The Life Outside

Some of you follow @talkRA on Twitter. I recommend you do; it is the smart way to be notified about every new post on talkRA. In many respects, this Twitter account has been our quietest success story. It has been running steadily for four years, and has amassed more followers than GRAPA – although we never resorted to the spammy marketing techniques beloved by Papa Rob. Our tweets stimulate around 5% of visits to the website, demonstrating that some people find this service useful. But lately something odd has been happening. More and more of you have started following a different Twitter account – @ericpriezkalns – even though that idiot tweets about anything and everything except communications risk and assurance.

Do not be alarmed; nobody has been deliberately misled. The idiot @ericpriezkalns is the same idiot who is blogging now. With a name like that, there is little chance of being confused with someone else, and I am not famous enough to be spoofed. But be warned, if you follow that account, it will not tell you anything you might find useful at work… unless your work involves writing stories, reading poems, or forming opinions about anything from American politics to space tourism to what would happen if zombies were real. (Though on that latter point, it should be noted that promoting zombie preparedness is an effective way to encourage serious risk planning.)

But perhaps I do myself a disservice. I always tried to keep my professional telecoms activity separate from my other interests in life. My thinking was that someone who spends their days reconciling CDRs may not want to hear about a science fiction story I just got published. However, more of you are following @ericpriezkalns for whatever reason, so perhaps the boundaries should be blurred from time to time. And when it comes to the fiction I write, a lot of the stories revolve around the themes that will interest this audience: advances in technology, the gathering of huge volumes of data, the increasing reliance on computers to make decisions, unforeseen risks and the implications for ordinary people.

One of my stories was published in the October edition of a British science fiction magazine called Jupiter, and it features a man drifting in deep space, with only his intelligent space suit to keep him company. Using the imagination to contemplate the risks in this scenario is as valid a mental exercise as evaluating how to mitigate a zombie apocalypse. Being marooned in deep space would involve a loss of communication, lack of information, the isolation of a person from social contact, and reliance on technology without any back-up. These issues are not so different from those dealt with by telco assurance and risk professionals. For those who are interested, the magazine is available from the back issues section of the Jupiter website, or the Kindle version can be downloaded from Amazon.

Jupiter 46:Carpo

If you are wondering why that idiot @ericpriezkalns is not listed amongst the authors, that would be because I use a pen name – Ray Blank – for my fiction. My Ray Blank alter ego also relies on the @ericpriezkalns Twitter name, which is why that account is more likely to tweet about story writing than business assurance. And please do not jump to conclusions on Twitter, or you may end up following the real Raymond Blank instead!

I know it can be an unpopular opinion, but I have always argued that good assurance and risk management requires imagination. You will not prevent something going wrong, if you do not imagine it going wrong, and you will not know where to look for real problems, if do not theorize about where to find the evidence. When I managed teams, I was always keen on activities that stimulated people to think laterally, and creatively. If those activities were fun, that was better still. I know that many of you work very hard, and it may not feel like there are enough hours in the day to make time for games. Furthermore, your boss may not appreciate you doing anything which does not look like serious and productive work. But allowing your mind to wander, and getting team members to bounce ideas around, are crucial to enhancing your productivity.

A word game, a conversation about current affairs, creating a hypothetical scenario and then analysing it – these can be great ways to boost your team’s morale and find innovative new ways to help your telco. I know many of you have enjoyed the puzzles that talkRA has published from time to time. Exercising the mind purely for the sake of exercise is not a waste of your time. Whether the exercise is mental or physical, it can increase strength, suppleness and energy.

In The Structure of Scientific Revoutions, physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn showed how great advances often occurred when scientists moved into unfamiliar fields, and so introduced fresh thinking that was not hamstrung by old preconceptions. Nobel laureate Richard Feynman embodied those principles; he would take time away from his study of subatomic physics in order to paint portraits, or to calculate the oscillations of a plate spinning atop a pole. Feynman’s agile mind gave him the confidence to point out when NASA’s bosses said silly things about risk management. Our work may be more humble, but we can still learn from the example of these great men. For these reasons, I recommend that you occasionally step back, and look at the world from a different angle. You can do that during office hours, and whilst at home too. I have often commented that our employers pay us to think, and there is no way to control when good ideas should come to us. This means work problems will sometimes be solved during our personal time, and vice versa.

Though I usually keep my work and my personal life separate, I only have one mind to think about both. I know my mind will accomplish more if I grant it the freedom to think what it wants to think when it wants to think it. This is a better approach than placing limits around the mind. This fact will be appreciated by a thoughtful manager, who wants a thoughtful team. And if we are not going to do our work in a thoughtful manner, then we are unlikely to do it well.

The connections between the spheres of work and personal life have been made more apparent to me recently, and not just because telco professionals started following my personal Twitter account. I got my story published after practicing the art of writing for years. When I began writing fiction, I had no objective other than writing for my own amusement, and for those few friends who took an interest. And I would never have tried to write stories without first taking a lateral step in my career, by starting a blog about revenue assurance. That blog led to this blog, but it also led me to write about other topics, and progressively I spent more time writing fiction than fact.

When I first experimented with a revenue assurance blog, I could not tell what it would lead to. For example, it has resulted in the confusion of managing two Twitter accounts! More seriously, I benefitted from a range of unanticipated experiences. Some experiments end quickly, whilst others are more successful, and spawn further experiments like a chain reaction. If you allow your mind to wander between professional and personal interests, you may be surprised by the cross-fertilization that can occur, and the results in your own life. I am happy to say that experimenting with allowing my mind to wander has worked wonderfully well for me. I encourage you to give it a try, because you have nothing to lose, and whilst the benefits are impossible to predict, they may be great.

Eric Priezkalns
Eric Priezkalns
Eric is the Editor of Commsrisk. Look here for more about the history of Commsrisk and the role played by Eric.

Eric is also the Chief Executive of the Risk & Assurance Group (RAG), a global association of professionals working in risk management and business assurance for communications providers.

Previously Eric was Director of Risk Management for Qatar Telecom and he has worked with Cable & Wireless, T‑Mobile, Sky, Worldcom and other telcos. He was lead author of Revenue Assurance: Expert Opinions for Communications Providers, published by CRC Press. He is a qualified chartered accountant, with degrees in information systems, and in mathematics and philosophy.

5 Comments on "The Life Outside"

  1. Good on you mate! I suppose this is the eagerly awaited edition you were talking about when we last met. I’ve seen that when you tell people that you are an auditor AND a fiction writer, usually there would be these snide remarks of how boring and accurate your story would be (maybe even a quip about a “SOX compliant storyline”). Here’s to proving that stereotype wrong!

    • Thanks Ashwin! Hmmm… but is it possible to combine science fiction and financial accounting in a single story? That would require an incredible imagination ;)

  2. talkRA fans:

    We might as well enjoy the blending of personal and professional lives today. In 30 or 40 years we’ll all be zombies ;- )

    To answer Ashwin’s wish, yes, Eric Priezkalns, errr, Ray Blank does pull off a good science fiction story!

    I bought the PDF version (less than $5) and was transported to a world far, far away — but a place that, strangely, still worries about risk, communications, and the ideal man-to-machine interface. So save your credit card receipt: you can write this one off your taxes as a business expense even though its pure entertainment.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn about revenue assurance from stories like this? My guess is the ideas would sink in better.

    This style of short story writing reminds me of those old Alfred Hitchcock collections. I imagine it’s quite a challenge to write in this format because you need to orient the reader about a imaginary world and keep the story moving forward.

    I won’t spill the beans, but I will say the conversation between the “Suit” and the hero is clever, even humorous at times. And the ending is a nice surprise.

    • @ Dan, many thanks for your comment. It’s a thrill to hear when someone enjoys one of my stories.

      On the topic of learning about revenue assurance from stories, I think we can learn a lot more from good stories (both true stories and fictional ones) than we can by only doing our work. That is because good stories broaden our horizons. Whilst you were typing your comment, I was sending you an email, describing the true story of Takaki Kanehiro, a doctor in the Japanese Navy, and how he learned that Japanese sailors were blighted by Beriberi because their diet was dominated by white rice.

      If you think about it, when Kanehiro spoke to his superiors, it must have sounded like he was presenting a fantasy, or science fiction. His bosses knew that white rice was superior to brown rice. Kanehiro discovered the truth by ignoring what people thought they ‘knew’ and by looking at the data instead. Ordinary Japanese sailors and Japanese city-dwellers suffered Beriberi, whilst Western sailors, Japanese officers and Japanese country-dwellers did not. Kanehiro had the guts to say the connection was the amount of white rice in their diets, and to demand trials where sailors were given a more varied diet. Despite the success of his trials, it still took a long time to persuade the Japanese military to change their ways. In short, they lacked the imagination to accept Kanehiro’s analysis.

      One reason I write stories is because I believe there are plenty of things we don’t properly understand about the world today. But it’s the nature of human arrogance to assume we understand everything perfectly. It’s a truism to say we’re blind to our blind spots. So I like to invent ‘thought experiments’ where I place characters in novel scenarios and work out how they would respond. In many ways, I did the same thing when I did revenue assurance. To give an example, one senior manager once told me: “we know the switches are accurate to the millisecond.” Oh yeah? Then let’s determine how this is ‘known’, how we can check if this is true, and the consequences if it isn’t true…

  3. Eric,

    In fact, the people who have had the most commercial success in our internet age have been those with the passion to test the bounds of knowledge and not follow the crowd.

    One of the foremost investors in the bond market today is a guy by the name of Jeffrey Gundlach. The story of his rise to become the new “king of the bond market” makes for interesting reading in the November issues of Forbes.

    Gundlach as a math and philosophy major in college and fell into the investment business as a day job so he could play with a rock band at night. He earned his doctoral degree at Yale writing a thesis on the “non-existence of infinity.”

    The conclusion of his thesis: “There is no infinity. It’s an illusion; there is absolutely nothing empirical that suggests infinity exists and nothing that operates under the assumption of infinity that has any practical implications.”

    So Gundlach ultimately abandoned philosophy as “words that don’t mean anything”. Then he focused his mind on the science of investing.

Comments are closed.