A trip for the ages

This summer I got the chance to travel down the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. The trip was organized by a friend of ours, Tom Huntington, a former river guide who has traveled rivers all over the world. Our group was 18 people plus guides. Most of us knew each other from having our kids grow up together, and we all got very close on this trip. We spent a day at the Grand Canyon’s rim, then got up before sunrise to hike the Bright Angel trail down to a place called Phantom Ranch at the center of the canyon where we got picked up by the boats. Then we went down the river for eight glorious days, alternately floating, going over white water rapids, stopping for waterfall hikes and lagoon swims, and setting up camp on the sandy shores every night. Beyond the amazing scenery, history, and natural beauty, I felt transformed by the simplicity, quiet, and the closeness to the elements and to my fellow travelers. I was sad to have the trip end – it’s a place I want to go back to for sure.

30 day blogging challenge: Week 2

The office space pendulum

Ash Patel, my former boss at Yahoo, told me yesterday that Yahoo’s offices these days feature all open space floor plans. When I worked there 10 years ago, everyone was in a private cube. The pros and cons of open floor plans vs private offices have been discussed at length over the years and big tech companies seem to slowly oscillate between them, once a decade switching from all private to all open and back. The current trend seems to be all open space with noise canceling headphones for the people who want privacy. Open spaces have advantages; they look better, foster more interaction, and they don’t have as much “jockeying for the nice office with the windows” going on. But they are more distracting and don’t work that well for people who need to focus for long periods of time – a private space is really helpful in that case. Ideally, an office would offer both. Open spaces for collaboration/inspiration and private spaces for taking that inspiration and turning into action. Depending on the job, I think a good balance is about 20% collaboration and 80% heads down execution (I know some people will disagree). At Automattic, we have found a balance with collaboration that happens during in person meetups and in virtual get-togethers (video conferences and chat), and execution that happens in peoples’ home offices. In centralized companies with physical offices I could imagine a similar model where the office serves as collaboration space one day per week, and the rest of the time is spent working from home (different teams could use the space on different days to avoid having it sit empty a bunch). This type of office could be really fun to create because it could be 100% focused on collaboration needs, more like a clubhouse or a cafe than a traditional office.

Deep linking

I’ve been at a conference for the last two days and a topic that’s been coming up a lot is deep linking for mobile apps. Three separate people have mentioned a company called Branch Metrics as someone who is doing interesting things in this area. Deep linking helps app developers who are looking for more ways to get people to discover their apps (among other things). The current ways are cumbersome – I’m probably not the only person who thinks that the little banners that pop up on my mobile web browser, trying to get me to install a new app, are not very effective. Clicking on those links takes too many steps (app store, password, install, app/user signup) and when the app finally runs, it starts without any of the referrer info or original context of where I came from. Seems like an area that’s about to see a lot of change and growth.

Stop watching me

UPDATE 10/17: This Kickstarter was canceled.

I found a Kickstarter yesterday that promises to anonymize your internet browsing in a simple way – it’s a small box that sits between you and whatever internet connection you are using: the Anonabox. It’s designed for people who need anonymity, like dissidents and whistleblowers, but I’m guessing it’s attractive to anyone who is creeped out by constantly being watched and tracked while online. I assume that’s pretty much everyone?

Childhood confessions

When I was in 2nd grade, I was convinced that I would grow up to be a boat designer. I have a pretty clear memory of drawing lots of boats for a couple of years. Last week, I moved offices and found my 2nd grade drawing book. Sure enough, it’s full of boats (plus a good helping of cars and spaceships):

PS: I think my favorite is the red, 6-wheeled car with the massive body and the flat nose, though “Schneller Pfeil” with the 5 inboard motors is pretty cool too…


Nerd culture, the good and the bad

Yesterday, I discovered Pete Warden’s post “Why nerd culture must die“. I agree with much of it. From Google bus protests to the treatment of women in Silicon Valley, there have been many recent events in the tech world that have appalled me and made me worry about the culture and practices of our industry.

As tech has gone mainstream, it has touched our lives in many ways, some positive and some negative. The culture of tech – or nerd culture – has its roots in the the concept of the hacker ethic which celebrates sharing, openness, access to computers and information, and a general sense of quirkiness as its core values. The idea is that technology is fun and can improve lives and should therefore be spread everywhere and accessible to everyone. A good way to do that is to make it free and build it in a way that allows anyone to jump in and contribute. Projects like Wikipedia and Minecraft and the concept of open source software come to mind as great expressions of this idea. There are many more examples, and as a whole they’ve become so popular and pervasive that they have changed our culture, shifting people towards “nerd values” and promoting more sharing, openness and creativity in many areas of our lives. A good reflection of this shift is the changing meaning of the term nerd itself. A nerd has gone from being a socially inept weirdo to someone who is deeply interested in and passionate about a subject.

So far that all sounds very innocuous and positive. How did we get from that goodness to the people of San Francisco protesting tech workers in their Google buses, to woman after woman coming forward sharing horrible experiences at tech conferences and companies, and to startup founders being revealed as abusive, callous and misogynistic? I wish I had a good answer. Some of it seems to be rooted in a combination of privilege, tone deafness, and failure to mature. Tech is very successful, creates a lot of wealth, and passes that wealth on to people who are too young and inexperienced to handle it well – some become privileged snobs, driving up rents, evicting tenants, showing off with expensive cars, wines, and meals, complaining about homelessness, and so on. And when people point this behavior out, the reactions tend to be tone deaf, trying to ignore it as “not my problem” or explain it away with talk about all the good the tech industry does. We clearly need to do a better job understanding our impact and sharing our wealth. Like Pete says in his post, we – the nerds – are not the outsider rebels anymore who can be forgiven for being contrarian and odd, we’re the mainstream now and we need to grow up and act like it. But it doesn’t end there. We also need to become much more self aware about the ways in which we’ve excluded people from tech over time and hack our own culture to be far more inclusive, especially of women, and of people of all ages and races. The original hacker ethic was based on commendable, forward thinking values like sharing and openness. Inclusiveness needs to be added to that list.