Archive | March 2009

Where I first saw Star Wars isn’t there anymore

I suppose it’s technically still there. It’s just a Target now. I went there today (visiting family in the Bay Area). It’s much cleaner and brighter than it was in the 70s. I remember where I sat. I could reconstruct the whole thing in my mind. I was sitting in the aisle because there was no room. Lots of kids were in the aisles: my brother, some cousins, a couple of friends. Totally unsafe, but utterly memorable, even though I was too little to understand the story. This morning, I walked over into that space where the movie had played over 30 years ago and could almost see the Tie Fighters and hear the popcorn dialogue.

“I sense something…a presence I haven’t felt since…”

I left the Bay Area in 1994. Since then, I’ve been down every couple of years or so to visit family and friends. It’s always felt a little foreign to me—I think the booming economy and rapid growth never quite fit my memory of growing up here.

This visit feels different. With the economy tanking, state government struggling, water rationing looming, it feels like…home. Music is getting grittier again. People are wearing their hair longer. It’s a weird Proustian flashback that wasn’t triggered by a cookie, but by the whole environment. Kind of like I’m the cookie and the world is having the flashback. 🙂

“California, here we come…right back where we started from”

As I’ve posted before, it’s taken longer than I thought to get to a v1.0 of our product. We’re there now, but we’ve run out of ramp to stay in Portland. We’ll need to sell the house and move back to the Bay Area to keep going. My family has been mentally preparing for the transition, but it will be hard to leave the great friends we’ve made and all the things we love about Portland.

On the plus side, it really does feel like we’re coming home. It will be good to spend more time with our families—something we haven’t been able to do over the past 15 years. It will be good to be in a technology center, a place where things are always happening and the innovative energy is extremely high. I just visited a friend who works at Google (and grew up in Portland) and was amazed at how much he loved being here and how energized he was by the people and the South Bay. I’m looking forward to being a part of this again.

Something I will regret in moving back, though, is having crystal clear childhood memories overlaid and muddied by the new ones of being here. I think I’ll have lost something special that first time I drive by and see only Target and Starbucks instead of Festival Cinemas and Doggie Diner.

It is sunnier, though 🙂

Doggie Diner

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Doing one thing at a time

So I was at Nice Rice to pick up a snack for me and my wife. I like going there because it’s nearby and the owner is there a lot — when the owner is cooking the food, you know it’s gonna be good. The owner was there this evening.

As I entered the restaurant, I passed another guy (who must have also been ordering something for himself and his wife). Approaching the counter, I saw the owner finishing up this guy’s order. I don’t know why, but I kind of expected him to stop chopping up the chicken, take my order, and then finish. He didn’t do that. He glanced up briefly and said that he would be with me in a moment, and then returned to what he was doing.

While I was waiting, I thought about what had just happened. The owner could’ve stopped what he was doing and taken my order (why not make sure he got another sale?), but he was in the middle of cooking a meal and was focused entirely on that. I have to say I respect that. Too often, you see people running around between a bunch of tasks, not doing any of them well. It’s far better to focus on one thing at a time and do excellent work.

The Korean beef (bulgogi) and broccoli I ordered was absolutely delicious.

Engaged Detachment

“You perceived it [the wall], so it was there. But now you have accepted the unacceptable, and the wall no longer blocks your path.”

— the Ancient One, in “Doctor Strange” (2007)

Workplace Enlightenment

A few years ago, I had a bad boss, a boss so bad that people with decades of experience said that this was the worst boss they ever had, someone who consistently and continuously drove the best talent out of the organization. My point in bringing this up is not to complain but rather to explain how I achieved a certain type of workplace enlightenment that I call “Engaged Detachment”.

When you go into work, you want to do a good job. If you are an individual contributor, then doing a good job is in your best interests. If you are a manager, then sometimes doing a good job means doing things that are not in your best interests, or even your manager’s, but is in the best interests of the organization as an enterprise. I touched upon this in an earlier post. This is a tough spot to be in. It’s tough because most managers (and people) do things for selfish reasons (I suppose that’s what “rational behavior” is, after all). Such managers will never do anything that doesn’t benefit themselves. If you suggest that a typical manager do anything that limits their power or influence, even if it benefits the organization as a whole, odds are that you will be shot down. It’s a shame because in the long run, doing things in the interests of the enterprise will ultimately benefit everyone.

In such a situation, you have two main strategies:

  1. Salute your boss, request direction, and carry out your instructions.
  2. Fight with your boss, reject direction, and ignore your instructions.

While it may be fun to pick the second strategy, this is the surest way to burn through all of your political capital and then be fired. Even if you do things for the benefit of the organization and others see that, a bad boss can subtly ruin your reputation and take you down. There is no way to make the second strategy work. An organization cannot function if everyone (or even a few people) worked this way. The fundamental problem is that an organization with bad managers and bad leaders will be a bad organization. There isn’t anything you can do about this — unless you’re a stellar leader coming in as the next CEO (or if you start your own company 🙂 ).

The first strategy is hard to swallow because it can destroy your soul. It can lead to frustration, unhappiness, and stress. It can spill over into the rest of your life and impact your family, your friends, and your children. It can ruin your life. It can tempt you to complain to your co-workers, or talk behind your manager’s back, or complain to your staff. This is not productive. This creates a vicious cycle of negativity. At some point this will probably lead to the second strategy. So what should you do?

Engaged Detachment

Being stuck in this predicament, and being, I think, a thoughtful person :-), I spent a lot of time reflecting on what I should do. After a few weeks, the phrase “engaged detachment” popped into my mind. At first, I dismissed this as a nonsense phrase like “dry water” or “popular engineer”, but the more I thought about it, the more it began to make sense. In order to properly function in an organization that doesn’t make sense, you have to be engaged in your work, but you must also be detached from it; if you get too wrapped up in your work, you’ll go nuts. You have to somehow detach yourself from your job in order maintain your self. I touched upon this briefly in “You aren’t what you do (for a paycheck)“. If you can do this, you will have reached some kind of workplace enlightenment.

The first rule of Fight Club is…

I recently watched “Fight Club” for the first time. Not sure how I missed it in ’99, but I watched it now because Chris Brogan posted that it was his favorite movie — and because he had a picture of his DVD shelf that included “Iron Man”, “Gotham Knight” (I’m sure “Doctor Strange” was somewhere to the left). Anyways, in the middle of “Fight Club”, Brad Pitt’s character proclaims “You are not your job!”. That’s a good mantra.

Moment of Enlightenment

For me, realizing “engaged detachment” was really just a moment in time. I could see how I could do my job without destroying my self, and I began to practice this but it wasn’t something that I wanted to do forever. This momentary enlightenment — a flash of insight into the world — offers you something of enormous value. It lets you make sense of where you are so you can take another step on your life’s road. For me, that step was engineering an exit plan so I could start a company that would fix a big, deep problem that every organization faces but which no one knew how to fix, the problem that led me to “engaged detachment” in the first place.

My company has a solution to this problem that I’m getting ready to take out to the world. I’ll keep you posted.

Thoughts?

If anyone has any thoughts on any of this, please share!