November, 2010

Nov 10

Chronic City, by Jonathan Lethem

Honestly, I have no idea what this book is about. I love Lethem — some of his books are my very favorites. But it was a real struggle to get through this novel, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t worth it at all. Lethem’s last few books haven’t been great; hopefully he’ll find his groove again soon.

Nov 10

Last Day at Mozilla

I’ve always been bad at leaving.

Today’s my last day at Mozilla (as a full time employee — I’ll continue to be on the Board of Directors), so I wanted to write down a bit of what I’m feeling as I get ready to go in to work. I’m writing this partly so that I can remember what it feels like — I’m finding that it’s quite an emotional time for me — and partly because I haven’t seen much like this around the web, on other people’s blogs.

Schrep likes to joke that of all job skills, I’m worst at quitting, and he always feels bad when he makes that joke, but he’s absolutely right, of course. It takes me a long time to transition. At Reactivity, I transitioned out over 4 months at the end of 2004; at Mozilla, it’s been very nearly a year since I first talked with Mitchell about moving on.

There are reasons for that, of course — it took a bit of time to organize our plans and the organization to be able to get through a transition, and we did a retained search in a relatively speedy 5 1/2 months.

But for me it was a basic equation: I really, really care about Mozilla, and, given the context that I was ready to move to my next thing, I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure that we’d get through the transition stronger than ever. I’ve been extremely fortunate to have the support and patience of both Mozilla and Greylock during this period — and it’s let us change in a way that I think has been very stable and should be good for the future.

It’s already obvious that Gary’s going to be an ouststanding CEO and team member for Mozilla — he’s already a great culture fit, asking questions that cut to the heart of things, and providing clear insights. He’s going to be great. Firefox 4, which is right around the corner, is an incredibly terrific product, both on desktop and mobile, that I think it validates our slow transition approach for the year. And we’ve got so many things coming from our product groups and labs that I’m certain next year will be transformative for the project, the organization, and the whole web.

As you might imagine, hiring a replacement for yourself is a particularly self-centered and self-reflective experience. For me, it caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about what I did well, what I screwed up, how the organization had changed over the years, how I’d changed over the years. It’s taught me a bunch about myself and what I care about, and how I want to live my work life in the future.

I wrote about leaving back when we first announced the CEO search, and all of that is even truer now. I’m proud of what we’ve done together at Mozilla, proud of how we’ve changed the world. I’ve got a deep gratitude to the whole community that let me come in and gave me the support to make my own mark on the project. And I’m really, really excited to watch the whole project change the world in new and amazing ways in the years to come.

Nov 10

My Talk at the House of Commons

I’m currently in the middle of an extremely interesting trip called Silicon Valley Comes to the UK, which Sherri Coutou and Reid Hoffman have organized for several years. it’s a fantastic trip so far, and I’ll write more about it, but wanted to share this.

Yesterday we were invited to the House of Commons here in London, and after a short speech by the Speaker of the House of Commons, 5 of us participated in a panel on the impact of digital technology on the future of democracies. About 100 people attended, including several MPs and members of the House of Lords, plus people involved in running the government and figuring out what to do with technology.

It was moderated by Jon Drori (fantastic job, and fantastic guy), and the Silicon Valley folks who participated were: Reid Hoffman, Megan Smith, Joi Ito, Nancy Lublin and myself. Each of the 5 of us started by giving a 5 minute ‘provocation’ to consider, then we ran it as a more traditional panel.

I’ll write more soon; for now, my provocation follows. Would love to hear what you think. ­čÖé

As I started preparing my remarks, I knew that I wanted to talk, in the main, about how technology can make our democracies better. But here, in the heart of British government, it’s impossible for me not to think about a couple of British authors and imaginers of future dystopias: George Orwell and Aldous Huxley.

With these 2 especially, it seems a particular talent of the British to imagine horrible dysfunctional futures. Orwell in his 1984, of course, with nightmares of totalitarian control and surveillance, and oppressive government imposed on unwilling citizens. Huxley, by contrast, in Brave New World, painted a completely different picture: a citizenry of sheep happily gorging themselves on the trivial, on entertainment — with no Orwellian Ministry of Information needed at all.

In a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death, an American named Neil Postman figured out nearly 30 years ago that what we were going to get wasn’t Orwell’s world at all, but rather a version of Huxley’s. And while the British seem to be adept at imagining dystopias, I have to say that we Americans seem to be pretty handy at creating them. In the US now, we clearly live in Huxley’s world: news has become entertainment; political discourse, when not an oxymoron, tends to be shallow. So many of the institutions and processes that have served us well for hundreds of years are breaking down.

Much of this is due to the nature of digital technology and the Internet, allowing massive amounts of new conversation, of news without context. The thing that digital technology is best at is closing gaps: in time, in space, in relevance — and that has put real stress on our institutions. Technology is not neutral — it makes many things easier, but also many things more difficult. There are winners and losers.

Clay Shirky, writing on the massive dislocations occurring today in the newspaper industry wrote: “That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in place.”

And things do feel broken today, in many ways — the forces of dystopia seem to be on the rise.
But even so, there is a lot — A LOT — to be optimistic about. The hints of a positive future show all around us. The seeds of utopia are in the ground, so to speak.

So clearly there are real opportunities here, shaped by the natural affordances of Internet and digital technology.

What we know from the work we’ve done at Mozilla on Firefox and other open source projects, is that the way we organize, the technology we use, and the customs we support — what Tim O’Reilly has called “architectures of participation” — matter greatly. Architectures of participation, like technologies themselves, aren’t neutral. Projects like Wikipedia and Mozilla Firefox have architectures that are designed to bring in collaborators from everywhere, at every level. We have very serious contributors who spend most of their time working on the core. We have nearly 100 teams working on localizing Firefox into their own language. We have entrepreneurs building companies based on extensions to the browser. We have tens of thousands of people who test our browser each night and report issues. And we have hundreds of millions of users. We’ve built architectures of participation to get people engaged in as many ways as we can.

So what’s the future utopia that’s possible with digital technology? Ideally what we get — what we create — is a system where citizens are engaged, where they feel valued and connected with their governments and each other. Where our leaders are accountable — and desire to be accountable. It’s a future where it’s just as easy to help your neighborhood as it is to help your country or your planet.
To get there, we’ll need to architect with a few key principles in mind:

  1. Transparency – where most of today’s efforts are, and critical to how we start
  2. Clarity – flip side of scale – not the same as transparency — often, transparency of information can overwhelm — without a narrative, without intent, it’s very difficult to understand the implications of the transparency itself
  3. Engagement – get everyone more educated and informed and contributing – get subject experts involved
  4. Scale – must consider neighborhood government to municipal to national to transnational
  5. Heterogeneity – life is increasingly cross-border, in all senses – trans-national – trans-company – mixture of public and private life

So my provocation turns out to be more of an exhortation, a call to action. As technologists and entrepreneurs and leaders of government, it’s our opportunity — and our responsibility — to imagine and articulate good, positive architectures of government, to engage with our colleagues and neighbors and coworkers and constituents to envision robust models for the future, in the context of ubiquitous, cheap, immediate information technology — and then to get on with making the world the way we want it.

Nov 10

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu

Once I saw the title, how could I not get this book, honestly? And the ray guns on the cover sealed the deal, if the title hadn’t.

I think, ultimately, that the book itself didn’t totally live up to the title, but was pretty good anyway. It’s ostensibly about time travel, but really about a man and his relationship with his father, in understanding his father better.

Pretty meta, really, but good if you’re into that type of thing.

Nov 10


I’ve made countless decisions in my career since first arriving at Stanford in 1989, but one of the top 5 specific decisions that I’ve made was to become a section leader for introductory Computer Science classes at Stanford my sophomore year. I literally can’t think of a single choice that’s had farther reaching implications in my career. Some background is in order, I think.

The introductory CS classes at Stanford are called CS106A, CS106B, and CS106X — they’re taught by lecturers (who, in my experience, were far & away the most committed, thoughtful, caring, accessible, and, ultimately, impactful teachers at Stanford) and the class size was often large, anywhere from about 50 students up to 300 or so. The lecturers were supported by one TA, and a staff of “section leaders” — each an undergrad who was responsible for 6-10 students, would lead a weekly section, grade programs and generally give close attention to their group.

In any given quarter, there would be about 50 of these section leaders, as well as 2 “CS198 Coordinators” — these 2 were generally grad students, and they selected and hired new section leaders through an interview process and also taught a 1 quarter class on how to teach.├é┬á It’s a great program, with a fantastic focus on peer teaching, and I think resulted in great results not only for the students taking the 106 courses, but also for the section leaders themselves.

I was turned down the first time I applied to be a section leader, but wanted to do it badly enough that I applied a 2nd time and was accepted. And eventually I was turned down twice when I applied to be coordinator, being accepted the third time around as a grad student. And that was probably my best experience at Stanford — well worth the feeling of getting turned down the first two times.

I think we knew, even then, that the program was incredible — that it selected amazing people and helped them develop in amazing ways — helped them learn CS at a deeper level, of course, but it was also shockingly effective at helping us all learn to teach and communicate — to really balance out the technical aspects of our education.

It’s only with the benefit of hindsight that we can really see how incredible the program has been. The reason I’m writing about it now is that a few weeks ago we had the first ever reunion in the 40 year history of the program, and it was just awesome. (You can read Eric’s blog post and see his pics, too.) The make up of the attendees was a bit like a who’s who list of Silicon Valley: startup founders, new CS professors, VPs of Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, CEOs, VCs, chief architects, researchers, and many others. The density and scope of achievement is really hard to describe, honestly. This program has had as much impact on Silicon Valley as any single program that I know of.

More personally, it reminded me of how many lasting, close friends that I developed there — most of my best friends went through the program at some point, and it was so good to see so many of them together.

I trust we won’t wait another 40 years to have the 2nd reunion of the program — I’m looking forward to having another one, soon.