Category Archives: Work

Technology, techno-mems, and thoughts on life in the working world.

On The Burning Shore: John Perry Barlow

My mentor, friend, and confidante George Spehar used to describe himself as a “rancher and a banker,” re-investing his Wall Street compensation into his family ranch in Colorado, doubly reinforcing my first impression of him as a literal salt of the earth man. While handling billions of dollars a day, George was finely attuned to life with technology. When things broke, rather than slathering more technology on the problem, he had us pick up the phone and talk to someone in charge. Those calls to call were almost always punctuated with his “I’m freaking out” mantra, which impressed me as someone a Dead Head would say at the point of sensory overload. People, and the right answer, dominated his thinking and actions.

A few years earlier, long before “podcast” entered the vernacular as a way of connecting narrow audiences to quality content, Tim O’Reilly produced a series of technology interviews on audio cassette. One of them was with John Perry Barlow, with whom I was vaguely aware as a co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and through that decided non-digital introduction I learned of his non-standard introduction as a rancher, Grateful Dead lyricist and big thinker about what we now consider our digital identities. Like George, “rancher” had a high placement in the career ladder, and on a much grander and global scale Barlow insisted that we stay attuned to basic human needs even as technology encroached from all sides.

Much of what we consider as digital freedoms, the use of the internet as a level playing field, the removal of social, technological and regulatory barriers that would form impediments to speaking, being heard and creating engagement, stem from Barlow’s guide star manifestos. He showed us how to hold up the technology mirror to our selves, reminding us that sometimes the personal contact equivalent to a phone call was the most critical engagement.

John Perry Barlow died this week, and the EFF’s Cindy Cohn captures his influence on that body beautifully.

The story comes full circle as I began exploring the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station in more detail. Opening track “Estimated Prophet” was the hook that made me listen to the Dead beyond what was on rock radio, thanks to my roommate Tom. It’s one of 30 songs whose lyrics were penned by Barlow.


Laid down in a very funky, wah-rich 7/4, full of imagery of Moses and Ezekial, its lyrics have ended up in our Passover Haggadah. The wild-eyed prophet – whether he is (as Bob Weird once said) the crazy guy on the rail at a Dead show, raging on in his own bit of sensory overload, or a prophet of smoke and illusion who promises a future, fearful world – that’s the antithesis of Barlow’s work and intents. Re-read his calls for adult behavior, his belief in true digital freedom, and you see that the prophet isn’t a person, but technology itself. As a long-touring Dead Head might admonish, he wanted us to figure out how to be kind, in every way. While I never met him personally, that interview with Tim O’Reilly remains a foundation of my view of the socialization of technology, more than 20 years later, and his influence on people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of interacting is immeasurable.

We are left standing on the burning shore, and now more than ever need to carefully weigh the words of our prophets.

Securing The Snowman

I finally added an SSL certificate to ye olde Snowman so that (a) Google does a better job of indexing it (b) it’s less susceptible to various forms of attack (c) I enter at least the last decade of good internet hygiene. It seems, however, that the whole https chain on my hosting provider is a bit wonky and I keep dropping connections, so if you’re one of the five regular readers, stay tuned.

Economics of Expertise

[Ed Note: I started writing this more than four years ago, after seven months of semi-employment during which I was consulting for a large scale publishing site. The outline emerged after dinner with their CEO, a long-time friend, who is one of the most multi-talented people I know with skills ranging from guitar player to professional football player to software company executive. I placed myself officially in the “old fart” chronological category after lamenting our inability to find people who think in “big systems” or have kernel level understanding of operating systems. That seemingly unrelated set of facts gave rise to this musing on how scarcity and expertise are differently valued and measured.]

Value historically was tied solely to scarcity, driven by the economics of ownership and uniqueness. As my father in law once said, real estate by the beach will always increase in value because nobody is making more of it. Whether driving pricing in ancient coins, exceptional quality, never-been-in-bike-spokes baseball cards, or high end sports cars, scarcity dominates the world of atoms. Physical things are more valued when there are either fewer of them (Honus Wagner baseball cards) or over-stimulated demand for them (San Francisco 1 BR apartments).

Unless you are making, selling or arbitraging those items, it’s hard to make money in the scarcity market. Markets that were driven by and respected for their scarcity – world class journalists, for example – have been overrun by surplus where anyone who can publish a blog post is a news source, re-shared endlessly on Facebook creating a sense of authority backed by no real measure of value. Old fart category, indeed. I’m channeling Rick Wakeman more than listening to him now.

However, scarcity economics aren’t the sole engine of an economy driven by information, a world in which “Chaos Monkeys” author Antonio Garcias Martinez points out that in the future, you’ll either tell a computer what to do or be told what to do by a computer. Uber is a case in point: the scarcity of taxi cab medallions is replaced by information that matches riders and drivers, estimates wait times, provides pricing transparency and accepts credit cards. Information economies are driven by expertise: who creates and curates the information, and who knows how, where and why to act on it. Capture the expertise needed to efficiently organize a city’s taxi pool and you have a business.

It’s why Yahoo! died a slow death. During my semi-employment term, I spoke with a senior technologist at Yahoo! as something of a pre-screen for a senior role. I felt like my understanding of their business was fundamentally disconnected from the reality at the time, and nothing happened. I’m not sure Yahoo! was ever serious about trying to connect people (the point of communities, mail, Flickr), but on the other hand “connect” usually resolves to “create targeted advertising” which was the bulk of their business model. Online aggregations of high-end sports car fan boys perusing articles about the joys of owning a McLaren are shown ads for BMW repair shops in the local area. Yahoo! dabbled in content, but it really was an advertising company without a differentiator despite the various content curation plays. Had Yahoo! decided to truly play in expertise, to go from being an index of the internet to a market-making force in expertise, it may have carved out an identity better than being the pewter medalist in online search.

How do you monetize the expertise economy, aside from hiring people with particular expertise in your required domain? You create opportunities for skill development, for skill application (the true measure of expertise isn’t knowing something, it’s knowing how to apply it appropriately), and eventually for skill validation. It’s how you retrain vast swaths of the population who will be displaced by automation ranging from self-driving trucks to order-taking kiosks. It’s the business model of Code Academy, and prior to that, the effective business model of O’Reilly and Associates [disclosure: I am an O’Reilly author]. It’s how TopCoder crowdsources small scale solutions, creating a market of vetted expertise.

There are potential interplays between the bits and atoms worlds, where expertise guides choices and product selection. Attach the right experts to an eBay or amazon.com product category, and you’re likely to generate more transactions with higher satisfaction. It’s a refactoring of the grizzled guy with nine fingers in the back of the hardware store, who would take one look at whatever misshapen home repair project you brought in and tell you “10×24 thread, not 10×32, third bin on the left side, and get both the inch and the inch and a quarter lengths to be sure.” You aren’t getting that kind of help at Home Depot, and if you want it, Quora probably isn’t the right solution either. When you paid 20% more for your hardware at the corner store, it covered the cost of the expertise. It’s likely time to revisit that model, connecting purveyors of expertise to those who need it dispensed.

Whit Diffie Wins The Turing Prize

I am so thrilled to see Whit Diffie honored with the Turing Prize, sometimes called the Nobel Prize of computer science. I had the distinct, wonderful and often times quirky pleasure of working with Whit at Sun Microsystems, where our paths intersected three or four times a year: at the bi-annual CTO nerd fests and at a research computing or privacy event where his wisdom was always shared with a smile, a story and subtlety. He is one of the most approachable people you will ever meet, and despite the fact that he is half of the reason you can safely transmit information over public networks, he has advocated tirelessly for us to continually rethink and reconsider our notions and mechanisms for privacy.

My favorite Whit story seems to have disappeared with my former Sun blog, so I can use the occasion of his fete to re-share: Every year the Sun Analyst’s Conference would feature a “CTO Panel” where each divisional CTO would join corporate CTO Greg Papadopoulos for some direction, big challenge, and market sensing banter. Seating order was never decided in advance, and after throwing out tenure, age, and alphabetical ordering, I quipped during walk-on that we should order ourselves by Erdos number. Without missing a beat or step, Whit said, with perhaps the most excitement I’d heard from him, “Great, mine’s 3, so I’m sitting first.”

He is one of the best people at marrying deep mathematical theory and practical applications, as they relate to real people, whether it’s nerd seating charts or worrying about how we balance security, privacy and risk. I found him to be a stanch advocate of diversity in all views, from what defines “good engineering” to how to recognize valuable work.

This is an award presentation worth sharing.

Feeding Facebook

For a long time I used the “RSS Graffiti” app on Facebook to take the RSS feed from this WordPress site and publish it as a set of stories on my Facebook page. I’ve found that Facebook is a primary driver of eyeballs to the site; aside from the random Google query (like “best hockey books” or “electric sheep shirt”) that deposits readers deep within the Snowman’s innards, I rely on click-through from Facebook and Twitter. RSS Graffiti fell into that “too hard to maintain” gutter of applications that needed regular development work but didn’t have a revenue stream to support the coders.

I’ve been lazy and have been tweeting and explicitly posting items when I update the site. Until last week, when I dusted off my Zapier account and connected the WP RSS2 feed directly to Facebook. Zapier is an industrial grade workflow (or “business process automation”, if you’re an enterprise nerd, and your definition of “business” includes just about anything you can do with a net-based content tool) system. With my free account, I can create five workflows that run 100 times a month, every fifteen minutes — perfect for small-scale audience generation.

25th Sun Microsystems Hiring Anniversary

Today would have been the 25th anniversary of my hire date at Sun Microsystems: 6-7-89, easy to remember, and like an old friend’s birthday it is etched in my mind. The Friday before that, June 4th, was an amalgamation of weird: I drove my signed offer letter over to Peter Young at Sun, quickly picked up my wife and began driving south for my 5th Princeton Reunion. Listening to news radio in the car, the market close report informed me that “Sun Marcosystems CEO Scott MacNally pre-announced a quarterly loss for the computer manufacturer”. The radio announcer got the company and Scott’s name wrong, because Sun simply didn’t register. It was not the first, nor the last, “WTF??” look I got from my wonderful and supportive wife, and I received more than the usual ribbing at Reunions for joining a company that had so clearly nosed over. An internet, a Unix revolution, IBM turning into a services company, HP admitting they are a printer company, and Compaq, Apollo and DEC losing their identities in a Keith Richards-outlives-Michael Jackson way, it’s fair to say that I made a good choice.

More accurately: I made a life-changing choice, given a life-changing opportunity with life-changing co-workers.

Over the next 21 years, I truly did impossible things before breakfast: Building an off-NASDAQ clearing network (now part of Archipelago). Scripting and organizing the first Java Day (in NYC, where we expected 300 people and had over 2,000 with the NYC fire department clearing out the lobby) – thank you Rich and Maria for being crazy with me. Winning DEC’s first OEM based on strength of relationship, after delivering a patch tool via hard floppy disk, as an emergency favor to the then-CIO. Helping to build out mlb.com, which has reshaped my childhood passion for baseball. Designing parts of a pharmaceutical company’s regulatory system on a white board after being out at Foxwoods casino until 5:00am that morning. Rightsizing the Wall Street mid-office based on what we learned about telecommunications networks. Having the audacity to challenge Microsoft’s Passport with the Liberty Alliance, which deeply influenced SAML, one of today’s web authentication foundations. [Note: Ballmer called Liberty “ZPOM” (Zero Probability of Mattering), which I guess we can forgive historically after seeing him spend $2 billion on a basketball team.]

To put the last 25 years in perspective, I need to take a detour through some executive history.

Two weeks after my decision to sign that offer letter, I ran into Scott McNealy (from here on out: Scott, who like Madonna or Sting, only needs one name) at a company event in Billerica. We spoke briefly in the cafeteria line, because, well, Scott ate in the cafeteria with the engineers. He criticized an idea of mine, and he was right. But I was a 26 year old dork and he was the CEO of a billion dollar company. Think about it. A few years later, I misjudged the political climate at a customer, and a white paper (with my name on it) that challenged a trading floor design made its way to the C-suite of that customer, and the C-level executive called Scott looking for blood. Scott called our sales VP, calmed the customer down, and the sales VP and I went on a sales call that involved some berating, some observation, and a lot of humility on my part. It was the closest thing to a near-death experience I’ve had at work, and more than 20 years later, it resonates as the ultimate example of who Scott is and was as a leader, and what Sun’s culture was. We had each other’s backs, and we believed in the technical merits of what we did, even when they (inevitably) made people uncomfortable.

A few years after that, Scott and I were visiting a wickedly smart customer at a major Wall Street bank, and midway through a highly nerdy discussion of trading algorithms, availability, latency and bandwidth, we took a bathroom break. Scott looked at me in the men’s room and deadpanned “Glad I’m here to help out with the technical details.” That, too, is Scott, as was my final official Sun interaction with him: I was in SFO, arriving for probably my last visit to Menlo Park as a Sun employee, and ran into Scott in the concourse. He was wearing jeans, smiling, and asked me (unprompted) how my son’s hockey team was doing.

With the benefit of five years (almost) of hindsight, and two decades at Sun, I can proudly say that there were four grand truths that defined Sun’s culture and laid the railroad tracks (as we were driving the train along them) for our success:

1. Sun’s executives were accessible as peers. Not just visible to the employees and public, but right there with you, in arguments, discussions, design decisions, and meetings. There wasn’t a hierarchy; it was a flat network before that term was in vogue. I remember being in meetings with Ken Okin (at the time, VP of server engineering) and arguing over availability approaches, many of which are still in use today. The closest experience I can relate is that of sitting in a college professor’s office, reviewing a paper, and having her praise your work but also treat you like an academic peer. For a few minutes, you are a rock star in your domain. Get that every day for 20 years, and it’s the best feeling you will ever have. Dave Pensak, inventor of the internet firewall, likes to say that solving problems creates an endorphin rush; we all floated along on it despite the day to day injuries and pains. I believe this is one of the reasons Facebook is successful, and what makes me wonder about Apple today.

2. Sun’s employees were empowered and expected to bring the “A” game every day. Empowerment doesn’t mean freedom to whine; it means you’re free to solve problems. Scott used to say “I pay you to think, my job is to execute the solutions where you need my help.” In a nutshell, that was how we innovated – nothing was sacred, nothing was left unchallenged. Sometimes that empowerment was crap-your-pants scary. Peter Young challenged me to figure out “rightsizing” by presenting a technical strategy to a major bank. I had no idea what to do. He told me to figure it out, and we’d keep iterating on the strategy, while he insisted that I parachute into lower Manhattan once a week for six months. It was the best learning experience ever. You had to figure things out quickly, creatively, and aggressively, and when we won (and we won many times, against much larger and better-armed competitors) we celebrated in mildly insane ways.

3. Sun’s employees were the first social network. Around early 1995, I was looking for Chuck McManis to talk about NIS+ (needing to update the “Managing NFS & NIS” O’Reilly book) and while he was out, I ran into James Gosling. He invited me into his office to show me something called Oak, which was later renamed Java. It blew my mind – not just the technology and design, but the fact that Gosling was inviting me into his domain. Six months later we held the first Java Day in New York to plumb the developer market, and it exploded. If you have a high school student taking the Computer Science AP test (in Java) you’ve seen the results of that relationship and technical empowerment.

4. Sun had a healthy respect for left of center ideas. Maybe this was a reflection of Scott being called “the brash, young CEO” until he was pushing 40, or maybe it was Andy Bechtolsheim and Bill Joy channeling their “use what’s there and build on it” engineering approach, but Sun had an uncanny ability to create and celebrate our own rock stars. We didn’t always hire or recruit them; they happened, they flourished, they had a series of technology hit singles, and we changed culture in the large. Again, Dr. Dre as an Apple employee gives me pause.

My memories – along with my friends’ and co-workers’ – have become an oral narrative of how technology went social. In 1989, technology was a bunch of companies with Xy- or Advanced as prefixes; today technology modulates everything about the way in which we interact with others. Technology, and networking in particular, forms the mesh of our social fabric, all grown up from the strange hem on an artsy garment. “The Network Is The Computer” has never been more true, despite being very far left of center when first uttered by John Gage.

Sun Microsystems formed five consecutive college experiences for me, bracketed by my 5th and 25th college reunions. There is no other way to describe it. I was challenged, empowered, educated, thrilled, saddened (when we lost a competitive deal), mildly freaked out, all the while making friends, building connections and creating memories that will last the rest of my life, as strong and vivid and vibrant as any Princeton moment. My Sun co-workers were, and are, not just my professional associates or friends, they are now and forever my classmates. We share championships, glory, near-misses and fondly – and proudly – recollect times when the “common wisdom” crowd shook its head at us. We were the Cameron Crazies and the Coach K teams of the internet. It pains me to make a Duke reference, but the vernacular is appropriate.

As I was facing this anniversary, with a mixture of pride and sadness during the past week, I’ve been struggling with a framework in which to express it. What exactly are the plot mechanics? The “20 years of college” only seemed to fit once I saw this piece about Bill Watterson, the creator of “Calvin & Hobbes”, shared (of course) by a former Sun peer. Comics have been a part of my life since I was in the single digits; in high school Funky Winkerbean (thanks, Nick Santoro) told me it was acceptable to be a band nerd if you were self-deprecating and didn’t take money, the weather or anything else external too seriously. At sun, Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes strips dotted the walls and influenced secret project names, prefacing xkcd and Dilbert. We were all, in our dreams, Spaceman Spiff. Comics have always conveyed the subculture of bad-assery, as seen through the eyes of another single digit aged kid, even when the kid is an engineering adult. That is who we were, and are, and will be.

The maudlin sense comes from my friends who lament the passing of Sun Microsystems. Yes, Oracle bought Sun, and yes, it’s not the same company. I have found at least gentle humor and context for that change in thinking about how my favorite comics have run their course. Calvin and Hobbes rode their sled off the final strip, and Watterson effectively retired. Funky Winkerbean and friends suddenly grew up, in a time shift, and frankly and publicly played the 7-4 off-suit of life that artist Tom Batiuk dealt to his own characters. That’s what I’ve learned through the narrative of comics: your favorite self-identified characters grow up, prepared for whatever jocks-vs-nerds, existential fundraising scheme, or spaceman adventure awaits just over the hill.

Thank you to all of my Sun Microsystems managers, leaders, co-workers, and friends, for going up and over that hill with me. It was the best 21 years of college ever, with more championship rings, banners, and A+-with-garlands grades than we could have ever imagined. If you were there, you know where the Java championship rings are embedded in today’s technology, and you are much richer for the experience, even if we have to act a bit more adult now.

Reducing iPhone Music Clutter

Despite all of the changes in the iOS 7 user interface to reduce clutter, Apple seems to find ways to heap more stuff into previously simple interfaces. My latest fight: I only want to see the 7 or 8 albums that I download onto my phone at a time. The last time I want is to have to wade through 40 different artists with one song each simply because they represent iCloud resident song purchases.

In “Settings” on iOS 7, under “Music”, there’s a slider for “Show All Music” — it defaults to “on” and it shows you what you’ve synced to the phone as well as what’s available in your cloud. Turn it “off” and you only see what you wanted to see. While I appreciate Apple wanting to drive awareness of those goodies in the cloud, I want my music unobscured by clouds.

Art of Listening

A few years ago I interviewed for a job that I thought was in the bag with only the requisite HR validation to seal the deal. And I failed the HR sniff test, with a cultural mismatch that could have leveled a Midwest city. Through the longer lens of time (and perhaps maturity, although I doubt that) I think I had proved that I wasn’t ready or able to listen, to learn their business, to understand the culture I was entering, and therefore I was creating my own impedance mismatch. It’s a mistake I have sworn to learn from.

I started my new job at Merck & Company on Monday. It’s a 35-minute commute each way when I have to go out to Whitehouse Station, which turns out to be a shade over an album side. I decided that I was going to spend that time in the car listening – just listening – to music. Not on conference calls, not thinking about a project, not mentally rehearsing for a staff meeting. Listening. Partly it’s because I have found that I’m using music as a Paul Lanksy-inspired soundtrack for whatever destination is in mind (Godsmack pre-hockey; Phish on the way to the shore; Rush on the way to pick up the Bubba) and partly it’s because I am going to be in full-on, aggressive listening mode for a few months while I learn the basics of the health care business, and then in serious listening mode for another two to three years until I understand it to some level of detail.

The best and only way to develop a skill is to practice it. And I’ve already found my mind wandering during the drive, thinking about a project or a to do item, rather than picking out a bass line or guessing the effects (tremolo or slow phaser) used on the guitar. I’ve discovered some new truths already: I don’t yell at other drivers nearly as much. A half hour in the car flies by with the right accompaniment. I really like driving my car (a hybrid that accelerates nicely and has reasonably good sound for a small passenger cabin).

I’ve been too quick to shuffle through music, rather than listening to albums the way they were conceived and meant to be experienced. Exhibit A: The new Queens of the Stone Age “Like Clockwork” took a few songs to get going, but it’s worth an extended and intense sit down. Take a mental floss break during Yes’ “To Be Over” and you miss some of Steve Howe’s most varied and intense guitar work (pedal steel, ES-135 and maybe one more in there).

And playing air cymbals during the bridge, stopped at a light on Route 508, gave pause to the driver next to me so I could pass him without any other exhortation of my own, besides a fine Alan White impersonation.

A Decade of WordPress

WordPress celebrated its tenth birthday last week, neatly marked by Matt Mullenweg’s warm and wise words.

Ten years is an insanely long time in internet years. It’s web services to cloud, or client-server to web services with Java, XML, and the dot com boom as points on the line. WordPress got me back into development, empowered me to read the code again, and stimulated the kind of “how does that work” thinking that I’d previously reserved for device drivers. The WordPress core is a subtle mix of urban planning, grand challenge questions and a community bound by the most nuclear of strong forces – empowerment.

WordPress has let me: Compliment a childhood hero and reach his niece with my words. Get a compliment from one of my favorite authors, just before his passing. Express joy in loss. Express love through loss, and joy in the community. Prove that on the Internet, nobody knows you’re not a moustache.

Why? One of the themes that Brad, David and I constantly floated during the writing of Professional WordPress was that WordPress isn’t just about blogging; it’s about content management. But even that slight abstraction undershoots the import of the WordPress community, from themes to plugins to core developers. It’s not about walking the
Gutenberg press down the consumerization path of the cell phone camera, ubiquitous yet passive. WordPress creates activity; it makes us think about what and how and where to share our words. It is the new power of the press, a formal closure of the set of Gutenberg, Berners-Lee and Steve Deering, combined with the power of an open source community of developers and an equally larger community of designers. It makes me want to write more, and to tinker, and to investigate.

The first-ever digital birthday I observed was that of Sun Microsystems, and Sun’s tag line for its birthday cake applies even more aptly to WordPress at double digits: Not bad for a ten year old.