There was a great passage in Alexis Madrigal’s recent interview with Gibu Thomas, who runs innovation at Walmart:
“Our philosophy is pretty simple: When we use data, be transparent to the customers so that they can know what’s going on. There’s a clear opt-out mechanism. And, more important, the value equation has to be there. If we save them money or remind them of something they might need, no one says, “Wait, how did you get that data?” or “Why are you using that data?” They say, “Thank you!” I think we all know where the creep factor comes in, intuitively. Do unto others as you want to be done to you, right?”
This notion of “the creep factor” seems fairly central as we think about the future of privacy regulation. When companies use our data for our benefit, we know it and we are grateful for it. We happily give up our location data to Google so they can give us directions, or to Yelp or Foursquare so they can help us find the best place to eat nearby. We don’t even mind when they keep that data if it helps them make better recommendations in future. Sure, Google, I’d love it if you can do a better job predicting how long it will take me to get to work at rush hour! And yes, I don’t mind that you are using my search and browsing habits to give me better search results. In fact, I’d complain if someone took away that data and I suddenly found that my search results just weren’t as good as they used to be!
But we also know when companies use our data against us, or sell it on to people who do not have our best interests in mind. Read more…
Eric Raymond’s “Myth of the Fall,” an account of the rise of software portability and reusable open source code (rather than the fall from a free software eden), should be required reading for free and open source developers, and for anyone who cares about the future of technology.
It exactly matches my experience working with Unix starting in the early eighties, although I’ve always talked about it from a somewhat different angle: because Unix was a portable operating system running on incompatible hardware, the only way you could distribute your free software was in source form. In other environments, while there was a “freeware” culture (just there is today on smartphone platforms), that was always binary freeware. You would just download the program and run it, whether you were on CP/M or DOS or the Mac. Only on Unix did you have to compile the source code into binaries for your brand of machine. The reason open source culture grew from Unix was not political, it was architectural.
And because 9-track tapes were a bitch to ship around, and it took forever to send around programs (even the relatively tiny ones of the day) on slow networks, we used tools like Patch to share just the modified code as tracked by version control systems. Unix’s philosophy of portability, which included not just a programming language (C) optimized for portability, but also an architecture of small, modular programs communicating using standardized rules for input and output, also shaped the design of the internet and applications like email and the World Wide Web that grew on top of it. Read more…
I wanted to provide a bit of perspective on the donation, announced on Wednesday by the White House, of a Safari Books Online subscription providing access to O’Reilly Media books, videos, and other educational content to every high school in the country.
First off, this came up very suddenly, with a request from the White House that reached me only on Monday, as the White House and Department of Education were gearing up to Wednesday’s announcement about broadband and iPads in schools. I had a followup conversation with David Edelman, a young staffer who taught himself programming by reading O’Reilly books when in middle school, and launched a web development firm while in high school. He made the case that connectivity alone, without content, wasn’t all it could be. And he thought of his own experience, and he thought of us.
So we began brainstorming if there were any way we could donate a library of O’Reilly ebooks to every high school in the country. Fortunately, there may be a relatively easy way for us to do that, via Safari Books Online, the subscription service we launched in 2000 in partnership with the Pearson Technology Group. Safari already offers access to corporations and colleges in addition to individuals, so we should be able to work out some kind of special library as part of this offering. Read more…
My recent post, How I Failed, drew a huge amount of reader interest, and I wasn’t surprised. In fact, as we’ve been organizing the first Cultivate event—our new conference on how to build and sustain great companies by building a great culture—we’ve realized that people can learn more from what leaders have done wrong, and learned from, than from their successes. (In fact, what inspired me to frame my talk around failure was the series of successful sessions on that subject that Joshua Schachter has led at Foo Camp over the past few years. They are always a great hit.)
We asked some of Cultivate’s speakers if they had their own failure stories they’d be willing to share. Not surprisingly, their answers were widely varied. It’s clear that even the people we see as most successful have lessons to learn. And these stories show that wisdom often comes from mistakes, not necessarily the vision that sets you on fire or the goals you’re aiming for.
Here are a few of their stories.
Yeah, I Had a Lot to Learn
Elaine Wherry, Meebo
At 24, I assumed I would be a good manager. I was smart, hard-working, creative, and had lots of leadership bullet points on my high school and college resume. But I quickly discovered that I had a ton to learn. Read more…
I recently posted a long thought piece entitled “How I Failed” on LinkedIn, and then a few days later, republished it here on my own Radar blog. (I published it on LinkedIn first because I wanted to reach the more business-oriented audience on LinkedIn, and not just the technical audience that we reach here with Radar.)
This morning, I decided to check on the resharing stats that are published at the top of posts on both LinkedIn and here on Radar (a WordPress based blog). I normally look at these stats to see the relative impact of Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn on the readership of my posts. But this time, I realized I had another data point available – the differences in the use of these services by my Radar readers and my LinkedIn readers.
When I compared the stats this morning, a couple of things surprised me.
As you can see, there was a lot more Twitter activity resulting from the Radar post than from the LinkedIn post, and as expected, a lot more LinkedIn resharing on LinkedIn itself. That wasn’t surprising (although I suspect the amount of engagement LinkedIn has achieved through its Influencer program is a surprise to many people.)
As is usually the case for my posts, I find that Twitter tops Facebook and Google+ for resharing, and that Google+ is a significant fraction of both Twitter and Facebook – showing far more engagement than many critics allow. That is interesting, but wasn’t surprising either.
But what did surprise me a bit is that the share count is identical for both Google+ and Facebook. They both seem to have detected that the two posts were the same, despite the different URLs. Twitter and LinkedIn did not. I expected that of Google. I didn’t expect it of Facebook.
Six lessons learned.
This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.
When you start out as an entrepreneur, it’s just you and your idea, or you and your co-founder’s and your idea. Then you add customers, and they shape and mold you and that idea until you achieve the fabled “product-market fit.” If you are lucky and diligent, you achieve that fit more than once, reinventing yourself with multiple products and multiple customer segments.
But if you are to succeed in building an enduring company, it has to be about far more than that: it has to be about the team and the institution you create together. As a management team, you aren’t just working for the company; you have to work on the company, shaping it, tuning it, setting the rules that it will live by. And it’s way too easy to give that latter work short shrift.
At O’Reilly Media, we’ve built a successful business and have had a big impact on our industry, but looking back at our history, it’s also clear to me how often we’ve failed, and what some of the things are that kept me, my employees, and our company from achieving our full potential. Some of these were failures of vision, some of them were failures of nerve, but most of them were failures in building and cultivating the company culture. Read more…
I used to read two print newspapers every morning. Now, I get most of my news online, but I still treasure my Sunday New York Times in print. This week, due to travel, I didn’t get a chance to catch up with it till a plane flight on Friday. The news was dated, and I’d seen some of it online, but there was still so much of interest that I would otherwise have missed. The Sunday Times is a gathering of fascinating minds reflecting on the issues of the moment; it’s a conversation well worth being a part of.
Normally, you see a flood of tweets from me on Sunday as I share my favorite articles. This week, on a plane without wifi and nearly a week late, I still have the impulse to share, but this time, I’m going to gang up the list of my favorite articles into a single post.
Here are some of the things from last week’s Sunday Times that I think you too might enjoy reading. (Note that the titles online don’t necessarily match the titles from the print edition, which I use below.)
The Joy of Old Age. This is a lovely reflection by neurologist and author Oliver Sacks on life as he looks toward his eightieth birthday. The last paragraphs are particularly moving. I’m 59, not 79, but even now I can see many of the changes – both positive and negative – that Sacks talks about so eloquently.
A Hidden Consensus on Health Care. Ross Douthat makes the case that there are two types of consensus on health care reform – the political consensus, which resulted in Obamacare’s preservation of the broken system of employer-provided healthcare, and the policy consensus, that “the status quo is actually the problem.” While I think there is a lot to like in Obamacare, I totally agree that we could do way better if we scrapped the current system in favor of more profound change. Too bad politicians are so lacking in courage, and have such a hard time actually enacting sensible policies! But what I found most useful in this article is the very notion of the “political consensus” vs. the “policy consensus” as a way to understand what is most broken about Washington. Read more…
I’m increasingly realizing that many of my gripes about applications these days are triggered by their failure to understand my context in the way that they can and should. For example:
- Unruly apps on my Android phone, like gmail or twitter, update messages in the background as soon as I wake up my phone, slowing the phone to a crawl and making me wait to get to the app I really want. This is particularly irritating when I’m trying to place a phone call or write a text, but it can get in the way in the most surprising places. (It’s not clear to me if this is the application writers’ fault, or due to a fundamental flaw in the Android OS.)
- Accuweather for Android, otherwise a great app, lets you set up multiple locations, which seems like it would be very handy for frequent travelers, but it inexplicably defaults to whichever location you set up first, regardless of where you are. Not only does it ignore the location sensor in the phone, it doesn’t even bother to remember the last location I chose.
- The WMATA app (Washington Metro transit app) I just downloaded lets you specify and save up to twelve bus stops for which it will report next bus arrival times. Why on earth doesn’t it just detect what bus stop you are actually standing at?
- And it’s not just mobile apps. Tweetdeck for Mac lets you schedule tweets for later in the day or on future dates, yet it defaults to the date that you last used the feature rather than today’s date! How frustrating is it to set the time of the tweet for the afternoon, only to be told “Cannot schedule a tweet for the past”, because you didn’t manually update the date to today!
In each of these cases, programmers seemingly have failed to understand that devices have senses, and that consulting those senses is the first step in making the application more intelligent. It’s as if a human, on awaking, blundered down to breakfast without opening his or her eyes!
By contrast, consider how some modern apps have used context awareness to create brilliant, transformative user experiences:
- Uber, recognizing both where you are and where the nearest driver is, gives you an estimated time of pickup, connects the two of you, and lets you track progress towards that pickup.
- Square Register notices anyone running Square Wallet entering the store, and pops up their name, face, and stored payment credentials on the register, creating a delightful in-store checkout experience.
- Apps like FourSquare and Yelp are like an augmentation that adds GPS as a human sixth sense, letting you find restaurants and other attractions nearby. Google Maps does all that and more. (Even Google Maps sometimes loses the plot, though. For example, yesterday afternoon, I was on my way to Mount Vernon. Despite the fact that I was in Virginia, a search unadorned with the state name gave me as a first result Mount Vernon WA, rather than Mount Vernon VA. I’ve never understood how an app that can, and does, suggest the correct street name nearby before I’ve finished typing the building number can sometimes go so wrong.)
- Google Now, while still a work in progress, does an ambitious job of intuiting things you might want to know about your environment. It understands your schedule, your location, the weather, the time, and things you have asked Google to remember on your behalf. It sometimes suggests things that you don’t care about, but I’d far rather than than an idiot application that requires me to use keystrokes or screen taps to tell the app things that my phone already knows.
Just as the switch from the command line to the GUI required new UI skills and sensibilities, mobile and sensor-based programming creates new opportunities to innovate, to surprise and delight the user, or, in failing to use the new capabilities, the opportunity to create frustration and anger. The bar has been raised. Developers who fail to embrace context-aware programming will eventually be left behind.
Back in 2006, Debra Chrapaty, then VP of Operations for Windows Live (later CIO at Zynga, and now CEO of Nirvanix) made a prescient comment to me: “In the future, being a developer on someone’s platform will mean being hosted on their infrastructure.” As it often turns out, things don’t work out quite as planned. A few months later, Amazon announced EC2, and it was Amazon, not Microsoft, that became the platform whose infrastructure startups chose to host their applications on. But Debra certainly nailed the big idea!
I wrote a blog post about that conversation, entitled Operations: The New Secret Sauce, which included the statement “Operations used to be thought of as boring. It’s now ground zero in the computing wars.” Jesse Robbins, then “Master of Disaster” at Amazon and later co-founder and CEO of Opscode, told me that everyone in operations at Amazon printed out that blog post and posted it in their cubicles. Operations had been a relatively low-status job. Jesse told me that was the first time anyone had made a strong public statement about how important it was becoming.
As a result of that post, Jesse, Steve Souders, and a group of others came to me the following year and said “We need a gathering place for our tribe.” That gathering place became the Velocity Conference, now in its sixth year. We chose to include not just web operations, but also web performance and the emerging field of “DevOps” – the development model for applications hosted in the cloud.
This seems to be part of the secret sauce of some of our most successful events: the recognition that it’s not just about technology but the people who put it into practice. At the heart of conferences like Velocity and Strata are new job descriptions, new skills, and new opportunities to grow careers and companies. That’s also why we increasingly think of these events not as conferences but as gathering places for communities. Technology matters. The people who put it into practice matter more.
The Velocity Conference starts tomorrow in Santa Clara. There is still time to attend.