Friday, January 14, 2005

The Kid Principle

by Asim Jalis

GROWN-UPS AND CHILDREN The grown-up and the child principles form a duality along a continuum. For example, IBM is a parent. Apple is a kid. In the middle Apple tried to become a parent and almost went out of business. Google is clearly a kid. Their acquisition of only makes sense if you look at them this way. The whole company feels like a kid's room. There are giant inflatable balls and arcade-style video games in the hallways. Next to the reception desk there are three shiny new Segways. I'm curious how cool their investment bankers are with all this. I find it really hard to classify Microsoft as one or the other. In some ways they are both. On the one hand, there is Halo 2. There are foosball tables, pool tables, darts, giant stuffed chairs everywhere. People have toys in their offices. Remote control cars zip around the floors. There is free soda. The company has a child-like competitive streak. The market place agression has a kind of playfulness to it -- it's a game. The market dominance is not about the money, it's about winning. Money is a grown-up thing. Winning is a kid thing. On the other hand, it is responsive to customers, it executes in a lot of ways like IBM. The management is extremely numbers focused. There is a strong focus on accountability and goals. These are all parent-like things. My perception is that Apple and Google are less focused on numbers. Individual departments might be less accountable for performance. They don't rely as obsessively on metrics. That's my perception. The dotcom I worked at, the Cobalt Group, was initially like a child. And then after the IPO they became a grown-up almost overnight. The nerf guns disappeared. The most playful people left quickly. Perl was replaced with Java. The plans for the three storey slide were shelved. New upper management was brought in from solid companies like IBM. As we grow up I think we need to solve the how-much problem implied by this duality. However, it's not a straight-line continuum. Discovering the balance is tricky. It's like a software design problem. The solution requires balancing opposing forces. THE IMPORTANCE OF A VISION I think when I dropped out of math in Wisconsin, what really happened, as I think about it now, is that I lost my vision. I wasn't sure what I wanted to do. That loss of vision was the primary event, of which everything else was a consequent effect. As I think about it, it's not so much the activity of math that is enjoyable for me. It's a kind of perception of myself as a mathematician. I think being a mathematician or a theoretical computer scientist, or something along these lines, seems really cool to me. Other people don't see this as being cool. I am not as driven by the idea of being a professor as I am by the idea of just being someone who lives in this world of ideas. In fact I find teaching terrifying. Activities which validate this vision are deeply satisfying, but only in the context of this vision. E.g. working on random math problems might be fun sometimes, but it is not satisfying in the same kind of way. E.g. going to a math conference is really satisfying to me, because it validates my image of being a mathematician. Going to a Perl conference is more satisfying than going to OOPSLA for some reason. OOPSLA is too much about software engineering. DISCOVERING ONE'S TRUE PASSION One way to discover one's passion is to test different images of oneself and then see which electrifies your mind with energy, who do you perceive as being extremely cool. It's hard to be a good programmer if you don't think that being a programmer is cool. It's hard to be a painter if you have no respect for painters or painting, if it seems like a frivolous insignificant activity. I think a lot of talk on passion is too centered around hedonistic self-gratification. The idea is propagated that if you enjoy doing X a lot then that must be your passion. E.g. if you enjoy sailing than that should be your passion. Once in a while someone pops up on a passion discussion board and confesses that he likes sleeping or watching TV or doing drugs, and wonders what he can do with this passion. The list responds with silence. But now let's separate passion from the action itself and attach it instead to the meaning of the action. While I enjoy watching TV I don't really feel inspired by the idea of being a TV watcher. That vision is uninspiring. It does not energize me to spend more time watching TV. Even though watching TV is gratifying, I don't want to be known as the TV watcher. That's not cool (in my mind). On the other hand, while doing math is not necessarily always fun, it is deeply satisfying when I connect it to the deeper meaning of what it means to do math. The vision of being a person who does math seems really cool to me. It's inspiring. I have spent hours reading biographies of mathematicians. I would love to meet Galois or Newton or Einstein. I think those guys rock. Given a choice between having Seinfeld or Godel over for dinner, I'll always choose Godel. Seinfeld is funny. I like the way he thinks. He's probably one of the most entertaining guests around. But Godel's just cooler. This is also where Linux gets its appeal. It is not so much that programming on Linux is easier, or that the tools on Linux are significantly better than on Windows. It's possible some people prefer the Linux environment, but for a lot of them the thing that is energizing about Linux is that it feels cool. Being a Linux programmer has much more geek cred than being a .NET programmer. The penguin is just cool.