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.

What’s the lesson?

I’m not supposed to be in front of a computer right now. I’m supposed to be attending the Vancouver premiere of Tiffany Shlain’s Connected, in a fundraiser to benefit A Human Right.  This looked like a fun event, for a good cause.  So I bought two tickets, one for myself and one for my 14 year old son, who seemed really interested in the trailer, and who I was pretty sure would both enjoy and get a lot from the movie & discussion.  I was happy for Mozilla to sponsor the event, promoting it.

But, this is Vancouver, British Columbia, in North America, a continent where lawyers and fear have way too much sway on policy and clearly no firm grasp of reality.  In this particular case, the problem is that the venue — the swank Vancouver International Film Festival’s VanCity Theater has the audacity to serve wine and the like to its patrons.  As a wine and movie enthusiast, that seems like a delightful plan.  But apparently, this very civilized offering is seen by regulators as implying that the location is evidently such a den of iniquity that my kid would obviously be irretrievably harmed by the sight of some adults having a glass of wine. Of all the things that I worry about as a parent, this doesn’t make the top 1000.

This was mildly embarrassing for all concerned, and led to my son and I going home early and having a conversation about the puritanical roots of the Canadian legal system rather than the much more interesting discussion that I expect would have ensued after the movie.

Such a waste.

Somebody let me know how the show went?

Crowdsourcing thoughts

On Wednesday, I’m attending Remixology 2, an event put together by Fresh Media, on the topic of crowdsourcing.  In particular, I’ll somehow be the representative of the entire open web perspective on crowdsourcing (!), Alfred Hermida will be talking about the journalist’s perspective, and Leigh Christie will be there representing artists.  I’m hoping that the audience doesn’t expect any one of us to speak authoritatively on any topic, and that we can instead have a conversation.  Since talking to Hanna Cho about the event, I’ve had a couple of thoughts on the topic that I’m hoping I’ll be able to fit into that conversation.

Crowdsourcing, like most buzzwords, is loaded with too many meanings, and I rarely use it.  I’m more interested in figuring out how to leverage the internet to enable collaboration on a grand scale.  Everyone has experience with 1-1 collaboration, whether through email, shared writings spaces, voice calls, etc.  The internet has provided the technologies to make such collaboration radically cheaper and faster than before, and the biggest challenge it has brought have been widely discussed: we’re always connected, for better or worse; we’re always interrupted; the world is smaller; nobody knows you’re a dog.  All of which is old hat to anyone who’se spent any time online in the last couple of decades.

The advent of mass instant collaboration and mass participation is made possible by the same technologies, but I think we’re still in the earliest stages of figuring out both how to do it well, and what the societal impact will be.  I’m hoping we can talk about that a bit.

It’s easier than ever to spread a meme, and to recruit a population the size of a small army who are all interested or even passionate about your meme.  With ubiquitous communication systems (phones, laptops, cheap broadband, internet cafes, etc), social “viral” media  (twitter, facebook, chain letters, etc.), rich media production models (video on phones and youtube), it seems that viral messages spread like wildfire (of course there’s a massive selection bias: deliberately starting a wildfire is incredibly hard in practice).  Let’s grant that getting the word out is easy.  Depending on the topic, one can get the attention of a cohort of like-minded folks fairly easy (that’s 500 soldiers, if the roman army is a guide).  If any one of them has an hour or two to contribute, pretty soon we’re talking a person-year or more of effort, which can be a potent resource if focused!

The cost of building and running web sites has also plumetted, and the number of people capable of doing so is skyrocketing, which makes it easy (in theory) for anyone to create a place for these people to gather, discuss, coordinate, work, agitate, whatever.  Some will build dedicated websites, others will use shared tools like Facebook groups, mailing lists, etc.  In most countries, such gatherings are undetected, let alone regulated.  We now have mechanisms for coordination of group action.  The potential is seemingly unbounded.

Many online activities are virtually free.  Interestingly, even when there are real (or forecasted) costs to a project, the last few years have seen the maturation of many interesting micropayment systems.  The trendiest is Kickstarter, which somehow gathered the mindshare in the “let’s get together and fund X” world, and its most famous success is Diaspora, who raised $200k, which was 20 times what they asked for, just because they said they’d take on Facebook.  So even in the treacherous arena of cash, there are now funding models which seem to work (at least for small-scale efforts).  Thus, to the sheer hours of invested time, we can now add a few thousand dollars.

So now we have a few hundred people, excited about some idea.  There’s a website, and even a modest bank balance. To use the techy jargon, we’ve got scalable models for meme propagation, recruitment, coordination & communication, advocacy, marketing & PR, and funraising.  Awesome.

Now it’s time to actually do stuff.  In particular, it’s time to plan, schedule, prioritize, make decisions, commit some code, commit to something.  In my experience, that’s the part that we still don’t know how to scale.  Everyone in the army of volunteers has ideas about what should be done (but only a small percentage will actually have relevant skills or experience).  Everyone will have opinions about what words should be used, but only a small number will actually really listen to the other’s opinions.  If we’re not careful, we now have a large group of people who think share a goal, but who are not organized.  And that can be really hard to deal with, especially given that we’ve made it really easy for them to shout at each other.

Which leads to my main point, which is that the next challenge for mass collaboration and coordination over the internet isn’t going to be technological, but human.  Specifically, what will differentiate important projects from the rest are the people who can help groups of people achieve common goals.  That’s not a new task, but the cybernetic setting will require to adapt old skills and create new cultural norms.  Three skills at least are needed to facilitate that kind of coordination:

The first is some form of leadership.  Quite often, the initiator of the meme didn’t really intend to start a micro-movement.  She just tweeted something, or uploaded a ranty video, or wrote a scathing blog post.  And all of a sudden she is the center of attention from a bunch of strangers who “agree” and want to “do something about it”.  In that kind of situation, converting emotional energy into effective action will (I claim) depend on the emergence of a leader of some kind.  Which doesn’t mean a spokesperson, or a dictator (benevolent or not).  It just means someone who, using whatever means are appropriate for that group, can get the group focused, moving in a roughly consistent direction towards some vague approximation of a common goal.  Different groups of people will respond to different types of leadership, but I’m pretty sure all large groups need at least one individual they can anchor to.

The second is organizing.  The style of organization needed will vary wildly depending on the group, from simply taking notes to gardening a wiki to tweeting a lot, nagging, proofreading, testing.  But there is a yin to the leadership yang, and the people who are good at getting people excited are rarely the same who can remind them to uphold their commitments.

The third is what my friend David Eaves refers to as negotiation, or the process of seeking common interests among a set of potential collaborators, and building commitments and mutual trust along the way.  This skill is rarely explicitly discussed in many organizations, because most organizations have built-in power structures which have well understood tie-breakers (“the senior person decides”, “the client decides”) as well as clear consequences to disagreement (“you’re fired/demoted/etc.”, “this contract isn’t renewed”, “you’re not invited next time”, etc.).  Neither of these are as clear in a setting where peering and fraternity are assumed over hierarchy and management.  If I show up at your virtual event expecting to be treated like a peer, but it so happens that I misunderstood what your goal was, the odds are pretty good that one of us will frustrate or disappoint the other.  If we both care about our own visions, the odds of a flame war are high.  To avoid that, we need to clarify the goals up front and review them often.  We need to really explore everyone’s interests and both detect overlap and explore differences.  And we need to keep in mind everyone’s BATNA.  It’s work, but it’s the only way to actually draw from everyone’s strengths.  I think the open source / open web world is still a beginner in this arena, but I’m glad that we’re working on those muscles.

Of course, the technologist and UX thinker in me is keen to figure out whether we can design systems that help with these all-to-human (and all-too-fragile) tasks, build digital prostheses of a sort.  You can see baby steps emerging among the more “social” web apps of the day: the indicators of mood on support forums like for example, let people emote quietly, and provide non-verbal cues to emotional state, which are all to often lost in textual communications.  Building interfaces that surface the people behind the comments leads, I think, to more humane conversations (one of Facebook’s brilliant early moves was to encourage/require “real names, real photos”).  There are also simple tricks: at Mozilla, we’ve also found that if one detects conflict, it’s usually a good idea to try and resolve it using private voice calls rather than prolonged, public, painful email discussions.

I’m sure that by Wednesday I’ll have other thoughts in my head which will push these out of the way, but I’m curious to see whether these thoughts resonate with people in other disciplines, or whether different cultures lead to radically different world views.

Ikea Canada: WTF?

A few months ago, we needed more desks for our office, so I figured I’d order them from the Ikea website. Easy to do, except that the store doesn’t work with US credit cards, and our corporate card is a US card. So I bite my tongue about the craziness of e-commerce in Canada, knowing it’s not just an Ikea problem, and I use my personal card, and will deal with expensing it internally. Annoying, but oh well.

Then I’m blown away because delivery takes eons, because the desks have to come from the “online distribution center” in Quebec (“it’s Canada, so it’s got to be close, right?”), and not from either of the two warehouses within 20 miles of the delivery address (who do have the items in stock!). But I’m busy, so I live w/ the delay. Environmentally criminal, but oh well.

This month, we need more desks, and I’ve learned my lesson, so I know to take time out of my weekend to go to Ikea, order the desks and chairs. After about 45 minutes in the store, it looks like we’ll have delivery on Tuesday morning. A few high-end desks and what seems like their most expensive chairs, but I have a soft spot for Ikea, and their furniture is working out fine for us.

Turns out the chairs aren’t in stock, so they have to be scheduled for delivery a few weeks out and delivery has to be charged separately. Annoying, and a bit more expensive, but oh well.

Monday, they call and say that we hadn’t talked about delivery times (we had), and we reschedule it for the same day/time. Seems disorganized, but oh well.

Tuesday, they come and call my cell to let us know they’re downstairs, but I’m on the phone on an important call, and I thought it was someone else, so I figure I’ll get the message when I’m done with my call. By the time I get off the phone, I’m told they went on with their route, and I need to reschedule another delivery, which will cost me $75. Frustrating, but I blame it on the olympics and how it’s messing with deliveries everywhere, and blame myself for not taking the call, but oh well.

I call back to reschedule, and I’m told that I need to go back to the store to reschedule, because I need to pay for another delivery. WTF? After a bit of back and forth with the CSR, I ask to talk to a manager, and I’m told to do that I need to go to the store. WTF? I then ask about canceling the order, and I’m told that, you guessed it, I need to go back to the store.

Oh, if I want to lodge a complaint, I can do it on their website. I’ll definitely be sending them a link to this page.

I guess I know what I’m doing this weekend. What I’m not sure of is where I’ll get the next batch of furniture from. What a totally horrible customer experience, just because they don’t have a system for paying over the phone (or, hey, the internet?!?!) for silly delivery fees.

La Quercia

Emily and I were treated to an impressive meal yesterday — a 9-course tasting menu at La Quercia.

The full sequence:

Cocktail: La Bicicletta

Parmesan Sformato, Aged Balsamico

Frisee, Hazelnut & Apple Cider vinaigrette
Roast Quail

Vitello tonnato

Strudel ai Funghi
wild mushroom and ricotta strudel

Risotto with wild mushrooms

Agnolotti di Guido
Stuffed pasta, veal, chard, ricotta, parmigiano

Spaghetti al’amatriciana
Smoked pork cheek, chillies, san marzano tomatoes

Ruby Trout
lemon caper sauce

Collo d’Agnello Brasato
slow- braised lamb neck, beans and greens

Lemon cream

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Rice Pudding with Blueberry Sauce

with a Casalone 2004 Rus Monferato.

Almost everything was very good. The vitello tonatto was a revelation; the risotto was luscious; the chocolate cake was superb; the lemon cream inspiring. Only real complaints is it was just too much, and I don’t think we really appreciated the mains because we were full already. Apparently it’s an easier meal for larger groups, because there are a few people around who end up really, really, really hungry. Next time, I think we’ll go for either the 5-course tasting menu or just pasta & salad.

Definitely recommended, especially if someone else is paying. Reservations almost always needed apparently.

Open Source, Open Standards, Open Data, Open Vancouver

Exciting Vancouver news!  Mayor Robertson has put forth a motion for city council to vote on next week which is chock full of amazing words, and which passed, will direct the city to have a bias towards openness — open source software, open standards, and open data.

That’s pretty impressive!  If the motion passes (which it should, riding on a global wave of sentiment towards openness, and fitting in with the platform that got seven of the councilors elected), this could mean great things for Vancouver, especially at the intersection of software, business, and the public.

On the issue of open source, I would love to show that local governments are able to recognize the strategic and control advantages inherent in software that they can influence and modify, and help push back the fear-driven campaigns which bias towards monopolies at taxpayer expense.  Similarly, promoting the use of open standards is a no-brainer that the best technocrats realize can give them the power that befits them as customers.  These ideas have been well articulated globally over the last few years, and I would hope that all high-level government staff and officials are briefed on the topics by now.  (If any local officials want to discuss this in greater detail, there are many qualified experts in Vancouver, don’t be afraid to ask for names or opinions!).

Open data is a more recent concept, the implications of which are likely as important as the rise of the web.  With open data, governments have a unique opportunity to create economic growth, reduce operating costs, and enrich the life of their constituencies, simply by making a policy decision such as the one in tuesday’s motion, and following through.

As Sir Tim Berners-Lee (the creator of the web) discusses in this 15-minute TED talk, the simple act of releasing public data enables others to create value.  Of course, as the motion indicates, personal privacy rights trump, and we don’t want to release data on individual citizens — luckily that’s not needed in order to enable value creation.  As an example, this impressive screencast of Wolfram Alpha demonstrates the power of new computational platforms leveraging public data. Vancouver’s data belongs there.

Most government data is public data by definition.  What’s compelling about open data in the age of the web isn’t the fact that citizens have access to such data — they typically have the legal right to obtain it through administrative requests, even though those are inconvenient (and very expensive for the city).  What’s compelling is that by making what belongs to the public available via the web, the city can accomplish many laudable goals at once:

  • In many cases, simply enabling self-service on the web will reduce costs for the city and provide better service to its citizens.
  • By making data that it doesn’t have time to process and analyze available, the city allows others with time and expertise to do such analysis with no cost to the city.  This will sound unbelievable to bureaucrats unused to open source, but this kind of thing really happens.  You can’t predict who will do what with what data, but you can be sure that it can’t happen unless and until the data is available.
  • Some of those activities will just be interesting. But some will create new businesses, or allow existing businesses to become more efficient.  What if local retailers could access demographic trend data for free on the web, today?  What if companies outside of Vancouver could get a deeper understanding of Vancouver simply by looking at the data?  Everyone knows that Vancouver is a great place to live.  The city’s economic strengths are not as well advertised.  Enabling an ecosystem of people who turn data into interesting, insightful, and useful applications and sites can only help.  Think of open data as the infrastructure of a chamber of commerce 2.0.
  • The city is there to serve the citizenry.  To the extent that it is the caretaker of public data, and that the public has good ideas for using it, its job should be to get out of the way.  Part of being a transparent government is to be invisible — to not get in the way of experimentation and innovation.  Promoting open data while preserving privacy feels like a great goal for the city’s IT staff.

There are also intangible benefits that come from these kinds of attitudinal shifts in how the city relates to the internet and the software economy.  From a recruitment point of view in the software industry in particular, a city which embraced openness and the internet would be that much more attractive to the kinds of technical, creative, and public-spirited individuals that I seek.

Finally, local technology leaders are that much more likely to engage with the city and provide their help.  I know that the notion of an “Open Vancouver” makes me much more keen to engage with the city, as it would put the city on the short but growing list of governments who understand how they can leverage the web and openness to improve life for their constituencies.

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)