Manufacturing guy-at-large.

Filtering by Tag: pivoting


Added on by Spencer Wright.

From The New Yorker's great profile of Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto. Emphasis mine. 

What he hasn’t created is a company in his own name, or a vast fortune to go along with it. He is a salaryman. Miyamoto’s business card says that he is the senior managing director and the general manager of the entertainment-analysis and -development division at Nintendo Company Ltd., the video-game giant. What it does not say is that he is Nintendo’s guiding spirit, its meal ticket, and its playful public face. Miyamoto has said that his main job at Nintendo is ningen kougaku—human engineering. He has been at the company since 1977 and has worked for no other. (He prizes Nintendo’s financial and creative support for his work: “There’s a big difference between the money you receive personally from the company and the money you can use in your job.”) He has never been the company’s (or his own) boss, but it is not unreasonable to imagine that Nintendo might not exist without him. He designed the games and invented the franchises that caused people to buy the consoles. He also helped design the consoles.

This is fascinating to me. I am unclear, in many ways, about the extent of my own desire for ownership of the products I create. Specifically, I can say this: I wish for the experience of providing value more than I do for ownership of what I'm working onIt's totally possible for that to come through individual endeavors, but my experiences working alone have in many ways been lacking in this area, and my natural inclination now is to look for value in collaboration, not solitude. Ownership is secondary, as the benefits it has provided me have been limited by the ultimate value of the work I've done - which value is, I suspect, greater in collaborative settings than not.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

From the Amazon Shareholder Letter, 1998

During our hiring meetings, we ask people to consider three questions before making a decision:
Will you admire this person?
If you think about the people you’ve admired in your life, they are probably people you’ve been able to learn from or take an example from. For myself, I’ve always tried hard to work only with people I admire, and I encourage folks here to be just as demanding. Life is definitely too short to do otherwise.
Will this person raise the average level of effectiveness of the group they’re entering?
We want to fight entropy. The bar has to continuously go up. I ask  people to visualize the company 5 years from now. At that point, each of us should look around and say, “The standards are so high now -- boy, I’m glad I got in when I did!”
Along what dimension might this person be a superstar?
Many people have unique skills, interests, and perspectives that enrich the work environment for all of us. It’s often something that’s not even related to their jobs. One person here is a National Spelling Bee champion (1978, I believe). I suspect it doesn’t help her in her everyday work, but it does make working here more fun if you can occasionally snag her in the hall with a quick challenge: “onomatopoeia!”

Aaron Dignan on The worst game ever.

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Aaron Dignan, quoted by smartplanet earlier this year

Imagine playing a game where you only get feedback once a year in an annual review? It would be the worst game ever. And yet, that’s the game we play at work.

My last job prioritized production over team feedback.  It was, of course, not by design, and nobody would have actually articulated anything to that point, but looking back I regret not speaking up. But the nature of the company was that projects were sold before the infrastructure to deliver them was in place, and the result was that we were - at least during my time there - always behind schedule. Efforts were made to emphasize team building and open communication, but when projects are late by as much time as they were originally projected to be completed in, it's difficult to put much energy into anything but hurrying the hell up. 

In the end, I was complicit in these tendencies as well. I can distinctly recall the spacey way in which I would listen to my reports talk about their families; I absorbed as much as I needed in order to ask a question from time to time, but I wouldn't say I put a ton of effort into *really* hearing them. I was careful to provide positive feedback when warranted (and negative feedback when necessary), but our product's long term prospects were too hazy - and my own feelings about the company were too conflicted - for me to really engage in the discussions that I'm sure mattered most.

Hackweek Day 5

Added on by Spencer Wright.

Friday was Rubyday.  

On Thursday, Zach and I had banged out about a third of the Codecademy Ruby class. It was a good primer on Ruby syntax and basic usage, and I'll be completing it this week. But we wanted to get a little web dev practice in, and so on Friday we went through the "Getting Started with Rails" tutorial on RailsGuides.

The tutorial is great. My method is to hand-type (not copy/paste)  every section of code. I keep two BASH terminal windows open and got the Sublime Text command line tool running so I can quickly create files and edit them without touching my mouse.  There were a few anomalies in the tutorial that I had a little trouble with, but googling solved them in short order (It seems that the guide is written for Ruby 1.9.3, and the syntax for 2.0.0 requires a few changes).

By the end of the day, I had created a simple blog app and was hosting it locally. I should note that I don't totally understand the structure of all of what I did, but I got a bit of debugging in, and just typing the entire thing out really did help develop a basic feel for the framework.  I think it's also worthwhile to go through simple exercises like this, just to understand how little you know about the basic tools (e.g. blogs) that you get used to using on a daily basis. 

The net effect of the week: Every week should be like this. Which is to say, every week is hustle week.  

Of course, shit will get in the way. This week I need to be out of town for a couple days, and that'll inevitably throw me off a bit. But I will finish the Codecademy Ruby class. And I will make progress on my seatpost project, and I will move on to the Ruby On Rails Tutorial book. This last one is the most significant of the three, but I would hope to complete it in a matter of a week.


You know, for three years I worked alone building bikes. It was an incredibly lonely, frustrating time of my life, and in the end I allowed those factors to prevent me from learning all the relevant lessons that were available to me. I didn't hustle hard enough; I had a hard time learning things quickly enough. I'm learning more quickly now, and hustling harder. And though the burn will remain slow for a while, I'm betting that the blaze that results will be quite a bit more satisfying.


Added on by Spencer Wright.

summer approaches, and the current phase of my life has begun to take some shape. my life, and direction, is largely in flux, a fact which i have respect for - and some uneasiness about.

i've been going on my share of job interviews lately. i've also been dating, and talking a lot - to friends, acquaintances, and anyone who will listen - about the recent disruptions in my life, and the tack that i have taken as a result. i talk a lot about startups and new technologies, and inevitably i'm asked (often with a touch of skepticism), "so, why do you want to work in tech?"

in february, i quit my job on short notice and packed up my life to move to new york. my immediate goal was to explore areas of the world that have, for the past five years, been largely missing from my day-to-day life. i was primed for a pivot, and put much of my energy into discovering what was out there. since i graduated from college, i have worked primarily in construction, design and manufacturing, and these areas have been highly rewarding to me. i have had the opportunity to see significant projects to completion, an experience which has enriched my sense of accomplishment, strength and self worth. i have transformed physical space. my efforts - my sweat; my mental, emotional and corporal commitment - have enabled real people to engage in real interactions. my ideas - things i dreamed up - have been transformed into objects that my contemporaries use in their daily lives.

but i have also, to some extent, sat by as my generation has explored a collective interest in new modes of experience and interaction. every time someone would remark at how cool my bicycle framebuilding business was, i couldn't help but feel that their romantic appreciation of my craft carried with it a degree of unintended condescension. my thing, as it were, was cute. regardless of the personal satisfaction i gleamed from the work i did, my craft was mostly just a mimicry of a process that has been largely unchanged for a century. put more directly, nothing i was doing was changing the world.

another of my frustrations came from the risk inherent in a career in design. early on, i realized that the bicycles i built were only marginally better than their commoditized equivalents. sure, i had an aesthetic perspective, and there certainly are framebuilders who have built successful careers by differentiating their product in interesting ways. but income distribution in design professions tends to be long-tail; one needs to be very good - or at least very lucky - to be successful. in the bicycle industry, my career prospects were generally poor. whatever direction urban transportation is heading in, custom bicycle frames will forever be a niche product, and my impression remains that the industry is just about as flooded as the market for microbrewed beer.

so, GTTFP already: i want a pivot.

i have spent a while recently thinking about what, exactly, i have liked about my career. a few points:

  1. i like being appreciated.
  2. i like being compensated.
  3. i like being a little over my head. i prefer to stay right on the edge between the things i know i don't know and the things i don't know that i don't know.
  4. i like collaborating with people who are better at what they do than i am.
  5. i like having an understanding of long-term objectives, and i like being a significant factor in the achievement of those objectives.
  6. i like working with people like myself.
  7. i like being fully responsible for the execution of a project, however large or small.
  8. i like working on a new thing that will change some part of the world.
  9. i like working in emerging markets.
  10. i like working on things that people like me want, and want to interact with intimately.
  11. i like for the product values and interests that i have to overlap significantly with those of my collaborators and our product's users.
  12. i like being rewarded for my ability to identify, assess, analyze and solve problems, and i like it when those problems require me to learn about a new area of the world.
  13. i like clear objectives - and clear metrics by which they can be judged - over aesthetic, or "gut" feelings.
  14. i like working on general purpose technologies.
  15. i like working on cross-functional teams, and having responsibilities in many categories of business

some of these items depend largely on my position in an organization and the state of the project. some are temporal and are will change as industries shift. some are my own temporary baggage and will, given enough time, become less important.

but overall, the list reflects ideas that have been simmering in my mind for a long time. and they're things i feel strongly about. and looking back on my short career, i know that i have missed a few of them completely.

my career in construction, manufacturing and design has offered me appreciation, compensation, and challenge. it has offered me opportunities to work with bright, intelligent people on projects that i could conceive of both in close and far perspective. i have been rewarded for my analysis and problem solving abilities. i have been able to exercise a broad array of skills on a day to day basis.

but i have not, for the most part, worked with my contemporaries; nor have i worked for them. i have not changed the world, or been able to implement - and live by - the kinds of quantitative metrics that i would prefer be the measure of my project's success. in critical ways, my career has split me from my generation and the activities it values. and despite the fact that my career has offered me many opportunities to work with intelligent, interested people, it has more often put me in a place where the mere mention of wikipedia draws silence.

in short: i don't want to be the guy who knows how to attach a picture to your email.

i would prefer to be the guy who emails you to ask why the jQuery code he borrowed shows popups with 90% opacity in one context and 100% in others - and then figures it out on his own :). i want to be the guy who struggles to restore the firmware on his inherited XBee. i want to be the guy who doesn't really understand why you like Vesper so much. i want to be the guy who quizzes you about whether you would ever accept SLA parts as everyday objects.

it'll likely be a little while before the shape of my pivot's arc becomes defined. the list above represents what i know i don't know, and i'm still working out the boundary of that region and optimizing where i want to be in it. but i'm working on it.

  1. i prefer Paul Graham's excellent definition:

    A startup is a company designed to grow fast...For a company to grow really big, it must (a) make something lots of people want, and (b) reach and serve all those people."
  2. some months prior i had indicated my intention to move on, and i had been in communication with my boss regarding a six-month transition schedule. but as these things go, our interests were not aligned. my departure was a surprise to some, but not to my immediate counterparts or anyone in upper management. nevertheless, this specific aspect of the arc i now find myself following is one which continues to impose itself in my mental and emotional space.

  3. i did not consider myself to be a physical person until well into high school, when i began working - during spring and summer breaks - as a laborer for my father's construction company. the act of busting one's ass for eight or ten hours was powerful, and transformed the way i thought about my body and my level of toughness.

  4. even after i became fairly proficient, and even if i kept my living expenses low, it was essentially impossible for me to sell a bicycle for less than $2k. at that price, even my closest friends couldn't justify buying from me, and i took to admitting that most taiwanese made bikes were, really, just fine.

  5. cf. my recent post about Adam Davidson's fantastic nytimes piece.

  6. according to the Brewer's Association, the number of US breweries has gone from just 89 in 1980 to over 2400 in 2012. cf. also this beautiful graphic (taken from the same Brewer's Association data) from the New Yorker showing brewing industry change in 2012 by state.

  7. "Get to the fucking point." see Brad Feld on the subject.

  8. cf. the following excerpt from MGI's report on Disruptive Technologies:

    General-purpose technologies also tend to shift value to consumers, at least in the long run. This is because new technologies eventually give all players an opportunity to raise productivity, driving increased competition that leads to lower prices. General-purpose technologies can also enable — or spawn — more technologies. For example, steam power enabled the locomotive and railroads, and the printing press accelerated learning and scientific discovery. General-purpose technologies can take many forms — including materials, media, and new sources of energy — but they all share the ability to bring about transformative change.
  9. i reject the argument that the hobbies popularized by greater hipsterdom, e.g. beermaking, are genuinely valued; ultimately, society just isn't willing to pay a brewer the same salary that they'll pay a software developer.

  10. i have, after all, fixed my footnote opacity problem; i've got a plan for how to troubleshoot my XBees; i've got (and have mostly determined not to use) Vesper; and i'll go ahead and assert that most people don't want SLA parts on their desk, and won't change their minds about that anytime soon.