My values (updated)

shaved ice

As I start settling into my career and life a bit after college, some values and perspectives popped up

  1. I’d like to solve simple problems that are manageable to solve within my control while maintaining my work life balance, based on what you are good at. 
  2. I’d like to live a life where I am constantly learning about different cultures through art, music, food, and design.
  3. I’d eventually want to have a location-independent career where I have flexible hours (i.e. have my own small business). The profession matters less than whether I can choose a career/path that gives me this option.
  4. Relationships and being close to friends and family, with experiences, matter a lot to me more than competing in a rat race. 

Point 1:

I studied urban planning in school, and loved what I’ve studied. However, changing the way cities work and making them more sustainable is a very challenging task.

Note the way I communicated impact. “Making a city more sustainable” is a very abstract phrase and problem that I would only save for mission statements or introducing your major purpose in life.

However, the actual problems I want to solve have to be manageable based on my given skill level. I don’t want to be overambitious and create an extremely high expectation that I cannot reach at that moment in time (granted, skill improves over time and the types of problems you can solve get more interesting as you get older).

For example, instead of “trying to make a city more sustainable,” a more simpler task would be to “plant a vegetable garden in your backyard.”

Point 2:

Learning about different cultures is a big part of my life and would like to integrate more heavily in my life.  Away from focusing on making a living, I’d say cultural bridges represent at least 65% of who I am.

I’ve previously studied Chinese on my free time, and Korean for a little bit  (한국어  잘  못해요) . I’m challenging myself by learning Portuguese, because I’d like to be able to communicate and meet new friends in Brazil someday 🙂

I believe the simple act of learning a language allows you to be able to aspire for more interesting experiences in life. 

Point 3:

Given the unpredictably of the economy, I’d like to reach some level of financial independence that isn’t dependent on a particular company, but rather my own ability to be able to create something of value other people can use.

Point 4:

I think the rat race and the fight to get the highest salary and promotion, after a while, can become unhealthy. Measurable and tangible impact matters more than what job title you have.

What do urban planners think of SimCity?

Answer by Francis Chen:

I studied urban planning in college, and it weren't for SimCity, I would have not gotten into city planning.

Beware, this post is going to bring out the inner kid in me.
I'm going to break down how SimCity appeals to many aspects of city planning.

I was a complete dork in elementary school. When I was 5, I would draw maps of geo-fictional cities and fantasy transit maps. I collected street maps of cities across the United States.

When Simcity 2, 3, and 4 came out, I was obsessed with each as a kid in elementary, middle, and high school. Simcity brought out the idealist in me.

I would want to make my own city, geek out on the skyscrapers, or make farms, build suburbs, freeways, or transit stops. (unfortunately, these developments don't conform to smart growth).

Building schools, hospitals, parks, beautiful public spaces, commercial spaces, residential apartments…. man, there was so much flexibility (especially if you used the cheat codes or mods/plugins).

In fact, when Google Maps came out, I got quite excited because I could finally look at the street map of every city in the United States.

I'm a map geek. In fact, whenever I was on BART or riding the bus, I would take out my phone and start looking at random maps of major cities in Asia and Europe, and geek out over each neighborhood and district.

I would look at my phone and start to memorize as much as I can about each city's geographical features and major streets, as well as each district and neighborhood that made the city what it is.

Get to know me better, and you'll discover that I can draw maps of cities I have never been too or visited in detail. Watch me draw a map of Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, I'll do it…. because I just love the act of drawing cities spatially, and seeing what they look like.

In fact, after Google Maps came out, I decided to use the maps that came out from each city, and tried to make maps, neighborhoods, street grids, parks/public spaces, of my own on Simcity 4. Those cities were my inspiration.

I totally geeked out on the transit function once Simcity 4 Rush Hour came out:

Holy crud, I was very obsessed with this feature.

 For example, as a transportation planner, you'd want to know how many people are driving, versus people who are taking transit/walking, and how to allocate the majority of travelers to take transit based on land use or travel patterns.

I think this was one of Simcity 4 Rush Hour's most powerful features.

I was so obsessed with parks and public spaces.

As an urban designer, you are focused on creating public spaces that improve the quality of life for the people who live, work, and play in a neighborhood or urban area.

This was so fun to do, it wasn't even funny. Creating awesome playgrounds, benches, trees, shading space, water fountains. Wanna make that Central Park? You bet you can make that Central Park!

If you download the mods/plugins, the parks and public spaces can increase the property values and desirability of nearby land uses and property in an urban area. From a real estate development and economic development planner's perspective, this is key in bringing tax revenue to local government.

What about air and water pollution? Industrial waste?

The environmental planner has to deal with making sure any sort of development (especially industrial development) has the least environmental impact as possible.

However, industrial development is often a job source and cash cow in Simcity 4 for local governments.

I would often build lots of industrial development and separate them from commercial development / residential development just to make sure everybody was satisfied and didn't next to crappy air. Or, in fact, just build parks to improve the air quality, and property values of the industrial development. I would say to myself, "Cool, maybe I can attract high tech industry so that the development would have much cleaner air." And, I did.

OK, what about just generally building stuff where you want to?

The land use / spatial planner or community development planner would be in charge of finding ways to allocate land uses that generally provides the highest quality of life to people.

Want to create a suburban neighborhood? A dense, mixed use downtown? Large skyscrapers? A mixture of them? How would you lay out the roads, sidewalks, parks? How would you zone, organize the land uses that would make the neighborhood a good place to work, live, or play?

In addition, what if you want to make sure all the buildings have the same type of architecture / facade style in a particular neighborhood or district (i.e. think lots of major European cities)?

But I digress, Simcity is an extremely idealistic game. As I got older, I realized that I was too focused on the aesthetics of the game rather than the practical aspects of city planning.

Most of what players do in Simcity has very little do with what actual city planners do in local government.

Now, I'll show you what they actually do:

A majority of a day-to-day job of an urban planner is in current planning. According to the City of Capitola, California government website on Current Planning, current planning is:

Current Planning is zoning review/project review of private property applications. Current planning is development processing. Projects are processed per the City zoning code, which implements the City General Plan.

The review process increases in complexity as the potential for project negative impacts in the environment is greater. Processes vary from over the counter approvals to a few years’ long processes involving EIR and Coastal Commission permits. Compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) is fundamental, so all potential impacts can be disclosed to the public and potentially mitigated.

Compliance with regional, state and federal regulations is also part of the process. The case- processing planner is the coordinator of intra and inter- agency input.The Planning Commission has the final approval power over most development applications, with exception of those requiring zone or General Plan amendments, which also require City Council approval.

The Current Planning process helps to ensure orderly development and the aesthetic enhancement of the character of Capitola.

As you can imagine, this takes a lot of bureaucracy and red tape to get through.

Essentially, the sum of this is: want to build or modify something? Go to the city planner and make sure he/she will approve it.  You can't just build and they will come.

You cannot build as fast as Simcity 4. All those parks you want to build: it'll take a long time to get that built. That planner has to make sure that park is following every guideline/code/ordinance is being followed, especially the environmental portion (following NEPA/CEQA is a big deal, especially in California).

Many large-scale projects have to be approved by the planning commission or city council first before even being built.

For example, a new commercial development could take several months to get approved because it has to pass through a lot of regulation, whereas a small addition to your house might take only a few days or a few weeks depending on the complexity of your project.


So, in reality, what do city planners think of SimCity 4?

It is really what city planners wish they could accomplish in their day to day life.

However, there is a lot of reality involved, and people's lives are dramatically affected if people just built, redeveloped, quickly, without following strict regulation or proper public participation. See urban renewal in the 1960s:

People's neighborhoods become displaced, when developers just build neighborhoods quickly

The construction of Los Angeles freeways, which has accelerated an unsustainable model of suburban sprawl.

Yes, government tends to be slow & bureaucratic. However, these protections, regulations, and zoning ordinances are meant to protect the citizen or government from rash, impulsive development.

The government has to be very careful, and meticulous in making sure their decision affects negatively the fewest amount of people.

Lots of these laws and ordinances (especially CEQA/NEQA, which requires each development/project to go through an environmental impact report, EIR process, before being approved) are meant to benefit the resident/worker. It is the job of the city planner to make sure these regulations are being followed.

Now, I'm speaking from an North American city planning perspective.

It will be much different in countries like in China, where development happens almost every day. I believe some of the stuff that takes place in Simcity 4 actually resembles China more than the United States since stuff is being built almost everywhere.

So yes, Simcity 4 is much different than what urban planners do in the US on a day to day basis. I do think it could be more transparent and easier to understand for the public, but realize that their job is meant to help the citizen.

View Answer on Quora

What’s the single most valuable lesson you’ve learned in your professional life?

Answer by Edmond Lau:

Focus on high-leverage activities.  Leverage is defined as the amount of output or impact produced per unit of time spent.

This lesson applies regardless of whether you love to spend many waking hours working or whether you're a subscriber of Tim Ferris's 4-Hour Work Week philosophy [1]. At some point, you'll realize that there's more work to be done than you have time available, and you'll need to prioritize what to get done. Leverage should be the central, guiding metric that helps you determine where to focus your time.

Another rule of thumb for thinking about leverage is to consider the commonly mentioned Pareto principle [2] or the 80-20 rule — the idea that 80% of the contributions or impact come from 20% of the effort.  That 20% of work consists of the highest leverage activities.  The 4-Hour Work Week philosophy requires taking this to the extreme — assuming a normal 40-hour work week, what's the 10% of effort (4 hours) that you can do to achieve most of the gains?

By definition, your leverage, and hence productivity, can be increased in three ways [3]:

  • By reducing the time it takes to complete a certain activity.
  • By increasing the impact of a particular activity.
  • By shifting to higher leverage activities.

Some examples of professional activities that I engage in to increase leverage include:

  • Mentoring new hires.  Mentoring (and really managing) is an extremely high-leverage activity.  Over the course of a year, an employee will spend somewhere between 1880 to 2820 hours working (assuming 47 work-weeks and somewhere between 40-60 hours per week working).  Spending 1 hour every day for a month (20 hours) mentoring or training a new hire may seem like a lot of time, but it represents only about 1% of the total time the new hire will spend working his/her first year and yet can have a significant influence over the productivity and effectiveness on the other 99% of those hours.
  • Building tools and automating repetitive work.  Coming from a software engineering background, one high-leverage activity that I tend to do is to build tools that reduce manual, repetitive work. I'm a little biased, but I'm a firm believer that everyone would benefit knowing a little bit about coding (see Computer Programming: Should most young people learn to code?), primarily because there are many fields not traditionally associated with computer science where a mindset of automation would have huge efficiency gains.  Don't do what a machine can do for you.
  • Invest in learning and in continuously improving.  This falls in the bucket of "important and not urgent" tasks that Steven Covey describes in his time management matrix in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People [4, 5].  Learning never seems like an urgent task, and it's easy — if you don't budget time for it — to allow unimportant interruptions to dictate your schedule.  However, learning is what lets you improve your work productivity and increase the opportunities available, so it's a big high-leverage activity.
  • Actively prioritizing tasks based on estimated impact.  I'm currently working on user growth at Quora, and there are probably hundreds of things that I could consider working on at any given time that might move our metrics up and to the right. Deciding what I should work on next that would be the highest impact requires regularly reviewing (I try to do this at least weekly) what needs to get done and having the data to guide the decision-making.
  • Holding tech talks and writing guides to bring new hires on board.  At Quora, we've recently started having each new hire go through a series of tech talks and also assembled a set of codelabs.  Inspired by Google's training regimen, codelabs are documents that explain core software abstractions and concepts that we use, discuss the rationale for why we designed and used them, walk through the relevant code in the codebase, and provide a set of exercises to solidify understanding.  These took many people on the team many hours to write, but they provide a scalable and reusable resource that allow new hires to start on a consistent foundation and cut down the amount of time that each individual mentor needs to spend teaching the same concepts.
  • Pushing back on meetings without an agenda or meetings that you don't really need to be a part of.  Poorly run meetings are negative leverage because they waste people's time.  Avoid those.  A corollary to this is defining and setting agendas for meetings that you hold so that you don't waste other people's time.
  • Spending time on interviews and improving interview processes.  Conducting interviews is a huge amount of work.  Interviews interrupt your workday, and the hours spent talking with candidates, writing up feedback, and debriefing all add up to considerable amounts.  However, making sure that we're hiring the right people, that we have a good process in place,  and that people we hire are people that I would be excited to work with is essential to building a strong team and a strong product.  There have been many weeks where I've interviewed 4 candidates per week, and I think my personal record during the height of the recruiting season was doing 20 interviews in 20 consecutive workdays.
  • Using open-source tools when they meet your needs.  There's no sense in re-inventing the wheel if someone else has already built what you need.

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[5] Tips and Hacks for Everyday Life: What are the top three effectiveness strategies you use?

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Turning 22

Solvang, California

I’ll be turning twenty-two in about a few hours. Some thoughts that popped up now that I’m older.

  • Relationships, and people that you hang out with are connect with well are much more important than career building. Your career will influence your quality of life, so prioritize quality of life and experience over what career you end up trying to do.
  • Being young is an awesome time to make mistakes, so don’t be too worried about awkward situations.
  • Soft skills are much more important than hard skills. Without the soft skills, the hard skills will not go anywhere.