Archived entries for Uncategorized

Claiming Your Seat On The Bus

A group of protesters in San Francisco have been butting heads with the ever growing technology workforce at Google, and others, flooding into the Valley. Their presence and their high salaries are forcing out longtime residents who can no longer afford the rising price of real estate. They have been targeting the daily shuttle buses that carry employees to and from tech campuses. They have even targeted specific engineers at their homes.

I don’t believe these protests are outliers. What we’re seeing now are the real consequences, and inequalities, of information technology.

Technology is about automation and efficiency. It’s an enabler. It allows one to do more, faster, over greater distances and with more people, than without it. Think of the telephone, the TV and the internet.

But efficiency can also create inequality. That’s the ugly side of it. By building products at internet scale, for the first time, fewer people can control and effect the lives of many, and profit handsomely from it–with no renumeration to the very people who give it value. Instagram had 23 employees when it sold to Facebook for $1 billion. That’s an incredible concentration of wealth into the hands of very few people. That’s what’s happening in San Francisco.

This problem will only accelerate because every corner of human life is becoming digitized and put on the internet–how we amuse ourselves, date, do business, communicate–and people with real power are those that control information networks. Don’t believe me? Just tell that to the millions of Target customers who’s credit cards were recently hacked. There are real, tangible consequences.

This topic is important to me because everything I do has a context. Every action draws onto a larger canvas. And it’s important not just as a programmer but as a human being to understand the real reach of my actions. How much of what I do everyday is creating good instead of creating distances between people? Am I contributing to this problem?

I don’t know. I’ve been struggling for some time with this question even before I read about the protests. It always bothered me reading in TechCrunch startups being valued at sums for products I felt were asinine.

What I do hope is that every technology worker thinks hard about this problem. Information is not “free.” A lot of what technology promises is just advertising: A promise land of perpetual “sharing” and it’s unquestioned benefits when all that company wants is to gather more information about you. Consolidating the world’s information into the hands of the few might be worth getting off the bus for.

Who’s a Hacker?

To laymen’s ears, the word “hacker” or “hacking” means cyber-attacks, phishing schemes or other nefarious acts, usually based out of Nigeria and usually involving voluntary donations. I know, because my non-technical friends admit as much. Whatever the specifics, it means something bad. In the startup world, however, it means something good. Desired, even.

Today, tech job postings abound looking for “hacker ninjas.” Facebook’s onboarding includes a six week bootcamp inculcating new recruits to the “hacker way.” Online programming courses liberally use the word. Given the positive spin, what does it mean to be a hacker?

Hacking is an attitude, not a skill. It’s a certain way of approaching problems that is especially valued by startups. Why? Because if you were to sum up the hacker attitude it would be: Don’t ask for permission. Do the most valuable thing and ship, then iterate. When a startup doesn’t know its product/market/fit, time is everything.

Hacking values speed over perfection. It’s not about Gant charts and meticulously road-mapping product specifications. It’s about rapid experimentation by doing what you need to do to get product into the hands of actual customers. Thinking of a five month re-architecting of your database for high scalability? Forget it. Ship first and scale later. (This is essentially what Facebook did. Until they couldn’t ignore the problem anymore. This was also the early attitude of Google.)

Hacking values flexibility and independence over rules. This is where the spirit of the Lone Coder, probing and dismantling a computer system in the dead-of-night, holds true. A hacker never thinks, “This is not my job. This is not my area.” Instead, they are guided by curiosity and an innate tendency to fix things and make things “right.” Hackers have a strong aesthetic sense.

So next time you look to hire someone for your startup, you might want to ask: “Are they a hacker?”

The Instagram Sale and What This Tells Us About Design

As we all know, Instagram this week sold to Facebook for a cool $1 billion. Not bad for a 22 person company!¬†Much has been written about the sale. But among all the copy, I thought Om Malik’s article was the most insightful.

Om is right: Facebook bought Instagram partly out of fear and partly to find large scale traction on mobile. Paying $1 billion to fend of a serious competitor by a company valued at close to $100 billion may make sense in the long term. More meaningfully, however, is what Om rightly pointed out as well: People like Facebook, but love Instagram.

How did they do this? After all, Instagram is just a community of photo-takers. My answer: They created a real emotional attachment to the product itself. Beautiful photos for all. Great design. It’s the only app on my iPhone that I love and makes me feel…well, like I can actually take good pictures. It makes me feel good about myself. How many apps on your phone do that?

Square is another company that is showing the world that something as mundane as payment transactions can, with thoughtful design, have a seamless, even beautiful feel to the whole process. Everything from the website, the iPhone app, even the receipts you get, are thoughtfully constructed. I love that. It shows someone cares. It makes you want to use the product and talk about it with others. By making it beautiful, a halo-effect transforms an ordinary experience into an emotional one.

Instagram drove home for me that sometimes mundane sounding tasks can oftentimes become much more  through thoughtful design.

Fun Tip: How To Crash Parties

It’s a dubious skill, but one nonetheless: I’m pretty good at crashing parties. Some of the highlights include meeting Ron Jeremy in the VIP of Filmore’s; Rosedale pool party with Shawn Hewson of Project Runway; a Bay Street law firm Christmas party, complete with free wine and live band. My latest was crashing a Fashion Week shindig at the One King West Hotel two months ago after leaving work late one night.

I don’t go looking to crash parties (mostly), but rather find them serendipitously. But when I do find something worth checking out, I do like the challenge of it.

So here’s my tips on how to make your evening a memorable one:

Rule #1: Assume you’re already invited. This is key. You can’t appear nervous or that you don’t belong or seem unsure. Just walk in, confident, like you’re part of the crowd. Don’t peak your head in or anything like you’re trying to get a look. People who are invited don’t do that. So just do the same and 90% you are good to go.

Rule #2: Start a conversation with the nearest person you see. I always try and do this. This is a corollary of Rule #1. It’s about blending in so spark up a conversation. Don’t just stand around. Talking with someone also gives you information about the party itself; in the case a bouncer or enforcer asks you what you are doing you can answer. Once this happened and I replied “I’m with Mike!” i.e., Mike the guy I was talking to. They left me alone after that.

Rule #3: Try and find a crowd. Sometimes you won’t get in the first time and getting in with another group can work. I find this less successful, but if you’re personable enough it can work.

Rule #4: If all else fails, find the back door. I almost never have to resort to this, but occasionally there’s a back entrance. At the One West the doorman wouldn’t let me in so I had to go around the hotel to the private elevator entrance (entering with an actual, unsuspecting guest) and just followed the music and walked in. I had to go up a few floors, but the music was loud enough that I knew which floor to get off of.

Happy crashing!

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