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
Google is clearly a kid. Their acquisition of KeyHole.com 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
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
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
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
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.