The idea of organizing a company so that employees can be distributed and work from anywhere in the world is clearly gaining steam. When a company is distributed, functions that are traditionally office centric, like meetings, job interviews, or all hands, get reinvented to happen online and offices become optional in the process. Geographic limitations fall away and teams can collaborate in new ways that fully embrace a global talent pool. Automattic is now around 400 distributed employees strong and continues to help blaze the trail for this new way of working together. Here’s a collection of articles that dive into various aspects of running a company like Automattic:
A beautiful post by Matt about the first 10 years of Automattic.
Snapshots from walking the dogs at Fort Funston – a place that makes me grateful that we live in San Francisco.
Once a year, True brings together the entrepreneurs in its portfolio for a day of intimate learning and sharing. This year we held the event in Carmel – here I am with Chris and Jason from Renovo, in what looks to be some kind of serious conversation, or maybe Jason is describing which two cocktails he’s about to try at the closing party 🙂
Surely – hopefully – we’ll come up with a better name for it, but I believe that wetware will be a big, upcoming wave of change in technology. Wetware is the idea of putting computers inside our bodies. Sounds a little gross, but it makes a lot of sense that we’ll go there because of how two of the major themes of technology – networking and user interfaces – have evolved.
Networking: Computers get a lot more interesting when we connect them together, and we’ve been striving to connect more of them into networks and make it easier for us to access those networks. The first networks were local, a bunch of computers connected together in local area networks at universities and companies. Then the network moved to our homes, on our PCs and the internet. Then the network started to move around with us with wifi and laptops. And finally it has moved into our pockets with smartphones. As the network gets more ubiquitous and ever closer to us, it seems feasible that it would move into our bodies next – always there and even closer.
UI: User interfaces are about making it possible and ever more convenient for us to communicate with computers. We all know the evolution of how this works. It started with punch cards, then went to keyboards, then the mouse came along, touch pads, and today the ever present touch screens on our phones. This evolution looks like a move towards a more gestural and natural connection between us and the 0s and 1s of a computer. The next UI step could be an interface between sensors inside my body, likely my hands, and a way for computers to interpret those sensors without us having to move or touch a device anymore. Imagine moving and waving your hands around and your computer understanding what you mean (many people believe that our next step will be to voice interfaces instead – I’m less certain of that, though even in that case I imagine microphones will be embedded in our bodies).
Since two of the major themes of computing – networks and user interfaces – seem to be moving towards having computers inside our bodies, it looks to me like wetware, despite its ickiness factor, will become a reality.
A few thoughts of what it’s been like to blog every day for 4 weeks (minus weekends). First, thank you Om for challenging me to do it. I’ve never been a daily blogger, except for early stretches of photoblogging when I got my first camera phone in 2004. Recently, my blogging had come to a trickle, with a post every month or two, so it was a big change for me to blog every day. For the first two weeks, I felt quite a bit of pressure to publish, and I tried to think ahead for a few days of material. Then it got easier. For the last week, I just waited for something to catch my interest that day and wrote about it. I spent less time editing and rewriting posts as time went on, finding more flow in my writing – I hope this lasts, it’s the main benefit and joy I have gotten from blogging more. I did feel slightly guilty throughout this exercise about blogging too much – about wasting people’s time with my incessant posting. Another hurdle I still have to overcome is the feeling of “someone else has already written about this, and they’re probably a better writer”. Finally, I learned that if I wanted to purely blog for attention, I should write everyday about distributed companies and working from home – my posts about those topics get 10x more traffic than any others.
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My 1985 biodiesel Landcruiser is in the shop, getting its “300,000 mile tune up”. In my case that has involved cutting out rust for the last two weeks and replacing it with new steel in lots of places. I went to check in on the car at the body shop, and they were OK with me wandering around and taking pictures of projects in progress:
I wrote this two years ago and for some reason never published it:
Software is taking over our lives – the way we communicate, learn, play, work, and shop. I’m both thrilled and worried about that. Thrilled because now that we’ve made the mind-boggling investment of putting computers onto every desk and into every pocket and connected them all via the internet, we can build and release infinite amounts of software much more cheaply and quickly than we can build pretty much anything else. And to my delight, the original hippie dream of the technologists who envisioned all of this back in the 1960s and 1970s has largely survived the attempts of businesses and governments to take control: Our various technology platforms, in particular the internet, are largely free, open, and universally accessible to anyone who wants to build a piece of software and send it out to the world. So why am I worried? For all its benefits, software is amazingly fragile. From a creator’s point of view, it requires almost constant maintenance for it to continue to work. The pieces of software I personally run right now – a web browser, email client, a blog, etc – are between a few days and a few months old. Most of the software I ran last year or the year before no longer works, and more crucially, some of the things I created using those older pieces of software stopped working along with it. I have notebooks from grade school sitting in a closet next to me. I can pick them up and they work just fine, the same as they did 30 years ago. Yet keeping my digital documents working requires constant maintenance, backing up, and transferring to new formats, or they simply become defunct.
There’s a concept of technical debt inside software companies. It means that poor software design choices upfront lead to major maintenance hassles down the road. As software takes over our lives, we should think about how to minimize technical debt not just in companies but at a societal level, to help avoid some major risks and headaches in the coming decades.
In 2014, Ben Delaney asked me to write down a memory from the early days of Virtual Reality. Here it goes:
I was in college in the early 1990s when Virtual Reality first rose to prominence. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and immediately started plotting schemes for getting my head into a VR headset. I badgered the good folks at VPL Research, the inventors of the DataGlove, until they gave me an internship (and my first, unforgettable VR ride). A summer internship at Autodesk followed, working on their Cyberspace Developer Kit. At that point I was completely hooked on VR. In my last semester at college, I met a grad student by the name of Bill Chapin. We hit it off, and when I visited his office I noticed a bunch of VR gear. Turns out he was doing consulting for various VR startups, including Scott Foster’s Crystal River Engineering (CRE), the pioneering firm that invented 3D audio – a way to render real-time sounds in three dimensions, the exact way we hear them in the real world where we can close our eyes and pin point the location of a plane above our heads or a voice behind us by using just our ears. CRE was building 3D audio systems for all the major VR installations and they needed a software developer. Bill introduced me to Scott, and that’s how I got my first job. I was now an official, card-carrying member of the small, tightly knit VR community. I got to work on amazing projects with companies like Fakespace Labs and Interval Research and with great people like Brenda Laurel and Scott Fisher whom I had idolized from afar. I got to show off our VR systems at conferences like SIGGRAPH. Along the way I met Ben Delaney who was chronicling the ins and outs of our community in Cyberedge Journal. It was pretty much the most amazing three years of work I could have wished for. We tried many VR related ideas, at NASA, in university research labs, with architectural firms, the MoMA, Disney World, you name it. The one area that took off the most was gaming. Doom had just come out and first person 3D gaming was born. Our audio technology was a great fit for it, and CRE ended up working with several of the early 3D game developers which later led to CRE’s acquisition by Aureal Semiconductor where we put 3D audio into chips, sound cards, and PC motherboards. As the VR sector went into hibernation, my career went from sound cards to a digital music startup, to an email start up that was acquired by Yahoo, and then to blogging for the last eight years as CEO of Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com. All along, I was hoping that VR would make a comeback. I’ve got a couple of Oculus Rifts on my desk right now, still getting a thrill every time I stick my head into a new VR world.
I’ve had this blog for over ten years, and I’ve never called anyone an idiot on it. Until now. Darrell Issa is an idiot.
Have you ever been in a crisis, maybe with your family or at work, and someone responds with calmness and clarity to that crisis? That person is prepared, knows what to do and jumps into action while everyone else is flustered? It’s a great feeling to be surrounded by people like that, people who are competent in a tense moment. I’d like to believe that it’s in everyone’s nature to act like that when it’s their moment, including politicians. When there’s a crisis, the politicians who happen to know something about it should spring into action and do a competent job. For some reason this never seems to happen anymore. To make matters worse, we have buffoons like Darrell Issa who jump into action with utter incompetence in areas that they don’t know anything about, making everything harder and more dispiriting for the people around them. Case in point: As chairman of the government oversight committee, Issa holds hearings about Ebola. He grandstands about all kinds of opinions and “solutions”, except he is so ill prepared that he pronounces the disease as “Eboli” and claims that it originated in Guyana (which is in South America). To me this rises above the usual head shaking moment about politicians, to a level that’s just plain depressing.
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