Remote Workers and Corporate Culture

Garage DoorsOn the second floor of a generic office building complex in Fort Collins, Colorado, there’s a nearly life-sized photo of a garage.  There isn’t a sign, or a label, but everyone who works in that generic office building knows what that garage is and what it represents.  The photo is there to remind people who walk by it every day who they are and the legacy they have inherited.  The garage that photo is of is located 943 miles away in Palo Alto, California.  That garage is the birthplace of silicon valley.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about Yahoo’s memo to remote workers announcing the end of work-from-home arrangements.  There are plenty of passionate responses against this move, mostly citing figures about remote workers being more productive, putting in more hours, working with fewer distractions.  Most of the people supporting Yahoo! cite their possible lost employee percentage, org chart orphans like Milton in Office Space.  But some focus on the culture, and that’s where I think the crux of the issue may lie.

It’s really, really, really hard to drive a spontaneous, passionate corporate culture in a distributed group, especially a really large one.  While companies like 37 Signals, who get to pick out specific personality fits when they hire, claim to be able to do it, I don’t think just anyone can.

The Whole Foods C-Suite Hallway, 2000
The Whole Foods C-Suite Hallway, 2000

I started working for Whole Foods Market in 1999, and while I was never a real employee, I spent a lot of my time there until we started Polycot in 2001.  During those years I did a lot of dropping in and chatting with the people I was building software for, and I learned a lot about the grocery business, store promotions pricing, the culture differences between organically grown and acquired regions, employee compensation systems, and the difficulty of sourcing and maintaining wide format dot matrix printers.

Towards the end our VPN access was becoming fairly robust, and I was getting really good at solving problems in ways that wouldn’t require me to sit at a desk for 8 hours a day, so I started working from home.  First it was a day or two a week, then became nearly all the time.  As time went by Whole Foods changed, and I wasn’t there to see it.  I still got the site-wide emails, but not being in the office regularly put me fundamentally out of the loop, and after a while I was a stranger.

Polycot Office 1.0
Polycot Office 1.0

At Polycot we really wanted to have an office, we had a dream of collaboration, long nights dreaming up great ideas, having those spontaneous conversations that can only occur in person, not over email.  Unfortunately we weren’t all located in the same town, and maintaining an office is an expensive proposition, so we eventually shut it down.  A few years later we re-opened in a sub-leased space at Enspire Learning, and then moved to the final Polycot office.  Working together in the same space was great, but we’d already built a culture between the founders of working remotely, and we were all introverts.  We had some good times at the office, but the culture never gelled like it might have if we’d started there and made it one of our founding principles.  Eventually people moved on, and in the end it was just two of us in the back.  At that point it was easier to work remote, and doing so was pretty much the death-knell for any spontaneously creative projects.

Companies work hard to build their corporate culture.  It’s what separates HP from Apple from IBM from Dell from Microsoft.  When you hire a remote worker, and that worker’s primary communications are through text chat or monthly phone calls, it’s really easy for that worker to just be an anonymous cog in a machine.  Their horizons may only extend to their immediate team, there are no spontaneous interactions with other groups, no hallway conversations that you randomly get sucked into.

I joined HP in 2010, and I’ve always been a remote worker.  Our Austin site for most of that time has been a big data center in a remote part of town, not the kind of place that inspires you to feel like part of a legacy, or inspires you to come up with great, creative ideas.  Our specific team is more than half remote, spread across 4 time zones and two countries, and while that gives us a lot of independence from the corporate bureaucracy and daily commute, I bet if you asked some of the newer folks what it meant to be an HPer, they wouldn’t have an answer.

A month ago my team had a face to face in Fort Collins.  It’s the kind of thing the accountants scream about, flying 20 people in from across the country (and beyond) to sit in a big room for three days.  If you’re going to have spontaneous conversations, though, that’s what you have to do.  If you’re going to dream up new things and get the real value of all the smart people you’ve hired, sometimes you have to put them in the same room.

Fort Collins

At one of our first team face to faces two engineers got together and nearly completely rebuilt a product in an afternoon.  They both had pieces to the puzzle, but neither of them knew it.  If every conversation they had over chat was about today’s deliverables or sprint planning, it never would have happened.

The most valuable thing for me, though, was walking by that photo of the garage on the way to lunch.  Because next to that photo of the garage, in a quiet hallway, was this.

Scanjet

That’s an HP ScanJet IIc, the first color scanner HP made, back in 1991.  It’s signed by the development team, a bunch of people who got together and carried on the tradition of inventing new stuff, the tradition that traces all the way back to the HP 200A Oscillator that Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard built in that Palo Alto garage.

The role of companies is the same as the role of countries and schools and institutions: Beyond their day to day services, they give us a foundation to stand on, a legacy of people behind us, who worked and strived to do the next thing, and do it better.  They cloak us in story, in myth and history, and they inspire us to do the next thing.  The greatest challenge we have going forward, as the panopticon gobbles us up, our tools dehumanize us, and the homogeneity of Facebook smushes us into an ad-targeted paste, is how we maintain that legacy: How we keep telling ourselves that story to inspire us to do more than be a cog in a machine, or a metered metric of lines of code committed.  Because in the end that’s what we want.  We want to be part of the story.

Human Shardable Apps: Designing for Perpetuity

Yea, not so much. (CC by jcarbaugh)
Yea, not so much. (CC by jcarbaugh)

There’s a bright orange Gowalla shirt in my closet.  There’s a sticker for Gowalla on the door of the painfully named Suburbia Torchy’s Tacos for it, exhorting you to check in.  There might even still be a Gowalla app installed on your iPhone.  But Gowalla is no more.  When it was shutting down after the team was aqui-hired by Facebook, they claimed to be working on a way to let users download their data: photos, status messages and check-ins.  That never happened.

Those of us in the web startup community don’t spend much time thinking about the legacy our applications will leave.  We rush to new technologies and platforms without a thought to what will happen when the investors pull their cash or the company pivots to selling speakers out of the back of a truck.  Just like we’ve embraced things like scalability, test suites, and code maintainability, it’s time to start taking our software legacy seriously.  It’s time to start thinking about our responsibility to our users, not as table IDs or profiles, but as human beings.

I’m as guilty of ignoring this issue as anyone.  From 2006 to 2010 I led a team at Polycot that built and hosted the Specialized Riders Club, a social network for riders of Specialized Bicycle Components gear.  We were a contract development shop, so aside from our monthly budget for hosting, we only got paid for doing big new development projects, like adding photo and video sharing or internationalization.  When we designed new features we never discussed what would become of things if the site was shut down, and we didn’t budget money for shutdown contingencies or user data exports.

When the time came to shut the site down and migrate the Riders Club to a new platform, a notification was sent out to users.  They were given a few months to archive any content from the site the old fashioned way, copy and pasting or right clicking and saving.  Then it was gone.  Admittedly the number of active users we had at the Riders Club is dwarfed by the number of users Gowalla had, but the same responsibility applies.  If we’d gotten export requests we would have pulled the data and sent it on, but we need to start thinking about the data our users entrust us with from the start.  By asking them to share their content with us, we have a responsibility to them.

Bruce Sterling talked about this in his 2010 closing talk, and Jason Scott from Archive Team and The Internet Archive had a great talk about it at dConstruct 2012, I suggest you take a listen.  Archive Team tries to collect sites that are destined for the trash heap, archiving things like Fortune City, Geocities and MobileMe.  They have a VM you can run that’ll run their automated scraper tool.  It’s a pretty cool hack, but the fact that Archive Team even has to exist is a testament to how bad we are at considering our legacy.

Historically few sites offered useful data exports, and if they did they were in a format that you’d need to write your own application to utilize.  37 Signals Basecamp had XML exports, but didn’t have an HTML option in 2009.  Facebook added a data export option in 2010, and it’s getting better, but I don’t believe it’s in an application friendly format.  Twitter is finally rolling one out for their users, but it’s been 3 months and I still can’t export mine.  Even if I have mine and you have yours, there’s no way for us to put the two together and get any networked value.  They’re designed for offline reading or data processing, not so the spirit and utility of the service can live on.

Especially as web applications get more dynamic and collaborative, I think we might need to start thinking in terms of giving users the option to have an program to interactively use, or even a program which can utilize multiple data exports to create a mini-version of the site.  If your application’s simple, then maybe a stripped down python or ruby application that you can access with a web browser.  If your application’s complex, then maybe an i386 based VM.  Spin it up, it has a complete site environment on it which can import the data exports from your live site.  Maybe even import as many data exports as you have access to.  You should already have something like this to get your developers up to speed quickly, it shouldn’t be too hard to repurpose it for users.  You may say, “But my code is proprietary, why would I want to share it,” but most sites don’t really do anything special in software.  Gowalla might have had a unique ranking algorithm, but you can pull that out of a public release.  If your code is so terrible that you wouldn’t want it up on Github, you have other problems, but don’t let that stop you.  Bad code is better than no code.  When you start a project, make an implicit pact with your users.  They’ll take care of you if you take care of them.

In Aaron Cope’s time pixels keynote at the New Zealand National Digital Forum he talks about downloading archives of his Flickr photos with a project of his called Parallel Flickr (here’s the related conference talk and blog post), and the idea that maybe if we could download our contacts photos, perhaps it would be possible to re-assemble a useful web of photos when (inevitably) Flickr goes away.  That’s great, but it shouldn’t be left to users to build this code.  As web application developers, we should encourage this.  When you build a client application, give it the ability to use an alternate API endpoint.  That way if your site shuts down and your domain goes away, people can connect it to another host.  Or they can run their application through a private API middleware which archives things they want to keep private away from your service.

Eventually your site’s going to go away, and no matter how much lead time you give people, some day your funding will run out and there won’t be a site to host an export button anymore.  If your site is social, like MySpace or Facebook, is the data has inherent privacy concerns.  You can’t post an archive of all of Facebook or MySpace for people to download.  There are private messages, photos, comments and all kinds of other secure stuff in there.  But knowing this is going to be an issue, maybe we could create a standard method for authenticating sites users and bundling user data.  We could setup archive.org or some other site with enough ongoing donations (kind of like how the Federal Deposit Insurance Commission works) to store all the data for ever, and provide a self-service way to authenticate yourself and get at it.  Maybe a volunteer team to allow children and loved ones to download a deceased relatives data, or to help people who’ve lost access to the email addresses they had.

My birth mom kept a paper diary her entire life, and after she passed away from breast cancer the diaries passed down to her kids.  The family got together at our house last month, and tidbits of information from her diaries were mentioned several times, by my brother’s girlfriend who never even had a chance to meet her.  Imagine if my mom had thought, “Oh, I’ll just use Gowalla to log what I do every day.”  Her future daughter-in-law (hint, hint, Don) would never had the chance to know her in her own words.

Developers of the world, that’s the mandate.  Build your applications with their post-shutdown legacy in mind.  We need to consider it at every step in our development process, just like we consider deployment, usability and scalability.  We need to start building mechanisms for users to maintain their data without us before the money runs out.  We need user-centric exports built into the system from the start.  We need a way for users to get access to that data even when the site hosting the export button disappears.  We need all this so we can build the future with a clear conscience, knowing we’re leaving a legacy we can be proud of.

P.S. If you’re building legacy tools into your codebase, or know of someone who’s doing a really good job of this, leave me a comment.  I’d love to put up a post of real-world examples and pointers.

Update 1: Aaron Cope has an excellent talk/blog post on this topic as it relates to flickr, explaining in eloquent detail the trials and concerns as someone who’s built a shardable version of a major social service.  You can (should) read it here.

Remembering Aaron Swartz (1986 – 2013)

Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday.  Today, the Internet mourns, or at least, the parts of the Internet who were aware of him.  Nearly everyone online is touched by his work, but most will be oblivious to his passing.  It’s starkest on Twitter, where half of the tweets I read are about Aaron, and half are from people who haven’t a clue.

I met Aaron in 2003, at the SXSW EFF party Polycot co-sponsored and organized.  The idea that a non-profit and a 3 person web development company could book a club a block away from the Austin Convention Center for a SXSW party shows you how long ago that was.  Aaron was speaking about Creative Commons at SXSW that year.  I forget how, but we somehow ended up running around together, trying to get the DSL working at the club (we ended up driving to another Polycot’s apartment and snarfing a router, because Texture’s was locked down).

Aaron would have been 16 or 17 at the time, and I remember him hauling around a backpack with his laptop in it that was nearly bigger than him.  Aaron was a prodigy, you could tell by being around him that he lived on finding solutions to problems.  He was the kind of person you sometimes wish you were, motivated, energetic, brilliant, but also wish you weren’t, because the prospect of it can be terrifying.  I wasn’t surprised when he went on to contribute to reddit, and start his data freedom and political justice efforts.  He was that kind of guy.

Aaron ran into trouble with the law a few years ago, after dropping a laptop into a data closet at MIT and snarfing down a couple million documents from the pay-per-access Scientific and Academic Journal Archive JSTOR, with the intent of uploading them freely on the internet.  JSTOR declined to prosecute, but Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney for Massachusetts decided to push ahead, charging Aaron with a felony which held a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a million dollar fine.  The expert witness in the case has some notes.  Aaron fell into some pretty deep depression, as freedom loving, introspective intellectuals are prone to, and in the end, took his own life.

This is where Aaron’s story and mine start to mirror each other.  Before I got out of my teens, I had my own run in with our nation’s legal system, though mine was more tech business related than internet freedom related.  I did something I felt at the time was just, and then faced the possibility of consequences.  I can certainly sympathize with the feeling of helplessness you get.  Introspective nerds aren’t used to the criminal justice system, and we aren’t used to systems where we don’t understand anything and are unable to make any change.  In a computer system or a network you can learn, fix, and modify.  The justice system, likely for most of us, just exists as a giant monolithic machine that chews people up.  The prospect of getting caught up in a machine like that is terrifying, not to mention just losing a giant chunk of your life and becoming a societal outcast.  This can weigh heavily on a person, especially one who thrives on solving new technical problems and feels themselves on the side of freedom and justice.  With technology Aaron had agency, he had some power, but even with high profile friends, facing the machinations of the state, he felt he had no recourse.

We all also like to think we’re good people, we hold doors for people, we make room for people in traffic, we pay our taxes, we vote.  When we get a chance, we strive to do the right thing.  When you’re accused of a crime, especially when you’re doing something you feel is morally right, that can be crushing.  Suddenly society looks different.  You are, at least in some way, a bad person.  You’ve been separated from society, pushed out of the public body like a virus or thorn.  It isn’t implicit in every interaction, but you feel it, and it lingers there, at the back of your mind.  It takes a long time for that to go away, and in the mean time, if you’re prone to depression, things can get very dark.

In the end, Aaron’s storyline and mine diverge.  The charges against me were dropped, and after a few years of legal wrangling where everyone’s lawyers made some good money but the participants just had sleepless nights, the entire thing was settled out of court.  In the end, life goes on.  Lesson learned.  No black marks, no permanent damage, no ticking the ‘convicted of a felony’ box on forms.

Aaron was facing more than that for a more righteous cause, and it got the better of him.  In the end we all lose, even the state attempting to impose justice.  People like to think that they want freedom and justice, that they’d strive for it and fight for it if they had reason and opportunity, but the price is high, and we are all too comfortable.

Tim Berners-Lee posted this:

Aaron dead.
World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder.
Hackers for right, we are one down.
Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.

The End of the 3rd Culture Kid

I’m kind of ignorant of American pop culture.  Especially the culture of my generation.  I’ve never seen The Breakfast Club, never watched Family Ties, and haven’t listened to any significant 80’s albums.  I’m a Third Culture Kid.  Now I have a kid of my own, and when I think of her future, I realize the era of the Third Culture Kid may be coming to an end.

Me in the background of a US Military video on Rota's cub scouts.
Me in the background of a US Military video on Rota’s cub scouts.

Third Culture Kids are children who accompany their parents into another society: Military brats, missionary kids, and children of government or business families that work outside of their home country.  I was a missionary kid, with a dash of military brat, since my parents were missionaries to the military.  I grew up in Rota, Spain, from 3 or 4 years old to half way through 5th grade.  We didn’t have TV except for VHS copies of Star Wars and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  I didn’t go to public school until 4th grade, and then after leaving Spain in 5th grade, didn’t attend public school again till 7th.  That’s a lot of time out of the American culture.  I still have conversations with my wife, Irma, and she’ll mention a movie or TV show, and I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Being a Third Culture Kid has upsides and downsides.  The most obvious downside of being a TCK is that they tend to be disconnected from their ‘home’ culture.  They tend to experience culture shock on their return.  They tend to experience depression, and feel out of sync.  Third Culture Kids tend to mature faster in their teens, but experience aimlessness in their 20s.  They often resent being repatriated.  I know I did.

On the upside, TCK’s tend to be welcoming, globally aware, highly likely to earn advanced degrees, and rarely get divorced (though they tend to marry later).  TCK’s who integrate with local culture tend to be linguistically adept.

I have a 15 month old daughter, and over the next few years Irma and I will be making decisions about where to live that could result in her experiencing life as a Third Culture Kid.  As I’ve been thinking about it, though, I’ve come to realize that the Internet has remade the global landscape in such a way that Third Culture Kids won’t experience repatriation the same way I did.

The first movie I saw in a movie theater was Benji the Hunted, in 1987 at the military base theater in Rota, Spain.  Now you can watch movies in the theater in other countries even before they’re released in the US, and with some fancy internet proxy trickery, even watch Netflix and Hulu from Osan, South Korea, or Ubon, Thailand.  Heck, half of our culture is global anyway these days.  Everybody’s watching Gangnam Style and has at least heard of Harajuku.

Third Culture Kids used to have fairly rare interactions with peers in their passport countries.  Letters were rare, and never to the kids, but now with Facebook I see Halloween pictures from extended family in Mexico.  It’s become so common place that we take it for granted.  I feel silly coming up with examples, because we all experience it every day.

Of course, while kids facing re-integration into their passport culture may have some cultural touchstones, they’ll still face a challenging task.  It’s by no means easy to act like or become a native in a place you aren’t, but everyone expects you to be.  We’re more aware of the issues now, though, and at least the global distribution of the culture gives them a place to start.  I don’t think we had any repatriation support when I came home from Spain, but in the years since I’ve had book recommendations and contact from someone at my parents mission organization that’s focused on it.

So while some of the downsides of being a Third Culture Kid may be softening (the biggest remaining downside being that the US is just… well… a really boring place to come back to), the upsides are probably not.  While you can see videos and news stories from places like Thailand and Slovenia, you can never truly get the global conversation if you’ve never left your home country.  The visceral knowledge that other people do things differently and have a different perspective is invaluable.  It makes you a citizen of the globe, and in our connected but civically unstable world, that can be a great asset.

So Irma and I are weighing buying a new house and going the typical middle class route, but on the other side we’re looking at the possibility of a global life for ourselves and our kids.  In the end we’ll have to make a decision, but at least I know that if we do decide to move far, far away, in some ways it’ll turn out better for my kids than it did for me.

Patently Processed

One of the new experiences I had in 2012 was applying for a patent.  Patents are a hot topic these days, but you don’t always hear the perspective of the people doing the work.  I thought I’d share a little insight into what it’s like to go through the patent application process from the inside.

Continue reading “Patently Processed”

Future Cool

Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan and former derivatives trader, is doing a tour for his new book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.  As part of that tour he has an excerpt up on Salon entitled The Future Will Not Be Cool.  Go read it, I’ll wait.

I have some issues with the Salon piece, though I think it’s being spun as something it isn’t, and probably makes more sense in the context of the book.  The central thesis is that the future we see in films and sci-fi books is not the future we get, and having attended a bunch of TED style events, Mr. Taleb wants us to remember that in the end the future looks a lot like the present, just with things taken away.

The arguments Mr. Taleb makes are fair, but he may be overstating the problem, and he may not be in a position to see the more exotic future he’s arguing against.

When people write science fiction, come up with TED talks or make movies, they’re looking for a hook, an idea that fires the imagination.  If Jules Verne had written about the washing machine, people would not have been slack-jawed, but you can’t deny the impact that it has had on society.  The fact that the waitress, hostess or even chef at the restaurant mentioned in the excerpt might have been a minority mother of young children attests to the fact that things have changed considerably for a lot of people.

The thing that Nassim Taleb and I have in common is that we’re privileged non-repressed-minority men.  For us, things have generally been good for a while, and radical change hasn’t presented in our lives.  If you can afford to send your kids to a good school, Khan Academy and Wikipedia aren’t as big of an innovation as if you’re working two jobs and can barely afford to keep food on the table.  Perhaps the future is the privileged past, more evenly distributed.  For people it impacts, that future is pretty cool, and more cool than robotic butlers or flying cars.

I accept Mr. Taleb’s argument that people should pay more attention to the past, but to be fair, Mr. Taleb’s grandfathers were deputy prime ministers, his parents were academics, and he went to the University of Paris and The Wharton School.  My parents were missionaries and I went to public school in Texas, but had access to the Internet and a computer.  One of us has the ability to appreciate and understand literature and literary culture and one of us has the ability to appreciate technological innovation and create a little bit of that future.

I’d love to be more aware of literary culture, but I can’t go from where I’m at directly to Plato and Homer and appreciate it like I can appreciate a new Charles Stross, Neal Stephenson or William Gibson book.  To be totally honest, I’ve even had a hard time appreciating some of Bruce Sterling’s recent work.  Maybe what I need is a Code Academy or Khan Academy for Plato or Phidias, and maybe in the next few years that will happen.  If the kids down on the block are comparing graffiti tags to Canova, maybe that will be the future Mr. Taleb’s looking for.

My copy of Antifragile is on it’s way from Amazon, and I’m sure I’ll appreciate it as much as I did The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness.  Hopefully this excerpt will make more sense in context.