When and how to say no at work

I used to get asked for help multiple times per week every week at my old job. Stuff like reviewing blog posts, giving talks, writing internal memos, attending recruiting events, calling candidates (especially women), even mentoring new employees whom I’d never met. I was overwhelmed.

For a long time, I kept saying yes to everything because I wanted to look like a team player. But there were three major issues with my unwillingness to say no:

  1. I didn’t have enough time to focus on my own personal/career growth.
  2. Even if I managed to say no, it often took me over an hour to make my decision and figure out how to respond productively and nicely (because women have to be nice).
  3. I was taking up opportunities for growth and reputation-building that other folks would have loved to take on.

In this blog post, I’m going to talk about how I started holding myself accountable for saying no via my “no” tracker, the list of questions I asked myself in order to clarify my feelings more quickly, and how I kept conversations productive after saying no.

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Leading through writing in software engineering

I published an article for LeadDev in May 2021 and you can find it here. Here’s a preview:

With writing on the internet, there’s a natural feedback loop: if your article is low quality, you’ll struggle to get readership and engagement, and you’ll self-correct for the next article to increase those metrics. Inside a workplace and at increasing levels of seniority, that feedback loop disappears. Your colleagues and direct reports are obligated to read your emails, so it becomes easy to mistake their readership as a sign of a good job. In reality, your colleagues may never tell you something as blunt as ‘I had to read your proposal three times to understand the point’ or ‘Oh, those notes? I just marked it as read.’

Your writing directly impacts the health of your team and the execution of your product. Confusion about the vision for the team and its mission, as well as the big picture of where you want to go, are all symptoms of unclear communication. As such, we should approach the writing we send to our colleagues in the same way that we approach building products: by putting the user (the reader) first and designing a great reading experience.

Head over to LeadDev to read the rest!

Balance and mental health

COVID-19 has made me pretty unhappy lately. I’m trying really hard to stay balanced, so I wanted to say all of this to make sure I have something to read later.

Back when I was in university, I was in a pretty deep spiral of anxiety and depression. I kept getting advice around that time that I should practice gratitude and positive thinking; for example, I should write down a list of all of the things I’m grateful for or all the ways that I’m privileged. That advice was infuriating to me. I lashed out at a lot of the people who gave me that advice and told them off for being insensitive because my mind was in such a bad state that I couldn’t think of anything positive or anything I was grateful for. At that time, I really wanted to say, I can’t stop thinking about dying all the time because I don’t want to have any of this life, so stop telling me to be grateful for the things that are hurting me.

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Japan 2020 trip notes

Over Christmas/New Years, I went to Hakone, Tokyo, and Hokkaido. I posted a ton of pictures on social media and got some messages from people saying they wanted to visit the places I went to.

I dumped all of my links into a table below so you can sort by location/type and plan your own trip. Below the table, you’ll also find my rough itinerary.

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“Working with me” / README template for individual contributors

I keep a living document for my coworkers that covers the basics about me. I started the document at a time when I realized that I’d be going through several manager transitions in a short period of time and I wanted some control over how I was going to come across and what I’d say to each of my managers. Now I maintain the document because it turned out my teammates liked reading it too.

In terms of overall principles, here’s what I think makes a good README for an individual contributor (someone who is not managing people):

  • Keep it brief. This isn’t your Myspace profile. With this type of document, I think it’s hard to toe the line between demonstrating self-awareness and… self-absorbed preening.
  • Values and philosophies are best discussed verbally and discovered over time. Treat the document as a conversation starter, not as a series of essays.
  • There’s a difference between what people can learn from working with you over time and what you can state in a document like this. Even if you say things like, “I have no ego, feel free to call me out whenever”, no one will believe that until they get to know you. There’s no shortcut for getting people to trust you faster, so I try to stick to topics that I feel need to be covered up-front without the need for that kind of trust. (This is difficult with topics like “how to give me feedback”, but it’s a best effort kind of thing.)

In the rest of this blog post, you’ll find an edited version of my document in case you want to start your own.

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Video Game Probability #1: How to Grow 5 Golden Crops in Stardew Valley

Welcome to the first installment of Video Game Probability! You can read the introduction and motivation for this series here along with a list of all posts. This post contains mild spoilers for probability distributions in Stardew Valley. Without further ado, I’m going to jump in!

Stardew Valley is a farming/lifestyle RPG where you grow crops, fish, find love, fight monsters, go on quests, and so much more. I have so much to say about this game and I’m trying so hard to hold in my enthusiasm – I hope you appreciate the sacrifices I make in the name of succinct writing. (But no really I love this game, it’s on Steam, it’s on Switch, it’s even on iOS and Android, so you have no excuse not to play it, please give it a try, it has something for everyone.)

One of your major tasks in Stardew Valley is to fix the Community Center. If you have no soul, you can go corporate and pay a ton of money, but most people go for the Bundle route because they’re not dead inside. A bundle is a set of items (crops, foraged goods, etc) that you donate to the spirits of the forest in exchange for rewards. Once you complete every bundle, you fix the Community Center!

Today, we’re going to talk about the Quality Crops bundle: you must gather 5 golden parsnips, melons, pumpkins, and corn to complete the bundle. The pesky thing about these crops is that parsnips are only grown in spring, melons are only grown in summer, pumpkins are only grown in fall, and corn can be grown in summer or fall. So if you reach the end of spring or summer and didn’t manage to collect the 5 crops for that season, you have to wait a whole year for another chance!

When you harvest a crop, it has a chance of being regular, silver, or gold quality. The game calculates your chances based on your farming level and what fertilizer, if any, was used. (Note: While “luck” is a mechanic in the game that I’d love to explore further, I don’t think your daily luck affects your harvests – correct me if I’m wrong!)

Here’s our big question for this post: How many crops should we plant with what fertilizer in order to guarantee a certain probability of getting at least 5 golden crops?

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Video Game Probability: Introduction

A big theme of my computer-science-related content is that I have a hard time understanding concepts unless they’re connected to a real-world use case. I was required to take introduction to probability to complete my degree, and I really struggled because of the abstractness of terms like “geometric distribution” and “expected value.” I didn’t do enough work to understand how probability could connect back to real problems I’d want to solve, so I didn’t manage to internalize its value or develop an intuition for it.

(It took me weeks to understand that “expected value” really meant something like “weighted average” because I didn’t make the connection and no one pointed it out to me… those weeks were tough.)

Probability still doesn’t really come up at work a lot now (phew!), but I still wish I’d paid more attention because it keeps coming up in video games that I’m playing. And while I have enough vocabulary saved up to know what to look up to solve a problem, I haven’t practiced enough to be able to work out the math quickly. So I’m going to start sharing a couple of problems that interest me in hopes of helping out anyone who’s in my shoes.

I make no promises on how frequently I’ll add to this series, but I’m hoping to cover situations in Hearthstone (calculating lethal, chances of drawing a certain outcome) and Stardew Valley (growing certain crops, lightning). I’m open to requests for well-defined and motivated problems in your favorite video games too!

Here’s the index of posts in this series:

Airplane packing list

The other day, I told my siblings that my packing list has messages to myself in it, like, “You have to pack a jacket. You’re always cold at the airport. Pack the jacket.” and “You always tell yourself you don’t need the neck pillow for a two hour flight and then your neck hurts and you regret it and say you’ll bring it next time but then next time you say it’s only two hours…” They made fun of me basically reliving my own version of Memento: “Don’t trust her lies. She always forgets.” I really do always forget. If you’re like me, I hope this list helps!

Backpack with suitcase sleeve and passport slot

I think my backpack from Briggs Riley is beautiful and well-made. The knurled hardware and soft fabric lining on the inside makes me happy every time I use the backpack. I love being able to rest it securely on top of my suitcase. I like having a dedicated slot for my passport because I never have to scramble and panic from not knowing which pocket I put my passport in. I like not having a giant tech company logo on my backpack!

My only gripe is that this backpack does not hold very much. It’s probably healthy for my back that it barely holds anything, but sometimes I just want to squeeze in that one last thing and can’t manage it. I recommend checking out backpacks from travel brands if you want a backpack with similar features. For example, TUMI, Away, and Lo & Sons all make backpacks with suitcase sleeves.

Neck pillow

I use the trtl neck pillow. I like it, but I’ve never tried the regular squishy neck pillow, so I don’t know how they compare. The trtl takes some getting used to and some people have said it feels too tight around their neck. It fits fine with my over-ear headphones, but I remember the first few times I had them on together, I had a hard time keeping the headphones on.

Eye mask

I bought the Alaska Bear sleep mask because it was the frugal pick on the Wirecutter. And then I lost it, rebought it, lost it again, got desperate at an airport, bought a random cheap one, and haven’t replaced that one since. Any eye mask is fine, just to keep yourself asleep when your asshole seatmate keeps opening and closing the shades.

Multi charging cable

I have this one I found on Amazon and I like that it has lightning cable, micro USB, and USB-C. Pretty great!

Floss in carry-on

I always put my floss into my toiletry bag in my checked luggage, and then regret having uncomfortable bits of food in my teeth during the flight that I can’t remove. Ideally, I would carry floss picks for hygiene, but I don’t always have them on me. I’m a really big fan of Cocofloss in general!

Hair ties.

Gotta get the hair out of the way.

Headphones with airplane adapter

I use the wireless bluetooth noise-canceling over-ear Bose QC35 headphones. I like that they have a dedicated slot inside the case for that weird two-prong thing that most airplanes still use. It makes watching movies so much better! The battery life is so good that the only time I’ve ever run out was about 10 hours into my flight when I started out with 60% battery.

I also bring an iPad and Nintendo Switch on flights these days for downloaded Netflix movies and video games. Yesterday, I cried while watching Taylor Swift’s concert on Netflix. I might get Youtube Premium just so I can download more whole concerts.

I moved to amy.dev

I published my first blog post on here in March 2013 (6 years and I’m still at it!!) and I talked about how I get intimidated when thinking about doing things that I’ve never done before, such as installing WordPress. At that time, I wrote:

When I learn new things, I’ll try to document what I learned to delineate exactly why I reached the conclusion that it was simple. Installing WordPress, for example, is only simple after you do it.

Today, I finally sat down and moved from amynguyen.net to this new domain, amy.dev. You know when you log onto Turbo Tax and they ask you “How are you feeling about doing your taxes?” before you get started? I would definitely choose the frowny face option for how I felt about getting through this today. And six years ago, I would have chosen the “don’t ask” extra frowny option.

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What would it take to start my own company the way I want to?

I’ve been having the same conversation with myself over the past few months. Whenever I end up in a cycle like this, I like to write everything down. I think writing gives my brain permission to stop ruminating because it feels assured that I won’t forget. So this time, I’m going to share a little about what I’ve been thinking regarding starting a business!

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