The Matthew effect says that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. With this sole principle in mind, you would think that the future is easily predicted. Whoever is rich or famous today is going to be rich or famous tomorrow.

So which programming language should you learn if you are a programmer? The most popular language right now, or the fastest growing language? If you believe in the power of Matthew effect, you should always focus on the most popular language right now, since you believe that challengers are unlikely to succeed.

At a personal level, the Matthew effect can be depressing: your starting position in life determines the rest.

Mazloumian asked an interesting related question. Given a scientist, which is a better indicator of his future success (measured by citations):

  • the total number of citations received so far,
  • the average number of published papers per year,
  • the average annual citations,
  • the annual citations at the time of prediction,
  • the average citations per paper,
  • and so on.

Can you guess the best indicator of future success?

First, it is worth stating that Mazloumian found that the Matthew effect was weak:

Our results have shown that the existing citation indices do not predict citations of future work well, and hence should not be given significant weight in evaluating academic potential. Including various indicators and testing various prediction time horizons, our results are still in agreement with Hirsch’s study “past performance is not predictive of future performance.” Even combining multiple citation indicators did not significantly improve the prediction: apart from citation indicators, no better predictor of the impact of future work exists.

But, if you are going to use a single measure to predict the future success of a scientist, you should go with the annual citations at the time of prediction. This is consistent with saying that the past is a poor predictor of the future.

Of course, the Matthew effect is real. If you start out strong, you will tend to outdo your poorer peers. However, the Matthew effect is often much weaker than people believe. People at the top of their game are beaten by challengers coming from nowhere all the time.

In some sense, it is troubling because it says that we know less than we think we know. When recruiting a scientist, for example, it is very tempting to use his past performance over many years to predict his future performance. But this heuristic is weak.

It also means that it is hard to build lasting capital. Working hard today may not be sufficient to establish a long stream of successes. To keep on succeeding, you need to keep on working hard and be lucky.

On the plus side, it means that if you have not succeeded early, you can always make it big later. It does not mean that it is easy to rise up at the top from the bottom. By definition, only 1% of all players can be part of the top 1%. Even without any Matthew effect, you would still be unlikely to reach the top 1%. What is says however is that life is probably fairer than you think.

So how do you predict someone’s performance? With humility. And this includes yourself. You do not know how well or how poorly you will do in the future. Most times, you should avoid both arrogance and defeatism.

For nearly 20 years, I have been freelancing: selling my skills as a free agent. I do very little freelancing these days, but I still regularly give advice to students and colleagues. Is it wise? I let you be the judge: here are my favorite bits of wisdom.

There are bad and good clients.

In retail, the more clients you have, the better. The economics of freelancing are different. That is because you are selling finite resources (your time and your energy) and every transaction depletes your resources.

A bad client might waste your talents and skills in a dead-end project. A bad client might use 80% of your energy and contribute less than 20% of your income. A bad client might drop you in favour of a cheaper alternative without thinking twice. A bad client might feel abusive, put you in a bad mood. (Being in a bad mood is bad for business on the long run.) A client might take your business in the wrong direction.

As a freelancer, it is entirely reasonable to turn down work. It is often the strategic thing to do, even if you have nothing else lined up. Think about an actor offered the leading role in a major movie that is bound to be a failure.

Ultimately, the great thing about being a freelancer is the freedom to turn down work. It is not only good business, but it is also what sets you apart from employees.

Everything is negotiable.

When I started freelancing, some clients would put forward rules or policies. These rules were invariably convenient to my clients.

For example, it is common to have bounds on how much consultants can charge. A few times over the years, even recently, a client told me that I could not charge over $50 an hour, as a rule. Whatever the rule or the policy, it is always a matter of negotiation. Do not worry, clients will make “exceptions” if you are worth it.

Intellectual property is another important point… when freelancing, you should not sign away your rights lightly. For example, if you are doing a programming job, consider that giving the client the copyright of your work might prevent you from reusing the same code in other projects. A much more reasonable default stance is to license your work to the client.

In all cases, remember that there are bad and good clients. If a client refuses to negotiate in good faith, he may not be a good client to you.

Do not watch your clock.

Because it is a widespread practice, clients almost always want you to charge by the hour. Often, they want to know ahead of time how many hours you will charge.

Charging by the hour is more of a metaphore. In practice, you should charge by the value provided. That is, suppose that you can solve a problem in 5 minutes but that 99.9% of world experts would take 5 days… then it makes no sense to charge 5 minutes. Similarly, if a client wants you to do some work that most people can do in a few minutes but that will take you days,
you should not charge the client a lot.

A more reasonable approach is to charge flat fees or the equivalent. A flat fee could include a service such as “being available at a moment’s notice”. If it reassures the client, you can translate the flat fee into a fixed number of hours and an hourly rate.

Whatever you are charging, you should not worry about the time you spend on projects too much. Your main worry should be to provide something valuable to your clients.

I have argued that when seeking professional success, it is best to avoid zero-sum games (e.g., compete for one prestigious slot). It is more fun, less distracting and more productive to focus on non-zero-sum games. That is, you should try to grow the size of the pie, to create value for others out of thin air, instead of obsessing about your ranking.

I love to blog and to publish open source software. When I blog, I do not try to make it on a list of top bloggers… I try to write interesting and useful blog posts. When I publish open source software, my hope is that others will derive value from it… I am not competing to be recognized as one of the top open source programmers…

Of course, I do win some recognition and increased social status (and sometimes money) if people say that they like my blog, my software or my papers. Let me consider a specific example. With Leonid Boytsov and others, I have been working on fast integer compression techniques. Our paper (Decoding billions of integers per second through vectorization) and our corresponding software (1, 2, 3) has been used by brilliant authors who have won the best paper awards at the leading information retrieval conferences this year (ECIR 2014 and SIGIR 2014). Our own work did not win any award and the journal where it appeared has a mid-level ranking. Should I be worried? Of course not! I am as delighted as I could be… our work is proving useful!!! We are providing tangible values to others… My only concern right now is to figure out how to make our next work even more useful…

My motivation is primarily internal: I do the work I do because it is interesting and meaningful on its own. I feel that I help people, or contribute to Science. Sure, if I do good work, my social status or financial well-being might be helped, and that is great… I like money and modest accolades… but that is not what is getting me up in the morning. I am never going to win a Turing Award or a billion dollars, and that is quite fine with me…

I was chatting with a research fellow last week. He felt depressed that his work was “too simple” to warrant a slot at an exclusive conference like VLDB. His peers were encouraging him to “complexify” his work so that he could impress referees. I tried to argue that this was just wrong. He, quite rightly, argued back that it is how the game works… I guess you have to pay tribute to the “system”. But I am afraid that such tributes displace the good work that would otherwise happen.

Michael Hay pointed me to recent research that backs my intuition that external motivations can be distracting. Wrzesniewski et al. (2014) looked at the motivations of cadets and how well they succeeds.

Cadets may want to join a military academy for intrinsics reasons (to become a good soldier) or for extrinsic reasons (to get a good job). It is easy to predict that the soldiers with intrinsic motivations will outperform those with primarily extrinsic motivations. What is less obvious is that the cadets with mostly just intrinsic motivations will outperform those who have both kinds of motivations…

Following their entry into the Army, officers who entered West Point with stronger instrumentally based motives were less likely to be considered for early promotion and to stay in the military following their mandatory period of service, even if they also held internally based motives.

In other words, if you are pursing a career in science or software because it leads to a good and prestigious job (extrinsic motivation) and because you believe it is a meaningful and important activity (intrinsic motivation), you will do worse than if you have mostly just intrinsic motivation.

I believe that it is because external motivations (prestige, money) distract you from doing good work. It may lessen your intrinsic motivations.

My own mental abilities are greatly reduced if I have extrinsic motivations in mind. And there is a strong correlation between extrinsic motivations and zero-sum games (e.g., how well you are ranked).

Fiction writers used to have to submit their manuscripts to 6 or 7 big corporations. Only these corporations could seriously publish a book. Room on library stacks has always been scarce. Only a tiny number of authors could ever become independently wealthy under this system. is changing the game by getting rid of the scarcity. Hugh Howey put his books for sale on Amazon (receiving 70% of the sales instead of the 12.5% offered by publishing houses) and he made a killing. He is a millionnaire by now. He did not have to convince a highly selective editor to accept his books. He simply wrote some great fiction. He created value and was rewarded for his work. He did not have to displace other authors on the bookshelves.

I am sure that many people do not consider him to be a real author because he self-published. Our society is very driven by this fight for status, for elitism. I think it is probably responsible for a lot of unnecessary stress. People overwork, pollute and die younger than they should because of it. And it affects science as well.

There is a common view in computer science research that the only publications that matter are those appearing at selective conferences. Conferences in computer science are characterized by a low acceptance rate (top conferences reject 90% of all papers). The more selective the conference, the better. Ideally you must prove that you belong to the top 1%. A journal article or a workshop paper is “wasted effort” in this respect.

Does it follow that journal articles are inefficient or even wasteful? According to DBLP, Donald Knuth (a living legend) published 120 journal articles, and 12 conference papers. The Turing Award recipient Peter Naur has 25 journal articles and 7 conference papers in DBLP. (The Turing Award is the Nobel prize of computer science.) Robert E. Kahn, another Turing Award recipient, has 12 journal articles and 2 conference papers. Even if we assume that they participated in many conferences that are not indexed by DBLP, it is undeniable that some influential computer scientists like to publish in journals.

But maybe all of the important work appears first at conferences? According to Fortnow, leading conferences regularly refuse to accept such work:

(…) nearly half of the Gödel Prize winners (given to the best CS theory papers after they’ve appeared in journals) were initially rejected or didn’t appear at all in the top theoretical computer science conferences. (Fortnow, 2009)

To land a paper in a very selective conference, you still had to beat incredible odds… acceptance rates are routinely under 10%… surely this says something about your work? Maybe being accepted by the most selective conferences proves your worth. Maybe not:

The view that conference rejection rates are a good proxy for conference quality did not hold up to scrutiny (Freyne, 2010)

I believe that people like to tell themselves simple stories about how one should succeed. Many of these simple stories are based on half-truths. Just like how fiction authors believe that they must land a competitive book deal to be a writer whereas none of us care about any of that. This status ranking game that you play… is probably much less important than you make it out to be on the long run.

Franceschet wrote an interesting survey where he identified the 10 most prolific computer science authors, the 10 most cited authors and the most prestigious computer scientists (i.e., Turing Award recipients). There was no overlap between the 3 lists. It is worth taking time to reflect on this fact.

  • If you could find a way, somehow, to become the most prolific computer scientist in the world, you are not likely to figure in the 10 most cited authors or win a Turing Award.
  • If you could become the most cited computer scientist in the world, you may not receive a Turing Award.

It means that if you are an extremely successful computer scientist, you are still likely to be left out from someone’s top-10 list. Maybe it means that you should not worry about how you are ranked.

There are also significant differences on how the 3 types of authors published.

  • To get a Turing Award, your publications may be unimportant. Out of the 16 Turing Award recipients considered by Franceschet, two thirds had fewer than 50 papers on DBLP and five had less than 30 papers. Alan Kay published less than 20 papers according to DBLP.
  • “(…) high impact scholars publish significantly less than prolific ones, and more frequently in journals.”

So while telling the world about what you do matters… you have a lot of freedom about it.

What should a sane computer scientist do then? His main focus should be on producing lasting contributions to his field. He should then publish them where they are likely to be noticed.

If all you have ever done is fight for scarce spots at a selective venues, you have achieved nothing of importance. Really important work creates tangible value that is self-evident.

Note: To be fair, I have never achieved anything of importance and probably never will. But I am having a lot of fun.

Further reading: Mentoring Advice on “Conferences Versus Journals” for CSE Faculty by Kevin W. Bowyer and How Are the Mighty Fallen: Rejected Classic Articles by Leading Economists by Gans and Shepherd.

Nomad cards and keys
We all have mobile phones or tablets with lightning or micro-USB plugs, and we all have laptops with USB ports. Sure, you can easily find a USB-to-micro-USB cable, and your iPhone came with a USB-to-lightning cable… but who wants to be carrying around a cable?

A company called Nomad makes small connectors that are much easier to carry than a cable. They have key-like connectors (NomadKey) and card-like ones (NomadCard). They fit in your key chain or in your wallet.

They sent me a few review units (both lightning and micro-USB). I tested them out with many of my devices. They do the job well. My iPad complains that the connector is not approved, but it seems to be a harmless warning. (Nomad says that their connectors are certified so I cannot explain the warning.)

I tried carrying them around and using them at a local café. The NomadCard connectors work well but they do not feel as natural as the NomadKey connectors. The NomadKey is smaller and feels more durable, so I recommend it against the NomadCard.

I got them about a month ago and tested them only a few times. They do feel robust and I cannot see any tear or damage on them. This is somewhat surprising given how much I twisted them. I expect the NomadKey to last years.

Both type of connectors look sharp… much sharper than a cable. They are $30 on Amazon. If you spend a lot of time connecting your tablet or smartphone to a USB cable outside of your office, it is probably worth the price.

Disclosure: I got the review units for free.

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