Jun 11

My Interview in Fast Company

Fast Company just put up an interview with me done by Kermit Pattison, and I’m really, really happy with it. It covers a lot of topics, including how I think about leadership & management (they’re not the same!), some lessons I’ve learned about how to be more extroverted, some things I’ve only recently started to really understand about some of the very important lessons I’ve learned along the way. Kermit did a really good job in capturing the essence of how I think about this stuff. Would love to read any impressions, reactions, arguments or otherwise that you have. 🙂

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? 🙂

Apr 11

The Master Switch, by Tim Wu

This is a fantastic book about how information empires rise and fall — everyone in technology industries should read it. Tim is a professor at Columbia Law School, and one of the most advanced thinkers about a number of technology network effects, but especially Net Neutrality.

It’s a history of various information technology waves, from the telephone to movies to television to the Internet, some analysis of what’s happening in today’s landscape with Google and Apple and others, and some of Wu’s suggestions for how to create more effective public policy in the future. I loved the first part (although I’m a technology history nerd of first order), and found the part about the current landscape interesting but already a bit out of date, and probably not as deep an analysis as I was hoping for. The prescriptions he outlines I thought weren’t quite right. I had a hard time really understanding how to think about the remedies he was suggesting, and how they could really work.

But overall, fantastic book, and has changed the way I think about technology waves.

While I was at Mozilla day-to-day, when I talked about open and closed systems, I would say something like this: new technologies (e.g. the PC, the smart phone, the tablet, etc etc) nearly always start closed and proprietary — it’s easier to create something completely new that’s innovative and disruptive if you control all the pieces, aren’t trying overmuch to play nicely with others. But then over time, technology tends to open up, as the techniques become more widely undertsood, horizontal layers come in to drive costs down and increase variety of solutions, etc. The interesting variable in every technology wave, I said, was how long and messy the “middle” between open and closed is — and of course, Mozilla’s mission with respect to the Web was to make the proprietary phase as short as possible, and get to open as quickly as we could.

After reading Wu’s book, I still think that’s essentially true, but not really the whole story. I now think technology waves tend to go from closed/proprietary to open and then back to closed, based around the strength of network distribution. In other words, and especially with communications and information technology, you tend to go from proprietary invention to open innovation and then things settle down as a small number of players control the distribution of content on their own networks based on the open technologies. These networks then tend to be few in number, and overwhelmingly dominant in their control over how people experience the technology and content.

The only thing that really unseats these networks is the rise of the next technology wave — that’s possible because successive technology waves tend to be much larger than what came before. That’s what’s happening now, with mobile completely overwhelming the previous waves of computing, being available to more people, more of the time, with more touch points in their lives.

And that’s why the fight between Apple, Google and Facebook is so, so fierce. Everyone is trying to move from the current wave of IT into the mobile one. Everyone is trying to become dominant, in order to take the wins from the network effects from the PC/Web battles and use them to win the next Mobile/Networked battle.

[As an aside, it’s tough to imagine what technology wave will displace billions of people carrying smart phones (little network connected computers) around with them all the time, but what we do know is this: it will happen. Some giant new information tech wave will eventually make this mobile technology boom, which looks absolutely massive to us now, look small in retrospect. It’s the nature of communications technology.]

Another thing that’s clear as you look at historical technology waves is that they’re getting shorter. Disruption is coming faster and faster. This, too, is an intuitive result. Each technology wave means that we’re able to communicate and collaborate more effectively and more quickly.

Companies that are dominant in one wave do not tend to be dominant in those following. They can be relevant, and even extremely relevant, but they don’t tend to dominate in the same way. Lots of reasons for that. They’ve got existing businesses to protect. They’re built on previous models of efficiency optimized for previous waves. They get big and complex and tired. I’m beginning to think that companies don’t dominate like this because not only are their innovators dilemma issues inherent in moving from one wave to the next, but also because you’ve got to not just jump waves, but also go through the closed-open-closed cycles of the new technology, and that’s an unnatural set of transitions to go through.

What I find so interesting about our current context — everyone who was dominant in the PC/Web era moving to the mobile era — is that they’re trying to jump directly to the closed network phase. Mobile systems right now look extremely vertically integrated, from services to servers to devices to content. I can’t yet discern the really open phase of mobile. I believe it will come, but it’s hard to see quite how right now, and I think this “open” battle between Apple and Google is really just prelude.

But who knows. It’s an exciting time to be alive and working. Every day I wake up and meet people who are building technologies and products that promise to completely rework the way we interact with our world and with each other. It feels like so much open water here; everything seems up for grabs.

I can’t recommend reading Tim Wu’s book highly enough. Whether you agree or disagree with any particular bit of it isn’t that important. Thinking about the technology waves that have come before help us think about what might come next, and how they might feel.

Feb 11

NY Times on Tweet/Life Balance

In today’s New York Times Business Section, there’s a piece on the current state of work life balance, in an age of iPhones and Twitter (more or less). I’m quoted in it a little bit, so figured I would write some about the conversation I had with the writer and some thoughts that didn’t make it into the piece.

I talked with Mickey (the author) while I was taking time off between Mozilla and Greylock, right after I had written this blog post on disconnecting. I got connected to her via Bob Sutton, who’s in the article as well, and who’s always thoughtful and very quotable. Before I took off for vacation, my partner David Sze suggested to me that I totally disconnect from everything, saying that I would find the silence precious. He was right, for sure — but I just couldn’t really figure out how to do it. Too much of my life now is tangled up in e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, others. I think of myself as essentially an introvert, but I get a lot out of having the social connectivity that I do online. It’s all just become a part of my life that is very, very hard to turn off — it’s a little bit like turning off “talking to the neighbors,” at least for me.

I can’t really tell you if this is good, bad or indifferent — it is what it is. It does feel different than even a couple of years ago. As I mentioned in the article, it’s become a sort of “peripheral vision” — I can generally keep track of how people I care about and work with are feeling by reading what they tweet about and share on Facebook. How much they’re sharing is pertinent, too — you can sort of see some of the ebbs and flows of peoples’ lives.

One of the things that didn’t make it into the article is that I found engaging on Twitter indispensable for managing effectively at Mozilla. Hewlett & Packard used to talk about “managing by walking around” — the idea that the best way to understand what’s happening in an organization is just to walk around and observe it yourself. To meet people where they work, to talk with them about whatever is on their mind, to ask lots of questions. I really, really believe in doing that — more than being useful, I just really enjoyed doing it.

With so many Mozillians distributed around the world, living in Twitter became a modern sort of walking around for me. I followed and interacted with dozens of folks this way over the last couple of years. Clearly, not everyone was there — and we have a couple of other online forums that are probably even more important (IRC & Bugzilla) — but many were. And it was a great way to understand what was top of mind for folks, to understand who was feeling discouraged, who was feeling ready for new things. And just to commune with each other, really. I learned a lot by thinking about it that way.

Mozilla is unusual in its openness, so it’s hard for me to completely generalize from that experience — because of the open product roadmap and the open community involvement, doing all this stuff on the public internet was pretty natural. Obviously many (most?) companies won’t be able to do it quite like this. Conversely, I don’t think the closed, enterprise-only systems like Jive, Yammer & others are as diverse and rich in information (although they’re very clearly useful and will be successful). But as organizations become more agile, more distributed, more mixed in with other organizations in their processes and workforces, I think we’ll start to see tools that enable this peripheral vision or managing by walking around across boundaries that used to be more distinct.

Anyway, as to the main point of the article, I obviously haven’t really done much disconnecting at all. It was nice to try for a few days, but also felt like a lot of life was missing. For good or bad, for better or worse — this is life and work in modern times. We’re all learning together how to make sense of ubiquitous connectivity, of persistent projections of ourselves online, and the tensions between our physical world and our increasingly meaningful virtual one.

Jan 11

GSB Talk on Mozilla and Scaling

Last week I got to attend a class at Stanford Business School taught by one of my favorites, Huggy Rao. The course is on “scaling” — an over-used word, but one that Huggy’s been really digging into lately — resulting in some great insights. This particular class covered a case study authored by Huggy with Bob Sutton on the rise of Mozilla and Firefox, so it was fun to participate in.

Huggy asked me to do a quick 10 minute introduction to the class. I chose to talk about the differences between then and now — how much has changed in the 5.5 years since Firefox’s initial 1.0, and what the new challenges of scaling are. So, naturally, my first comment to the students was that most of the case was irrelevant to today’s world. That Mozilla was amazing and unique and special — for lots of reasons that include (1) breaking the MS/IE monopoly distribution and usage of the browser, (2) doing it in a way that enabled lots of innovation and competition that we’re seeing now, and (3) finding our own way through the journey — not behaving like anyone else in the market ever really has. So that’s cool. In that battle, though, access to users was probably the biggest challenge — it looked impossible when Mozilla started, and it’s remarkable — incredible, really — that we ultimately have gotten the reach we have.

But fast forward to today’s world, where we have more than 600M users on Facebook, more than 400M users of Firefox, and networks like LinkedIn and Twitter with global reach of a hundred million or more. Combine that with the rise of the Apple App Store and mobile devices — with something approaching 200M user accounts that all have credit cards associated with them. (And if there’s any doubt, these numbers are truly huge. I put in some cultural references in my talk — about 100M people will watch the SuperBowl. And only about 20M watch the nightly news in America; 30M listen to NPR. We think of these institutions as huge, but they’re nowhere near Internet scale at this point. The new networks have left them behind, quite handily.)

So now a huge part of the world is accessible, a huge part of the world is ready and able to download an app or click on a shared link. Which means that access is no longer the chief initial obstacle to scaling. That means you can see companies like Zynga or Groupon rise from nothing to massive practically overnight. Clearly, the initial challenge is about rising above the noise of an increasingly crowded field of ways for people to spend their time and money, but it’s very, very possible to get to tens or hundreds of millions of users quickly. Which means that now you’ve got companies that are dealing with huge, complex, global user bases at an extremely early point in their history. My view is that scaling successfully — which means sustaining that scale over time — will be dependent on figuring out how to make the teams and processes in rocket ship organizations operate effectively.

I know not all the analogies in the slides are apples-to-apples, but what’s clear is that we’re living in an era of hyper-distribution, where things can change very, very quickly. I’m really glad that smart people like Huggy and Bob are thinking about how to help us all learn how to manage these in the future.

Fun conversation, thanks to Huggy for the invitation! My few slides are below — they’re very incomplete and mostly served to provoke some interesting discussion. (PS — the deck is sort of a tweener deck graphically between my Mozilla-style slides and what I’ll use here at Greylock — haven’t been here long enough to monkey with the Greylock slides yet. :-))