You are more than your job title

In grad school, I remember a conversation across the campus green with an visiting psychologist from Harvard.  I don’t remember much about the conversation except that he introduced me to Isaiah Berlin’s notion of the Hedgehog and the Fox, and correctly pegged me as a Fox.  I think I was a bit offended at the simplification, but time has proven him right.  I’m certainly no hedgehog.

I got into a silly argument on twitter last night, about whether my looking to hire someone who I labeled (as job descriptions make us do) a “Coding Designer” was not just foolish (I’d seen the Unicorn references in my tweetstream already) but apparently a bad idea, because, so the ultra-simplified argument goes, you somehow can’t be both.  And so I’ll use the energy to rant a bit about what seem to be prevailing attitudes around titleism and narrow definitions of “professionalism”.

We all need to define ourselves to others. It helps us be understood, and hopefully valued.  Labels can be useful for that. We also, even more, like to label others.  It helps us simplify our approach to them.  If I can find a label for you, then I can rely on a prioris about how people with that label tend to think and behave, and I don’t need to actually get to know you too much.  The more people we interact with, the more important these shortcuts are.  Some roles are particularly subject to that (Recruiters, VCs, politicians, etc. — people who routinely talk to dozens if not hundreds of people a day).  And the best at these roles are those who use a different labeling system than their peers.  Recruiters who see the latent ambition or genius in a shy candidate; VCs who see the determination behind a stutter, or, conversely, the lack of self-confidence behind the bravado, etc.

Labels are useful and practical in the short term.  And I don’t know how one could run a large HR department without them.  But we should be careful to not take them too seriously, as in the long term, they can hurt. They hurt because people, especially interesting, worth-getting-to-know people, are much more subtle, complicated, confusing and hard to categorize creatures.  Whether you take the label too seriously when thinking about others (e.g., refuse to see the valid opinion about a design expressed by a non-Designer) or about yourself (and limit your impact on the world because “oh, that’s not something that a mere ____ like me could say/do”), you’re not getting the most out of anyone involved.

As I write this, I realize that I feel quite strongly about this topic.  Part of it is probably because I grew up in an educational system, which at least then believed way too much in labeling people and determining their fate based on that label.  Much waste ensued.  Part of it is probably because I can’t for the life of me figure out what my label should be, and if I can’t, then that must be bad. I’ve had a range of professional labels, from scientist to engineer, architect, team lead, vice president, CTO, CEO, blah blah blah.  I’ve been called a designer, strategist, entrepreneur, boss, blah blah blah. None of those words will, I hope, be in my epitaph.  And so I get cranky on twitter at night, because if there are people who strive to be both excellent at design and at coding, then by golly we should encourage them.

Titles are a poor approximation of a professional ideal, and a profession is a poor approximation of a human’s breadth, contributions, and talents.  Embrace your inner fox, and if you happen to have both design and coding skills, can see a problem, conjure up a solution, prototype it, welcome challenges to your idea from peers, data, and users, apply.

Personal computing in a decentralized world: a hopeful direction

I’ve been having a really stimulating few weeks, which is making me feel oddly optimistic, so I figured I’d spread the cheer.

It’s been somewhat quieter than usual in my little corner of Mozilla, as many of my colleagues were busy preparing for on our big announcements and demos at Mobile World Congress. This lull has allowed me to spend more time indulging in longer term thinking.

In that thinking period, I’ve had the privilege and distinct pleasure of spending a few hours of quality videochat with none other than Ward Cunningham, inventor extraordinaire.  We’ve been talking a lot about his new baby, which he calls Federated Wiki (the name is misleading I think, but as with many new ideas, awkward names are better than long descriptions. The shortest analogy I can come up with is a space for personal writing that borrows the forking attitude from github, within a smalltalk-like conceptual model. — Confused yet?).  Regardless of the name, it’s both refreshing and stimulating to talk to someone like Ward about topics we both see as important and interesting, with a shared commitment to improve the status quo.  If you’re intellectually curious, willing to do some mental backflips and deal with fairly raw and unconventional ideas, I encourage you to watch the videos and play around with federated wiki.  It’s a worthwhile exploration.

One of the surprising ways in which that exploration is changing my brain is that I’m finally starting to care about hardware.  Until recently, I’ve been quite uninterested in hardware talk, both of the standard computer geek variety, as well as the internet-of-things variety. The former has felt no different to me than talking about fashion, and the latter always struck me as an industrial problem, not a human one.  It’s made sense to me that companies like GE were keen on the Internet of Things — i just didn’t really care, and the odds of billions of networked computers being a net win for the world seemed pretty slim — I’ll admit to a bit of an head-in-the-sand reaction there.

What’s changed my thinking (and let me to acquire handfuls of raspberry pis and pcDuinos for the office) is a growing belief that the economics of hardware manufacturing, the maturation of the open source stack and standards, and the mainstream adoption of “the cloud” are, in concert, going to provide interesting opportunities for networked computation “by the people for the people”.

The default path

It’s fairly easy to see that the big players in computing (Apple, Google, et al) are deepening their stack and broadening their scope — from software or services to software and services to hardware to phones to tablets to TVs and other consumer devices, to cars, eyewear, physical networks, wireless carriers.  The path ahead for them is clear.  And I’d say that the consumer experiences that will follow promise to be stunning. But if nothing is done about it, it’s also clear that this will happen through market concentration.  That concentration of power, economic influence and wealth is particularly problematic because it also implies a concentration in modes of thought, in cultural outlooks, in possible futures.  As I’ve written before, I think the world would be poorer if that happened.

All conventional indicators (especially those concerned with things like “eyeballs”) are in that direction, of course — large amounts of money make it possible to make shiny attractive things, as well as to identify attention-grabbing things in a sea of uneven quality.  Popular culture naturally gravitates towards superstars, be they pop stars, or youtube clips. We seem to be wired as people, societies, and markets to head that way.

Another architecture, and the economics that can power it

And yet I mentioned above that I was optimistic. That’s because while there are natural economic incentives for markets to create large companies, and for those large companies to concentrate attention on a few things which are safe, non-threatening, and profitable, the centralization forces are not the only ones at play, and not everything behaves in market-expected ways.   Clay Shirky has written and talked about this eloquently — sometimes we don’t need to do what economists tells us we should want to do.

You can now buy $35 full-featured computers which, within seconds of being plugged in, are fully capable internet nodes.  Within years at most the price will keep dropping and the capabilities will keep expanding. In addition, the open source software stack which powers them is the same which millions of web developers already know, and hopefully soon millions of amateurs as well.  In other words, the means of production  are being commoditized and democratized, and the network is ready to serve as a coordination layer for these devices.  I am not predicting a utopian world of DIY hardware running bespoke software written by each user.  Instead, I want to point out that the entire value chain for using the internet to do new things (from hardware to services) is now ripe for new, good ideas, even coming from single brains. The substrate for deeply personal web experiences is here.  I should also acknowledge Allen Wirfs-Brock’s recent writings on the need for a bigger picture plan here as helping me to process the need to actively shape the architecture of the connected things around us.

Much has been written about the impact of Big Data for business, but internet-available Personal Data could be just as transformative for individuals and small groups. I’d wager that a Raspberry Pi and a cheap drive can store all of the words I will write and read in a lifetime, do meaningful computation on that corpus, and be available to all of my internet-connected devices. That feels significant. When people routinely have that kind of agency over their stuff, and if their digital agents are well coordinated through a well-decentralized network, it’s easy to imagine just as futuristic and impactful but less commercially driven outcomes.

When compelling experiences that work thanks to a decentralized architecture emerge, I’m confident that many kinds of business models will follow, including consumer devices, services, and others. Some of those devices will run FirefoxOS.  All will have the web stack built-in. As important, these things (or virtual things) will be cheap enough that cost and profitability won’t be the primary consideration. Instead, you’ll think about what you, your family, your neighborhood, your community need.  I could easily subsidize a fairly powerful computing service for all the children in my kids’ school.  Larger foundations could subsidize the same on the scale of countries.  Combining Shirky’s cognitive surplus and insanely cheap delivery systems means we can be freer from the stranglehold of short term economic thinking.  Bring in network-enabled funding models like Kickstarter, and we can keep baffling economists and conventional investors for a long while.

The Product Challenge

The conundrum, then, is to find those compelling experiences which thrive on a decentralized architecture, and not just try to force decentralization on experiences which work well in a centralized model.  As a “product person”, I’ll admit that it’s not easy to  wean oneself from the dominant world view, which favors neatly bounded and hard, polished exteriors (metaphorical and otherwise), where control is critical to quality, and where complexity is managed through barriers.  That’s why I’m so impressed with Ward’s thinking — he’s been starting with a decentralized architecture, and seeking to identify and facilitate outcomes that are easier, more natural in that world.  We need more such thinking.

When I start thinking that way, my mind wanders towards deeply personal systems and deeply meaningful relationships.  Private diaries.  Family-centric stuff (family recipes, private calendars, snapshots, secrets).  It is worth noting that Ward has seen his ideas resonate in tightly knit communities who need deep connections over ideas and data, but who aren’t seeking mass audiences.  More generally, I suspect that this kind of architecture will naturally complement  offerings from giant players by gravitating towards parts of our psychology which the giants aren’t built to serve.  Our need for quiet; play space; safe space.  Our need for a small number of deeply meaningful relationships. As the giants define what the “mall” style of interaction with the net is, I’m (finally) optimistic that we’ll see structures emerge that mirror many other social structures, from the self to the couple, family, school, workplace, church, interest club, support group, etc.

This future feels more humane. That’s worth working on.

What computing will she need, and who will build it?

Thanks to Havi Hoffman for her editorial help.

Tim O’Reilly on the future web wars

I’ve tended to limit my link referrals to my Twitter feed over the last year, but I wanted to advertise Tim O’Reilly’s latest post on this channel as well (it also feels great to have more than 100 characters to express myself!).  Tim explains well what the new battlegrounds for the future of the web are.  It’s a war that’s currently being fought with shiny discounted hardware, free access to proprietary data, and competing “privileged” interfaces to the web.  The stakes are huge, but oh-so-hard for people to grasp, as much of the mechanics of who wins what depend on economics which are far removed from the battleground:

  • People don’t pay transparently for mobile services or devices
  • People don’t pay for online news (although some surveys indicate many would)
  • People often end up “subscribing” to brands (Apple, Google, Facebook) and becoming brand consumers rather than active participants in their own digital life.  That delegation of trust is often pragmatic, but it’s worrisome if unchecked by alternatives.
  • The heterogeneity of the original internet can lead to an appearance of chaos, and many people prefer simpler, more uniform experiences.  Both technical and psychological factors encourage centralization of services with single providers.  Financially as well, “small, independent startups” have huge incentives to become part of one of the big centers of mass.

Finally, the huge psychological distance between the value of free services and the costs that funds them is one of the big topics that puzzle.  It applies to “how come I can get free map directions from Google but I have to pay to get them from TomTom?” as well as “how can I convince my neighbors that electing so-and-so to office will mean more tax revenue overall, which in turn will mean better schools?”.  In both cases, the number of steps between cost and service is huge, and coupling them tighter would destroy the huge advantages that centralization and scale offer.  (If I knew more about the derivatives crash I could make some pithy reference here).

I agree with Tim that “If you don’t want a repeat of the PC era, place your bets now on open systems. Don’t wait till it’s too late.”  I think he’d also agree that we need to think beyond code and copyright.  That’s like going to war with trucks but no tanks.  For the open, distributed, heterogeneous web to thrive, we need to incorporate thinking from a host of other fields, such as contract law, design, psychology, consumer behavior, brand marketing, and more.  Figuring out how to engage thinkers and leaders in those fields is likely one of the critical, still missing steps.

Downtown East Side: one week in

We’ve recently moved the Mozilla Messaging offices, for a variety of reasons, to our cool new digs. Partially so I have something to look back in a few months, I thought I’d write down my thoughts about the new space and neighborhood.

Mozilla Messaging Office (credit: Mark Surman on flickr)

The office itself is pretty much what I was hoping it would be. It’s much bigger than the old space, which means we can continue to all be together, for the vibe that it generates, and to facilitate communication. It’s even big enough for Bryan’s Love Sac, which is a huge draw for visiting kids and executive directors. The internet service rocks, especially compared to the ISPs we tried at the old place. (it’s a fascinating world when residential internet service is head and shoulders above what you can get in an office tower). We have still to install some more lights and another desk or so, but there’s no rush. There are some definite oddities to the space, like the bathtub in the open space, Andrew’s laser and fog machine, but I’m sure we’ll find interesting uses for all of that. It’s been also really easy to have people stop by and hang out, which I think helps us build connections with other Mozilla folks, other Vancouver tech, design, & open source people. Some of that was a bit awkward in our previous space.

Miniature Downtown Eastside (credit: joannaforever on flickr)
Miniature Downtown Eastside (credit: joannaforever on flickr)

What is more interesting than all that “inside” stuff, though, is the neighborhood outside. For people not familiar with Vancouver, we’re located in the “notorious” downtown east side — a weird neighborhood with its own unpronounceable acronym: DTES. It’s a neighborhood with a long history, much of which I don’t know, and for much of the recent decades, not very healthy. It’s easy to simplistically describe it as skid row, which is certainly part of the truth. In particular, if you look at how the press covers it, it might seem a bizarre place to choose for an an office. A center of chronic drug use, the place where people go when they can’t go any lower, a money-pit for well-intentioned but ineffective social programs, all the headlines are bad.

If you go past the headlines and read the globe and mail reports, and more importantly, if you spend a bit of time here, the picture gets far more complex. I know I don’t know nearly enough about the social crisis to pontificate about it. All I can report are my impressions after a few days.

six lives (credit: SqueakyMarmot on flickr)
six lives (credit: SqueakyMarmot on flickr)

The first impression clearly centers on “the people in the street”. During the lunch hour in particular, the number of people idle in the streets is stunning. In most of Vancouver, like in most healthy cities, the people you see in the street are going somewhere — they have a place to go, something to do (the few stationary folks are usually smokers escaping the no-smoking rules, and geeks wondering where to go for lunch). Around here, the number of people who just seem to hang out with nothing to do is startling. It’s expected and undeniable that there’s despair, sorrow, drugs, and mental illness in these streets. But what I didn’t expect was to see this much idleness and boredom, states which my friend Jen correctly characterized as toxic. The ill-informed manager in me feels that part of the answer has to be identifying some activities that “these people” could do which would give some energy and impetus for action in their lives. Then I realize I have no idea what I’m talking about and keep moving.

Woodward project (credit: Beach650 on flickr)
Woodward project (credit: Beach650 on flickr)

The second recurring thought is that this world is possibly about to change radically. First, because Vancouver is a city with a growing population and a fixed size (there’s water almost all around), and this kind of economic black hole feels unstable. More specifically, there are some developments that I wouldn’t be surprised to see push the economics past a tipping point. The Woodward’s project is a huge tower about to accept tenants, which will include 536 condo units, a university campus, a grocery store, a bank, etc. People sometimes focus on the 40% of those condos that will be below-market (i.e. subsidized) housing. Those units will likely help relieve some pain, but I doubt the people sleeping on the street will qualify. I’m predicting more change from the influx of people to the market-priced units, the university, and other businesses that move into that building (and likely the neighboring buildings, whose property value will likely rise). All of the demographics will change (age, income, race, health, etc.), which I expect (and hope) will change the feel of the neighborhood. A thousand students means a lot of young, healthy, ambitious and optimistic people in the streets, faced with a situation that needs people as much as it needs money. People with incomes and property will mean more people who care directly about the neighborhood.

The Irish Heather (credit: urbanmixer on flickr)
The Irish Heather (credit: urbanmixer on flickr)

The third thought is that the street scene you get at first glance is highly misleading. The restaurant scene, for example, is nothing if not high end. Across the street is Boneta, which serves $79 prime rib. Around the corner, the Irish Heather and its Shebeen whisky bar in the back, has 4 columns of whiskies. The related Salty Tongue is a great place to have work lunches, and Salt is hip enough to be a tasting room, not a restaurant. Even our building houses a fancy teahouse which serves pastry flown in from my home town. More reasonably, my friend Sally told me this morning about Deacon’s Corner, a diner that’s two blocks away, so I headed out there for lunch. The place was packed with 30-somethings wolfing down burgers, all hipper and more web-two-oh than each other. Food aside (although food is crucial), if you slow down when you walk in between “scary” people, you notice that behind the glass fronts are banks of young architects hacking on laptops. That that strange storefront is actually open, and selling cool art/crafts stuff. You notice that in fact you’ve seen quite a few friends in the neighborhood, and that’s not counting the social activists. You reflect on the fact that there’s a facebook group for the building you’re in, and that their apartments all look pretty swank and nice.

This is the downtown east side?

Which brings me to the fourth thought, which is that these neighborhood labels are awfully fungible. Looking north, we’re one block away from Water Street, which is the epicenter of Gastown, “tourist central” (it’s a bit funny when some of the tourists try to explore and end up on the “wrong” street). Two blocks south and you’re in Vancouver’s older chinatown, complete with yummy cheap steam buns (thanks Avi for the rec). Three blocks west, and you’re in the no-name neighborhood with hip clothing stores and (just to bring food back in), So.cial, Brioche, Nuba, and the awesome Greedy Pig (which is itself a few blocks away from the fanciest bits of Hastings St, complete w/ Cartier & Hugo Boss stores. What this makes me feel as well is that as catastrophic as the situation is for the individuals involved, from a city planning point of view, it’s extremely punctate, unlike the sprawling suburbs of so many urban centers. Surgical, small scale interventions feel more appropriate than large scale urban renewal.

That’s likely more than enough words after just a little bit of living here. So far, I’m enjoying it all. Do come visit, I’ll take you on a tour. I have yet to try the Guiness at the Heather…

A nice Guiness sign (not in Vancouver) (credit: xb3 on flickr)
A nice Guiness sign (not in Vancouver) (credit: xb3 on flickr)

Positive Energy for Change, for a Change

Change is hard. I spend a lot of time trying to enable, encourage, foster, stimulate, provoke, change in software.

Part of that is because it feels like it’s that most plastic of human endeavors. That, of course, is only true to the extent that the people involved in the creation of software _are_ plastic.

One of the fascinating things in the last few months is that it feels that, with the Obama administration, people are thinking big about societal change, in a variety of contexts.

The latest one to cross my twitter stream is Carl Malamud’s bid for the government printing office, which is full of great, big ideas. So cool.

Read up about it:, and follow the links to the proposals & the videos. They’re quite compelling, optimistic, ambitious, and, I’m sure, threatening to the status quo. At the very least, it’s a great conversation.

Godspeed, Carl.

What’s Mozilla’s scope? What should it be?

A couple of canadians (!) have recently put up interesting posts about the Mozilla Foundation: David Eaves, with whom I had a great breakfast a few weeks ago, and Marc Surman, with whom I had a great long-distance phone chat. Both posts are worth reading, and digesting.

For what it’s worth, I agree with both.

I agree with David that the people involved in the open web (and that includes all wikipedia authors, youtube uploaders, and consumers of the same) are part of a social movement, whether they self-identify or not. I’m really interested to learn from him and people like him what the history of social movements can tell us about how to take what has traditionally been a very geeky concept (open standards, open source, etc.), and make it politically and socially not just relevant but critical and much more powerful than it is today. The “opposition” is much more astute at manipulating both courts and markets to their advantage, but that will shift if we’re ambitious enough.

I also agree w/ Marc that the Mozilla Foundation can do a lot more than what it does today, in shaping, energizing, and facilitating that movement. Especially when I’m outside of North America, it’s the Foundation that has credibility, and that credibility is currently languishing, unleveraged. We could and should do more.

It’s nice to see that the Mozilla galaxy is growing up enough that there can be simultaneous energy towards one thing, and very different but also important energy towards this complementary set of thought processes.

Oh, for the record: when I say open web these days, I mean something much broader and richer than just “the WWW using open standards”, although that’s the definition that I first used. Thunderbird’s goals, for example, are in scope, even if it doesn’t have much to do with traditional web protocols yet. Things like data portability, identity 2.0, net neutrality, data privacy, etc., are all in scope. Trying to pin down exactly what I mean with that word is something I’m trying to figure out — as David mentions, we need to do a better job of defining what we’re agreeing on.

I look forward to the conversations.

Dangerous Strategy Meetings

I just got back from doing a podcast for RainCity Radio, with Zak, Boris, and Dave Olson as host.

The podcast was fun, as was the conversation afterwards with Zak and Boris. Unfortunately, the day was so beautiful that we went out for a beer to complement our strategy brainstorming. Nothing like drinking a good belgian beer in the sun to impact the afternoon’s productivity! Still, it resulted in some ideas bouncing around in our heads, and time will tell which ones survive.

Given that my brain was a bit shot, I decided to do what I seem to do now that I don’t have TV — watch some TED videos (preferably with Miro). I know, it’s awfully highbrow, but it’s what I seem to have lying around. I watched two. A relaxing one about artistic juggling, which is fun to watch, and Dave Eggers’ TED Prize wish video, which simply should be watched. Take the time and watch it, it’s butt-kickingly inspirational.