I'm glad to see many of my colleagues in the tech community promoting immigration reform (e.g., FWD.us). They point out that immigrants are often innovators and job-creators, and that immigration helps our economy. This is true and important, and it's a good reason to loosen our draconian immigration laws.
But there is more that can be said—that must be said—in favor of open immigration. Immigration is an issue of human lives, of individual dreams and ambitions, of personal happiness and love.
Every immigrant is a human being with unalienable individual rights. They want to come here to pursue a better life. Their personal goal might be to teach at one of the world's best universities, to work at one of the world's best companies, or to pursue art in a country that gives freedom to artists. Or perhaps they just love our spirit of individualism and want to build their lives here no matter what they do.
We take those goals and we bury them under a mountain of paperwork. We take dreams and we put them on years-long waiting lists. We take futures and subject them to arbitrary caps and quotas. We take love and place it under the review and approval of government bureaucrats.
By what right? By what standard? There is no other form of bigotry in this country still practiced, still institutionalized against so many people. If we had special work permits just for women, it would be denounced as sexism. If we had caps or quotas on the number of blacks living in the country, it would be denounced as racism. But in the name of a misguided protectionism, we impose both of these on immigrants for no crime other than having been born abroad. We make exceptions for skill, for money, for intelligence—as if merely existing inside our borders were a privilege to be bought or earned.
And what of the US citizens who want the immigrants here? Have we no rights? For every worker we keep out of the country, we hurt the company and the team he would have joined. For every teacher we block, we hurt the students whose lives he would have touched. For every artist we deny, we hurt all the fans who would have loved his work. And what of the immigrant and the American who fall in love?
We should look at our immigration laws not merely as an economic inefficiency, but as a moral outrage. We should look at them with indignation and disgust.
In the name of individual rights, we should dismantle the entire bureaucracy of immigration restrictions. Open the doors. Let them in. Short of a threat to public safety, no immigrant should be denied entry to the US or residence here for any reason. Nothing less is morally conscionable.
Ask not what immigrants can do for our country. Ask: by what right, by what privilege, can anyone presume to keep them out?
Thanks to Ben Bayer and Manjari Narayan for commenting on a draft of this post.
Regulation is often the enemy of the entrepreneur. It can be used by incumbents as a weapon to protect themselves from new competitors, or it can prevent consumers from taking prudent risks on new products and services. Which is why I'm fascinated by stories of entrepreneurs fighting regulation and winning.
I've been collecting these stories. Here are a few just as instruction or inspiration for any entrepreneur faced with a regulatory battle:
Last year came the clash with regulators in the city where they order red tape by the truckload: Washington, D.C. A month after Uber launched there, the D.C. taxi commissioner asserted in a public forum that Uber was violating the law.
This time Uber was ready with what it called Operation Rolling Thunder. The company put out a news release, alerted Uber customers by email and created a Twitter hashtag #UberDCLove. The result: Supporters sent 50,000 emails and 37,000 tweets.… The taxi commission complained that the company was charging based on time and distance, Mr. Kalanick says. “It's like saying a hotel can't charge by the night. But there is a law on the books, black and white, that a sedan, a six-passenger-or-under, for-hire vehicle can charge based on time and distance.”
In July, the city tried to change the law—with what were actually called Uber Amendments—to set a floor on the company's rates at five times those charged by taxis. “The rationale, in the frickin' amendment, you can look it up, said 'We need to keep the town-car business from competing with the taxi industry,' ” Mr. Kalanick says. “It's anticompetitive behavior. If a CEO did that kind of stuff—you'd be in jail.”
What Uber is facing—incumbents trying to protect their business by wielding the club of regulation—is the same thing Nextel faced over 20 years ago. Chris Dixon tells the story:
In the late 80s and early 90s, the FCC’s rules banned more than two cellular operators per city. As Nextel’s cofounder said, “the FCC thought a wireless duopoly was the perfect market structure”. Nextel (called Fleet Call at the time) circumvented these rules by acquiring local (e.g. taxi, pizza truck) dispatch radio companies, which they then connected to create a nationwide (non-dispatch) cell phone service.… Predictably, the cellular incumbents tried to regulate Nextel out of existence.
In this case, the FCC had the power to kill Nextel, but decided not to. Nextel took a chance, and won.
With an army of lobbyists and industry leaders at his side, Ravikant set out to convince lawmakers that the JOBS Act, which eases securities laws, would encourage more small business investment. Any one who’s seen a debate or political speech over the past four years knows that “building small businesses” is golden rhetoric for politicians on both sides of the aisle. But even amid this climate, it wasn’t easy.
“People told us that it was impossible – and it actually basically is impossible,” Ravikant said. “We just pulled out all the stops.”
By pulling out the stops, that means encouraging entrepreneurs and investors to call their Congressmen to communicate the importance of the legislation. “We basically showed (lawmakers) how in every state and in almost every major city, we had a bunch of investors and a bunch of startups that were willing to stand up for what we were doing.”
Any startup facing an existential threat from regulation should remember these stories. The laws of the land are not laws of physics: they can be changed. Deliver a clearly better product or service, rally public opinion, argue your case—and follow this advice from Kalanick:
“Stand by your principles and be comfortable with confrontation. So few people are, so when the people with the red tape come, it becomes a negotiation.”
Thanks to David Crawford, Keith Schacht, and Blake Scholl for commenting on a draft of this post.
An interview Hunter Walk did with Stewart Bonn about his time at Electronic Arts contains some tactics for experimenting and still delivering at high quality.
When I was GM of EA Studios, my job was to deliver an agreed upon number of games on a particular schedule and at high quality. In order to make sure we delivered those products, we had to have more titles in development than we would commit which would give the Producers the freedom to slip some products if they needed more time as long as they could deliver other titles sooner. I was able to change the expectations of the company such that only 70% of the titles in development were committed.
I also encouraged the producers to “kill early and kill often”. Entertainment software is a “hope business” as in “I hope all this time and money produces a hit product.” Sadly that is not always the case. In fact, the titles most in trouble take the most of everyone’s time in an attempt to improve them. Killing a bad project frees up more than its share in time and energy. To encourage people to kill stinkers, I gave each producer a budget for write-offs so they could kill a title and not have the company feel any unplanned financial impact.
In other words, plan for some failures—both in your schedule and your budget. Set expectations that not all experiments will succeed, and you'll be free to focus on the winners and make them great.
As a software development manager I've met two types of engineers. I call them cowboys and artists.
Artists love the beauty of the systems they create. They dislike maintaining legacy code, preferring to start from a clean slate—a blank canvas. Given this opportunity, they create works of elegance.
Cowboys revel in their ability to wrangle any system, no matter how obfuscated. They are happy to wade into a mess and bring order to chaos. They are the rangers, the buckaroos, the heroes who save the day.
These types are not completely at odds. The best artists are perfectly capable of cleaning up any mess, but they don't enjoy it—the effort leaves them drained, whereas a true cowboy is exhilarated by the adventure. Similarly, the best cowboys produce excellent, clean code when starting from scratch. I have met excellent engineers of both types, and gotten along with each very well. I've also seen them get along with each other very well.
But as an engineering manager, it's important to understand these types and know where your team members fall. Artists are happiest if you allow them to work to the highest standards, preferably starting from nothing. Cowboys feel most rewarded if you recognize their skills at untangling the worst messes and credit them as the Navy SEALs of the team.
A good manager will be able to work with either. A good team could probably use both.
Thanks to Andrew Miner for commenting on a draft of this post.
First, even the best product people don't design by divine revelation. Reid says has this to say about building product:
It is a process which requires understanding the parameters, the goals, and the gives and takes. Stretch what's possible, use technologies that are good, rein it in when the time comes, polish it and ship it.… It wasn't magic, it was hard work, thoughtful design, and constant iteration.
Second, great leaders—even those with highly developed intuition and excellent judgment—don't dominate by sheer force of personality, with their own ideas winning out simply because of who they are. Reid says:
There was kind of an approach we took, unconsciously, which I characterize in my mind as a “cauldron”. There might be 3 or 4 or even 10 of us in the room, looking at, say, an iteration of iPhoto. Ideas would come forth, suggestions, observations, whatever. We would “throw them into the cauldron”, and stir it, and soon nobody remembered exactly whose ideas were which. This let us make a great soup, a great potion, without worrying about who had what idea. This was critically important, in retrospect, to decouple the CEO from the ideas. If an idea was good, we'd all eventually agree on it, and if it was bad, it just kind of sank to the bottom of the pot. We didn't really remember whose ideas were which—it just didn't matter.
Jobs was a master product designer and a forceful personality. But the way he and his team worked was the way any team should work—iterate constantly and let the best ideas win.
Thanks to Andrew Miner, Blake Scholl, David Crawford, and Keith Schacht for commenting on a draft of this post.
One day in February 1966 [Bob] Taylor knocked at the office of ARPA's director, the Austrian-born physicist Charles Herzfeld, armed with little more than this vague notion of a digital web connecting bands of time-sharers around the country. At any other agency he would have been expected to produce reams of documentation rationalizing the program and projecting its costs out to the next millennium; not ARPA. “I had no formal proposals for the ARPANET,” he recounted later. “I just decided that we were going to build a network that would connect these interactive communities into a larger community in such a way that a user of one community could connect to a distant community as though that user were on his own local system.”
After listening politely for a short time, Herzfeld interrupted Taylor's rambling presentation. He had followed his young associate's theoretical research closely enough to know already the gist of his ideas. All he had was a question.
“How much money do you need to get it of the ground?”
“I'd say about a million dollars or so, just to start getting organized.”
“You've got it,” Herzfeld said.
“That,” Taylor remembered years later of the meeting at which the Internet was born, “was literally a twenty-minute conversation.”
Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started. Auditors with years of experience were no better at detecting corporate fraud—a fairly important skill for an auditor—than were freshly trained rookies. When it comes to judging personality disorders, which is one of the things we count on clinical psychologists to do, length of clinical experience told nothing about skill—“the correlations,” concluded some of the leading researchers, “are roughly zero.” Surgeons were no better at predicting hospital stays after surgery than residents were. In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.
This doesn't mean you can't learn from experience. It means that learning from experience is not automatic. Some people can make the same mistakes over and over again and be none the wiser for it.
This is why I don’t classify engineers by experience: mobile vs. web, iPhone vs. Android, Ruby vs. Python. I look for intelligence, drive, fundamental skills, and an ability to get stuff done. Six months into the job, a great engineer who started with no experience on a platform will outperform a mediocre engineer who started with several years' experience.
I became happier when I decided that everything has to fall into these three buckets:
Things that make me happy
Things I can change
Things I don't care about
(Not mutually exclusive, obviously.)
If something doesn't make me happy, I ask myself if I can change it. If I can, I do. If I can't, I decide not to care about it. I accept it as metaphysically given and reorient my values to focus on the first two buckets.
This can be subtle. Sometimes it's just an issue of scope. Don't like the way hiring is done at your company? Frustrated with national politics? Choose your battles. Change the aspects that affect you most directly and personally, in small, doable ways. Accept the fact that you can't change them completely overnight, and don't let that frustrate you.
The advantage of this mentality is that it removes from your life completely the category of: broken things that you care about but can't fix. Which is one of the biggest sources of misery in life.
This all may sound like psychological self-trickery, but it's really a commitment to avoid slipping into a victim mentality. You're forcing yourself to make a choice about anything that bothers you: Are you going to work to change it, or not? How much do you care? Either decide that you care, and work to make things better, or decide that you don't, and let it go. But decide, and be at peace with your decision.
Thanks to Jean Moroney for helpful conversations and workshops that influenced my thinking on this topic, and to David Crawford for commenting on a draft of this post.
My parents just bought a flat screen TV from a major manufacturer. The speakers are in the back, pointing away from the viewer, and they can't hear the damned thing. Why is a product like that allowed out the door? Because of a thousand people at a dozen levels remaining silent. [Emphasis added.]
Many people think that in business, morality is of secondary importance at best and a downright liability at worst. But in fact, business success demands the most moral principle of all: passionate dedication to the truth. Ben Horowitz says:
In my experience as CEO, I found that the most important decisions tested my courage far more than my intelligence.… In life, everybody faces choices between doing what’s popular, easy, and wrong vs. doing what’s lonely, difficult, and right.
Perhaps when you use a great product, or have a great customer experience, you stop for a moment to admire the intelligence, creativity, and drive of the people who created it. Next time, also give credit to their honesty and courage.