Blog posts

You might be a creative if …

You enjoy the contents of your mind more than what’s on TV.

You wake in the morning and your first thought is fuck yeah! And when it is fuck no! you embrace that shit too.

You factored a trinomial because they made you.

You don’t define a human experience based on its selfie count.

You’ve instinctively reached for your phone only to realize you don’t give a fuck.

You are less proud of the code you wrote than the possibilities it creates.

You’ve never complained about not having someone to play with.

Your favorite friends are the ones who don’t always agree with you.

Other people … stayed up all night pondering something you said or did or
couldn’t stop thinking about something you wrote or made.

You see colleagues as sources of inspiration and not as competition.

Music, peace and a damn good buzz will never fall off your bucket list no matter how many times you’ve enjoyed them.

You didn’t choose to be a creative … creativity chose you.

Why I left Google Redux

Google is worse than I thought four years ago. Its sickness may well be fatal. 

I left Google. I then exercised my freedom of speech and blogged about it. The post went viral. Now 4 years later it still resurfaces as a topic of conversation. I’m no less surprised now as I was then but I am also no less inclined to join the conversation since, after all, I started it.

As many astute readers note, mine wasn’t a rant about a big company because I joined a bigger one in Microsoft. It also wasn’t about any grievance I had with my employment. Google treated me well and I reciprocated by fulfilling my role on a number of important products and being an effective proponent of Google’s developer story. We were a thing. James and Google. Jamoogle? Goojames? Doesn’t quite have the ring of Brangelina or Trumpence, but still, a thing.

Come on, I can’t be the only one who has a once-cherished affair in his past. Let those one-and-done souls cast the first stone. The rest of you can read on and reflect on the doubts that have occasionally caused you to change course.

As is the case with many fractured relationships, it began with an awakening of sorts; a realization that behind the free food, do-no-evil blather and the smoke-and-mirrors glitter was lurking something that was at odds with my core value system. Google wasn’t just not “the one,” they were flawed to the point that I had to ask myself just what I was thinking ever consummating the relationship in the first place. I had been duped by the glitter into working for a company that nearly single-handedly shifted the economy of computing from value to advertising. You didn’t have to be good to get noticed in the Google ecosystem. You didn’t even have to provide a single iota of actual value. You certainly didn’t have to build something people wanted so much they would part with their money to get it. All you had to do was buy your way to page 1. Value and relevance could be trumped in favor of cold, hard cash. Money provided a short cut that only the rich could take.

All those free services Google was doling out were drawing huge crowds and being funded by taxing the businesses who coveted those crowds. Gather the masses and control access to them. Exact tolls that allow the noisy to drown out the useful, the wealthy to overwhelm the insightful. Provide a system that allows one brand to hijack another’s simply because they are willing to pay more for placement. Obscure this pay-to-play by gradually blurring the distinction between advertisements and actual links and what you have is a system rigged in favor of the wealthy. Google took the promise of the internet’s level playing field and ransomed it to the rich.

Google was in the middle of every transaction, deciding who got heard and who got ignored. A system where the well-funded got more attention than the well-qualified. The already rich had advantage over the simply good. Our politicians may debate what to do about worsening wealth and income inequality but its cause is clear: when companies like Google advantage those who pay over those who do … there can be little debate over why the rich are getting richer and the rest of the world is having trouble getting noticed. Being on page one is a major advantage and money is the quickest way to claim that advantage. The internet as a great leveler will have to wait until someone else’s watch.

I am not blind to the fact that Microsoft has followed Google’s lead in choosing ads as the monetization model for their own search engine Bing. I cannot and will not defend a business model (not even to keep my job) that allows the wealthy to use nothing more than said wealth to win. However, the fact remains that Microsoft is a company that makes the vast majority of its income by providing products that people are actually willing to pay for. Microsoft has a choice of how it monetizes its innovation and largely chooses value. Windows, the most popular operating system in the world, is sold based on its value and no one can pay to place an app on page 1 of its marketplace. Contributors understand that it is value and value alone that determines placement.

Google, on the other hand, has backed itself into an everything-is-free corner. Can Google ever expect consumers to pay for any of their products given this history of free? If Google somehow invents the future, we’re all going to have to watch a video ad before they take us there. And once there, we’re going to have to pause from our work every time Google decides it needs to pay a few bills. Is this a future any of us want?

But before I get to that future, let’s go back to Google+, the target of my original ire. History has shown my take to be pretty accurate. As a product it was one big-ass don’t care, an epic embarrassment for Google. Perhaps in hindsight we might have realized that old, rich dudes (the brains behind Google+) don’t know a damn thing about social. All their wealth provides a barrier between those old dudes and the real world that prevents them from understanding how the real world, of which social is now a big part, actually works. Perhaps products targeted at social-savvy people should actually be conceived by social-savvy people. That’s how you get Snapchat which stands as proof that innovation in social is possible. Google+ didn’t fail because the world didn’t need another social network. It failed because Google didn’t understand social.

But if you stop your analysis there, you aren’t giving the old rich guys enough credit. They didn’t take ownership of this planet by being stupid. You see their money may shield them from the real world, but the world of money they know very well. And within that world, G+ was one huge success. The product brought a lot of attention to Google’s services. It created an initial buzz and demand that got people to login to their account. Admit it. I bet you are logged into your Gmail account right now. Before G+, Google knew you only from the machine and browser you employed. Now they know exactly who you are and can track you across the web and across their services. Google+ trained users to login and stay logged in. Chalk one up for the old rich guys. We all fell into the trap. Thanks to G+, Google knows more about you than ever and guess what they are doing with that knowledge? That’s right, using it to advantage advertisers. The wealthy have, even in failure, enriched the wealthy.

That is neither the world I want nor a business model I can champion. I want to work for a company whose business model advantages the useful. I want a business environment that rewards the innovative. I want an economy based on the ability to create value rather than the means to buy popularity.

I want that. I think everything from Brexit to the popularity of anti-establishment politicians like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump prove a whole bunch of us want it too. Do any of us really expect Google to deliver it?

And with that attitude I can’t rationalize any other employer than the one I have. Microsoft isn’t without its history. It isn’t without its blemishes. But as a technology company it isn’t about selling to the 1%. It isn’t about empowering advertisers above everyone else. As a business Microsoft makes money through its partners meaning we make money only when others make money. As a technology company Microsoft is essentially the union of its competitors making it a powerful force for forging the future. It’s products and services subsume the offerings of Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon (sans Walmart compete). As such, it is humanity’s best chance at a level playing field.

Do I hate Google? Absolutely not. I cannot preach value without recognizing a company when they provide it. I use Gmail and Chrome. I trust Google Maps. I respect Android’s fight against Apple’s elitism. When Google’s products provide value, I gravitate to them because of that value. It’s their business model I hate.

But the real danger to Google isn’t my ire. Google’s cluelessness with G+ is a harbinger of their future. As they bob around in their big, bureaucratic bowl of alphabet soup, they are losing sight of the changing face of consumers. A new generation is coming and their value system is polar opposite from the greed represented by Google. The vanguard of Gen Z is now college age and along with their kindred Millennial spirits they are rejecting the old-rich-guy way of life and rewriting the rules of education, business and social consciousness. They are autodidacts and prefer owning less and sharing more. They cherish living small and communalizing assets. They couch surf and Uber. They Airbnb and shun the big brands. They take only what they need and gravitate toward simple pleasures. They are turning their back on the kind of greed that made Google and lining up in historic numbers behind the greater good represented by people like Bernie Sanders. When Google loses the next generation, their position as the multiplier of Boomer and Xer wealth will mean their permanent irrelevance.

Google’s primary hope is in taking stock of their products and services and understanding that there are better ways to enrich themselves and their shareholders than selling relevance to the highest bidder. I would be the first to congratulate them if they suddenly woke up and discovered that within their own ecosystem are buyers and sellers that can be directly connected through value rather than their ability to market clicks. Indeed, they might implement something similar to my suggestion to Twitter about monetizing the value inherent in their ecosystem instead of being lazy and slapping ads on everything. But until then, count me tired of the commercials, tired of the uneven playing field and appalled at the growing wealth divide that they exacerbate.

Google has proved it is capable of building great products. Surely they are capable of providing value that people, not just advertisers, are actually willing to pay for. Until then I fight the good fight alongside my home team in Redmond, Washington.

Taking my own medicine

I often watch myself present, a prerequisite for getting better. Seeing your own flaws, hearing your own voice and watching your own movement on stage is a humbling experience. Self esteem is mostly for the self delusional. For the rest of us, it is a work in progress.

But it was something I said in one of my videos that stopped me in my tracks. Here I am giving other people advice about reinventing themselves during a course on career development that I’ve given 100 times. 

The irony struck me hard. Time to start taking my own medicine.

I’ve reinvented myself a number of times during my career and each time it was like losing an old friend. The first was when I left software testing, a decade long endeavor for which I became well known, for computer security where I was a nobody. If you think its no big deal, try doing it. Try leaving something you’ve mastered for something you need to learn from scratch. Anyone who has done it knows what I am talking about. It was the bravest career decision I had made and then I did it again when I abandoned security for cloud computing and again when I abandoned that for leadership.

The hardest part, by some stretch, are all the people telling you that you are making a mistake. How many testers felt like I abandoned them? How many still do? Obligation is an anchor. Other people’s needs are too big a burden for me. I’ve narrowed that obligation down to the two people I helped put on this planet, everyone else is just going to have to get used to being disappointed. I have one life and I choose write, direct and choreograph it myself.

So I have decided to sunset both my Career Superpowers course and my Art of Stage Presence course and anyone who doesn’t like it I refer to Bob Dylan who famously sang “he not busy being born is busy dying.” I am not yet ready to die. And I certainly will not be guided there by others who’ve gotten used to a specific flavor of James.

But I have learned lessons from my previous rebirths. Some of them have worked better than others. Stating it simply: when you leave one life for another, pack a bag and take some of what you learned with you. When I abandoned testing for security, I took much of what I learned in testing with me into the security field. Testing gave me a big leg-up on learning security because at the heart of both disciplines are software flaws. Some of what I knew about software quality applied to security. You see, a smart rebirth is really more of a reinvention than a completely fresh start.

In fact, my transition into cloud computing was such a fresh restart and it didn’t work too well for me. I spent 4 years learning the field only to abandon it. Maybe it was my age, who knows? Perhaps taking 4 years to learn something in your 20s doesn’t seem like the investment that four years in your 40s seems to be. There is so much less life ahead of you that completely starting over seems like that much tougher a decision.

So I took a look at what I could salvage from my two courses. I am happy to say that I found something that will simultaneously give me a leg-up on my new specialty and also allow me to take a fresh look at the world. The result will be a partial rebirth. I will be able to inject some new thinking into what I have been doing for the last two years without wholly abandoning my past.

It turns out the creativity is the common thread that binds my career course and the brain science on it is fascinating. I am going to hit that hard. And when it comes to stagecraft, once again there is a common thread about the neural coupling that occurs between speaker and audience that I am studying in earnest. I am not so much hoping for a breakthrough as I am expecting it.

So neither course is being killed so much as they are being reborn. Watch for their replacements this fall when I restart my teaching schedule and bring something old, something new, many things borrowed but nothing blue (except perhaps my mood).

/jw