Saturday, November 15, 2014

Judo in Whose Best Interest

At Gompers Middle School, we're so tough we don't even need light to practice. Electricity is for wimps.

I guess it is a cost-cutting thing that the lights don't get turned on until after 5 pm. So, with daylight savings time, we are now practicing in semi-darkness. It doesn't stop us.

We have a great group of kids at Gompers and I know the judo class is good for them.

This experience has also been an insight into some of the adults in judo. Many times, the suggestions people make for our judo students seem to be much more in the best interests of the adults making the suggestions than for our students.

For example, several people have suggested that middle school programs like ours are a great opportunity for judo organizations to grow their membership.

Keep in mind that we practice at a school, during the after-school program, so we are already covered by insurance. If I were to pay $50 per student to join some organization, that's $1,000 for twenty kids. That money could pay for the team dinner AND our team t-shirts. Since the money for this program is raised by me and my family, that is $1,000 more we'd have to raise, and none of us are exactly sitting around wondering what to do with our spare time.

Our students take a test to get promoted and they receive ranks. I record their tests. Sometimes I post them on youtube. There are always at least two black belts with a rank of fourth degree or higher that watch the tests. I think that's adequate to get promoted to green belt.

Then there are the people who suggest I should bring all of our students to a tournament at $50 a piece (after I pay the $50 fee for some organization). I should do that many times a year, they say, because it would be good for them. Again, taking 10 students to two tournaments would be $1,300 - $1,500 if the tournaments were local. That is counting the fees to join some organization and two entry fees. That is also assuming that there was no issue with not all of their judo gis being regulation.

Or, there are the people who suggest that we fund one or two of the more gifted students to attend tournaments and compete nationally, maybe even internationally. We have a couple of students who have that kind of talent. It would probably cost $10,000 each to get them the training they need, not counting having a coach or parent travel with them. I don't have the time to do it and their parents need to work.

Here is the real clincher - if I raised $10,000 for one of these students, I would spend it on summer science camp, weekend SAT classes, music lessons for Ryan (who is really into playing the trumpet).

One thing I am really proud of is the number of students from Gompers Judo who are now attending magnet schools.

Steve Seck isn't just an Olympic judo player, he is also a teacher at King Drew Medical Magnet High School, who has come as a guest instructor at Gompers, and has encouraged our students to apply. Two of them are at King Drew now. One brought his report card in on Friday - he has a 3.8 GPA. Two other students are at USC Hybrid High. Two others are at charter schools in the area. Over two-thirds of our students have gotten into high schools other than the local school, and they continue to do well.

Patty Chirino isn't just the mother of a very gifted judo player, she is also fluent in Spanish. She has volunteered to help students and their parents in completing applications for charter and magnet schools.

I understand how having a couple more talented kids at a judo camp may benefit some adults, but I don't see it as the best use of limited resources to help our kids.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

What a long, strange trip it's been

Thirty years ago today, I became the first American to win the world judo championships. For 14 years - more than half of my life, up to that time - I had been training and competing in judo. Winning the world championships occupied pretty much every waking moment for the last few years. I'm sure that had something to do with my divorce. Judo was more important than EVERYTHING (until I had my daughter, Maria). The only time I wasn't thinking about judo was when I was with Maria or when I was at work because programming does require some attention.

So, I won the world championships, went back to that job, earned a Ph.D., started a company, had three more children, then started another company.

Last night, I went to see my youngest daughter inducted into the National Honor Society. This morning, I took her to practice, fixed a few bugs in the next game our company is coming out with, Fish Lake. I drove back from Ojai - actually, I rode in the car and fixed a few more bugs while my husband drove. I got home, answered a few questions from students on data analysis and spent a lot of time on financial projections for a business plan we're submitting to an angel investor group.

Sometime in there, I saw a tweet from @judoinside

I said to my husband,

Oh, that's right, I did win the world championships 30 years ago.

It just struck me as very odd that I could have forgotten about something that was the center of my life for so long. When I was competing, I couldn't imagine what my life would be like without competition. If you've never been an elite athlete, maybe it's hard to imagine. For one thing, it's simpler.

When I was competing, all I needed to know to make any decision was - "Will this help me win, or not?"

My life now is different. Balancing the responsibilities of being a CEO, a parent, a judo instructor, a wife, statistics professor and board president, I'm constantly having to make decisions on what I should be doing next. Being CEO alone takes a lot of juggling. I'm one-third of the software development team in our company, plus the person who writes the grants and the financial sections of our business plans - along with several dozen other responsibilities, right down to feeding the office chinchilla.

What's life like when you aren't competing any more. For me, it's good. Complicated, but good.

I make games to teach math. Some day I'll write about why I chose to do that, but for now, I need to get some sleep so I can get up earlier tomorrow and get some exercise in. Funny how what used to be my first priority has slipped down the list ...

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Something I learned as a grown-up: More than one way is right

It's been 17 years since I lived in North Dakota, so when I go back there these days, it's often like a high school or college reunion. Well, I assume so, anyway, not having ever attended a reunion.
People I knew as small children are now running programs, writing articles I read in the newspaper, parents of five children - or, in prison or drug rehab.

It's funny how much they remind me of myself at that age, and that is an embarrassing admission.

When I was younger, I was so-o sure that I was right about everything. Hell-bent on telling you so, too, and making you see things my way because, God damn it, my way was RIGHT! I was just convinced I was the smartest person in any room, and determined to make sure that everyone else knew it, too, because everyone would benefit from knowing the right answer and doing the right thing. Right?

What I failed to do (just like many of them), was consider anyone else's point of view.  Since, like a lot of the young people now, I was well-qualified for the work I did, worked really hard and tried my best to do what was in the best interests of the organizations where I worked, I couldn't see how anyone could disagree with me unless they were either a) stupid or b) a bad person. Sometimes, that is true. Sometimes, but not always.

Several years ago, I was arguing with Chuck Jefferson, someone I respect a lot as a person, as well as a judo player, and he said to me,

I don't agree with you. I know you believe very passionately in what you say, but that doesn't make it true.

Everyone is wrong sometimes. I don't know whether or not I was wrong on that particular occasion, but the point was worth remembering. No matter how sincere and competent a person may be, that doesn't make them right.

Recently, I observed a young, extremely intelligent, hard-working, super-qualified professional telling people over and over, "I want to do this for you" and "I want to do that for you" and very frustrated at the lack of support.

If I could go back to myself at that age, doing the exact same thing, I would suggest,

Ask those people what they want done for them. Maybe they want something completely different. Maybe all they want is to be left alone.

The danger for young people who go to the best schools and are always at the top of their class is that they go out into the world convinced that they know best and - they don't always. Sometimes, they are just plain wrong, and there is no shame in that, as long as you don't make a habit of it.

That is the flip side of being always right. When I was young, I could never be wrong because - well, I'm not sure why. 

It is the same thing I see with many young people, now, though. If you suggest they might have made a mistake, it is like an argument before the Supreme Court, all of the reasons why what they did was justifiable and even if it wasn't, it was not their fault. This is so much the norm that I was extremely impressed when I brought something up to one young person and got the response,

That was a mistake and it was my fault. I take full responsibility. I should have been more careful in that case and I wasn't. I have no excuse.

How could I be so impressed by someone who admitted making a mistake as opposed to all of those other people? Mostly because I'm pretty sure that person won't do it again. People who won't face their mistakes are more likely to repeat them.

Here is the other thing I have learned over the years, and seeing people decades later, just reinforces it - there is not just one "right".

I truly believe what my grandmother always told me, that every talent you have is a gift from God and you should do as much as you can with it to make the world a better place, because it's not like you have anything God needs to pay back that gift. I work really hard to make games that teach math because I believe that kids fall out of the school system when they start to believe it is too hard for them, they will never succeed. In 90% of the cases, that's not true, they just need support. Maybe they missed some step, say, didn't quite get the concept of decimals. If we could back up, fill that in, and go forward, they'd be fine. ( Shameless plug: You can learn about our games, buy a game here or donate it to a school. )

On the other hand, there are people who chose different lives and, twenty years on, they are satisfied with their choices. They chose to be a teacher, a nurse, a farmer. They were faithful spouses, good parents, honest citizens and are now good grandparents. They worked 9-5, came home, cooked dinner and watched TV.  They never traveled more than 50 miles from the place they were born and now that the mortgage is paid off they are retired and watching TV in that same house.

I wasn't right and they were wrong. We were both right.

That is one of the things that I have learned as a grown-up.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Start-up reality: Silicon Snowbanks

Contrary to appearances, this is not an abandoned blog. For the past couple of days, I was at a hotel where the only wireless was dial-up speed and cell phone reception was too poor to use my personal hotspot. Yes, I know, first-world problems.

Many people have wondered how products would differ if start-ups weren't run by twenty-year-olds living in the Bay area. Would we get fewer apps to get dinner reservations and more that address the needs of people who are older, less urban, with less discretionary income and more children?

I can tell you that our very atypical start-up, 7 Generation Games, makes games that teach math - a concern of 30- and 40-year-old parents everywhere. With a theme centered on Native American history, you are more likely to find me on an American Indian reservation driving through the snow, than driving on a golf range or drinking martinis with venture capitalists.

(If you are a venture capitalist reading this, though, call me!)

This week I :
  • Flew from Los Angeles to Grand Forks, North Dakota then drove 90 miles west to Fort Totten,
  • In one day, did a game demonstration and spoke with students in the middle school, elementary school and after school program on the Spirit Lake Dakota Nation,  had dinner with a consultant on Dakota language, then gave a lecture on confidence intervals for the online course I teach on biostatistics,
  • Spent an entire day conducting a site visit for program evaluation, had dinner with staff from the elementary school, middle school and our Dakota culture consultant then drove 90 miles north to Turtle Mountain,
  • Made a new game install that fixed bugs discovered WHILE I was traveling. Went to Turtle Mountain Elementary, talked to classroom of students, then met with two teachers,
  • Met with staff at Ojibwa Indian School to do game demonstration , then drove 90 miles south back to Spirit Lake for continuation of site visit. Then gave a two-hour lecture on hypothesis testing.

... and it's only Thursday!

Testing with actual people in actual classrooms is crucial to making  games that are both fun to play and really (not fake) educational.

I am not complaining. I believe the work we are doing has great potential to change the world AND become a huge enterprise. Children in America who can't do math have far fewer opportunities in life - by fourth-grade, many children are already falling off the college track. We are working to put them back on it. 

I went into this with both eyes wide open and knew that making games that are used by children on American Indian reservations and in urban schools would involve Belcourt, North Dakota more than Beijing or Berlin.

That's my point, not all start-ups are in Silicon Valley. Some are in Silicon snowbanks.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Professor Badass: Math, Start-up Life and Ass-whippings

I was at a conference last week to give a talk on "Diversity in the Tech Industry" and received a text message this morning from a former student.

"Everyone loved, loved, loved your crazy hyper-intelligent self. I am so proud to have been a student of Professor Badass."

Interestingly, this was a former doctoral student who took a class from me on Advanced Quantitative Data Analysis.

This lead me to a podcast I have been thinking about. I know that the games my company makes are really good, and yet not as many people know about us as I would like.

 Since we don't have the funds to advertise during half-time at the Super Bowl, I was considering other means of getting information out about our company. The question is, what would the podcast be about, what would we call it and what would be the format.

Ronda called today and when I brought this up, she said right away,

"That's what you should call it ! Professor Badass! It could be on math and ass whippings. You could talk about the math part and at the end we could discuss who most deserved an ass whipping this week! Let's do it!"

I am giving this some serious thought. I'll explain why in a few posts, if I get some free time. In short, I think there are a whole lot of parents out there who love their kids and would do anything to help them out in life, but they are not into the making cupcakes for the PTA meeting. Maybe we could do a podcast aimed at them.

There are also people interested in succeeding in business, maybe starting a company, but they don't summer in the Hamptons next door to Buffy and Biff (or whatever the yuppie names are these days). In fact, they don't even know what the Hamptons are.

The Hamptons are a where, not a what, by the way.

In fact, I think that could be the topic of one of the podcasts: Things pretentious assholes know.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

What I Learned About Relationships from Judo

Last time, I wrote about what I learned about business from judo and how the 10,000 plus hours I spent on the mat were not wasted.

Tonight, I wanted to get in the subject of what I learned about relationships from judo.

It can be summed up as,

"There sure are a lot of douche bags out there."

Since that would make a really short post, though, I will elaborate.

  1. You can only know someone is your friend when they have nothing to gain from you. Having had a good measure of success as a competitor and then a daughter who had a successful run as well, there were people who were very friendly to me for years on end, so I mistook them for friends. When the time came that I was of no use to them, I never heard from them again. I have taken this lesson into business, and though there are people I have worked with for many years and I appreciate them as clients or colleagues, I do not mistake them for friends.
  2. Judge people not only by how they treat you but by how they treat other people. Hayward Nishioka gave me this advice years ago, and he was right. If someone is an ass to their students, their interns or the receptionist, they will be an ass to you as soon as you aren't in a position to benefit them or aren't around to keep an eye on them. Find someone else to work with.
  3. Hire for character. Everything else is secondary.  Bruce Toups, another judo guy and a successful businessman, gave me this advice. Whether it is a coach or a software developer, if you can't trust someone with your wallet on the table in your office or to pitch to your most important customer, don't hire that person. If your teammates are the type that will go tell your weaknesses to other people because they are jealous you're winning, it doesn't matter if they are the same weight as you and a good match in practice. Go elsewhere.
  4. You don't have to be best friends to work together. I've had teammates and coaches that I wouldn't want to hang out with, just because we had no common interests outside of judo and very different views on life. If you think women should stay home and raise the children and it's a man's job to work, you have every right to your opinion. I'm happy to work out with you and help you train for whatever tournament as long as you do the same for me. Just don't expect me to show up at your home bible study after practice.
  5. Don't trust people who have sketchy friends.  Jim Pedro, Sr. had a saying, "If you lie down with the dogs you get up with fleas." I know people who seem like good guys who hang around with some of the most dishonest dirt bags I have ever met. I don't know why they do it, but I have never trusted those people very far. So far, nothing has ever made me regret that decision.
  6. Appreciate your real friends. Over the past few years, I've headed out to Kansas City twice to visit Steve and Becky Scott, up to Sioux City to see Karen Mackey. Lanny Clark just sent me a text that he'd be in Las Vegas for Ronda's next fight. Now that I realize how rare true friends really are, I try to keep in touch with the ones I have. I may not have quantity but I have quality and for that I am truly grateful.
True story: When Ronda was 11 and had just started judo, I was coaching players at the high school nationals. I ran into Jim Pedro, Sr. and I wanted to ask him some advice about coaching, since I had heard his son was doing well and even at 11 I could tell, Ronda had potential. I started out by saying,

"Mr. Pedro, I'm sure you don't remember me ...."

He interrupted and said,

"Of course I remember you. You're AnnMaria Burns. You won the world championships. That's the thing about judo. You meet people and you know them your whole life. I hate half of those assholes."


Monday, October 20, 2014

Judo as preparation for life at a start-up

Sometimes people suggest I wasted that 10,000 hours I spent in judo classes and tournaments, since what has that go to do with what I do now. Fourteen years is a lot of your life to devote to something, especially something as frivolous as a sport, even more especially one where you stand to make no money and often get treated like dirt by the powers-that-be. Was it worth it?

I've given it some thought and came to the conclusion that yes, yes it is. What I've learned from judo has benefited me as an entrepreneur, as a student, in relationships and even cleaning my house. How so, you ask?

In case you are new to this blog, you might not know that my day job is running a group of technology companies. One of these is 7 Generation Games, adventure games that teach math.

Like any start-up, it's a marathon, not a sprint, and it occurred to me lately that is one of the things I learned from judo - persistence.

I started competing when I was 12 years old and won the world championships 14 years later.  Here are some lessons I learned that still help me today.

  1. Hard work pays off. I trained twice a day, sometimes three times, for years on end. If I look at the big difference between me and my competition, it's that I worked more hours and harder. 
  2. It matters what you do in the hours you put in. I was never one to back down from randori, no matter how big, skillful or tough the opponent. As my college track coach told me, "Champions always do more." The same is true in the office. I start my day with a list of what needs to get done. The most important tasks get done first. (In fact, in the middle of this list, I remembered something I needed to do for work, went and did it. Okay, I'm back.)
  3. You have to be in it for the long haul. There were tournaments I didn't win, injuries. There are always going to be setbacks. You have to learn from them and keep working even harder.
  4. Learn from your mistakes. Bruce Toups, who was Director of Development back when I competed, said to me, "After you won our first gold medal, I went back and watched every video I could find of you competing. I saw matches that you lost, but I never saw you lose the same way twice." There's a tendency to try to forget about things that went wrong. Resist it.
  5. Select people who are good at their job. Your coach and teammates don't have to be your best friends. They just have to be people who can help you to reach your goals.
  6. Character matters. Everything else is secondary. Even though your coach doesn't  have to be your best friend, he can't be a sociopath either. 
  7. There is more than one way to win. People often stay at a dojo where  they are miserable because they are convinced that only that coach, those teammates can help them win gold medals. It's not true. Even if that coach is the only really good coach in the country (doubtful), guess what, there are other countries in the world. You always have options.
Tune in next time for how what I learned from judo helped me clean my house.