May, 2011

May 11

Lost to the West, by Lars Brownworth

I’m a pretty committed Roman History Nerd. I really like reading about all periods of the civilization, and have been learning more and more since I first took Latin in high school. It’s esoteric to a lot of people, but it’s something that’s always been fascinating to me. And I like both the “great man” aspect of histories which follow the named leaders, but also the accounts of what it was like to live in Rome itself, or in the provinces elsewhere.

But to be honest, I always start to lose the thread around the 3rd/4th century AD, after Constantine, with the continuous sacking of Rome and Italy going on by virtually everyone. And so most of the histories that I read, I gut it out until 476, when Odoacer beats Romulus Augustulus to declare himself King of Italy, and the Roman Empire dead.

So I was really interested to read this book, which is a history that goes from the establishment of the Roman capital in the East (Byzantium, to be later renamed Constantinople), initially by Diocletian, and consolidated later by Constantine, through the fall of the Constantinople in 1453 (when Mehmet II defeated Constantine XI).

I really, really liked this book. It suffers a little bit from over-focusing on emperors and generals, but I learned a lot about how to think about the parts of the empire, and later the relationship between the Crusaders, Islam, and the Eastern Roman Empire, led from Constantinople. I hadn’t really thought too much about how the lineage from Rome affected how Constantinople viewed the world, or the nuanced way it sat between East & West. (And, to be honest, my geography of the region needed a bit of a refresher, as I always think that Turkey & Constantinople are further to the east than they actually are.)

Anyway, if you’re a roman history nerd like me, and don’t mind reading about 11 different Constantines over the course of a thousand years or so, this is a great book to pick up. (“great e-book to download”? how are we going to talk about books in our digital future??)

May 11

Recruiting DNA

Since coming to Greylock full time in January, I’ve been talking to a lot of people. I did that before, of course — I’ve always spent a lot of time building my network — but in this role it’s significantly more than ever before. So I’ve been talking with tons of entrepreneurs, tons of techies, tons of executives, tons of students — for a variety of reasons, including funding, recruiting for roles here at Greylock, etc.

One of the things I’ve been really, really struck by is how significant the first 4 or 5 years of a person’s career seems to be on how they think and how they approach the world. It’s typically very easy to tell if someone started their career at Google or Apple or Microsoft or Paypal or a bunch of others, even when they’re 15 years into their career and well removed from that first job. You can just see it in the way they approach problems. These are gross simplifications and overgeneralizations, but Googlers tend to think about things in a data and machine learning sort of way. Amazon folk (Amazonians?) tend to think in terms of testing and yield. And other companies that shall remain nameless are notable in that their alumni have absurdly good PowerPoint skills. (Which, sadly, is not actually a positive indicator.)

So like I say, gross oversimplifications and gross generalizations, but you really can tell a lot about where a person started their career by how they act and think about things. (And I guess others have had this insight about organizational imprinting before — here’s an HBS study and here’s what Diego wrote about his early time at HP a few weeks back.)

Since I was in Austin this week, where I started my career at Trilogy, I reflected some on how I was imprinted by being there — and for all the weird, screwed up world views I developed there (and believe me, it was like 90% screwed up world view), the thing that imprinted most is an insane focus on recruiting insanely talented people. As a company, we were relentless about getting the smartest, most driven, most talented people we could. We were a tiny company, but going toe to toe with giants in on campus recruiting, for example — and I think we were probably about the best tech company at recruiting anywhere in the US in the mid-90s.

So thank goodness I went to Trilogy, because that intense focus on recruiting at all levels, getting ridiculously talented people to work with and getting out of their way — that’s something that’s been absolutely critical and foundational for me my whole career. When I tell people I worked at Trilogy, most people today don’t know what that is, even. But I’m very happy to trade off a brand name on the resume for getting recruiting into my DNA in a fundamental way. It changed everything.

May 11


I’ve been super busy lately, and haven’t had a lot of time to write here unfortunately, but hoping to fix that in the coming few days. Lots to write about; wanted to put down a few placeholders of things I’m planning to write about.

On Scaling: spent some time talking with a professor friend of mine over the past few weeks about how organizations scale to have massive impact; realized that there are fundamental differences in approach. On one side, you assume that the core that you have — yourself, a small org, whatever — is the essence and you want to extend that to the rest of the world — but in some way, the new converts will always be pale reflections of the core. On the other side, you assume that you’ve figured out how to do something interesting, and want to enable lots of other people to do it as well as unexpected and new things — so the assumption here is that by scaling you increase diversity, increase quality, and you get better overall as you get bigger, not weaker & thinner.

Not Understanding Modern Technology & Products: In an NYT article a month or so back, HBS professor David Yoffee said this: ‘“The problem for both Firefox and Chrome is how are they going to convince customers that they have a significantly better product, worth the hassle of actually going and downloading something that’s new and different.”’ This was very surprising to me — it’s such old thinking, not really in line with the way technology products (Internet products in particular) spread in today’s world. I don’t know Prof Yoffee, but in my view, technology products spread today much more like political campaigns and memes, not as careful, considered evaluations of whether other alternatives are better than what someone has today. I’m not putting a value judgement on that phenomenon at all, just noting it, and think that it’s worth exploring a bit.

Living Inside Everyone Else’s Greatest Hits Albums: just some thoughts about how status feeds are changing the way we think about other peoples’ lives, and our own. Maybe a profound observation, maybe a banal one, who can tell?

My First 4 Months in VC: I’ve been at Greylock full time now for about 4 months, have some initial observations and things to write about. Steep learning curve, very busy time (and also busy personally), but want to take some time to deconstruct the experience so far and share what I can. (I also have a post on why I joined Greylock in particular to write. Quick hint: it’s the same reason that Soylent Green tastes so delicious.)

Alone Together, by Sherry Turkle: Interesting book, finished it a while back but haven’t had time to write about it yet. Lots in there.

And then a few other odds & ends, including a great book I’m reading about the history of the Eastern Roman Empire from about 300 AD until 1500 AD. I get that this will be of incredibly limited and esoteric interest to even my nerdiest friends, but I’m loving it. Fish gotta swim.

Hopefully more soon. What else should I write about? 🙂