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"It’s common in business for non-creative persons to believe they’ve engineered a means for replacing creativity, which is costly and intermittent and inscrutable to them."

— Mills Baker on Quora, answering, What went wrong at Zynga? (via allisonacs)

(Source: quora.com, via allisonacs)

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I didn’t know I was learning to code

So some of my @svaixd friends (@tinabean @prachipun @tomharman @clickcolleen) friends started a writing club. This is my entry on theme number one, beginnings.

Beginnings that you know are beginnings are daunting. I don’t think I am alone in this experience, where starting any project of even a moderate size (i.e. will take a couple hours, with an uncertain outcome) takes mental bracing, as if I were to jump into a cold pool of water.

Which makes me wonder how any of us get anything done at all. Recently, some friends asked how I learned to program. And the truth is, I don’t know. I know when I learned to program, but I honestly don’t know how.

In the summer after the first year of college I was elected to run the IT department of a student club. Chiefly because I was willing when no one else was, and then chiefly because I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had built a couple static websites, which I learned to do during high school. I didn’t know this at the time, but knowing how to do mark up is very different from programming.

"So how does our website work?" I asked my senpai.

"It’s like a PHP thing."

"What’s PHP?"

"Ok just FTP into the server. I’ll show you."

"FTP?"

I inherited a spaghetti mess of a PHP codebase, before WordPress was even really a thing. I needed to make changes to it, so I borrowed a PHP MySQL book from the library, which I only knew to look for because I googled PHP and Sitepoint’s tutorials came up.

I remember when I discovered for loops, I thought that was genius. SQL queries was magic. I can stop making separate files now, because templates! I had never even heard of the word templates before.

All the while, I didn’t know I was learning to program. I was busy trying to put photos up for events, or automate signups to a ski trip, or make it easy for club members to communicate. I wrote a shoddy basecamp/wordpress clone in 2006 for my student club before I recognized I was programming.

Embedded in this big “beginning” was a hundred little beginnings. Beginning to look at logs instead of printing things out to the server. Beginning to recognize when I’ve created an infinite loop. Beginning to understand the fear of bringing a site down. Never was I conscious of the beginning-ness of it all.

And so maybe that’s the secret. A great way to begin is to not recognize you’re embarking on a life long journey. It might just be to step out to go to the library to borrow a book to scratch this itch you had. I recognize this is not helpful if you’re trying to be deliberate, but I suppose maybe being deliberate is sometimes overrated? It’s good to scratch an itch. Sometimes scratching an itch leads to whole life direction, but if nothing else, an itch got scratched.

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"It made me think of my professional journey. When I zoom out and look at it from the perspective of 20 or so years, it looks like a well-planned out series of moves and progressions, doing things that look pretty cool. When I zoom in more closely it looks more accurately like a series of serendipitous, random steps, lots of missteps and mistakes, and many many many regrets. In fact, not until 2006 or 2007, when I reconnected with John and started betaworks, can I ever really say that I was satisfied, maybe even happy, and definitely the only time I really felt good at something. Not until I was 40 fucking years old! And there were parts of building betaworks - getting office space, hiring people, setting up payroll, forming subsidiaries, raising money - that I am not sure I would describe that I “loved” doing. They were tedious, stressful, and hard."

Andre Agassi, Do What You Love, Bob Dylan

Maybe this will remind me to not fetishize “great work”.

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"We could go back and forth all day on what exactly defines technological change – I certainly have before. But what labor wants is self-determination, not a slowing of technological change. Taxi drivers protesting Uber aren’t saying that they want apps out of their cabs. They want leverage to negotiate wages and working conditions so they aren’t barely scraping by. The pushback is on exploitative business models, not technology."

Alex Payne — Dear Marc Andreessen

Love it. Highlighting the distinction between resisting technological progress and resisting exploitation.

Link

garychou:

There are a plenty of places to help you develop your startup idea or product, but not a lot of places to help you navigate the initial creative process when you are just getting off the ground.

That’s what Orbital Boot Camp is all about.

It’s a 12-week intensive course to help people…

I hope you’re following along, because it’s going to be epic adventure time at Orbital this summer.

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"

In an environment in which start-up resources are not limited, and no one can predict the next winner, and it is easy to measure customer behavior in great detail, the Internet is no longer a technology.

The Internet is a psychology experiment.

Building a product for the Internet is now the easy part. Getting people to understand the product and use it is the hard part. And the only way to make the hard part work is by testing one psychological hypothesis after another.

Every entrepreneur is now a psychologist by trade. The ONLY thing that matters to success in our anything-is-buildable Internet world is psychology. How does the customer perceive this product? What causes someone to share? What makes virality happen? What makes something sticky?

"

Scott Adams Blog: The Pivot 06/16/2014

The Internet is a psychology experiment. What a quote.

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Software is eating the world, and other ideologies

A couple weekends ago I left one bubble to visit another. At the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder meeting, Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger discussed markets, investments and economics, and in the process showed me just how deeply ingrained I have been in the tech world’s ideology.

Andreessen is famously attributed the quote, “Software is eating the world.” Implied within is the ideology that technology (and technologists) will disrupt everything (and every incumbent) – it is only a matter of time. And if software is eating the world, you want to be the ones writing the software, not the ones getting eaten. According to this ideology, software will displace existing ways of value creation. What matters in this world is having the engineering chops to write software, and the audacity to take on incumbents.

Software IS Eating the World

It’s clear that technology drives an increasing amount of value creation. Technology is changing how things get done, that is uncontroversial. It is also clear that whoever is behind a new pieces of technology that captures/creates new markets will get an outsized return. Superstar technology companies give its investors 10x or 100x returns, far more than the 15-30% year-over-year returns that Berkshire built its fortune on.

…but it is not Sound Investing

When you’re not the technologist, however, investing in technology is dicey. Venture Capitalists, as a class of investors, do not out perform the market. Technology ventures are full of uncertainty. Software is eating the world implies that some technologists are going to win, but it doesn’t tell you which one. Most start-ups fail, and thus from a straight up asset management point of view, most start-ups are not worth investing in. VC’s only (sort of) work because they invest in start-ups as an asset class, being clear eyed about the risk-reward ratio and adjusting for it.

So does Berkshire actually short the future?

The short answer is no.

The longer answer is this. Mr. Buffet is an asset manager, and he is in the game of efficiently allocating capital, not maximizing potential return. He does not like volatility, and if he has to leave the black swan upsides of VC-style investing, so be it. That discipline is Berkshire’s strength.

Giving up black swan upsides is not shorting the future

When you actually listen to Buffet explain the logic of value investing, it’s hard to disagree with. Save the “bet on great companies in well understood industries” bit, what Buffet talks about are foundational principles that would apply to start-up’s just as much as anyone else e.g.

  • Form ideas based on evidence and first principles, not other people’s opinions
  • Systematically remove your ignorance
  • Be picky about finding great people, then trust and invest in them
  • Design incentive structures carefully to bring the best out of people
  • Prioritize

Berkshire Hathaway is an optimistic company that bets on growth, and bets on teams of managers that will foster that growth. While software may be eating the world, at the end of the day people will still run it.

At the shareholder meeting a question about self-driving cars came up, asking about how the technology will affect Geico, Berkshire Hathaway’s auto insurance business. Buffet and Munger’s responses was essentially:

  • Yes, self-driving cars will affect Geico’s business
  • No, we do not see it happening soon
  • No, we’re not worried, because,
    • A. Where there’s risks, there will be demand for insurance
    • B. We believe in our managers, they are on top of it, and no doubt will handle it properly

Which isn’t so far from what a VC might say. Ultimately, you’re investing in your people.

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On Finding Flow

Last week at Sift we hosted an internal hackathon. “No rules. Work on whatever you’re excited about” said Fred. And so I worked on two projects  – one where we built data visualizations of distributions, and the other where we built a (Harry Potter themed!) demo data generator.

I had a really good time, and delivered two mostly complete projects that members of the business team have asked for again and again. I felt more productive than I had in the three weeks prior.

Why?

Mostly because I found flow in working on the projects. Both of the projects involved me stitching together bits of code, where each stitch had an immediate satisfying effect of making a visible bit of progress. It was also, by nature of the hackathon’s constraint, neatly self-contained pieces of work. My mind had been brewing on these ideas for a couple weeks already. Getting to execute and to push something on screen was a nice change of pace.

It was a good reminder amidst all the thinking and planning work that I’ve been doing at Sift that I am at heart a maker. I had gone too long in abstract work, and I needed that hands on work to lift my spirits.

It’s also good prompt to try to figure out a rhythm where I can alternate between being hands-on and being in planning mode. I am far happier this way, and it’ll probably be good for Sift. I guess this is the whole Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule thing. I have to find a rhythm that balance the two.

Tags: rhythm work flow
Quote
"Praise in response to good behavior may be half the battle, but our responses to bad behavior have consequences, too. When children cause harm, they typically feel one of two moral emotions: shame or guilt. Despite the common belief that these emotions are interchangeable, research led by the psychologist June Price Tangney reveals that they have very different causes and consequences. Shame is the feeling that I am a bad person, whereas guilt is the feeling that I have done a bad thing. Shame is a negative judgment about the core self, which is devastating: Shame makes children feel small and worthless, and they respond either by lashing out at the target or escaping the situation altogether. In contrast, guilt is a negative judgment about an action, which can be repaired by good behavior. When children feel guilt, they tend to experience remorse and regret, empathize with the person they have harmed, and aim to make it right."

Raising a Moral Child - NYTimes.com

Huh.

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Grief

I have known nothing else in life quite like being blindsided by death to gain perspective. Two hours prior I was fussing with numbers and trying to figure out why this new feature wasn’t getting traction. One message later the empty desk next to mine became a foreboding and dreadful void.

He died in a car crash, apparently a DUI accident late in the evening. A talented, energetic engineer. Just earlier that afternoon we were tossing ideas around and getting excited about a new project. His last messages to me were the outputs of a prototype he had built just during his train ride home. I didn’t see them until the morning. I responded, “that’s awesome dude,” not knowing he was already gone.

I now know what people mean when they say it’s a punch in the gut. After reading the local news article with his name in it, I headed out of the building, walked straight up Montgomery Street, and bawled. I was remembering everything about him. “Dude. Look at this.” “Dude, what the fuck.” “Yo.” That’s how we communicated, day in and day out in the last six months, cranking out new chunks of the product. That voice still rung clearly in my head, and I kept repeating it, desperately trying to hold on to it.

Since I moved to San Francisco, I’ve made a few good friends. He was one of whom I hoped to befriend for the long haul. We were already talking about where we might go after we eventually move on from this start-up. How killer it would be to move around as a designer-engineer duo. He was trying to set me up with his friends. “Guys or girls. I’m not judging,” he said. We had done an impromptu hackathon just to try new javascript frameworks three weeks ago, and had plans for another to replace the whole stack. We were trying to figure out when I’d go down to South Bay to play basketball and Starcraft again like we did in January.

My heart grinds like a poorly greased gearbox, rumbling in fits and halts. Six months was too short to get to know you. Too few exaggerated high fives. Too few games of Starcraft. Too few inspiration-fueled side projects. We were going to keep working on awesome shit! How is this possible? How are you gone?

I spent the weekend with friends, finding solace in their company. I called my family, sharing my pain and finding comfort in their sympathy. Funny how it is people you cling to when things go wrong. Work will always be there. People can be quite abruptly taken from your life.

I frankly do not know what to do. I don’t know how I’m supposed to go to work tomorrow. My work brain is missing so many pieces. But go to work I will. You’d probably want me to.