When you were 17, what did you want to be?
Yeah, I didn’t have any profession in mind; there wasn’t anyone whose job I thought, “Ooh, that would be good to do.” There were just a few things academically that I quite liked; so I quite liked maths, got good marks in science-type things, I also quite liked music, and in particular in maths, I quite liked statistics and probability. I liked the game Yahtzee if you’ve ever played that. I liked sitting down with a pen and paper trying to figure out what the odds were of getting the various Yahtzee rolls, and I spent a lot of time playing Rubik’s Cubes.
If you’re 16, 17, you’re just going into your final two years of school where the pressure is just to get as good a mark as possible. It distills down to a number - I think it’s the equivalent to the GPA idea in the States - we get a score between zero and a hundred, which is your percentile rank across the nation, and then to get into most courses there’s just a cutoff number.
And what’s really bad about the system is that people often don’t bother deciding, and they just pick the highest course they can get into with their score. “I’m a 98.2, so I’m going to be an engineer.” Or “99.1 – doctor.” That's not totally prevalent, but there’s quite a bit of that, like, “Why are you settling for an 89 course about something you love, when you can do something you hate which is clearly more prestigious at 99?” So there was always that danger. I think I had maybe the opposite reaction. The course I ended up taking took a score a lot lower than what I got.
How did you choose your major?
I was introduced to the idea of actuarial studies itself in year 11. A friend of a friend mentioned it to me on a train. They were talking to me about what I was enjoying in school and I listed the things off and they went, “You know what? You should check out this thing.” The reason I picked the bachelor of commerce, majoring in actuarial studies is I was very interested in economics and maths, but most commerce courses don’t necessarily have a lot of maths. The actuarial course is an exception to that. It combines economics and a reasonably difficult level of mathematics, in particular probability and statistics.
How did you decide to attend Melbourne University?
You don’t have very many options in Melbourne when you want to do actuarial studies; that’s pretty much the only one. I had no desire to travel, I didn’t really want to take a gap year or anything. I had lived overseas for the first 12 years of my life, and I think I had some sort of reaction against the “escape Australia and go to Europe culture.” Though here I am, feeling very much like I’ve failed my 20-year-old, purist self.
Did you enjoy actuarial studies?
There were bits of it that were interesting. More than anything I think I enjoyed it because it was challenging. It was technically complicated, engaging in the sense that I could study as hard as I’ve ever studied in my life and get a 75 on an exam, and that was something I hadn’t come up against before. So I think I found that very motivating, to kind of pursue this path, where the carrot always felt like it was just out of reach.
I’m good at studying so I just kind of went through the motions of learning stuff and regurgitating it in exams, and that was all fine. Outside of that I liked music stuff, so I was in a couple of singing groups and choirs at uni as well. So I was happy for that to just be a hobby at that point. I always told myself I was happy enough with the path that I just wanted to at least finish the degree, and have a couple years of work experience in the profession before I considered anything else.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
I actually applied for an internship at Deloitte my second year of uni, and I got almost instant rejection. About six months later, my mum gave me a call, and one of her friends’ husbands happened to be a very senior partner at the firm and recommended me for a four-week stint. So that got me a foot in the door, which brought me to the assessment center where you have to do these other interviews, and that gets you to the internship, where, if they like you, they’ll offer you a position at the end of your degree. So I lucked out there basically.
I went straight into work at Deloitte in a consulting capacity, working for insurance companies and banks and things providing advice. The first few years of an actuarial career you take a lot of professional exams, so you spend your weekends studying and taking these exams every few months. At that point I was telling myself, I’m definitely at least going to get to the end of the qualification. The first two years, there was always enough to learn to make me feel like I liked it. I think there aren’t many tasks I don’t enjoy as long as they don’t seem trivial, as long as I don’t feel like I’m turning a handle.
After two years, parts of my job started to feel more like handle turning, because the ways we were doing it essentially necessitated there being a handle, and building something that turned the handle for you was just simply too difficult. And I found that quite depressing because it just felt very much like we were still stuck in the 90s with our spreadsheets, doing a very traditional type of actuarial work for these companies.
I was there for two and a half years, and then I decided that I wanted to try working remotely for a while. I asked Deloitte about it, and the short answer was no. So I started looking around for other work that would allow me to work remotely.
Why did you want to work remotely?
One, I wanted to learn a language, and I couldn’t really be bothered unless I was going to have a material amount of time in another country. And then two, I’d started reading a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is this idea that 90% of the stuff we do is quite shallow and doesn’t actually push us at our limits and we really are just in maintenance mode, not really changing the way our brains work. Whereas all the growth comes from 10% of our time where we’re actually stretched, the discomfort that comes from not quite being able to do something, and we’re pushing against that discomfort to get through it.
So I became obsessed with this idea, and one big aspect of that was large blocks of time where you can concentrate deeply on a particularly challenging task, and removing yourself from the immediacy of your work, being on-call for certain things, being available to someone at a minute’s notice. I saw escaping the office to be an opportunity to actually spend much more time in a deep work kind of state. And that’s been true. I find on this trip, for better or worse, I spend much less time answering emails, being available to colleagues for ad hoc meetings, or organic discussion of this and that. And there’s a loss there, but there’s also a big gain in the amount of work I’ve produced.
I reached out to a bunch of companies and had some conversations, and then I was organizing a conference for the Melbourne-based arm of the Effective Altruism community, which I’ve been very involved with in the past few years. It’s sort of described as a philosophy and social movement around the question, “How can you do the most good?” And it’s quite an empirical question in many ways. And yet, a lot of our decisions about how to use our time and money aren’t actually empirically informed; they’re much more emotively informed.
So I organized this conference and my now boss was at it, and I actually approached him and asked about any roles they had open. And he said he was planning on approaching me and asking me the same thing! That job was interesting because it involved a complete career change, going from being a fully-qualified actuary, to being a junior software developer.
Why did you want to make that shift?
I knew I wanted to do that because the main frustrations I’d had with my job at Deloitte were around how the job was done. And software developers tend to be really good at doing things in a computer-y sort of way, while actuaries are not. Statisticians, mathematicians are not. So there’s a skill set there that I thought I needed to have. And I’ve been telling myself I’ll probably get back into the actuarial profession with this skill set at some point in the next five years.
How do you envision doing that?
There are a bunch of very specific things I used to do at Deloitte, and I want to find ways of building software to replace my prior self. I’m working on one solution with a friend which would be targeted at banks to do some calculations we did many times for small Australian banks. And that’s an exciting move because it’s a consistent global standard, so if we got a good solution we could scale it anywhere in the world. But as a result , there are other players in the market. But you know they’re big, expensive players and they don’t necessarily do a good job. The only thing they’ve got that we don’t is the brand.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I think one of the saddest things I saw with my friends was dropping out of extracurricular stuff at the end of high school. And it usually stemmed from this belief that there are not enough hours in the day to get schoolwork done, and you just need more time. But the truth is that it’s usually more a case of not having a really good list set up, or not getting enough sleep, or not managing your actions appropriately. Often being busy actually helps you manage your time; having too much time means you fill it up with YouTube and then YouTube time just expands out to fill whatever work time you’ve set for yourself. Don’t be afraid of being busy, even in academically important periods of life.
And I would have told myself to party more, honestly. I didn’t party enough. I just studied. I don’t think I allowed myself to have that much fun. I was just very busy, very productive the whole time. At the same time, I salute my 19-year-old self for working so hard; I just kind of happily piled on career capital. If you line up all your things from most important to least important, there’s this quick drop-off at a point. And I think I’m calling the drop-off at the right point. I’m getting 90% of the important stuff done in 60% of the time compared to at home, so that makes more time for language learning, just going out, being a little more relaxed now.