This Meeting Should’ve Been An Email

Many of us today have jobs that are difficult to explain to our Boomer parents. Product Managers famously have this problem, but so do many flavors of knowledge workers: try explaining to someone who retired twenty years ago what a “social sentiment analyst” or “devops engineer” is. Advances in technology and changes in markets force evolution of job roles and responsibilities, as they always have and always will.

Yet something I find remarkable is how slowly change comes to how we work. I’ve been working in offices of various types for a while now, and can tell you that my office of 2018 is not that terribly different from one in 2003. The phones are all different, but meetings, interviews and most of the modes of working haven’t really changed. When I ask friends in other fields about this, I hear a lot of the same. Older people often point to the types of differences you’d expect – many fields have a somewhat more casual dress code today, workplace conduct is a little more decent, the women aren’t all secretaries. But what you mostly hear is just that things have sped up, or that capital is allocated more efficiently. (The shareholders have won.) But I think someone from your average 1980s office job could pretty quickly figure out one in 2018, at least once they figured out how to use the computer.

Maybe it’s not a lack of the right “work products” that’s holding us back. Maybe it’s us.

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Star Trek: Frontier

Fair warning – this post is going deep into Geek territory. If you’re not into Star Trek, you can probably safely skip this. This is a re-edit of a piece I wrote on Medium a few years ago. That said… here we go.

Late in 2017, the sixth major Star Trek TV series – Star Trek: Discovery – launched. And it was… fine. Like the rest of J.J. Abrams’ Trek storylines, it is set in the pre-TOS timeline. The way Viacom/CBS has pretty much abandoned “modern” Star Trek (that is, the entire post-TNG universe) has long baffled me. ST: Voyager wrapped up in 2001 and we had the “Nemesis” film in 2002, but since then, it’s just been the (relatively) short-lived “Enterprise” series and Abrams’ line of canon-immolating films set in the pre-Kirk era. In other words, almost as much time has passed since the last TNG-universe Trek content as between the end of TOS and the launch of ST:TNG (18 years).

This has always struck me as an awfully weird choice.

Like other millennials and Gen-Xers, I grew up on TNG, DS9 and Voyager. That’s canon. Enterprise, Discovery, and all the Abrams films just feel like retreading so much old ground, and I’m always irked by big plot departures they’re forced to take. (Let’s not discuss blowing up Vulcan.) In the last 16 years since Nemesis, there’s been nothing new built upon the post-TNG universe. So… here’s a pitch.

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Legend of the Plaid Dragon

I am not a software developer, but I like to code.

A couple years ago now, I was feeling handy enough with really basic Javascript to start looking for a coding project to really pull together a bunch of web dev skills and actually make something. I decided that I wanted to try cloning Legend of the Red Dragon, a text adventure game I played when I was a kid that is arguably the most successful BBS door game of all time. (All due props to Trade Wars.) After Ben and I finished the book last year and our family moved back to North Carolina, I picked up this project again and really make it into something.

tl;dr – I have a new Slack game available that you can try right now. Click here to learn more and, if you like, invite it to your workspace! The rest of this blog is all about how, and why, I built it.

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“Should I get an MBA”

One question I get from time to time is from people considering getting an MBA, and whether it’s worth the investment. I’m going to try to generalize my answer here so it’s applicable to folks from a variety of different backgrounds/career goals, even though I wound up in technology.

First, to show my cards: I have an MBA from Duke. (They want us to call it the “Fuqua School of Business,” but no one knows what that is, so I just say Duke.) I went through the traditional full-time program and graduated in 2011. I am still paying off the debt, which was considerable, even though I got a sizable tuition discount. What I wound up doing after B-school (tech) is completely different than what I went in expecting to do (international development). I’ll speak to my personal experience later on.

The modern MBA was mostly designed to serve traditional, defined career tracks into management consulting and finance. If you want to do one of those things, then going to B-school is basically a foregone conclusion and you can stop reading here. If not, then I hope the rest of this post can offer you some value in weighing this big decision.

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In Defense of Email

One of the “first world problems” that I seem to hear most often, but understand the least, is people who complain about email: getting too much of it, how it’s a waste of time, interpreting it, the list of complaints goes on. Usually, the people making this argument are selling something (like, say, an enterprise chat solution) or relying on email for something it’s not as useful for (like a substitution for a verbal discussion). So allow me make the counterargument: email is great. Email was literally the first thing humans used networked computers for and it is the ur-example of how open standards truly power the internet.

Unfortunately, this is also why I am increasingly dubious about the centralization of global email platforms, particularly Gmail, which threaten this model for how email works.

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The History of the Future

You cannot separate “history” from how history is done. This makes intuitive sense to anyone who thinks about it, but is easy to forget when you think of “history” as something that’s already known, as opposed to a field where there is lots of new research, discoveries, and re-interpretations of all manner of things that everyone thought they already knew. The methodologies used to do historical research have a direct impact on what we are able to draw from that research. This has me thinking a lot about how “doing history” in the future is going to be dramatically different than it is today, with big implications for whose stories are preserved and understood.

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Top Talent and HQ2

A popular parlor game around the Raleigh/Durham area of late, like in many other cities, has been handicapping our region’s chances of being picked for Amazon’s HQ2. My guess is that we’re in the top 3 or 4 cities, but hey, who knows? There are lots of pro/con positions for Raleigh (which really means the whole Research Triangle region): ex. available office space plus plenty of room to expand and good housing inventory, but a paucity of public transport. It’s a fun exercise to go back and forth on.

Yet one factor looms above the others, and it’s a persistent source of insecurity by the not just the Raleigh/Durham metro, but dozens of others around the country: the local availability of “top talent.” Specifically, this criticism says that the region in question does not have access to a global pool of people who can run or lead a major corporation. Since people run companies, not being able to tap that pool is a kiss of death. Fin.

The genius behind Thiel’s famous interview question, “what do you believe that no one else does?” is that it reveals where a person sees opportunity. It’s awfully hard to build something new and valuable if you only hold consensus views, after all. So here’s one of mine: 90% of consensus ideas about “talent,” including the one above, are utter nonsense. It’s both a self-serving criticism by Ascelaland devotees and implicitly relies on a whole theory of “talent” that is logically inconsistent and perpetuates a toxic and reductive view of what humans can do.

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My go-to jambalaya recipe

Throw the following things in a slow cooker, in more or less this order:

  • 2 lbs of chicken. If raw, cut into pieces; I like to just throw full frozen breasts in and cut/shred them up after a couple of hours
  • 1 package (12 oz) of cooked chicken sausage
  • 1 can (28 oz) of diced tomatoes
  • 1.5 cup of chicken broth
  • 1 chopped-up green pepper
  • 1 onion
  • 2 ribs of cut up celery
  • a bunch of garlic (to me, this means ~5 cloves)
  • 2 chopped jalapenos (substitute habanero if you’re brave)
  • Seasoning (to me, this means some salt, pepper, red pepper, garlic powder, chili powder, dried basil or parsley, or whatever else I can find
  • (a little bit of white wine if you’re into that)

Cook on low for ~8 hours, give or take an hour. It’ll smell amazing.

THEN, throw in about 2 lbs of uncooked, peeled/deveined shrimp for about 20 minutes or until they’re pink. You can also just cook them in a pan and toss them in separately. I mean, whatever you want, it’s jambalaya.

Pour all of that over some brown rice and get to eating. Makes enough for at least several meals for the week.

Cost: Your shrimp and chicken are the big cost drivers. You can cut the shrimp if you want, but jambalaya without shrimp is just sort of chicken & sausage stew. It costs me about $30 at my local grocery store, but for the number of meals you get, it’s a total deal.

Facebook and data sovereignty

The transatlantic controversy over Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica scandal is really just starting to unfold. I have no doubt that in the coming days/weeks/months, similar stories will emerge of other third-party applications that have inappropriately saved, shared or misused Facebook user data – CA is far from the first (or last) to do so, however egregiously.

While a lot of the attention right now is around possible regulation of Big Tech (which is good), the underlying issues at play are actually much bigger and more fundamental. Particularly for us in the United States, the fundamental questions are about personal data, our notions of privacy, and how (or whether) we want to prepare legally for the next couple of decades. And I fear that, already, policymakers are thinking much too small about the role of data sovereignty and the balance of power between citizens and a tiny number of corporations that control the information our societies run on.

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