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Engineers work with nature. Businessmen control nature.

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I posted this just now on redflagdeals, but will repost here:

I graduated from electrical engineering at U of T in 2004 and now I own and run my own business.

If I had to do it all over again, I would have chosen a business program (with a couple of elective software dev courses) over an engineering program. The reason for this hind-sight decision is also the answer to a question I’m frequently asked, “Why did I start my own IT business”. The answer is as follows:

Imagine you’re an engineeer and this month, you have to design a house in Canada. You’d design it with a good heating system, good insulation, carpeted floors because it gets cold in Canada. Next month, you have to design a house in Iran. You’d design it with a good air-conditioning system, less insulation, stone floors because it gets hot in Iran. Each time you have to build a house in a new location, you have to re-evaluate your existing tools and technology to see if they are applicable.

A well trained engineer will eventually ask, “Isn’t there a way to design a one-size-fits all solution?” Regardless of whether it’s possible or not, a good engineer will ask the question in hopes of devising an efficient and re-useable solution. But of course, within the realm of engineering, a one-house-fits all for all geographies, terrains, seasons and weathers is impossible.

The solution to a one-size-fits all problem requires a business/finance/economic solution. That is, this engineering problem can only be solved with a non-engineering solution.

Through economics, you can drive up the property value in Canada so that no one wants to build there. You can also destroy the economy in Iran so that the builders can’t afford to build houses. Businesses can control the price of raw materials, making certain types of buildings feasible and others not feasible. With capital, you can eliminate all the competing variables that engineers need to deal with such that the word “all” in the phrase “one-size-fits all”  becomes “one”. Hence, making it possible for engineers to realize a one-size-fits all solution.

The reason I left working as an engineer for an engineering company is because I realized I can’t develop a one-size-fits all solution if the business people managing me don’t know what the hell they are doing. Everyday, I would create something, then the execs, sales, marketers change their mind, and back to the drawing board I go. I realized the only way to do things properly is to run my own show. So I started my own business, defined and simplified “problems” properly so that my engineers can have a better time.

Engineers build products. Businessmen control nature. Engineers can only build the products business people tell them to build.

So in the end, I went into business because engineering did not give me the skills to build what I want to build. If I had to do it all over again, I would have went straight into business.

Written by John Lai

March 16th, 2010 at 6:49 pm

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Business is not about money

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I’ve been self-employed for a year now.   Last year, I left my 9-5 job with a big company to pursue my own web projects.   Along the way, I learned more about business than any four-year-$40k university program could teach me.   Although I’m still new to business, I’m compelled to share some of my ideas on the subject – ideas that seasoned entrepreneurs may ridicule as naïve.  But hey, here goes…

Business is not about money.  It most definitely is not.

I grew up a Trekkie.  I dreamed of living in a laissez-faire communist society where humanity’s only wish was to better itself through compassion and understanding.  Money was the root of all evil and was abolished in the 21st century shortly after First Contact.  So for much of my life, I resented capitalism.  I wanted to work for free because it would be for the good of man kind.  Naturally, overtime, I realized that my philosophy was naive and misguided because people would always take advantage of free.  I needed a compromise between charity and exploitation, and hence, my new found appreciation for business.  Business, by my definition, is about making people happy without killing myself to do it.


Written by John Lai

October 18th, 2009 at 12:16 pm

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Commerce vs. Engineering

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Someone asked,

hi. I am a Grade 12 student. I am deciding whether to choose commerce or engineer as my undergraduate program. More specifically, I will choose finance or ECE. Which program is easier to find a job? Which program is easeier to find a high salary job? Furthermore, which career has more opportunities? I applied for commerce in UofT. If you know some of the students from Uoft commerce undergraduate program,can you tell me how many of them find good jobs and their salary? What kind of jobs do they do?(ie investment banking or something else)
Thank you very much.

So here’s my answer:

Which program is easier to find a job?

In engineering, the biggest demand is for software development (web, mobile or desktop). Almost 90% of my electrical engineering buddies ended up in software development. So if you have an engineering degree, and have 1 year of software development experience (from coop, volunteer or hobbies), then it’s easy for you to find a job. If you don’t have work experience, you will have a hard time finding a job.

According to one of my colleagues in investment banking, he says new grad employment rate is about 50% within the first year of graduation because of the poor economy (things could be different 4 years from now). He graduated in 2004, and back then, the employment rate for commerce grads within first year of graduation was 80%. From his experience, most of his classmates ended up in marketing or accounting.

If you do not have work experience, then getting an engineering job (software) or getting a finance job (accounting or marketing) are equally hard. The more elite disciplines (aerospace engineering, investment banking etc..) are practically impossible. Getting a job depends on your reputation first, your work experience second.

Which program is easier to find high salary job?

The salaries for accounting, marketing and engineering are similar, even when taking years of work experience into consideration. However, if you have what it takes to survive engineering, but you choose to do commerce, then you will be paid more in commerce than in engineering. This is because commerce is generally easier than engineering, so you have a better chance at being top 10 in a commerce program to demand a higher salary than if you were a bottom feeder in an engineering program. If you work as an investment banker (only the elite get here), and you work your butt off and take abuse from employers like a dog, then you’ll be paid more than the average engineer who’s typically in software development or IT. There’s potential for you to make lots of money in engineering only if you start your own business. So again, high pay requires you to have a good sense of business (ie. commerce).

In the end, how much you get paid depends on how well you market yourself and how valuable your skills are. The best way to do this is if you work part time jobs in industry while studying. By exposing yourself to industry, you’ll see first hand which skills are most valuable.

Alright, I think my two answers answered all your other questions.

Written by John Lai

April 23rd, 2009 at 7:19 am

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Engineer or Entrepreneur?

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I recently sent an email to Matt Heaton, CEO of Bluehost and Hostmonster. Here’s the email and his response (thanks Matt!):

Hi Matt, I stumbled on your blog while shopping around for web hosting. I want to ask you a question related to career development

“Do you feel that by focusing on business, your technical skills deteriorate (or vice versa)?”

I ask because I graduated from engineering school 5 years ago (I’m 27 now), and I have been working as a programmer since. A few months ago, I quit my full time programming job to focus on my freelance projects and a couple of web start ups. I have never done business before, and if you asked me 5 years ago when I was still a student, starting a business would have been the most far-fetched idea ever. I would have been content working as a “programming guru”.

However, here I am today, having fun working on the projects “I want to work on” and developing my own software which I’m proud of. But the thing that irritates me is that I find it hard to become both an “expert” programmer and an “expert” business man because each discipline is so indepth…there just isn’t enough time to learn everything. I can be a “good” programmer and a “good” business man, which isn’t nearly as “godly”. I want to be able to do everything!

When I’m reading your blog, you seem to be an expert in business and an expert in hardware+OS architecture. It may seem this way to me because you’re much more experienced. But modesty aside, do you really believe you’re an expert in both arenas? What kind of sacrifices did you have to make to achieve this kind of expertise?


John Lai

Hi John,

Sorry, I took a while to reply. I intended to do it the first day and then never got to it – I apologize. As for the following question…

“Do you feel that by focusing on business, your technical skills deteriorate (or vice versa)?”

In the beginning for various businesses that I started the technical aspect was always the reason behind starting the business, but with less employees the business side took most of my time. I always make sure to spend at least 50% of my time on technical aspects to “keep current” and learn new things.

At Bluehost and Hostmonster I spend about 70% of my time working on technical issues including Linux I/O bottlenecks in the kernel and userspace apps. I also custom design our network and hardware systems. Initially I did all the development work for all our web apps but can’t find the time for coding anymore. Only so many hours in a day! I can do this only because we have a very competent general manager that handles many of the day-to-day details that I don’t want to deal with anymore.

I am a bit of an enigma compared with most developers or IT people. I LOVE the technical side of things but frankly Im better at the business part of it than I am the technical aspects. The business side is very natural for me and seems to take far less effort on my part.

In answer to your question about being the best in both disciplines I completely agree. You don’t have to be mediocre in both business and tech, but if you split your time you will never be the developer you could be spending all your time coding – But thats ok to me. You ask if Im an expert in both areas and the answer is no. There are areas of business I’m very strong in and areas where Im weak (projections and accounting practices!!!). Technically I am very strong in I/O bottlenecks, kernel tuning, hardware, etc but have had to let go of my software development. I used to code all day long. Recently I wasn’t happy with the way a specific monitoring tool was working and it was the weekend so I decided to code it myself. It took about 10 hours to write. 5 years ago I could have written it in 2 hours. Those are the breaks, but I did it because the other things I chose to spend my time on made me happier.

The real question you need to ask yourself is if you will be HAPPY. What makes you happy? 100% coding? 80% coding/20% business? 50/50? If you LOVE it then you will do well. If you do something for strictly financial reasons then after a short period of time you usually start falling behind and a poor job is what follows.

I wish you good luck with whatever you choose to do and hope it makes you happy!


Matt Heaton

Written by John Lai

January 14th, 2009 at 2:31 pm