August, 2009

Aug 09

Adventures of the Mind

I’m in Princeton, NJ, at the Institute of Advanced Studies (home to many amazing people & events, like Einstein, Oppenheimer, von Neuman, and more) for an event called Adventures of the Mind — 150 high potential high school students from across the US gathered together. They’ve also invited ~40 mentors to give talks about how we got from there (high school) to here — flash talks of 10 minutes or so. So far last night & this morning, we’ve heard from 2 Nobel Laureates in Physics (of the 9 who are here!), 2 poet laureates of the US (including Billy Collins, who is hilarious and read some amazing poetry), we’ve heard from John Maeda and Annie Duke and Senator Patrick Leahy just got on stage to talk. So an intimidating lineup, for sure.

For the record, when they announced that I work for Mozilla on Firefox, everyone burst into applause, so that helped a lot. 🙂

The emerging theme is that everyone who’s had any type of success has had more than their fair share of mistakes, of periods of muddling through.

Anyhow, this is what I said during my 10 minutes…


I started preparing for this talk like I always do: by blogging & tweeting. I asked people what sorts of advice they’d give to their high school selves that wouldn’t sound like safely ignorable advice from an old guy. I didn’t get back a ton that met that test, honestly, except the sentiment that no matter what I said, it’ll probably sound like advice from an old guy (I’m a little sensitive about getting older now because I just got back from my 20th high school reunion!).

Vicky asked me to talk today about how we got where we are, and what we did to get here, and where we’re heading.

So as I started thinking about what to talk with all of you about, I found that I kept thinking about the turning points in my life — the inflection points where something I did or decided had a really profound impact on what my life would become. And it’s not that hard — I can look back at the 20 years or so since I was sitting where you were (more or less), and pinpoint a bunch of them — maybe 5 or 10 that really made a difference.
And here’s the thing: thinking back on all of them, when I was making those decisions, I never really had much idea that they were very important decisions. Let me say that again: for most of the important turning points in my life, I treated them with a little less seriousness than, you know, buying my next iPod. Now, I’m not saying that I didn’t recognize that sometimes decisions would have effects, or that I didn’t take them seriously. What I’m saying is that a bunch of decisions that I thought were really important turned out to be not important at all, and some things I decided to do just for fun changed everything (like when I went to visit an old high school friend in Jamaica who would eventually become my wife.)

Here’s a quick story to illustrate a turning point that I didn’t realize until much later. When I was a junior in college, I had decided to major in computer science, and was starting to get interested in something called Human Computer Interaction — designing systems for people to be able to use them effectively. I went to a lunchtime seminar by a guy named Robert Cailliau — a physicist from Switzerland of all places — and he brought with him a giant black computer called a NeXT — Steve Jobs’ creation that would eventually turn into the Macintosh that we know today. He started giving a demo of a program where you could bring up a page full of text and pictures, and click on blue underlined text to get to other pages full of text and pictures. And I remember saying to myself, “Huh, I guess that’s sort of neat — text & pictures, click click click.” And the next thing I remember was waking up when everyone was gathering up all their stuff to leave — I had fallen asleep — and missed, of course, the first demonstration I’d ever seen (or most people had ever seen) of the World Wide Web. So there you go — one of those powerful inflection points in my life — and I slept through it.

My theme throughout my few minutes here is going to be this: you never know when a decision you make is going to have a profound effect in your life. At least, I’ve never been able to tell. So my coping strategy — what I do to make everything work for me — is try to put myself into situations where there are tons of great choices, tons of great people, tons of great outcomes possible — so that it makes the odds that I make some really important & good choices that much better.

In high school, I felt like had everything pretty together — I loved math & physics in particular, and did pretty well — figured that I’d major in physics and if I didn’t get straight A pluses, I’d mostly get them. So of course I got to Stanford my freshman year, took my first physics class and proceeded to get my ass kicked. It was pretty horrifying, actually. Have you ever seen those bar charts with the numbers of people who got each grade? A histogram distribution of how everyone did? Yeah, so I had my own solitary bar, way over to the left hand side of the chart — and that’s not the good side. I quickly decided maybe physics wouldn’t be for me, but I did really start to enjoy computer science, and that’s where I focused.

Anyway, from Stanford I went to a startup in Austin where I realized I’d never be world class at programming or designing, but I could be world class at some other stuff — things like finding great people and hiring them and building awesome groups.

After a couple of years I went back to Apple, where I had been an intern during college — put yourself into situations where there are mostly great choices, remember? 1997 was an odd time at Apple — it’s when Steve came back and changed the place immediately — he’d always been a bit of an idol of mine. But as he started making decisions to change Apple, I saw them hurt a lot of the people there who I really cared about and respected — so then, at age 26, I decided it was time to start creating my own thing, and I set off with my mentor from Apple, my 2 best friends, and we started our own company, Reactivity. And through Reactivity, I got to meet and work with many of the people I’m closest to now & who are my mentors and peers and co-conspirators.

We did that for 7 years before I decided it was time for me to do something else. (and a little while after I left, Reactivity was bought by Cisco, a happy event for everyone.)

And then, as I say, another accident. I was looking around for what to do next — I thought I might start a new company or become a venture capitalist — but during that time I got to know this little team of people at Mozilla — there were probably 15 employees at the time (but a much larger community) — they had just released Firefox about 6 months earlier, and they were changing the world. So I joined. My basic line of reasoning went like this: how often do you get a chance to really change the world?

I think not all that much, to be honest. Since then, I’ve moved through a few jobs at Mozilla, becoming the CEO about 18 months ago. Now we’re up to about 250 employees around the world — places like California and Toronto and Paris and Tokyo and Beijing and Auckland — and about 300 million people (nearly 25% of the web) use our software each month to interact with the web.

Now we’re spending our time on a few things: working on making Firefox on Windows & Mac & Linux better than ever — we just released version 3.5 last month, and are already working on the next few. We’ve got a mobile version coming out — not for iPhone yet, but for some other handhelds — because it’s pretty clear that everyone is going to be using the web in their pocket from here on out. We’re a 250 person company that’s competing with Microsoft & Apple & Google — all of whom are relentlessly working on and improving their own browsers. So it’s never dull. Competing with these guys — playing on this level — is brutal — there’s always more to do just to stay in place, there are always challenges to react to. But now that I’ve done it, it’s hard to imagine not being in this environment.

Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, a couple of days ago in Aspen said as a joke that he was like the Forrest Gump of the Internet — and you’re all too young to even know what that reference is, but it comes from a movie where the title character, Forrest Gump, was accidentally around some of the most interesting events in the world over the period of his life. For Craig to say that is ridiculous, of course. The real thing is that Craig is a very smart dude, and he’s been in situations where being smart and making choices can really matter. And so he’s been able to change the world.

I’ll leave you with a couple of other thoughts, both given to me by one of my mentors, a professor at Stanford named Tom Kosnik.

  • find your peer group & treat them right — that means look around, find the peers who you really like and respect — and keep in touch with them, visit with them, call them a lot (don’t just facebook them!)
  • do things that make your soul sing — this one’s easier, and I suspect will be a theme this weekend. But the shorthand is this: if you’re not loving what you’re doing, you’ve got to find something else to do. (which isn’t to say you shouldn’t work hard, or that it should always be fun — just that you should enjoy the overall thing that you’re doing.)

Last thing: take a few minutes to write down what you’re feeling as you go through life — and take a picture or two — you’ll end up doing some amazing things, and later on you’ll value being able to go back and try to see through your younger eyes, trying to imagine and remember who you were and how it felt.

Aug 09

The End of Overeating, by David Kessler

I’ve read several books about how we get our food and how we eat — books like Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma, for example — both because I’m interested at a personal level about how to live my life differently, but also because I’m interested in the public health & sustainability implications.

Kessler spends a fair bit of time going over pretty well-trod ground about how manipulative the US food industry is — how they layer fat, salt and sugar relentlessly in order to get us to chronically overeat — what he calls conditioned hypereating. That all seems right to me, but has been covered in a lot of other books & films.

The more interesting part of the book deals with how our brain reacts to stimulus and why we do things that we know won’t give us what we want or need (like eating that cookie instead of an apple). Here’s how to sum it up:

“To control our brains, we have to be mistrustful of our brains. We have to recognize they are the vehicle to invite us to do things that at some point in our evolutionary past may have been very useful, but have gotten completely out of control.”

About the 2nd half of the book deals with our brains and psychologies and suggests ways to get in control — not really like a self-help book would, but more trying to describe what often happens, so that you can notice it and do something about it.

Aug 09

Pygmy, by Chuck Palahniuk

I really liked a lot of Palahniuk’s earlier work — especially books like Fight Club — but lately I’ve been having a tough time with his writing. It’s all very very skilled, just not that much fun or rewarding to read. Pygmy is in that category. It’s got occasionally hilarious parts, but most of it is just a slog.

It’s about a middle school/high school exchange student from a fictional revolutionary company — he & his other operatives come over to start Operation Havoc — a terrorist operation aimed at the US’s science fairs.

This must have been a very hard book to write, because it’s all in the broken, angry English of the main character — so props to Palahniuk for that — and I have to say that it’s a better effort than Snuff, but I wouldn’t really recommend it.

One funny part was the main character’s description of playing dodge ball in PE, which I’ll put here:

For official record, American education rituals especial efficient at task segregation youth of superior intellect removed from youth gifted superior physical prowess. Best example, ritual label as “dodgeball.” Therein all peer males engage mock battle under witness fertile peer females. Commencement of ritual, physical superior males select best combatants for accompany into battle, thus ranking all from most-best to least desirable for reproduction during females note close attention. Next then, divided males engage violent assault upon each opposite army, battering with inflated bladders latex rubber. Over course conflict, males boasting superior musculature inflict injure upon males typical of superior intellect although suffering inferior height-to-weight ratio, body mass index, and stature. At completion dodgeball ritual, females made full aware which males present most-desirable physical traits. Vanquished males culled by injury, weak reproductive citizens force self-select, redirect, instead impregnate mates, procreate offspring, instead channel aggressions chess club, focus sexual ambitions science club. Debate or forensics. Model rocket association. Granted no access sexual reproduction, thereby liberate superior intellect for indulge in further education. During same, superior physical genetics routed so impregnate superior physical females. For benefit all society, most crucial segregate intellect out physical fit. All accomplished in battle dodge of ball.

Aug 09

Why I’m Attending FOCAS 2009

As I mentioned, I’ve been in Aspen this week at The Aspen Institute’s Forum on Communications & Society (specifically titled: Of the Press: Models for Preserving American Journalism). It’s been a very interesting couple of days, and I’ve got a lot of new ideas to make sense of and synthesize. First a bit of background, then a little bit on what’s gone on here and what interesting ideas have been put forward, then I’ll try to pull it all together with some thoughts. As I’m writing this, it’s getting a little long, so I think I’ll split into 2 posts: this one about why I’m attending, and the next one about the meeting & some thoughts.

Why I Came

I don’t know very much about journalism — next to nothing, really. But I do think that some aspects of journalism are critical if you want to have an engaged citizenry — a strong & free press is essential for any of us to know and understand enough about the world we live in to participate and engage. I think, too, that there are aspects of our American press that have historically served  us extremely well and are worth preserving. And of course, it’s impossible not to see the turmoil and change that the whole sector is going through — the disappearance of major papers is only the most visible. One thing I think I hadn’t really internalized is that the global economic crisis is really changing the situation much more rapidly than usually happens. Because of the financial pressure, old institutions don’t have the buffer that they might have had in better times — leading to much shorter time frames to layoffs and shutdowns. I think much of this was coming anyway — the crisis just accelerated all of it.

I’ve also been struck lately by some of the parallels of  mission of journalists (roughly, to enable engaged & informed participation) and Mozilla  (to insure an open & participatory Internet). So that’s one reason I decided to come — to learn as much as I could.

The third reason I decided to come is that there’s something new afoot in the world: lots of organizations are being created to serve a public interest — on very low cost models (enabled essentially by the Web) — and competing with traditional profit-oriented ventures. At Mozilla we call that type of organization a “hybrid,” and Mark Surman has been writing about that idea a lot lately. For that, I came in the spirit of sharing what we’ve learned at Mozilla as we’ve become a sustainable hybrid company — maybe some of what we’ve learned can be helpful to others.

But I have to say that mostly I came, as with any event, is because of the other people who were planning to attend and participate. I was invited by Alberto Ibargüen, CEO of the Knight Foundation, and all around awesome person. He’s done much since coming to Knight to reform the way they supported and funded new organizations, starting programs like the Knight News Challenge, as a way to create a sort of prize economy around innovations in journalism. (They’ve also provided funding for work at PCF, where I’m on the board of directors.) What they’re doing at Knight is a model to be emulated, I think — lots of experiments, lots of support, lots of provocative questions.

But beyond just Alberto, here’s a sampling of some of the 50 or so people who are here: Vivian Shiller (CEO of NPR), Esther Dyson, Jeff Jarvis (CUNY Professor), Marissa Mayer (VP Google), Dean Singleton (Chair of the AP), Marcus Brauchli (Exec Ed of The Washington Post), Walter Isaacson (biographer & CEO of Aspen Institute), Madeline Albright (former US Secretary of State), Reed Hundt (former Chair FCC), Jon Leibowitz (Chair FTC), Michael Kinsley, Sue Gardner (ED of Wikimedia), Craig Newmark (founder of Craigslist), Robert Rosenthal (ED of CIR), Paul Steigler (CEO of Pro Publica).

And those are just a few of the names I picked out looking at the list just now — it’s neat to be a part of such a small & accomplished group — and is especially great when it’s on a topic I’m just learning about. 🙂

Finally, and beyond all the basic reasons for coming, I’ve learned that it’s important to try to pop out of operational work from time to time. It’s easy in the day-to-day of Mozilla to get obsessed with solving problems, with getting roadblocks moved out, with the details of trying to make things work. But being too much in those details for too long means, for me, that I sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture — being around others in a new context helps to reframe the things that matter in work and in life.

So that’s why I’m here: to learn and to participate and to help where I can. It’s been a successful event from that perspective for me.

Aug 09

What would you say to yourself 20 years ago?

This is an unusual week for me — I’m at the Aspen Institute sessions on the future of journalism beginning of the week (blogging to come; still synthesizing some), and tomorrow I’m heading to Princeton for an even more unusual event called Adventures of the Mind. It’s a program that collects ~150 super-high potential high school students and brings in interesting people to talk as mentors & such. There will be about 30-40 mentors, including a number of Nobel prize winners in science, poet laureates, very successful educators, thinkers & business folks — and me.

So here’s the question I have for everyone: if you had 10 minutes to talk to, you know, someone like you 20 years earlier, what would you do with that 10 minutes?