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Essays

The Disaster Factory

Posted on Jul 12 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Knauss first appeared in Offscreen Issue 8 (now sold out).

I’m a programmer, and therefore live in a world of worst-case scenarios. Networks fail, hard drives crash, and those troublesome human beings persist in disgorging all sorts of nonsense into every interface my software has. Computers are incredibly complex and delicate systems, and they fail in dramatic and unexpected ways, without warning, every day.

No, no, I’m fine. My eye twitches like that all the time.

In an environment as insanely chaotic as our modern technological infrastructure – made up of the most advanced science we have, and often held together with chewing gum and good intentions – the only rational response is a deep and abiding paranoia. Experience has taught me to see my software as a writhing mass of Achilles’ heels, a horrific Shoggoth, every line of code a potential disaster. And so I wrap each in a thick, protective layer of negative assumptions, so that when things do go wrong – and they will – the program can (best case) recover quickly or (worst case) not actually kill anyone.

I wish I was exaggerating. Twenty years ago, a few weeks into my first professional programming job, I read a story about the software in a certain type of X-ray machine. An overflow bug had been found, and the upshot was that the machine had been accidentally mega-dosing every 256th person it scanned, effectively giving them cancer. Paranoia doesn’t seem response enough.

By the way, don’t mention this at parties. People tend to look concerned and then sidle away. And never follow up with the story about the rocket that exploded because of a misplaced semicolon.

But programmers – engineers of all stripes – can’t afford to look away. They need a relentlessly negative outlook, to come up with the most horrific thing imaginable, add contingencies to prevent it, and then invent something even worse. It’s what keeps our mechanised world ticking along, what keeps most catastrophic failures safely theoretical and leaves computers merely frustrating instead of murderous. While most have heard of Murphy’s Law – “Anything that can go wrong, will.” – only the nerds know Finagle’s corollary: “...at the worst possible moment.”

Hug a coder, folks. They could use it. Because what the software industry calls ‘best practice’, psychologists call ‘catastrophic thinking’, and it’s awfully hard to spend ten hours a day worrying about disaster and not have the aptitude you develop for it follow you home, like sentient toxic sludge from a grade-B monster movie. It can infect your relationships, your personality, your real life.

For me, it took years to even see that it was happening. Unanswered phone calls became car accidents. Marital tiffs became grounds for divorce. Heavy traffic became late arrivals became missed opportunities became career stagnation became destitution. Anxiety at the omnipresent but-what-ifs grew until the entire world was shadowed by the spectre of inevitable but unrealised doom. The true pleasures of the real world – serendipity, trust, joy, love – became suspect, not to be believed, traps waiting to be sprung.

But the realisation that I was unconsciously extrapolating to the worst-case scenario in my personal life has helped me enormously. Anxiety defeats the rational mind by preventing a sensible examination of itself; it panics you into action at the expense of introspection and self-assessment. But assessment – the quiet, sensible consideration of risks, outcomes, costs, benefits – is vital to a well-lived life. Reward comes from risk, and a life without risk is a life spent under the bed, cowering.

It’s well-worn common sense that programmers need a break from the keyboard every once in a while. They should be standing and stretching and refocusing their eyes. They should get regular exercise and eat right. They should probably not have the local pizza place on speed-dial.

But programmers should also take a break from programming, from the mindset it inspires and the rationale it requires. Stepping away from the machine is both a physical and mental act. Seeing the world afresh, with clear and unswayed eyes, is as important and rejuvenative as a long walk or a good night’s sleep. Just as programming requires the world to be viewed as endlessly dangerous, perpetually teetering on chaos, actually living in it often calls for the exact opposite.

Because the world is a beautiful place, your friends and family love you, and the warm sun in the sky isn’t going to go nova anytime soon. Probably.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Save Yourself

Posted on Jul 05 2017 in Essays

This essay by Greg Hoy first appeared in Offscreen Issue 10 (now sold out).

Not too long ago, while sitting in my office, I took off my glasses, put my head in my hands, and cried. It was the culmination of the toughest year of my working life, and more specifically, of my fifteen years of running a company. As I squinted into my dark, brackish palms, I had visions of laughing with my co-workers over a drink after sales pitches, celebrating project launches, and laying carpet squares, prepping our beautiful new office. It all came rushing back in a Vaseline-lensed retrospective.

If you invest a lot of time in something you’re passionate about, it becomes a part of you. For me, that passion happens to be running a company. And after a while, you have no longer a say in the matter. Whether you’re cutting grass, driving, or sleeping, you’re thinking about just one thing. It’s an involuntary response, like breathing. Or recoiling when you see Guy Fieri.

Back then I knew I had to start my own company, because I was so often disappointed by other people I worked for. They didn’t take time to get to know you. They were short-tempered. They didn’t participate in the business anymore. And while I sensed they once inspired people, I saw little evidence of it myself. They appeared beaten down.

So I decided to create the company I longed to work for. In the beginning, it was just a small group, and it felt like family. We had fun, and things felt effortless. I sold the work, managed projects, and designed websites. We were swamped with opportunities, so much so that we had the luxury of selecting the clients we wanted. There was almost no overhead, and the projects paid well. The industry was still blossoming, and while we weren’t a big fish, we were one of only a few in our pond.

At one point, the opportunist in me realised that hiring more people would enable us to take on more work. Soon, we were ten, then fifteen. People would ask me, “How many people do you want to grow to?” and I’d respond, “No more than twenty, that’s for sure.” In 2011, we had a headcount of twenty-four. A merger and an additional business partner later, we’ve added ten people on top of that. Before I knew what hit me, we had multiple layers of management, closed door strategy meetings, and multiple project teams. We relied on messaging systems to communicate instead of speaking to one another face-to-face. It led to unconstructive backchannel communications, conflicting roles and responsibilities, and people not taking vested interests in one another – myself included. A young employee once came up to me and said, “I had no idea you were once a web designer. I just saw it on your LinkedIn profile.” Of course he didn’t. It was maybe the third conversation we’d had, and he’d been with the company for almost a year.

While all this was happening, the web design field was changing dramatically. Things were getting crowded. We found ourselves competing against our own alumni. Sales cycles started to take forever, clients pulled budgets, and contracts became more restrictive. You can see where this is headed. Lots of employees, not a lot of work. The math makes your next decision for you.

My teary-eyed moment came shortly before I finally accepted the fact that everything I loved about those early days was gone. And several of my long-time colleagues have since echoed the same. The camaraderie, the ability to anticipate each others’ every move, even the trust – it all felt like a chore to encourage and maintain.

I have two young boys. When I see them every day, they look the same, and they don’t act very differently than the day before. But when I go away for a week and come back, they look so grown up. They say things I’ve never heard them say. Somehow, running a business feels the same way. My biggest challenge has been focusing on what’s right in front of me. To adapt with it, but to also appreciate it.

Today, our company is smaller. I’ve experienced what growth for growth’s sake is, and for me, it’s an unfulfilled prophecy. More people to enable more work didn’t make things better. And I was starting to show some of the negative traits of bosses I’d had in the past, the very people I tried to get away from.

The lesson I’ve learned is that you shouldn’t be afraid to stick with what feels right. The passion you bring to the table is directly dependent upon your level of happiness. If it’s all a chore, you have to figure out why. You may have even contributed to it. Own up to it. Then save yourself.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

The Grip of Now

Posted on Jul 03 2017 in Essays

This essay by Ben Callahan first appeared in Offscreen Issue 12 (now sold out).

I recently got a chance to visit the famous Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Most people know it as a Gothic church covered in gargoyles, the home of Quasimodo, or – for the architecture buffs out there – one of the first buildings in the world to use the flying buttress. While all of these tidbits of information are fascinating, what stuck with me was the history of its construction: it was started in 1163, and completed in 1345. It took almost 200 years to build, and it’s still standing 700 years later. Between five and nine builders are credited with the construction; most of them died before its completion.

What an odd thing, to commit your life to something you know you’ll never see finished. No addiction to the rush of shipping to keep you going, only solidarity with those working alongside you and the vision of something greater than yourself.

In the ’30s, the Empire State Building took just over a year to build. The Willis Tower in Chicago took three. The tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, took a ‘seemingly endless’ six years. In our own industry, digital projects are usually measured in weeks or months. Today’s web workers will hold between twelve and fifteen jobs in their lifetime. That averages out to around four years of commitment to each job. And this is all made even more startling when we consider how long our work lasts. Basically, it doesn’t. Apps are outdated almost immediately with the release of new hardware and operating systems. The web is flying by. Our work is fleeting.

Ray Kurzweil wrote about the Law of Accelerating Returns back in 2001, suggesting that the rate of technological evolution grows exponentially. This means we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century. It will be more like 20,000 years of progress at today’s rate. His work explains why we can build amazing structures faster today than ever before. What it doesn’t explain is how this impacts us as makers: how the immediacy with which we can create changes us.

‘Good things come to those who wait.’ Everything in our industry pushes against this aphorism. From indispensible continuous integration tools to the latest web development frameworks, it’s all presented under the guise of making us more productive and better contributors. None of this is done with malintent, of course, but we’ve lost the long view. And with each push to production comes that shipping high. It’s self-feeding – a roundabout with no exit where we test how fast we can go and still make the turn.

Part of me wishes there were a balance to the formula, that the amount of time it takes to create something would directly impact its longevity. Of course, this is not true. And even if it were, it would be nearly impossible to measure. Miles Davis and his band recorded their album Kind of Blue in a matter of days, and the end result is considered the greatest jazz recording of all time. This was only possible because of the decades of experience each player had gained before they ever set foot in the studio. In a sense, they had been preparing for those sessions their entire lives.

Which makes me wonder, what are we preparing for?

If the things we produce are merely a symptom of who we’re becoming, maybe we should ask ourselves who that is. How do we implore the next generation of makers to take their time, to hone their craft, to see their current accomplishments as foundational to their life’s work? But also, how do we make them recognise that most things worth doing cannot be done alone? Like those who spent their lives building Notre Dame, we need to understand our role in the grand vision. Every product we release is a brick in a new kind of cathedral – one that connects us all, from its foundation to its spire. And it’s this architecture that holds us together, taking its strength from our diversity.

For you and me – for all of us – there is much left to do. Are you willing to commit, knowing that you’ll never see it finished?

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

Latte Art Therapy

Posted on Jun 21 2017 in Essays

This essay by Anne Sage first appeared in Offscreen Issue 13 (now sold out).

2013 was a rough year. I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles. I walked away from the thriving business I’d helped to build. And I closed the door on my marriage. Today, professional contacts still invite me to Bay Area events and are surprised to learn that I haven’t lived there in almost three years. New colleagues express shock when I name myself as the co-founder of a well-known online media property. And casual acquaintances meet with disbelief the revelation not only that I’m divorced, but that I was ever married in the first place.

Before the rise of social media, I would not have expected anyone but my closest friends to know the intimate details of my life. However, as we increasingly broadcast our daily minutiae to an ever-growing network of loosely connected followers, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that our hairdresser can describe what we ate for breakfast before we even sit down in her chair. Take into further account the fact that since 2008 I’ve acquired a small degree of internet recognition through my blog, and it seems odd indeed that these pivotal points of my personal history remain shrouded.

Yet a look back at my Instagram feed from that tumultuous time reveals nothing of my divorce, my career upheaval, or the emotional havoc that came with both. The image gallery reads more like a modern homemaker’s almanac – roses, latte art, thrift store sprees – than the visual diary of a young woman mourning the passing of life as she knew it. There’s no mention of the midnight junk food binges or the crying jags on the bathroom floor, the bounced checks or the rejected credit applications. Given the shiny veneer I lacquered over my struggles, it’s no wonder that few beyond my intimate circle know I was a hot mess for the better part of two years.

It’s possible to scroll back to those photos and lump them with an issue that has garnered much attention lately: the concerns over FOMO (‘fear of missing out’) and its accompanying pressure to project a flawless online image that defies reality. And indeed, I’m the first to admit that plenty of those 'latte-grams' stemmed from the desire to hide my mess with a filtered facade. However, with hindsight I’ve determined that this desire arose less from a place of outward comparison than from a deep sense of self-preservation. More than I wanted likes and comments, I craved the healing peace of privacy.

Plainly put, I wasn’t ready to tell my story. Nor was it exclusively mine to tell. The recently altered relationships were too tenuous, the just-cut ties too raw. So I retreated behind the sheltering wall of social media. I drew pleasure from snapping sunny photos and giving them pithy captions uncoloured by my inner shadows. Meanwhile, I dwelt in my loveless, jobless present, reflecting on my role in the past hurt and drama, and on my vision for a kinder, calmer future. My online restraint represented an expression of the care and respect that I’d previously denied my marriage, my business partners, and myself; and my determination to maintain an upbeat social media presence inspired a continual quest for reasons to smile. I emerged from this contemplative time anchored as I hadn’t been before in my values, my responsibilities, and my intention to leave a positive legacy on the long memory of the internet.

In our current cultural obsession with buzzwords like ‘authenticity’ and ‘transparency', we forget that there’s a time and a place for airing our grief – and that the internet isn’t always it. While public vulnerability can indeed dilute the isolating effects of FOMO by grounding us in common experience, an equally solid foundation awaits us when we remove our hearts from our sleeves and hold them quietly, tenderly, to our chests. My Instagram feed from those difficult years stands not in defiance of reality but rather in support of a powerful truth: that even through a veil of pain and confusion, we can choose to seek and share a moment of beauty. And that when we’re wandering lost in the dark, even roses and latte art can be a radiant light at the end of the tunnel.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

An Exist Strategy

Posted on Jun 16 2017 in Essays, Popular

This essay by Natasha Lampard first appeared in Offscreen Issue 15 (now sold out).

In a picturesque valley, nestled in the southern alps of Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture, lies a traditional Japanese hot spring hotel, an onsen. It’s not big. There are fewer than 40 rooms. Unlike other typical onsens, which operate during certain hours, the baths at this onsen are open 24 hours a day to serve its patrons. The water is of the highest quality – pure, alkaline, neither artificially heated nor treated. The meals served aim to 'balance taste, texture, appearance, and the season'. Fresh, seasonal ingredients are used, foraged and caught in the nearby mountains and rivers.

The staff are hardworking, courteous, and committed to exemplary service. They embody omotenashi: the spirit of selfless service and humble hospitality. With an understanding that each of those they serve has different needs, there is a desire to put their patrons first, personalise their experience, and exceed expectations. The staff are dedicated not to reaching the top of the corporate ladder, but instead to protecting the onsen, to help it thrive and preserve it for years to come.

They have done so for many, many years. Over 1,300 years in fact. Established in 705 A.D., Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan is the oldest company in the world. It opened during the Middle Ages, before the Islamic Conquest of Spain, a full millennium before the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America. When the onsen opened, the country of my birth, New Zealand, had yet to be discovered by our Maori ancestors. And in all that time, this onsen has been operated by the same family – currently in its 52nd generation of continuous management. Some members of staff have held the same post for generations, passing it from parent to child, child to grandchild, grandchild to great-grandchild.

The onsen has stayed small. They know what they do, and they do what they know. Their focus on service is relentless. They are a team united in its mission to protect, to nurture, to tend to, to keep alive – a delicate balance of continuation, innovation, and dedication that has endured for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Over 1,300 years after the onsen first opened its doors, I sit in my home office and skim through the morning news: congratulatory interviews and enthused reviews with 'startup gurus' celebrating exits and acquisitions – the ultimate end goals reached. And I wonder...

Did Fujiwara Mahito, founder of the onsen, have an exit strategy? I wonder if his children, his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren or his great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren ever considered their exit strategies? I imagine they didn't. I imagine they focused not on an exit strategy, but on an exist strategy – a strategy based on the idea of sticking around.

Recently, I've been thinking a lot about how fulfilling it would be to have my children all working alongside me, to have them share in the love and passion of my business, to have them want to protect it, nurture it, nourish it, tend to it, craft it, feel grateful for it, and try to keep it going for a long time, for themselves and future generations.

I wonder what decisions we would make differently if we inherited the work we do? What if our 'exits' were bestowing upon someone we love the thing we have created and crafted over a lifetime? What if the focus wasn’t on selling up and moving on, but instead was on handing down and passing on? What if this 'longtrepreneurial' thinking had a bigger overflow effect, changing our sense of community, government, and the planet?

Digital strategist Shelley Bernstein once said that one of the greatest challenges currently facing us is how to interact meaningfully with the people we serve. Interact meaningfully with the people we serve. Not eyeballs. Not users. But people.

Success, surely, needn’t be measured only by the hockey stick or the exit sign. We can choose to remain small. We can choose to devote ourselves to something that serves and respects and delights people. We can choose to do our small things in small ways, which over a period of time can build upon themselves. In the spirit of omotenashi we can find meaning, pride, and fulfilment in what we do, continually and selflessly. Surely, that is success too.

Enjoyed this essay? Buy available issues of Offscreen for more thought-provoking reading material in beautiful print.

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