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June 14 2012

One Short Link: 14 June 2012

Etsy did something significant. I'm not talking about funding scholarships to Hacker School, though kudos to Etsy, 37Signals, and Yammer for putting money into it. And serious respect to Marc Hedlund for putting it together—he didn't just submit a bug report on the world, he submitted a patch. Marc's Ignite talk at Foo about this was incredibly moving: he accomplished something at scale, something beyond a single hiring decision.

What I find truly significant is the stark quantification of the untapped (previously uninvited) interest: 661 women applied where 7 had applied before. The number of scholarships and the size of the programming class were dwarfed by the number of women who wanted in, and jubilation at the success of the Etsy campaign has to be accompanied by serious thought about how to tackle the next order of magnitude in scale. And because it's a problem worthy of your cleverness, I've made this the only short link today. Use the time you would have spent reading about Map/Reduce and devops to solve this scaling problem instead—you'll truly be working on something that matters.

June 06 2012

Four short links: 6 June 2012

  1. Why Latency Lags Bandwidth (PDF) -- across disk, memory, and networking we see bandwidth growing faster than latency comes down. This paper covers why and what we can do about it. (via Ryan Dahl)
  2. Michael Lewis's Princeton Commencement Speech -- a subtle variation on "work on stuff that matters" that I simply love. Commencement speeches fly around this time of the year, but this one is actually worth reading.
  3. The Amazon Effect (The Nation) -- Readers of e-books are especially drawn to escapist and overtly commercial genres (romance, mysteries and thrillers, science fiction), and in these categories e-book sales have bulked up to as large as 60 percent. [...] Amazon swiftly struck an alliance with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt to handle placing its books in physical stores. In a transparent subterfuge aimed at protecting its tax-avoidance strategies, Amazon intends to publish many of its books under a subsidiary imprint of Houghton’s called New Harvest, thus keeping alive the increasingly threadbare fiction that it has no physical presence in states where it does business online. I did not know these things. (via Jim Stogdill)
  4. Learn by Doing (Slate) -- Dale Dougherty's excellent call to arms to turn away from zombie-producing standardised test classes to learning by making real things. The empty campus on test day horrified me.

March 06 2012

Four short links: 6 March 2012

  1. SoupHub -- NZ project putting a computer with Internet access (and instruction and help) into a soup kitchen. I can't take any credit for it, but I'm delighted beyond measure that the idea for this was hatched at Kiwi Foo Camp. I love that my peeps are doing stuff that matters. (See also the newspaper writeup)
  2. Bandwidth of Pages -- view a 140 character tweet on the web and you're load 2MB of, well, let's call it crap.
  3. On The Reductionism of Analytics in Education (Anne Zelenka) -- Learning analytics, as practiced today, is reductionist to an extreme. We are reducing too many dimensions into too few. More than that, we are describing and analyzing only those things that we can describe and analyze, when what matters exists at a totally different level and complexity. We are missing emergent properties of educational and learning processes by focusing on the few things we can measure and by trying to automate what decisions and actions might be automated. A fantastic post, which coins the phrase "the math is not the territory".
  4. Quotes Worth Spreading (Karl Fisch) -- collection of thought-provoking quotes from recent TED talks. Be generous by graciously accepting compliments. It's a gift you give the complimenter (John Bates) is something I'm particularly working on.

October 24 2011

A focus on the stuff that matters most

This post originally appeared in Tim O'Reilly's Google+ feed.

This tweet by Steve Case (@stevecase) struck home for me, because in the aftermath of Steve Jobs' death I've been thinking a lot about O'Reilly, wanting to make sure that we streamline and focus on the stuff that matters most.

Steve Case tweet about Steve Jobs

Here's the money quote from the article Case mentioned:

"My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products," Jobs told [biographer Walter] Isaacson. "[T]he products, not the profits, were the motivation. [John] Sculley flipped these priorities to where the goal was to make money. It's a subtle difference, but it ends up meaning everything."

Jobs went on to describe the legacy he hoped he would leave behind, "a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now."

"That's what Walt Disney did," said Jobs, "and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That's what I want Apple to be."

All of our greatest work at O'Reilly has been driven by passion and idealism. That includes our early forays into publishing, when we were a documentation consulting company to pay the bills but wrote documentation on the side for programs we used that didn't have any good manuals. It was those manuals, on topics that no existing tech publisher thought were important, that turned us into a tech publisher "who came out of nowhere."

In the early days of the web, we were so excited about it that Dale Dougherty wanted to create an online magazine to celebrate the people behind it. That morphed into GNN, the Global Network Navigator, the web's first portal and first commercial ad-supported site.

In the mid-'90s, realizing that no one was talking about the programs that were behind all our most successful books, I brought together a collection of free software leaders (many of whom had never met each other) to brainstorm a common story. That story redefined free software as open source, and the world hasn't been the same since. It also led to a new business for O'Reilly, as we launched our conference business to help bring visibility to these projects, which had no company marketing behind them.

Thinking deeply about open source and the internet got me thinking big ideas about the Internet as operating system, and the shift of influence from software to network effects in data as the key to future applications. I was following people who at the time seemed "crazy" — but they were just living in a future that hadn't arrived for the rest of the world yet. It was around this time that I formulated our company mission of "changing the world by spreading the knowledge of innovators."

In 2003, in the dark days after the dotcom bust, our company goal for the year was to reignite enthusiasm in the computer business. Two outcomes of that effort did just that: Sara Winge's creation of Foo Camp spawned a worldwide, grassroots movement of self-organizing "unconferences," and our Web 2.0 Conference told a big story about where the Internet was going and what distinguished the companies that survived the dotcom bust from those that preceded it.

In 2005, seeing the passion that was driving garage inventors to a new kind of hardware innovation, Dale once again wanted to launch a magazine to celebrate the passionate people behind the movement. This time, it was "Make:", and a year later, we launched Maker Faire as a companion event. Around 150,000 people attended Maker Faires last year, and the next generation of startups is emerging from the ferment of the movement that Dale named.

Meanwhile, through those dark years after the dotcom bust, we also did a lot of publishing just to keep the company afloat. (With a small data science team at O'Reilly, we built a set of analytical tools that helped us understand the untapped opportunities in computer book publishing. We realized that we were playing in only about 2/5 of the market; moving into other areas that we had never been drawn to helped pay the bills, but never sparked the kind of creativity as the areas that we'd found by following our passion.)

It was at this time that I formulated an image that I've used many times since: profit in a business is like gas in a car. You don't want to run out of gas, but neither do you want to think that your road trip is a tour of gas stations.

When I think about the great persistence of Steve Jobs, there's a lesson for all of us in it.

What's so great about the Apple story is that Steve ended up making enormous amounts of money without making it a primary goal of the company. (Ditto Larry and Sergey at Google.) Contrast that with the folks who brought us the 2008 financial crisis, who were focused only on making money for themselves, while taking advantage of others in the process.

Making money through true value creation driven by the desire to make great things that last, and make the world a better place — that's the heart of what is best in capitalism. (See also the wonderful HBR blog post, "Steve Jobs and the Purpose of the Corporation." I also got a lot of perspective on this topic from Leander Kahney's book, "Inside Steve's Brain.")

See comments and join the conversation about this topic at Google+.

Related:

April 28 2011

February 01 2011

Four short links: 1 February 2011

  1. The New Calculus of Competition (Umair Haque) -- Don't just lower the lowest common denominator. Elevate the numerator. Make it worthier: more meaningful, enduring, significant. A strong call to work on stuff that matters.
  2. The Troubled History of Google.org (NY Times) -- it's hard to measure "good", which is one reason it's difficult to know who's doing good in philanthropy. Couple that with a product-first measurement mindset, rather than customer-first, and it's no wonder Google.org struggled. The reported management flapping is gravy. (via Tim O'Reilly on Twitter)
  3. Andrew Mason at Startup School -- So the Internet came along, and the Internet should solve all the problems of organizing people and changing collective action. But the problem is, all we've done is we've taken the old world tactics that we used offline and ported online. We haven't really changed the way we think about things. So, for example, here is a protest against the Iraq war that people held in Second Life. [laughter] I call these tactics the tactics of inconveniencing yourself, because all these things, signing a petition or going to a protest, they're all like mini versions of lighting yourself on fire. [laughter] They're saying, I will sacrifice a small part of my life to show you how much I care, and that just feels so futile and not very exciting to get to be part of. And the weird thing is if the tactic you're using is inconveniencing yourself, all the Internet does is make it easier to sign petitions, so by making it easier to inconvenience yourself, you're making your effort more and more meaningless, right. So, if it only takes one click to write a letter to your congressman, then it takes an order of magnitude more letters for them to actually care. Pay attention, would-be government influencers.
  4. Why is Medicine Often Not Evidence-Based (Ben Goldacre) -- If we assume, fairly generously, that you'll be 80% successful at each step in this chain - which really is pretty generous - then with 7 steps, you'll only manage to follow the evidence in practice 21% of the time (0.8^7=0.21). Healthcare needs interaction designers, not just programmers.

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