Philosophy Posts

Some reflections on slow travel
Belgrade, Serbia

Some reflections on slow travel

I’ve spent the last couple of years doing what I would call slow travel, spending periods of a month or more in different cities. This began in late 2016 with a job that brought me to Berlin for months at a time over a period of a year. I quit that job last October and in the time since have been through Europe, Asia, the US, and then back around to Europe, where I am for the next several months with no fixed end in sight. I wanted to compile some observations that I’ve made in this time.

Why not give users equity?

There is a perspective from which the venture model that dominates a large subset of the tech industry is a little baffling. The infrastructure necessary to operate web/software products has never been cheaper. To an extent, the manpower has also never been cheaper (in the respect that it is increasingly practical to hire from a global talent pool spanning regions with very modest salaries). Still, the model that dominates Silicon Valley and other leading innovation hubs is one of selling off huge chunks of equity and pursuing liquidity for shareholders (via acquisition or IPO) over autonomy and sustainability (i.e. indefinite operation with profit distributions).

I say this is “baffling”, but there are reasons why the model persists.

A tribute to Brutalist web design
Apartment block near Alexanderplatz, Berlin

A tribute to Brutalist web design

I spent a good part of last year living in Berlin, encountering large, Cold War era constructions like the apartment block pictured above on my morning walk. This style of architecture, distinguished by exposed concrete cast in hard lines, with little paint or ornamentation, is part of an architectural school known as Brutalism, and was very popular through the mid 20th century, especially in Eastern Europe.

The term has since been transposed to the online realm with brutalistwebsites.com, a site put together in 2016 by Pascal Deville (now Creative Director at the Freundliche Grüsse). I wanted to pay tribute to the tongue in cheek term by recognizing some of my own favorite Brutalist websites.

Remote workforce as a superpower
Puzl Coworking Space in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Remote workforce as a superpower

Throughout the year 2017 I found myself working in a half dozen spots across 3 continents and many more timezones. This experience led me to develop an increasingly lucid conviction about the profound benefits that remote workforces can bring to a business.

Pre-requisites

I feel that often when a company rejects remote hiring, or revokes remote work policies (such as former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer famously did in 2013 while kicking off her tenure that ultimately ran the company into the ground) an implicit or explicit dimension of the decision is lack of trust. If you cannot trust your employees to do work when you are not watching, then indeed you should not have a remote team. I would caution that if you find yourself this circumstance it may be a signal of a much larger issue with your team makeup and probably demands urgent introspection.

Defaulting to non-disruptive communication

One of the most profound benefits of having a remote team is that generally team members will default to asynchronous and non-disruptive forms of communication. This can benefit workers in any role but it is particularly valuable for developers, who rely on having blocks of uninterrupted time to focus and think through complex problems.

What gear are you in?
Ironically, I think these are single-speed bikes.

What gear are you in?

I recently read a wonderful profile of a young Larry Ellison by serial entrepreneur and teacher Steve Blank. One passage leapt out at me for its relevance to many recent experiences of my own:

Larry ascribed to the adage, “We don’t do things right, we do the right things.”

I was reminded of another aphorism I’d once heard – a bicycling metaphor:

It’s not how fast you pedal, it’s what gear you’re in.

I’ve seen time and again that one of the most destructive things to a software development team, be their product nascent or mature, is bad prioritization.

Practical vs correct
A low complexity surface area and building atop mature frameworks makes high-leverage wins like moving to dedicated hardware much more achievable.

Practical vs correct

In our work as software developers we regularly have to evaluate architectural tradeoffs. We have voices, either external or internal, telling us to think about, for example:

  • Going API first
  • Building to accommodate horizontal scaling
  • Building with the most modern tools
  • Building with tools and frameworks that let us hire the best (or sometimes “Building with tools and frameworks that let us hire the cheapest”)

There is often a tension in these matters between practical and “correct”.

Estonian E-Residency and refactoring government

Estonian E-Residency and refactoring government

Marshall McLuhan once said “Our Age of Anxiety is, in great part, the result of trying to do today’s jobs with yesterday’s tools”. There’s not a lot of technology that we interact with on a day-to-day basis that’s stayed in continuous operation for 230 years. The faculties by which we interact, gather, and exchange ideas in social and professional realms have dramatically evolved in this span of time. Our systems of government, at both philosophical and practical levels, largely have not.

Every day I work with teammates in Germany, New York, California and British Columbia. “Presence” means something quite different today than it has for much of human history. It is a divided concept, and virtual presence often has equal or greater consequence than physical presence.

Finishing Is Credibility

Finishing Is Credibility

One of the things I am most proud of, and that I am most surprised to find distinguishes me when I look around at other people in my professional circles, is how often I finish things. To me, finishing is credibility, and a person’s record not just of starting or working on projects, but of finishing them, should be a factor in the weight you give to their opinions or the degree of leadership you entrust them with.