Weekly Thoughts

I found an interesting blogging idea today to simply write down 5 of the things I've been thinking about lately. Like Nadia, my ambitions for my blogging far exceed my capacity. However, as with most skills, increasing capacity comes through excercising such capacity as already exists.  So I'm going to try to at least once a week, write down a list of the 5 things that have been on my mind during that past week.

  1. Robots vs Sweatshops: I've been hearing a lot about the automation being a driver of the current depression in good job creation and the ails of the middle class. However, it occurs to me that a lot of our consumption is made by hand, just in parts of the world where labor is cheap. Maybe that growth of emerging middle classes is having a downward pull on middle class wages in places that were previously more competitive markets for manufacturing?
  2. Rest vs Decay: I've noticed that when I'm not 'working' (whether on projects or errands or my employment), I fall into one of two stats: rest or decay. In my rest state, I emerge, rejuvenated and energized, whereas in my decay state I emerge - well actually I don't emerge, I just continue to be in a low energy, lethargic state. I still haven't fully explored the difference between the two.
  3. Process and Scale - There is a sense that small teams and individuals have an advantage over large organizations because they are more agile and have less process and formality. I wonder though if that might be backwards. Because they are small they can actually have much *more* process and ensure a much higher degree of devotion to tight and agile development cycles. Maybe the real problem at scale for organizations is not lack of process but the difficulties in actually doing it correctly.
  4. Improvement and measurement: Not much to say here other than the observation that you can't improve what you can't measure.
  5. Philosophies of blogging: what exactly am I trying to achieve with my writing? Am I trying to make factually based claims that I require research to do? I think thats not usually the case. More often I'm trying to structure my thoughts and create paradigms and frameworks for more effectively thinking about problems I and others face given imperfect information.

Life's Too Short to Work at a Boring Company

Note: This is an opinion piece that I wrote for the Amherst Student school newspaper.  The original post can be found here.

This is the time of year when I miss Amherst the most. The few orange or yellow trees I see along the road are a sad imitation of the colors that radiate in the hills of the Pioneer Valley. I am now far from that place, here in a different valley — one known more for silicon and software than puritans and poets. I recall my last autumn in Amherst, when I wondered what I was going to do with this liberal arts education in the dreaded “real world.” There were all sorts of companies, schools, fellowships and internships wooing seniors throughout the year, but the path I chose did not have any career fairs or pamphlets promoting it. I would like to advocate the “unpath” of entrepreneurship, for which, I believe, Amherst grads are uniquely suited.

At the time, I thought that I wanted to go into non-profits. After four years of classes, I had no desire to go on to yet more schooling, and I was suspicious of the business world. Wasn’t that all just greed and, um, more greed? During the financial crisis, I ended up spending several months in Sierra Leone, volunteering with a non-profit (OneVillage Partners) that used microloans to help bring self-sufficiency to rural farmers. With a microloan, a farmer could sell his cocoa for a better price and send his kids to school. With wealthier farmers, the government would be able to raise enough taxes to pay for roads and police and clamp down on bribes and corruption.

It was there, in the midst of the biggest meltdown of capitalism in a generation, that I came to a shocking realization: business can be a social good. Fundamentally, businesses are supposed to create value — for the owners, for the employees and for the customers.

This totally changed my perspective. Since that trip, I have embedded myself deeply in the start-up culture in the Silicon Valley. I’ve seen start-ups and met people, who use businesses as powerful tools to make a huge, positive impact on the world. Undoubtedly, entrepreneurship is something that Amherst uniquely prepares its graduates to do.

From orientation until commencement, we were told that the liberal arts education was not just about learning, but learning how to learn. Amherst doesn’t just teach facts, but how to synthesize ideas and think creatively about problems. This is exactly the challenge that a founder or early start-up employee faces every day! Almost by definition, every problem a fledgling company faces has never been dealt with before. How can ScienceExchange better connect researchers with labs? How can OpenGov promote more efficient municipal governments? How does Minerva Project bring the college into the 21st century? No one really knows the answers to these questions, including the founders and employees of the aforementioned companies themselves. However, they are continually in the process of discovering those answers and figuring out how to create that value they see lacking in the world.

I can hear the question through your head, through the page in your hand and back to my computer: Is entrepreneurship worth a try?

Statistically, most companies fail. With a little bit of seed-funding, a founder can make enough of a salary to live on, but it still seems that for all the work involved, there is a lot of risk in playing the start-up game. For most people, start-ups are, quite honestly, not a particularly good way to get rich.

Start-ups are much better suited for people who want to do them for their own sake. Aside from the value created by the business, start-ups continue the learning experience beyond the classroom. You learn planning, leadership and communication skills. You also learn how industries, people and organizations work. Perhaps, most importantly, you learn that those industries, practices and organizations can be affected and changed. You also learn to work with people firsthand and in-depth. Your co-founders and co-workers are a unique sort of family, strongly bonded together by experience.

So what’s next? How does one actually explore this career path? The best way to get involved is to get plugged into a community of like-minded people. I hear that Amherst has an entrepreneurship club now. Go join! Also, go to a StartupWeekend and make a startup in a 52 hour period. Sign up for StartupDigest in your area and find start-up events in your hometown (full disclosure: I am a StartupDigest curator). If you have a great idea, apply to YCombinator or 500Startups.

The most important thing you can do to prepare for the start-up world is something that is not limited to this or any career path: don’t be satisfied with how the world is. Change it. Mold it. Make it better.

The Abyss From Which There is No Return

"The big deal is simply this: once you allow the government to start breaking the law, no matter how seemingly justifiable the reason, you relinquish the contract between you and the government which establishes that the government works for and obeys you, the citizen—the employer—the master. And once the government starts operating outside the law, answerable to no one but itself, there’s no way to rein it back in, short of revolution."

John Whitehead

Groklaw is Shutting Down

I am deeply saddened to learn that the tech legal blog Groklaw.net is ceasing operations due to concerns about the security of their email.  

...the conclusion I've reached is that there is no way to continue doing Groklaw, not long term, which is incredibly sad. But it's good to be realistic. And the simple truth is, no matter how good the motives might be for collecting and screening everything we say to one another, and no matter how "clean" we all are ourselves from the standpoint of the screeners, I don't know how to function in such an atmosphere. I don't know how to do Groklaw like this.

I am sympathetic to PJ here.  Email has always been terribly insecure and the shutdown of the two secure email hosting sites (Lavabit and Silent Circle) due to government tampering has been a big blow for those who wish their communication to be between them and no one else.

However.

I also disagree with this decision quite vehemently.  For service providers who would be unable to provide their services in an environment of snooping, I understand, but this is fundamentally an issue of law and of politics for which communication, audience, and expertise are going to be of utmost importance.  Groklaw embodies all three and would have been a valuable allied in the upcoming (and protracted) fight that these revelations are going to involve.  

All of this has come to light through the self sacrifice of individuals: Edward Snowden, Glen Greenwald, David Miranda. However, to win this, we do not need more principled suicides.  We need a different sort of sacrifice: to know that they are listening and to speak anyway.  

You Can't Have No Process

Process is a concrete instance of that effervescent multiplier in a startup: execution.  It certainly is not execution itself, but is a repeatable (and repeating) building block of a current execution strategy -- especially in a particular aspect of the business (sales, dev, market validation, etc).  It is the day-in and day-out patterns of behavior that your team makes into habit until they are virtually invisible. 

A lot of teams think that you heavy process is bad and os they aim to be 'lightweight' saying things like 'we don't want to come up with a process to slow us down, let's just do stuff'.  This is half right.  A heavy process is unnecessary and distracting early on and most processes you make up beforehand are going to suck for your actual workflow, becoming a perfect example of premature optimization.  

That being said, there isn't any such thing as 'no process'.  Regardless of whether you say it or not, you're going to fall into a  routine that will end up being your process. This is a relief to know at the beginning.  You just start off with your Minimum Viable Process and don't have to get bogged down planning one out.  (I think it is this process planning more than the process itself that gives process a bad name in really early stage teams).  However, like your product, sales and every other aspect of your business, you need to iterate on that process to improvement.  This is where thinking 'we have no process' is dangerous.  How can you self reflect and improve something you don't acknowledge is there?  

It is helpful to reflect and discuss your processes with your team every so often to figure out what is working, what is not working and how to move forward.

Walkers

When I was in elementary school, there was a division among students based on the mode of transportation used to get to school.  Those who took the bus were called 'Riders' and those who walked to school were 'Walkers'. As I lived so that our backyard adjoined the schoolyard, I was, naturally a walker.  The first week or so, my mom would walk with me to school, but after that I was pretty much on my own for the five minute stroll.  

We moved a few times when I was in middle school but again when I was in high school, we lived just down the street and again, rather than drive (which actually took longer due to traffic), I walked to school.  Sometimes it was crisp and dry in the autumn.  Sometimes it was late at night after a rehearsal. Sometimes it was super early for a pre-school activity.

I walked to my first job after college. (College, of course was a walking bonanza).  I couldn't afford a car and was working at the college so it seemed to make sense to just get an apartment close by.  I'd walk back from work, parties, concerts and dates. 

When I look back at my life, I realize that the vast majority of my transportation has been walking (at least by time, probably not by distance). It's never really been a form of exercise or something I do for environmental reasons (though I'm happy it has those benefits). It's more that once you get used to the idea of walking somewhere, distances don't seem so great.  It may take a bit longer, but it's also the simplest and most straightforward way to go somewhere.

There is a sort of meditative quality to walking.  It's a time where my mind goes free and makes crazy connections between disparate ideas.  It's a time to call up a friend I haven't talked to in a while.  It's a time to reflect on the wind and sky and it's denizens.  

I'm glad that I'm a walker.

Terminals: Finally a New Hope

I just wanted to make a quick follow-up to my previous post ranting about the state of modern terminal emulators.  Hacker News recently had a link to an awesome project called FinalTerm. I can't say that I think it's perfect (not thrilled exactly about terminal autocompletion -- that should be the shell's business), but it's the most promising terminal improvement I've seen in a long time.  Sadly there's no OSX support on the horizon.

Just to be clear regarding my previous rant. I know all the tricks for intermingling the system clipboard with the shell (xclip on linux and pbcopy/pbpaste on OSX) but these to me seem hacky to me and I've had varying success with them depending on the display manager i'm using. Also, this seems to me to be properly the domain of the emulator, which is the ambassador from GUI land with which I visit TTY land.  More practically, all of those tricks only work in the command shell (bash, zsh) and fall apart when I actually need them in other shells (irb, the python repl, posgres, etc).

Humility, Technical Skills and Context

When I started blogging, I imagined that my blog would end up like many of those that I follow and value: filled with little technical tidbits, tutorials and analyses.  Starting off out of college, I recall being in awe at those who knew All The Things and would so generously share them with the world.  At that time, I was reading blogs more about how to set up a Wordpress site or install Google Analytics.  So, as my career progressed, I quickly learned that those people were not the real repositories of knowledge, as that sort of stuff was easy.  The real heroes were those who could tell you how to extend Wordpress with modules and plugins As you might imagine, this pattern continued. My reading focus grew from Wordpress to php, from php to Java, from java to Ruby & Python, from programming to Unix tools, from basic tools like the Ubuntu Software Center to apt and aptitude, from Gedit, to Gnome Terminal, from Bash to Zsh and so on.  

As my technical skills developed and my familiarity and comfort with technical systems grew, so did my reading materials.  Meanwhile, the things that I did know and was comfortable with, I began to take for granted.  What I was doing was defining context.  In the context of geeky science majors just out of college, setting up your own website, felt pretty edgy.  Once I defined myself as a technical professional, setting up memcached clusters, seemed pretty ordinary and blogging about it would be rather pedantic.

I'm not exactly sure where I'm going with this other than to remind myself to take stock of how I've grown, where I am and what I've learned and to not forget to pass it along to that next generation.

Grand Expeditionary Forces.

​I played a lot of Risk as a kid (well, actually as a teenager and adult too) and observed the emergent strategies that players take in that game.  Most players, after the first few terms tend to be holed up in one area of the board: Australia, South America, Europe.  They don't have a continent per say, but they at least control a foothold in an area, which they defend vigorously, dumping all their armies on every term.  This means that after a few terms the game has already fallen into a de facto stalemate.

The people who are most successful at the game though follow a different strategy.  In addition to their stronghold, they create a 'Grand Expeditionary Force': A group of armies cut off from the main stronghold which conquer new territory and explore new strongholds somewhere else on the map.  This allows them to both hold on to a stronghold that protects their defensive positions while still exploring and growing their influence.  Sometimes the Grand Expeditionary force doesn't work out at all, but they've built enough cards while weakening the other players that it still pays off.

Businesses also need Grand Expeditionary Forces.  In the early stage, arguably that's all that a business is.  Even after the initial traction and validation, a company still needs to put some of its resources towards exploring other options and avenues.  I'd argue this is the most important time to explore (just like a late game expeditionary force isn't as useful as one early on) because a young company has no idea the size of the hill it's climbing.  It's all too easy to get some early traction and immediately try to start scaling an idea rather than a business. Ideas don't scale; businesses do.

I think it's still important at the largest levels and the companies that are most successful in the long run -- Google, IBM , AT&T (in the mid century -- not the current iteration --also Xerox) -- spend time exploring crazy options.  If you don't disrupt your market, someone else will.

The Criminal NSA

Great Op-Ed piece in the New York Times

"The N.S.A. has intentionally acquired information it is not allowed to have, even under the terrifyingly broad auspices of the FISA Amendments Act."

Remember that the Patriot Act was highly controversial when it was originally passed even in the form that it was originally interpretted.

Leave aside the Patriot Act and FISA Amendments Act for a moment, and turn to the Constitution.

The Fourth Amendment obliges the government to demonstrate probable cause before conducting invasive surveillance. There is simply no precedent under the Constitution for the government’s seizing such vast amounts of revealing data on innocent Americans’ communications.

The government has made a mockery of that protection by relying on select Supreme Court cases, decided before the era of the public Internet and cellphones, to argue that citizens have no expectation of privacy in either phone metadata or in e-mails or other private electronic messages that it stores with third parties.

This hairsplitting is inimical to privacy and contrary to what at least five justices ruled just last year in a case called United States v. Jones. One of the most conservative justices on the Court, Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote that where even public information about individuals is monitored over the long term, at some point, government crosses a line and must comply with the protections of the Fourth Amendment. That principle is, if anything, even more true for Americans’ sensitive nonpublic information like phone metadata and social networking activity.
One of the greatest things about the Constitution is that, unlike most of our contemporary laws, it is clear and straightforward.