared of losing their jobs and clinging to their frozen ideas of what was work like an intravenous drip, not understanding that their soul, their creativity, their life was slowly dripping away nevertheless. Perhaps your job is nothing like that, and you love your job and is happy. Good for you.

What I’m really terrified of, is that I’ll never get a full opportunity to make a positive impact on the world. And so I go hungry sometimes.

My email queries are non-trivial

I’m sure you’ve heard of bloggers who couldn’t answer their emails any more because of the volume. I don’t know the contents of their emails, but I’m pretty sure their replies could be done in a few minutes. I’m not trivialising their problem. Even if a reply takes only 1 minute, at hundreds of emails, you could still spend hours just answering email.

I have a different problem. I have fewer email queries, much fewer. Sometimes the queries come in the form of a comment to an article I wrote. But each of those queries can take me hours to reply. I have to research on the problem, and if there are any solutions already written out there. I have to check if my math is correct. I might have to write a program, and make sure it runs fine. I consolidate the answer into a coherent whole. My email reply is 5 to 10 times longer than the initial email. 5 sentences per email reply is an extremely hard rule to follow.

This is why that quadratic Bézier article was written. Or the 3D cubic version. Or the one on percentage contribution (I had help from Christopher. See below). Or the one on advanced styling in Excel Open XML.

Those were written at the express request for help from some of my readers. Possibly even you. I want to help. It’s just draining on my psyche. And sometimes, I wonder if I’m making an impact at all to better the world.

Even if I had a job and don’t need your patronage, 5 hours per email reply is still too much. The brain cycles and time lost is hard to justify. I want to help. It’s not like I’m helping to pick up an apple that fell out from a person’s bag. It’s not like I’m helping to give directions to a lost traveller (but I suck at giving directions. I’m a road idiot). It’s 5 hours. Unadulterated gratitude can take me only so far for so long.

That said, words of gratitude and feedback and such are still extremely powerful (my blog is known to run on a single “thank you” comment for weeks without needing nourishment).

For anyone who launches a product, who bravely publishes that first book, who records music, who stands up for ideas of any kind — for anyone who performs for an audience without trackable means for people’s happiness — he or she knows the importance of receiving feedback. And a fan letter, invaluable.
– Liz Danzico

You’re actually helping other people

If you become my patron, you’re not just supporting me, but also helping other people then. By keeping me alive, you’re allowing me to come up with coherent, understandable and clear answers that take me 5 hours. By supporting my work, you inspire me to do greater work, which hopefully inspires others to do greater work.

Your patronage will help keep the already free writings on this blog even freer (if there’s such a thing). And speaking of that, I’ve decided to set my magazine free. The next issue of Singularity (August 2010) will be available for free. I’m sure the participants of my survey will be pleased to know that. The main reasons are that more people will benefit from the magazine, and that micropayments don’t really work on the Internet. Here’s a sneak peek at one of the topic’s header graphic:

Vegetarian continuum

My friend Christopher contributed an article for the July 2010 issue. He said, “Vince, I don’t care if no one reads that article. If they want to read it, they have to buy the magazine from you.” (This was why his full article wasn’t in the free preview. He specifically told me to only put it in the paid version.) I’m touched, and really grateful. The magazine was basically a one-man show. Layout, design, photos, images, topic header graphic, articles were all created by me, aside from the cover photo and article contributed by my friends.

When I told Christopher my decision to set the magazine free, I also told him I’d understand if he didn’t want to continue contributing articles. Well, he’s still willing to contribute. But he has a condition. You have to become my patron. He drives a hard bargain…

Christopher wrote 3 books on personal finance. He has strong philosophical grounds and he’s an IT manager. His insights will be useful to you.

Specialists aren’t enough. We also need generalists for our future.

That’s the big idea I’m pushing.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
– Mahatma Gandhi

I am scared to death at the prospect of having to become a polymath. Do you know how hard that is? That many people think it’s a waste of time? That people tell me to just continue programming (and by implication, only programming), because that’s what I’m apparently good at?

I believe that our future needs generalists. Our future won’t survive the fracturing of knowledge into deeper and deeper specialisation without people who can connect the different spheres of information together. How can they, when their tunnel vision had already excluded the impossible outcomes and the possible ones from their field of vision?

So I’m slowly trying to be a polymath, despite the inherent hardships. To show you, to show the world that we need polymaths, I need to become one.

Be the change I wish to see in the world.

That statement scares the heck out of me. Will you support me in that quest, that vision?

How else can you help

Help me spread the word. My definition of the word “patron” isn’t that narrowly defined. I’m giving my help freely. I’m giving the magazine away freely. I ask that you help me tell other people about it. If you know of anyone supportive of my work, ask if they are interested in being a patron of mine.

Awesome is a by-product

You can also sprinkle “Polymath Programmer” or “Singularity magazine” surreptitiously into your daily conversations.

“Sir, do you want a latte?”
“Polymath Programmer”
“Yes, I want a latte.”

“Watch where you’re going, numbskull! Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
“Bugger off.”
“What did you say?”
“Singularity magazine.”
“I’m sorry.”

And saying “polymath programmer” is easier than “peter piper picked a pair of pickled peppers”… it trains your pronunciation.

And just in case you’re interested, you can be a patron of Polymath Programmer for US$20 per month.


The amount is automatically deducted from your PayPal account every month, and you can stop the payment at any time from your PayPal account. You can find out more on how to support my work by clicking here. Thanks! (drat, I used another exclamation mark…)

(psst… and remember to slip the words “polymath programmer” or “singularity magazine” into your conversations. Or ask supportive people to be my patrons. You’re an awesome person.)

First odd prime birthday

Children at a birthday party

Actually I forgot the actual date. I thought it was today, but it turned out to be yesterday. Oops. Sorry, blog.

So yesterday, 12 June 2010, Polymath Programmer turned 3 years old. *trumpets flare, streamers float and white doves fly into the air* Originally, I wanted to keep it quiet. No fuss, no muss. Just continue writing stuff you’d find interesting. Then I remembered that June 2010 was special to me personally.

Hence, in a whirlwind of idea creation, I want to thank you for reading Polymath Programmer. If you are one of the first 3 people to email me (or if you prefer the contact form) with the subject header “Polymer Birthday” (within this month, you know, because it doesn’t make sense next month…), you will get:

  • A postcard sent to you from Singapore, with a personal message from me.
  • The next 3 issues of Singularity for free. I’ll even give you the current June 2010 issue as a bonus.
  • The Secret History of Polymath Programmer.

[UPDATE: 2 people have “won”. Only 1 left. Start emailing…]
[UPDATE: All prizes taken. I thank the 3 people who emailed me.]

I will obviously require that you provide your physical address for the postcard to work. I promise it will be kept confidential, and will only be used to send the postcard to you. But if you’re not comfortable, I can scan the postcard with the message and send you the image. Either way, you’re getting a postcard.

As for the secret history thing, I will tell you things that few people ever know about Polymath Programmer and me. I’ll tell you why June 2010 is special. You’d probably laugh. You might sympathise with me. Hey, if nothing else, you’ll feel good. Everyone loves secrets.

And if you’re looking to advertise in Singularity, you’re in luck. If you contact me within this month, you get a heavily discounted rate. (click here for more details)

That’s it. Enjoy the rest of June. It might even be summer for you. I can completely relate to you, being in ever-summer-Singapore.

[image by Rich Legg]

Stuff I am doing lately

I had a tumultuous past month (or so).

My network adaptor died on me, and since my computer then was about 5 years old, I thought “Why not just get a new computer?” So I did.

Due to some personal reasons, I feel a bit worn out. So I’m putting that ebook project on hold for a while. Partly because I’m also channelling my energy to another blog. Please visit Honeybeech, where I tell stories, mainly about my Dungeons & Dragons gameplay adventures.

Rest assured that I’m still here. So I’ll be writing math and programming topics here at Polymath Programmer, and RPG/fantasy/fiction stuff over at Honeybeech.

Because even programmers need to eat (as in “eat properly”, despite whatever you’ve heard about pizzas and fizzy drinks), I’m writing an ebook as a D&D game supplement. It’s called Math Wizard (I know, it’s so “me”, right?), and the character’s powers are mostly based on math and science concepts.

Considering all my options, I believe I have a better chance at making “Math Wizard” work better than “Discipline and Deflection” (the original ebook project). I also believe the former can inspire more people and ignite their imagination and curiosity than the latter. I will still create both, and I’m just constrained by time and effort.

A friend also introduced me to a book store here in Singapore called BooksActually. They have a sister branch called “Polymath & Crust”. Awesome! They have the word “polymath” in it. I have to visit that book store.

Polymath & Crust

The store is located at No. 86 Club Street Singapore 069454, if you’re interested.
[Disclosure: I’m not paid by them. I even bought a book. See below.]

We went in, and it was a quaint little place, carrying books that you don’t see in major book stores. My friend bought himself a dictionary of symbols, and I bought a dictionary of mathematics.

Dictionary of Mathematics

Even their paper bag is interesting. I wonder what that interesting shape mean?

Polymath & Crust paper bag

Are corporate programmers also polymath programmers?

I’ve been writing for more than 2 years now, and I realised that I never told you much about my professional job. Let’s start with a brief summary of how I started…

Beginning of professional career

I started working a few months after I graduated in 2002. I had a science degree in applied mathematics and computational science, but that didn’t stop me from applying for the software engineer, software developer, application programmer, systems analyst and other confusing variants of the job title. I like programming.

Once, I worked in a startup company, writing software to deal with patents. One of the requirements was “must know regular expressions”, used for searching through the patent text, so I put my mind to learning it. I got the job. The funny thing was, the CEO handed that part of the coding to an intern. Oh wait, a PhD intern. Maybe I wasn’t qualified to touch regex…

Somewhere in that career history of mine was a software development house. The team I was in, was assigned to develop an enterprise product for a Japanese company. It’s an internal website, and handled work flow processes, task assignment and other enterprisey functions.

Half the time, I was helping to complete some sections of a business class. A third of the time, I was doing the testing, because I seem to be the only (expendable) one with more than coding skills. Because I had experience talking with users, coming up with specifications, database design, setting test environments and oh yeah, coding.

They even offered me a role in translation, after they heard I knew Japanese. Correction I told them, I knew a little teensy bit of Japanese. They had an overflow of programmers I guess… (it was a team of 10 programmers. Or was it 12?).

In the present

Currently I’m working in a telecommunications company in Singapore. Actually, I started my first job in the same company too. After the first few years, I joined the startup. Then left and joined the software house. Then left, and rejoined my current company, but in a different team (still in the billing support department though).

The interesting thing is that I’m dealing mostly with satellite data, not mobile phone data (one of the core business of telecommunications companies). And my users are like a complete company, albeit on a small scale.

They have their own departments on customer service, marketing, sales, and to a certain extent, their own IT team. And that IT team is composed of 3 people. And I’m one of them. I have a supervisor and a colleague who handles the backend programs (mostly C and C++ on Unix).

Me? I’m the frontend guy, and the everything-else guy.

Because of the unique service (compared with the rest of the company) dealing with satellite data, my team is involved with everything from the call records of the customers, to the configuration of their price plans, to billing the customers, to settling profit with the satellite providers. The satellite business is quite interesting, and I’ll tell you more in a future article.

The other team mates focus on collection of the raw file containing the call records, processing them, calculations of the bills and other backend stuff. I handle all the stuff that users will see and interact with, like Windows applications and web applications. And I manage the Windows servers the web applications are running on. And there’s the updating of the SSL certificates for the web applications. Once I was at the data centre during a power maintenance, because someone needed to be there to flip the on-off switch of the servers and check on the equipment.

My work is seen by a lot of people, which includes the customers, the sales staff, the marketing staff, the product managers, the administrative staff and the customer service officers. This means I get a lot of queries.

If a number doesn’t tally with the total, someone sends me an email.
If the font size is too small, someone sends me an email.
If the Excel download fails, someone calls me.
If the data cannot be found, someone calls me.
If they can’t open an FDF file, they call me.
If the offshore Chinese colleague have questions on business logic or web design or code design, he/she calls/emails me.

If [something happens], someone [calls/emails] me.

In short, I get interrupted a lot. Nice private offices? Not a chance.

And I still have to write code so the projects actually ship before deadlines.

There was once where I had 1 month to come up with a new website for the customers to view their call records (brand new .NET web application, new user interface, completely new database schema). That was a December (the sales people had to move fast to get that contract before the start of the next year, which meant I had to work fast). And another colleague from another team was reassigned, and his work was handed to me (basically I was covering for 2 teams). And I received calls and queries from the users of both teams.

And the new website was out in the world on time. *whew*

Do programmers who work in a corporate environment go through similar experiences? Do they handle many non-programming related work? Are corporate programmers also polymath programmers?

I’m stumped, since I probably have this naive notion of programmers just programming (to a large extent). My friend once asked me what I do at work. I didn’t know how to answer, so I rattled off a few tasks mentioned above, and he’s surprised I do so many different tasks. Particularly when I sometimes have email correspondence directly with customers, which I try to avoid for business reasons. The sales and customer service teams are supposed to be the frontline, not me.

Helping corporate programmers on time management

This brings me to a personal project. I’m creating a product about time management for corporate programmers, working title “Time management for corporate programmers – Handling interruptions, removing distractions and getting the Flow”. Or some such.

All the writings and articles on this site will continue to be free. I’m writing an ebook to help fellow corporate programmers (maybe even programmers in general) with what I know. And this endeavor might just be able to support this site. The articles are fun to write, and I love the brilliant comments by you (even the ones that tell me I’m wrong. Those are awesome).

Actually “time management” is too specific. I’ll be writing on discipline, control and health. There will be some quick tips on data migrations and doing your miscellaneous tasks with free tools (because you know, companies are always cutting the budget). My notes actually look like a jumbled mess, but maybe that’s the nature of polymaths… or just me.

So do you have any questions about time management in a corporate setting? Or even time management in general? What are the typical tasks you do? How can I help you do your job, the tasks you really want to do (it’s coding and shipping software, right?), better?

*whispers* Psst, it’s ok if you’re a student/coder. I was a student/coder once. Just ask.

Let me know in a comment, or if you’re shy, use my contact form to email me privately. You can also talk with me on Twitter (@orcasquall).

I’m really excited about this project.

You are now a Polymer

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been just a little concerned over the name of the blog: Polymath Programmer.

I want to write on topics that I’m familiar with, that I’m fairly good at, that is interesting. Programming formed the main focus, and slowly mathematics as well. I want to bring in other disciplines as well, even if I’m not very good at them, because they’re interesting or somewhat related to programming. Thus was born my main quivers of articles.

Polymathy perfectly encapsulates what I’m trying to get people to understand, to bring together seemingly disparate topics and synthesise them into a solution. Since I’m passionate about coding and its related subjects, I came up with “Polymath Programmer”.

Even though it’s just two words, the first one is big (who knows what “polymath” means anyway?), and both are 3 syllables each. Add them together and I get a long URL. Not very conducive to spreading the word.

Yet it feels right. So I left it as it is. You’ll have to imagine the kinds of typing acrobatics I perform whenever I comment on another blog, or key in my URL. I remember I was registering for a local bloggers’ event, and I made 3 mistakes (3!) while typing in my own URL. I don’t like laptop keyboards…

I want to shorten it. I hope to get people following this way of thinking, of coding, of solving problems. It’s hard to say “I’m a Polymath Programmer”. Doesn’t roll off the tongue easily.

So I put forth all my linguistic skills into play, cutting words up, switching them around and joining them.

  • Polyrammer
  • Polygrammer
  • Programath
  • Polyprog

Finally, I came up with one. It’s even an actual word. This word actually has similar meanings to what my grand idea is.

Thou art now a Polymer.

What do you think? Hopefully, the chemists don’t hammer me…

Doing one thing well isn’t enough

It is that time of year when the students begin classes at the local universities. If they behave like what I remembered when I was studying, they’ll choose whatever is most profitable when they start working. Or whatever they excel in, hoping that their chosen degree helps when they start working. Concentrating their efforts on one thing, thinking it’s the best use of their university time.

I think we’re churning out enough specialists. I know of efforts to create well rounded individuals, who study a little bit of knowledge outside of their area of expertise. This is not enough. In this age of information, where knowledge is key, having information from diverse sources is critical. Understanding information from diverse sources is even better. Well rounded doesn’t cut it anymore. We need more polymaths.

Competing to be the best is commendable, and encouraged. The thing is, all the popular fields are taken. You want to be the best golfer? Go ahead. You want to have the largest software company? Go ahead. I just think there’s an alternative. I agree with Scott Adams (of Dilbert), who thinks becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more things is easier.

For example, a company needs a competent programmer. Hey you’re good enough. The company also needs a competent web designer. Well well well, turns out you’re good at web designing too. Match made in heaven.

You don’t have to be the best. Being 2nd best is often good enough, because you only need to be better than most other people.