Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning or Earning

Google has a legendary and fearsome proprietary software stack, designed for massive scale. Distributed serving, distributed load balancing, distributed processing, distributed locking, distributed file system, distributed structured storage. Many of the principles are public by now— GFS, Bigtable, Map Reduce, Chubby are some examples—but the Google implementations are most certainly not in the open. Plus there are large horizontal pieces of Google technology which aren't even well-known publicly and about which I can't even write.

It's all enormously clever stuff. Seriously.

And when I joined Google this clever stuff was an impressive competitive advantage. It allowed Google to operate at an unprecedented scale, with huge reliability as well as at lower unit operating cost than competitors. And it still runs like this, and they're still way out front with this technology as far as I can tell.

Over time, though, such an advantage naturally erodes in relative terms. The open source stack grows ever thicker and by now includes pieces of technology like Cassandra, ZooKeeper, HDFS and Pig (and indeed the Hadoop project in general). The principles of huge-scale computing on commodity hardware are being better understood, and the open stack becomes ever-more viable for real-world work.

As the gap between commodity and proprietary narrows, the downsides of a homegrown stack become increasingly palpable. It takes longer to migrate acquired companies to your platform. There's no liquid talent market into which to tap when hiring. Maintaining a custom toolchain becomes burdensome. You risk making your engineers feel like outsiders in the broader tech community—ironically despite the hyper-advanced technology with which they work. Your existing employees may even resist or resent developing skills which aren't marketable elsewhere.

This last point is key. For a long time my facile philosophy on my accidental career was "be in a job where you're either earning big or learning big". Lately, though, I've begun to think a little deeper about the trade-off. It's important not just that one is learning but also what one is learning. On the technical side the argument is clear, I hope (see above). It's recently occurred to me that there's an argument directly parallel from an organizational perspective.

That's for next time.

Here's a polaroid from my commute to Twitter yesterday:


Tuesday, March 23, 2010

While you wait

I've got two blog posts in draft form waiting to be finished. They're both hard work but I'm glad I'm taking the time.

While you wait, here are a few recent polaroids. From the Twitter office:

From April and Brad's patio:
From my commute today:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Mission and Vision, bis

Apropos of last time, on there's a really great framework for thinking about organizational mechanics and purpose. I know nothing about xpastor but I thought that the neat entity diagram was great and the quote from Sun Tzu solid.

Last night I posted photos of guests from April's wedding. Here's one of my favorites:

Daniel and Leah

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Mission and Vision

I wrote the below a while back as part of building a framework of common purpose in my group at work. At my new job I've found the same thing useful to contextualize the business and the decisions we're making. It helps to have a logically consistent line of thought all the way from the big picture to the quotidian.

A Mission is what an organization is all about; what we do every day, and what we excel at. Think of it as answering the questions "what do we do, for whom, and why?". It defines our role at the highest level and describes the areas which are pre-ordained for us.

A Vision, on the other hand, describes what the future will look like when we achieve our Mission. It's what will happen because we execute so superbly on our Mission. "A PC on every desk", Microsoft's early vision statement, is archetypal.

Traditionally, one's Mission would be derived from one's Vision. Once you've decided what you want the future to look like (the Vision), you pick the Mission which will get you there.

Putting this all in perspective,
  • Vision dictates Mission
  • ...which determines Strategy
  • ...which surfaces Goals
  • ...that frame Objectives
  • ...which in turn drive the Tactics
  • deliver Key Results

Here's a picture from my commute the other day:

Howard Street

Monday, March 08, 2010

Austin Wedding

A couple of weekends ago Wendy and I flew to Austin to see April and Brad get married. I've posted a set of the wedding on Flickr as well as one of some of Austin we saw.

I'd never been to Austin before but liked the feel of the place. I used to live in Colorado, and Austin had the air of a cross between downtown Boulder and Denver's LoDo. College town, hip crowd, sprawling frontier settlement, ancient creek, huge skies, wide concrete roads, prairie homes, converted brick warehouses, blue city in a red state.

Look at that big sky, clear as can be:

Wendy enjoying a chopped beef sandwich, authentic Texas BBQ style:
Happy Wendy
A rural suburban front yard, 2 miles from the Texas Capitol Building:
Front Yard Tree

From the wedding, a few favorites are this one of the bride and groom:

Brad and April 31
and this one of the gorgeous occasion:
Brad and April 17

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Reinventing Collapse

For Christmas, one of the books I got was Reinventing Collapse by Dmitry Orlov. The premise is that the author was "born in Leningrad and immigrated to the United States in the mid seventies". He was "an eyewitness to the Soviet collapse over several extended visits to his Russian homeland between the late eighties and mid-nineties". From the platform of this experience he compares the former Soviet Union and today's United States. Noting similarities and differences between the two—in culture, infrastructure, religion, economy, industry, government, education, housing, and so on—he extrapolates a narrative of the impending collapse of the US via some thoughtful analogies with the fall of the SU.

Dmitry is brilliantly perceptive and wonderfully witty, and Reinventing Collapse is a wickedly cynical book. I had many favorite passages but here's one in particular which I enjoyed:

The Soviet Union had a single, entrenched, systemically corrupt political party, which held a monopoly on power. The US has two entrenched, systemically corrupt political parties, whose positions are often indistinguishable and which together hold a monopoly on power. In either case, there is, or was, a single governing elite, but in the United States it organizes itself into opposing teams to make its stranglehold on power seem more sportsmanlike. It is certainly more sporting to have two capitalist parties go at each other than just having the one communist party to vote for. The things they fight over in public are generally symbolic little tokens of social policy, chosen for ease of public posturing. The Communist party offered just one bitter pill. The two capitalist parties offer a choice of two placebos. The latest innovation is the photo finish election, where each party pre-purchases exactly 50 percent of the vote through largely symmetrical allocation of campaign resources and the result is pulled out of statistical noise, like a rabbit out of a hat. It is a tribute to the intelligence of the American people that so few of them bother to vote.

On a very few occasions the hyperbole was just too much and the propositions arising became farcical or facile. The vast majority of Dmitry's "intentionally provocative thought experiments", though, were fascinating, wise, cogent, intelligent, and delivered with a delightfully dark sense of humor.

Reinventing Collapse is an enjoyable and worthwhile read; I couldn't put it down once I'd started. As one reviewer comments inside the front cover: "be prepared to have your window shoved open and feel the fresh air shake you up".

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Two Truths and a Lie

To recap from last time, two truths and a lie about me:

  1. I went to ballet class as a kid;
  2. I played the piccolo in the school orchestra; and
  3. I was a competitive teenage ping-pong player.

Illustrative of the need for the Salmon protocol, I've had friends guessing the lie on Facebook, FriendFeed, Google Buzz, Twitter, and in the comments here on my blog. I was surprised to find the votes easily consolidated:

  • nobody chose number 1, the ballet classes;
  • one person chose number 2, the piccolo; and
  • everybody else chose number 3, the ping-pong.

Congratulations, then, to my friend Craig for being the only one to pick out my lie about the piccolo. In actual fact I played the flute in the school orchestra. I've been told that's a bit sneaky, but hey—this is the internet. It's the wild west here, folks.

I'm not sure what to make of nobody picking the ballet classes.

Here's the other photo of me which nearly made the cut to be my "Hi, I'm Isaac" photo to accompany my fun facts. Taken by Wendy in Golden Gate Park last summer:


Thursday, March 04, 2010

Fun Facts

I'd never come across the concept of "fun facts" before working in Silicon Valley. Here, though, they seem to be the standard way of introducing people. Mainly they come in triples, for example "Everybody, meet Bob. Bob climbed Mount Tahoma last year. Before that he lived for ten years in a shack in North Dakota. He knits his own swimwear".

My last two employers have asked me for fun facts about myself so that they could introduce me, and here comes my new employer asking for the same (I start there on Monday).

So while I think about it here are three fun facts about me:

  1. I first made money from computers when I was 13, earning £10 for a 6502 assembly language program published in Acorn User magazine in the UK;
  2. my wife Wendy and I are expecting our first child in July and are very excited; and
  3. I'm too old for a fixie but I ride one anyway.

Twitter also asked me to supply a photo of myself. I sent this one which Wendy took on Spring Break last year in Lone Pine, CA:


Talking to Wendy this evening about fun facts, she introduced me to a variant "two truths and a lie" which I like much better. For completeness, here are two truths and a lie about me:

  1. I went to ballet class as a kid;
  2. I played the piccolo in the school orchestra; and
  3. I was a competitive teenage ping-pong player.

Spot the lie.