#MentalNote · Education · Random

Using the Fermi Method To Improve Estimations Skills

Physicist Enrico Fermi was one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century. He won the Nobel prize in physics, held several patents and was best known for developing the first nuclear reactor. During career, he became well known for his ability to make fast, excellent approximate calculations with little or no concrete data. In one well-known example, when the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Manhattan Project, Fermi dropped a few scraps of paper as the shock wave from the detonation passed. After some coarse calculation, Fermi estimated the power of the blast from the motion of the scraps as they fell.

His estimation strategy spawned what we now call Fermi problems or estimates. These problems normally involve making justified estimations about an amount and their variance or minimum or maximum. These problems have been used in employee interviews (how effective they are is question for another day) to better identify a candidate’s ability to break down seemingly large unknown problems and create a reasonable estimate. Here’s an example of some common Fermi problems:

  1. How many plastic flamingos still exist in the United States?
  2. What is the total number of shots taken in one NBA season?
  3. How many hot dogs are bought at all the Major League Baseball games for one season?
  4. What is the average lifetime of a pencil?
  5. How many musical notes are played on your favorite radio station in a given year?
  6. How much popcorn is popped at the movie theater on an average Saturday?
  7. What is the probability that you have a doppelganger?
  8. How many hours of tv will you watch in your lifetime?
  9. How much gasoline does a typical automobile use during its lifetime?
  10. If everyone in our city donated one day’s wages to a good cause, how much money could be raised?

As you can see, most of these questions are abstract and unknowable but Fermi type problems rely on estimation, dimensional analysis, approximation, but most importantly, approaching the unknown from a knowable place. For example, taking a look at a question like how many hours will you watch tv in your lifetime, might look like a daunting and unknowable number. But we can approach it from a knowable place and come up with an estimate by asking a couple of key “knowable questions. For example, if I’m trying to figure out, “How many hours of tv will you watch in your life?”. Here are a couple of the questions you might ask to get you to a solid estimate;

  • What is the average lifespan of your gender based on where you live? (We know the average life expectancy of a male in the US is 78.4…based on US census data)
  • What tv shows do you watch frequently on a weekly basis – Daily Show (4*30 minutes), Dragon ball Super ( 1*30 minutes), GPS (1*1 hour) = 3.5 hours a week.
  • How does this extrapolate to other parts of my life?  (I probably watched 3.5 hours of tv now, including netflix, amazon prime, etc but I probably have decreased my tv watching as I’ve gotten older. I probably watched 15-20 hours a week when I was a child (4-17- thinking of my favorite tv shows and daily schedule) and 10-15 when I was a young adult. (18-29)
  • Do I think my time watching tv will increase or decrease? – Most likely increase. I’m pretty busy now so I’ll probably get to the point where its back to 6-8 hours per week. In the long term, I think i’ll have more free time and also will have kids that will want to watch tv with me.  

Once we’ve got a majority of the inputs, (duration of life, baseline on tv show hours) now we can start estimating amount of time per year and then develop an estimate.

  • 0-3 ( Not really sure but let’s just say I spent 30 hours a week watching television) – 4 years * 52 weeks * 30 hours = 6,240 hours
  • 4-17 (20 hours a week) – 14 years * 52 weeks * 20 hours = 14,560 hours
  • 18-29 (15 hours a week) – 12 years * 52 weeks * 15 hours = 9,360 hours
  • 30-40 (8 hours a week) – 11 years * 52 weeks * 8 hours = 8,580 hours
  • 41-50 (6 hours a week) – 10 years * 52 weeks * 6 hours=  3,120 hours
  • 51-60 (15 hours a week)  – 10 years * 52 weeks * 15 hours = 7,800 hours
  • 61- 78 (10 hours a week) – 18 years * 52 weeks * 10 hours = 9,360 hours

I will spend an estimated 59,020 hours, or about 7 years watching television during my lifetime.

With Fermi problems, it’s less about the primary questions and more about the questions you can ask to identify certainty and fundamental assumptions that  affect estimations. For example, three major assumptions I made to come up with 59,020 hours are:

  1. The rate of tv watching is consistent on a day to day.
  2. Tv watching is connected to the amount of free time I think I’ll have in a given week.
  3. I’ll live to be the average age (78.4 years)

There are other ways to go about approaching this question. You could take a subtractive approach and identify the minimum and maximum time you can have to watch tv. IE, if a sleep 6-8 hours for the rest of my life, spend 8 hours working, 1 hour exercising, 1 hour eating, how much time do I have to watch tv a day? What are some other pressures that can affect how much tv time I have? To get more granular, what does my weekend look like? What do I normally do on vacation. There are questions that could bring you to a more approximate estimate, but the time spent on the estimate should be proportional to the need for accuracy.

The Fermi method has practical applications, it can be helpful in day to day estimating in work and play. From a project management perspective, the Fermi method can be really helpful when developing out approximate hours for  for client / internal estimates on upcoming features or projects. Most importantly, start with what you know. How many people will interface with the project? Based on previous projects, how long do your processes like discovery, check-ins, QA, and etc. normally take? While each project is different in its own way, asking these questions help expose what you know and areas where you’re making assumptions. Over time, you can evaluate how well your assumptions play out after each project.

I challenge you to find ways you can estimate better buy identifying your assumptions and approaching unknown questions from a knowable place

#MentalNote · Self-Revelation

Life Debt

I enjoy watching movies during short flights. It helps me pass the time. This most recent trip back to Chicago was a little different. I had just concluded a successful week in Washington DC  and running a program for tiphub . We met a lot of great companies, and other stakeholders and a bunch of folks had a great time. Overall solid experience.

I found myself reflecting on my time in Washington DC and a couple of quote from Seneca hit me.

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” Seneca

As I started to meditate on this quote, I realized I frequently forget to balance life’s book. So much, I’ve accumulated life debt. This debt operates similar to financial debt in a sense. It weighs you down, if you have too much, you lose out on opportunities you’d normally get, and you have less freedom.

I realized I procrastinated/ half stepped myself straight into an existence that is okay by most standards but only a small example of what I’m supposed to be.

I’ll most likely look at that moment as a turning point in my life. I realized what it really meant to live on purpose. I saw the past, present, and future all in one moment and saw what it meant to be fully committed…. All in…regardless of the probability of failure and more focused on the idea that the opportunity that passes may never come around again.

At this point I’m rambling but it’s like a light has gone on and life makes sense. Everything’s changed (except for my inability to write coherently.) for the better and I’m excited to see where this epiphany takes me.

Travel more…. you’ll start having these come to Jesus moments more and more.

#MentalNote · Random · Self-Revelation

Meditations for 2018

There are very few newsletters I read consistently as I do the Daily Stoic Newsletter.  It gives me the right boost I need each day for perspective, mortality and overall stoic philosophy.

It’s the beginning of the year and we’re all starting to do the new year shuffle. What are my goals? What do I want to focus on this year? Where am I going? I couldn’t think of a better guiding post than what I received from Daily Stoic earlier today. Here’s an expert of the email that highlights 12 focus areas to meditate on for 2018. I hope it will provide you with solid foundation as it did for me.

Clarity — Remember, the most important task is to separate the things that are in your control from those that are not in your control. To get real clarity about what to focus on in life. As Seneca put it, “It’s not activity that disrupts people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.”

Equanimity — To the Stoics, the passions were the source of suffering. “A real man doesn’t give way to anger and discontent,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “and such a person has strength, courage and endurance—unlike the angry and the complaining.” Calmness is strength.

Awareness — Accurate self-assessment is essential. Know thyself, was the dictum from the Oracle at Delphi. Knowing your strengths is just as important as knowledge of your weakness, and ignorance of either is ego (as we show here). As Zeno put it, “nothing is more hostile to a firm grasp on knowledge than self-deception.”

Unbiased Thought — “Objective judgement, now at this very moment,” was Marcus’s command to himself. Our life is colored by our thoughts, the Stoics said, and so to be driven by this bias or that bias—this delusion or that false impression—is to send your whole existence off-kilter.

Right Action — It’s not just about clear thoughts, but clear thoughts that lead to clear and right action. “First, tell yourself what kind of person you want to be,” Epictetus said, “then do what you have to do.” Emphasis on the do. Remember Marcus: “Don’t talk about what a good man is like. Be one.” This philosophy is for life, not for the ethereal world.

Problem Solving — Are you vexed by daily obstacles or do you throw yourself into solving them? “This is what we’re here for,” Seneca said. No one said life was easy. No one said it would be fair. Let’s make progress where we can.

Duty — “Whatever anyone does or says,” Marcus wrote, “I’m bound to the good…Whatever anyone does or says, I must be what I am and show my true colors.” He was talking about duty. Duty to his country, to his family, to humankind, to his talents, to the philosophy he had learned. Are you doing yours?

Pragmatism — A Stoic is an idealist…but they are also imminently practical. If the food is bitter, Marcus wrote, toss it out. If there are brambles in the path, go around. Don’t expect perfection. Be ready to be flexible and creative. Life demands it.

Resiliency — Do you want to count on good luck or be prepared for anything that happens? The Stoics had an attitude of “Let come what may” because they had cultivated inner-strength and resilience. Make sure you’ve done your training.

Kindness — Be hard on yourself, and understanding of others. See every person you meet, as Seneca tried to do, as an opportunity for kindness and compassion. Nothing can stop you from being virtuous, from being good. That’s on you.

Amor Fati — Don’t just accept what happens, love it. Because it’s for the best. Because you will make it for the best. A Stoic embraces everything with a smile. Every obstacle is fuel for their fire, to borrow Marcus’s metaphor. 

Memento Mori — We’re strong but we’re not invincible. We were born mortal and nothing can change that. So let us, as Seneca said, “prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life.” Let us put nothing off, let us live each moment fully. 


#MentalNote · business · communication

Opportunity In Crisis: What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Tesla and Alphabet

Hurricane Irma devastated Puerto and created a humanitarian disaster rarely seen in the United States. While the federal government’s response hasn’t been the best (based on infrastructure challenges, over stretched FEMA, leadership, etc), we’ve seen the private sector companies like Tesla and Alphabet step up to be partners in crisis response. While these projects are small in comparison to the larger needs, they are a step in the right direction and serve as models to how companies can work with customers in challenging times.

  1.  While crisis sucks for those who are involved, it’s a great opportunity for companies that have solutions ready to help. Natural disasters are an extreme example, but consumers, businesses, and governments all undergo crisis of varying magnitudes and need the help right away.
  2. Crisis often means the breakdown of barriers to entry for new participants. After destructive hurricanes in Puerto Rico, the normal distribution networks for electricity, internet, and water were destroyed. Not only was there a sense of urgency to get those services operating as quick as possible, the downtime provided an opportunity for distributed solutions like Alphabet’s stratospheric balloons nicknamed project loon, or Tesla’s powerpacks powering a rural hospital to jump in as a solution. As a founder, be on the lookout for key areas where an incumbent’s strength becomes an inherent weakness.
  3.  Understand the long term value when you successfully deliver a solution in a crisis situation. Compensation is important but the larger priority is proof of concept and a customer that’s fully invested in the success of your deployment. Crisis situations can be used as a transformational case study and will speak more within an industry than a clever advertising/ marketing campaign. Some short-sighted companies will look at a crisis situation as an opportunity to increase the cost of services or products. I believe the value derived from assisting customers in a crisis situation with a long term view in mind trumps the short term gain from exploiting crisis to drive revenue.



#MentalNote · Leadership · Self-Revelation

I'm My Sister's Keeper

***Before reading, read Straight Black Men Are the White People of Black People***

I agree with Damon’s assessment but solutions are a key part missing in his essay. Maybe because he wanted to focus on identifying a problem some would argue doesn’t even exist. Maybe he was waiting for me to write a solutions article. (If that’s the case Damon, lets make this collab official shall we?)  Damon’s write up begged the question; What can black men do to be better for black women so I went on and made a list of things black men can do to help create a more supportive and nurturing environment for black women. It’s by no means exhaustive and I welcome more ideas.  Also, full disclosure, I have room for improvement as well. I can stand to drink a tall glass of my own Kool-aid.

We need to have the difficult conversations with other black men and women. There are a lot of black men who have traumatic experiences from their mothers or maybe those who’ve they’ve dated. We need to realize that condemning a whole group of people for those traumatic experiences is irrational and promotes an unhealthy environment between black men and women.

Black men need to also have conversations with the uncles, brothers, cousins, friends, who perpetuate misogynistic ideals and behaviors. This means being that voice of reason when your friend is cat calling a woman walking down the street, or having a conversation with a younger brother about the proper way to treat women. We have to be the first line of defense to call out behavior that is unhealthy and detrimental to black women.

Be extra critical about language- Lupe Fiasco gets at the core of the hypocrisy of language in hip hop in his song Hurt Me Soul:

“I used to hate hip-hop, yup, because the women degraded
But Too $hort made me laugh, like a hypocrite I played it
A hypocrite, I stated, though I only recited half
Omitting the word “bitch”, cursing – I wouldn’t say it
Me and dog couldn’t relate, till a bitch I dated
Forgive my favorite word for hers and hers alike
But I learned it from a song I heard and sort of liked….

As black men, we need to be aware of the way we socialize negative language toward black women. Bitches, thots, hoes, etc. Some may say, its just a word, what power does it have? Doesn’t that question sound familiar? And often times, hip hop is the primary mode for misogynistic, discriminatory, and down right disrespectful language. I’m not going to blame hip hop, the medium itself is like a mirror. We see and hear what’s going on around us.

Support black women in social and political struggles. There’s a whole bunch of political/social challenges that are outright destroying black women. For example, according to the Justice Department, slightly more than 40% of sex trafficking victims are Black, far outpacing White (25.6%), Hispanic (23.9%), Asian (4.3%) and Other (5.8%) victims and women are more than twice (68 percent) as likely as men (32 percent) to be trafficked for sex. (Human Trafficking By the Numbers 2017) Sex trafficking is disproportionately affecting black women and we’ve got to show up and ride for them in their struggles like they show up and ride for us. There’s so much to support; income inequality, healthcare laws, access to stem education, etc. Show up.

We need to deal with toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity leads to a false narrative of what it actually means to be a man. A false narrative leads to a bunch of men seeking the wrong characteristics to validate their masculinity. Some chase patriarchal, self destructive and misogynistic ideals they believe are at the core of masculinity and it ends up demeaning and screwing over black women.  As black men, we need to re-evaluate what it means to be a man and make sure we approach masculinity from a healthy and pragmatic perspective.

Start a dialogue. It may seem a little counter-intuitive, but Facebook and Twitter are good places to have conversations around supporting black women. Yea, sometimes it can get out of control with the comments and trolls but it is a good place to continue the conversation.

Offline is another really important venue. Sit down and talk to black women about the challenges they face and identify ways you can leverage your position to support them.