Uncharted Territory

Co-Founder & CEO, Fieldbook

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“Request for Comments”

Great story about the origin of “Request for Comments” as the title for Internet standards documents:

In the summer of 1968, a small group of graduate students from the first four host sites—UCLA, SRI, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Utah— had met in Santa Barbara. They knew that the network was being planned, but they’d been given few details beyond that.…

A month or so after the new group began meeting, it became clear to [Steve] Crocker and others that they had better start accumulating notes on the discussions. If the meetings themselves were less than conclusive, perhaps the act of writing something down would help order their thoughts. Crocker volunteered to write the first minutes. He was an extremely considerate young man, sensitive to others. “I remember having great fear that we would offend whoever the official protocol designers were.” Of course, there were no...

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More by Jason

Amazon’s “two-pizza teams”: The ultimate divisional organization

Amazon’s “two-pizza teams” are well-known; they’ve been written about in Fast Company and the WSJ. But almost everyone misses the point. They aren’t about team size—they’re about autonomy and accountability.

For context, here’s a succinct explanation from Ben Thompson of the difference between divisional and functional organizations:

In a divisional organization, different products are companies unto themselves. They have their own marketing, their own engineering, and their own finance. There may be some centralized functions, such as legal and HR, but everything that makes money for a product lives within that product’s organization.

Most crucially, each product has its own profit-and-loss statement (P&L). The performance of each division is thus clear to everyone from the CEO to the division presidents to Wall Street, and accountability is usually...

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Meteor Demystified

In which I open the hood of the Meteor framework and see what’s inside.

I recently started a new web project, and several friends suggested I check out Meteor, a new framework for building real-time webapps. Their intro screencast is impressive, and the project generated a lot of excitement when it was first announced. It lets you write real-time apps focusing just on your domain model and views, without all the plumbing—like Rails did for regular websites several years ago.

At the same time, the prospect of using Meteor for a production app would make any battle-scarred devops veteran nervous. The current version as of this writing is 0.6.3, which they call an “early preview”, saying: “Meteor is still under rapid development. Expect major API changes in each release.” (When will it hit 1.0? “More than a month, less than a year.”) The list of projects still has a lot of toy/demo...

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Immigration is a moral issue

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...

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Fighting regulation and winning

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:

Most recent was a WSJ profile of Travis Kalanick’s and Uber’s struggles against local transportation agencies. When Uber moves into a city, the local government and incumbent competitors often claim that Uber is violating rules—or try to get the rules changed to shut them out, in some cases explicitly on anti-competitive grounds. Uber responds by rallying public opinion and, most importantly, by not backing down:

Last...

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Plan for some failures

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.

First, undercommit:

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.

Second, overbudget:

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...

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Cowboys & artists

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...

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Working with Steve Jobs

An article by Glenn Reid on “What it’s Really Like Working with Steve Jobs” is worth reading because it counters a false image of how visionary leaders work.

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...

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How to not micromanage

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...

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Why you shouldn’t hire based on experience

Because experience doesn’t necessarily make people better at what they do:

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—...

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