Tuesday, March 20, 2012

If You're An "Ideas Guy", You're Doing It Wrong

There's a disturbing trend that I'm seeing more and more of lately in Silicon Valley, and it's the commoditization of engineering talent in the minds of non-engineers. I'm not sure what they're teaching in business schools these days, but I keep meeting freshly-minted MBAs who "have a great idea and just need some devs to implement it". So lemme just throw this out there:

If you're an "ideas guy", and "just need a couple of engineers" to build your company, YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG.

See, for instance, this recent TechCrunch article which blithely implies that engineers are "coding themselves into irrelevance", and before long, "the business founder [will have] the advantage that today's technical founders enjoy." Huh? Guess what - in healthy companies, it's not such an adversarial relationship. If it is, then you're doing something wrong.

There is no greater turn-off to a prospective tech co-founder or engineering hire than insinuating that they are nothing more than a replaceable tool. Last fall, I even flew to Korea to tell an auditorium full of engineering students that they are not tools, but instead are the engines of innovation for their future companies. Ideas are a dime a dozen - if you can't execute on them, then you are the replaceable part, not the devs you're looking to hire. A good experiment for any company is to switch roles for a day and see who is more productive - the "business guy" given a codebase and a problem to solve, or the "engineer" given a full day of "product strategy review" meetings. I'll leave that as an exercise to the reader.

Lest I be misconstrued, I'd like to point out that some of my best and most respected friends in the Valley and elsewhere are "business guys" (and girls), but what sets them apart is that they know their shortcomings (the same holds true for good engineers), they're willing and excited to learn about the tech world they do business in, and they treat engineers as partners rather than pawns. As a result, their teams are stronger than the sum of their parts. They have fostered an environment of mutual respect, where ideas can flourish and roles are not necessarily so artificially constrained. If you're a "business guy" that's just starting out, or you've been struggling to find good engineers, maybe it's time to reflect on your approach rather than decrying "how hard it is to find talent".

Remember: Engineers are people, not tools or commodities. Treat them well, and together you will build something great.




Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Slim Shady and Medicare Reform

Couldn't sleep last night, and watched the entire extended interview with Grover Norquist on the Daily Show. It was mostly about tax policy, but towards the end they briefly touched on Medicare reform, since the Norquist tax pledge really has nothing to do with the economy and everything to do with policy reform. The claim from Norquist was that the Republicans' plan is a reasonable reform proposal because Alice Rivlin, former director of the CBO and the OMB, helped co-write it. Jon Stewart replied that he doesn't think Alice Rivlin is a reasonable person.

To the internets! I actually found the proposal from the Brookings Institution and read it. To their credit, there's a whole section devoted to why the proposal is a bad idea. It's illuminating. It all comes down to marketing. What used to be called "vouchers" is now called "premium support". To make a long story short (and a complicated issue way over-simplified), voucher programs would replace Medicare benefits with "vouchers" which would be used to buy private health insurance, pushing the costs from the government onto the recipients over time. The proposal raises the eligibility for Medicare, indexes the vouchers to the CPI rather than the cost of healthcare, with the supposed goal of stimulating market forces to bring down the price of healthcare.

Anyway, my favorite part of the rebuttal are the two quotes that Henry Aaron uses to preface his argument. The first, from Lewis Carroll, and the second from Eminem:


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, 
“it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less.”
“The question is," said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different 
things."
“The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master - that's all."

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

---

“May I have your attention please?
May I have your attention please?
Will the real Slim Shady please stand up?
I repeat, will the real Slim Shady please stand up?
We're gonna have a problem here...”

Eminem, "The Real Slim Shady"


Anyone who quotes Eminem in a white paper on Medicare reform is cool enough to be my favorite person of the week. Mad props.

Also, when Politifact rates "Republicans voted to end Medicare" as the Lie of the Year 2011, they're beyond dishonest. The Republican plan would end Medicare as we know it. I'm all for Medicare reform (and more generally, health care reform), because I sure as hell don't want to see this country go bankrupt, but how about we focus on lowering health care prices and improving outcomes rather than waging a social values battle?

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

The Day The Internet Died

It all started innocently enough. Sally was enjoying a cup of sustainable coffee at the corner cafe when she spotted it. ZOMG. Cutest. Cat. Ever. An explosion of uncontainable fluff wrapped in a hamburger bun sweater with a toy iPhone 4S hanging around its neck. My friends have to see this, thought Sally. And thus it began. Not with a virus, nor a worm, but a cat. An insanely cute cat.

The picture that brought down the Internet was captured at 12:21PM on December 21, 2012 with a slightly abused white iPhone 4S. It went vintage before going viral, cause honestly, sepia makes everything better. And off it went.

Sally's Instagram auto-posted to her Facebook, where 237 of her closest friends (she has 1,649 friends, but I mean, at least 400 are just, you know, on there) immediately saw The Cat. Sally's above-average hotness meant that her re-share rate hovered around 10%, and sure enough, 26 of the initial viewers re-shared to their combined total of 4,013 friends.

The Initial Post also cross-posted to Twitter, and within minutes, #HamburgerCat was trending worldwide. The analysts would later note that had Ashton not been 5 minutes late from brunch with the mystery girl, he likely would have missed TC's retweet of CNN iReport's #HamburgerCat coverage. But alas, the Fates conspired against the Interwebs on that day, and Ashton saw The Cat. And within a few minutes, most of his ten million followers did as well.

Like the Great Flood from Biblical days of yore, The Cat and its photogenic cuteness rushed through The Pipes with a ferocity unlike any that had befallen Time. It was the Auto PhotoMods that sparked the inevitable cascade towards darkness. As the Historians of Shoreline Road would recall, society had collectively unlocked an epic laziness whereby modifying photos by hand was an unheard of feat, but re-sharing unmodified pics had lost most of its appeal. And thus arose a proliferation of Auto PhotoMod apps that would extract a picture from the Stream, add a silly prop customized for the user (that December, personalized hipster wireframe glasses auto-positioned with the eye finder were especially popular), and re-publish the picture anew. Simple idea, but entirely destructive to the anti-replication schemes put in place by the Networks years before.

TwitPic fell over first, followed soon after by Facebook Photos, which might have been the end, had the tipping point not already been breached. Fifty some-odd million accounts were automagically regurgitating new versions of #HamburgerCat to all corners of the globe at breakneck speed. The Akamai edges tried to keep up with the new pics, but soon began to fail in unrepentant desperation. They had been running above throughput specification for months and were consistently on the verge of overheating, but the drastic spike in Cat traffic was enough to make them give up altogether.

As luck would have it, Sally had geo-tagged her photo and checked into Foursquare, which crowned her the unfortunate new mayor of Internet Apocalypse Ground Zero. Twenty thousand Relevant People Nearby were alerted, activating all of their GPS sensors to see if they were close enough to retake the Mayorship. This lit up the Auto GeoTumblrs, which shamelessly spewed out well-shortened links to 200,000,000 people whose precise minute-by-minute locations made them pawns in the largest location-based game in cyberspace. Yet when the GPS Sats started crashing, only a few thought to look up.  But that was nothing new.

Screencaps of the failures rushed onto YouTube in a river of Meta, instantly overtaking every spot on the Day's Top Videos, and due to the massive upload numbers, ironically began streaming immediately back down to a half billion passively-watching devices worldwide. A few isolated souls feared that the outages portended worse than the Ten Second Blip of that summer, but unfortunately, their comments were unanimously and unhelpfully reduced to a solitary word: "This."

And so it was, at 12:27PM on the Day of the Internet Reckoning, that all went metaphorically black. There was no singularity, no evil artificial intelligence plotting humanity's destruction. No, it was far simpler.

All it took was a cat.