Semi-Random Walks #4: Andrew Hyde, a true global citizen

On this episode we talk with Andrew Hyde, man about town and the world. Growing up in rural Oregon, Andrew never dreamed he’d be where he is now. He’s done a lot in the last ten years or so. Below are links to some of the things mentioned in the episode.

Also, check out Andrew’s post about his experience in Nepal. It’s not your typical travelogue.

The opening music is the track “Olodum” (which also is the group’s name) on Bahia Black’s Ritual Beating System. Below is a video of Olodum performing with multi-instrumentalist Sadao Watanabe on saxophone.

I first got interested in Brazilian bateria because I was a major band geek in high school and college, especially drum lines because that I was a snare drummer. Check out the video below of Blast!, a Broadway show that really showcases what’s possible. Not as much swing as you find in Brazil, but man do I get off on this stuff.

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Semi-Random Walks #3: StickerGiant founder John Fischer

Today in Semi-Random Walks we talk with John Fischer, founder and CEO of StickerGiant. Among many talents, John has a knack for PR. You don’t want to miss his explanation of this incident that got him arrested by the Secret Service.

When I got to their offices John was in the middle of an IT crisis, so I hung out for 15 minutes and took a few pictures. They have a non-nonsense office space, which we discuss in the interview. Also something one notices right off the bat when visiting StickerGiant is, people there are genuinely friendly. There’s an energy to both the company and the surrounding town of Hygiene that subtly encourages you to whistle while you work. Listen in as John tells us how StickerGiant has built a great company culture.

Check out some photos of StickerGiant’s offices below.

John Fischer in problem solving mode with his infrastructure team.

John Fischer (left) in problem solving mode with StickerGiant’s infrastructure team.

StickerGiant's rules for success

I like #5 best.

 

Daily affirmations - as stickers!

Daily affirmations – as stickers!

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Semi-Random Walks #2: Actor/Entrepreneur David H. Lawrence XVII

I was really psyched to interview the actor and radio personality David H. Lawrence XVII. That’s right: the 17th! Listen to the podcast to find out that came to pass. (Make sure you browse his Wikipedia page too.)

And check out all these film and TV credits! What’s even cooler is he didn’t even pursue acting professionally until he was in his forties. And when he did, he didn’t just show up in Hollywood. He had a systematic plan that practically guaranteed success.

You’ll also hear about his Rehearsal mobile app. Why he created it, how we built it, and what he did to boost sales over 4000% after struggling initially. And I just realized he also teaches voiceover. We didn’t even get to that in the interview.

Follow David on Twitter at @dhlawrencexvii

Also in this episode

I do a short tribute to drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson. Check out this obituary by Modern Drummer magazine referencing a letter I wrote to him 23 years ago.

My all time favorite Ronald Shannon Jackson recording is the album Strange Meeting from Power Tools, which unfortunately appears to be out of print. (I used to own both vinyl and CD versions of it, but a few years ago I donated most of my recordings to the library. Now I’m pissed because those are probably collector items now.)

Below is a video of the group playing live in Germany (if you’ve only got a couple minutes, skip ahead to about 3:30 where they start to shred). You might also like this Fresh Air review of some posthumously released material of Jackson’s.

(This is not the SRW episode. Scroll down a little further for that)

This is Semi-Random Walks #3. David looks fierce, no?

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The Pains of Scaling Beyond the Core

I was reading today’s First Round Capital post about The Case for Why Marketing Should Have Its Own Engineers. It’s a great post that talks about how there is often a tension between the needs of marketing and engineering. Given how deeply ingrained  marketing technologies have become, there is a huge need for programmers, designers and hackers of all types to mount a first-class marketing strategy, and in the case study above they advocate (correctly in my view) that companies have a separate engineering team devoted specifically to marketing projects. That got me thinking…

Young companies that have some level of success inevitably experience “growing pains.” Sometimes (okay, always) part of the pain is in scaling the core engineering product. Think of the many Fail Whales Twitter put up when they frequently exceeded capacity a few years ago.

But there are tons of other important-but-not-urgent engineering tasks that need to happen as well. Unfortunately, companies are often either shortsighted about prioritizing these tasks, or they ignore them all together until it needs a fire drill.

Here are some of the tasks that come to mind:

  • Integrating an email signup form on your web site
  • Syncing email signups between your database and an external email services provider
  • Setting up SalesForce or some other lead management system… and getting people to actually use it
  • Integrating said lead management system with your internal systems
  • Capturing and charting key business metrics so everyone knows the “state of the business” at all times
  • Analyzing how various strategies interact with each other (e.g. to what degree do our current SEO efforts lead to more sales?)
  • Setting up and training users on a customer support system
  • Extracting data from the core to make it useful to other business users, or even end customers (e.g. analysis of Tweet data, which is why Twitter bought Gnip)
  • Building sample applications on your API to demonstrate its capabilities
  • Integrating Facebook Like and Tweet links to various content streams

I just thought these up in 10 minutes. Given time I’m sure I could think of at least a hundred.

That’s where you come in.

I’m creating a list of these kinds of growing pains that are important, but shouldn’t necessarily consume core engineering resources. What are some of the growing pains you’ve experienced? What’s something you dropped the ball on and it later came back to bite you?

I confess I have an ulterior motive. I’m pondering the creation of a services firm that focuses on “growing pains” type problems as it core competency. I’m not sure it’s a true market need, or what kind of messaging would succinctly communicate these pain points. I welcome any thoughts you have on both non-core engineering tasks and how to communicate it from a marketing perspective.

Post a comment below or email me at me@derekscruggs.com with your thoughts.

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Semi-Random Walks #1: Hedge Fund Manager Brad Hart

Welcome to the first episode of Semi Random Walks. In this one you get to hear me wrestle with GarageBand, explain what this podcast is about, and most importantly meet hedge fund manager Brad Hart. He looks kind of fierce in that photo, huh?

Make sure check out that link. Brad’s done a lot of cool stuff (like Skittykits) that I of course completely forgot to ask him about. Tweet him some follow-up questions at @bradhartnyc.

This is my very first recorded interview. Ever. Give me your feedback below, or you can always dump some emo on me at @derekscruggs.

This episode is sponsored by Five Minute Journal.

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My Socio-Religious Beliefs

Originally published on Facebook, but reprinted here for archival purposes

I have been an atheist all my life and don’t expect that to change, but I’ve recently had two personal revelations that I’d like to share:

  1. If a friend of mine is going through difficult times, such as the loss of a loved one, and faith sustains them, then as far as our relationship is concerned their conception of things is 100% true. They may believe someone has gone to Heaven, moved on to a better or different place, merged with the cosmic consciousness, that the departed’s soul/spirit still watches over them, or that the departed has been reincarnated. (added: And if asked, I’ll even pray for you.) I’m right there with you and support whatever you believe provided it’s not destructive to others, which leads to my next point.
  2. I still oppose government endorsement of faith, however innocuous. I believe that for something as cosmically mind bending as faith, which attempts to address almost impossible questions, the last thing it needs is the imprimatur of a bunch of politicians who’s perspective and knowledge about the nature of reality is necessarily a very limited one. I include myself in that group of politicians. Our ability to conceive of the nature of the universe is, despite all the supercolliders, telescopes and brain imaging technologies, still severely limited.*

So if for some silly reason you and I get into a debate about #2, please remember #1. We are all ultimately flawed people trying to make our ways in the world. Life’s too short to let human conception of faith (or lack thereof) become a point of friction.

* We cannot even prove the universe is not a simulation. Perhaps another Einstein will come along to solve this conundrum. More importantly: perhaps it is unsolvable by the human mind. There are levels of cognition. Just as my observably intelligent dog can never understand particle physics, perhaps humans can never understand the nature of reality.

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Announcing the Semi Random Walks podcast

I’ve wanted to start a podcast of interviews for a while now. Why? Mainly as an excuse to talk to interesting people. Not necessarily famous, mind you, just interesting. In my experience, interesting people have taken a very indirect path to success (however defined). Maybe they’ve traveled a lot, or immersed themselves in an unusual hobby, or overcome a significant handicap, or started a company or nonprofit in difficult circumstances.

I’ve had this idea for a few years but only decided to act on it recently when I heard an interview with Phillippe Petit. He’s written several books of note, but he will always be remembered as the guy who walked a high wire between the World Trade Center twin towers.

That’s an impressive feat, no doubt, but what’s even more impressive to me is… where did he even get the idea in the first place!? You don’t major in high wire walking in college. Parents don’t shuttle you to high wire practice. There aren’t Meetup groups for it.

Nonetheless, at some point in life Petit realized that he liked walking high wires, and then seized on the idea of traversing the twin towers. According to Wikipedia:

Petit conceived his “coup” when he was 17, when he first read about proposed construction of the Twin Towers and saw drawings of the project in a magazine, which he read while sitting at a dentist’s office in 1968. Petit was seized by the idea of performing there, and began collecting articles on the Towers whenever he could.

Interesting people, as a rule, are willing to go very far down the rabbit hole in pursuit of their own personal idée fixe. And oftentimes the path of life emerges from somewhere random, such as a magazine in a dentist office.

What makes Petit tick? Does he have some lessons for us? Can he show us how to lead more interesting lives, too?

I believe we all can learn something from conversations with these life innovators. Hence a podcast. We’ll interview entrepreneurs, writers, artists and anyone whose semi-random walk might inspire us.

And we won’t just talk to people who are at the top. If life is a semi-random walk, that means that a snapshot of someone’s life at any given moment is at least as likely to show them in the midst of a challenge or setback. Reaching the summit is very rare, and while the view from there is beautiful, self-actualization takes place on the climb (and sometimes the descent).

The first episode is already in the can. I just need to get it uploaded and correctly formatted. Look for it in the next few days.

Do you have a story emblematic of the semi-random nature of life? Please contact me if so.

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Getting Back in the Game

At the end of last year I decided to take 2013 off and explore. Now that we’re deep into the fourth quarter, I’ve decided it’s time for me get back to work.

While I enjoyed having some free time, I also found what I’ve always suspected is true: I need to work. In fact, I’ve decided that I will never retire. The thought of endless free time without something meaningful and truthfully a little difficult to fill my day is depressing. I’m at my best — in Flow — when I’m solving a hard problem, and it’s especially rewarding to do it as part of a motivated team.

Here’s what I’m looking for. I will look at other opportunities but these are the sweet spots for me.

  • Senior technology leadership role – CTO, VP Engineering etc
  • Small company of 5-10 employees. I will also consider a “startup” within a larger company.
  • Business to business web or mobile
  • Strategic influence – not “my way or the highway” but I don’t like to just code for money. I have a lot of  experience in company building and want to make contributions at the macro level.

In terms of raw developer skills, I’ve written a lot of Ruby, PHP, CSS, HTML, MySQL and Javascript/jQuery. I’m quick to learn new technologies and enjoy the process. My softer skills include sales, marketing, public speaking, writing, mentoring and business development.

A note on compensation: I have a number in mind, but I’m very flexible. For the right opportunity I will even invest money in addition to time.

Also, I like to do trial periods to make sure we mesh well together. This could be as simple as spending some time whiteboarding ideas, or it could be something more formal like a trial project. Like you, I’m looking for a great fit that enhances our respective strengths, not just a paycheck.

So if you or someone you know might have a need for these skills on your team, shoot me an email at me@derekscruggs.com

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On Survival School

Last week I did a seven day survival school course in the Utah desert. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m a better person for having completed it.

Me after survival school

Me after seven days in the desert, though I did shower before this was taken

Among some of the things our 10-person group did:

  • Went more than 30 hours without food (and afterwards only got a single banana)
  • Went four additional days with limited food – it’s amazing how far you can go on a handful of oats, lentils, quinoa and GORP
  • Drank water from a nasty looking (and smelling) watering hole for livestock
  • Hiked with a forty-pound pack – not a backpack, but a wool blanket tied up into one
  • Hiked
  • Did not change clothes for seven days and six nights
  • Learned that “dirty” is a very relative term
  • Hiked some more
  • Learned about basic navigation via the stars
  • Learned about navigation with a topographic map
  • Hiked some more
  • Sat alone in nature for a night and a day
  • Again with the hiking
  • Learned to build a fire with only sage brush, a rock and some parachute cord (I really sucked at this)
  • Learned about different types of plants. This was the worst for me because it took me back to high school biology, which was my worst subject. All those random-sounding names for organisms…
  • Our group hiked approximately ten miles without the instructor, finding our way with a topographic map
  • Hiked ten miles alone, in the dark with no light, not even moonlight
  • Finished it up with sessions in a sweat lodge alternating with plunges into a cold pond

It was an incredibly challenging experience. So much so that on day three I cracked and told the instructor that I wanted to drop out. At that moment we were in the middle of nowhere, so he informed me I would have to make it to the end of the day before they could get me out. He encouraged me to stick with it. That night we did our “solo,” where they take you to a spot to spend the evening and the next day alone. (Truthfully, the solo is about 50% of the reason I signed up for the course.) Being alone allowed me to recharge and re-ground myself in the moment, and I was fine from then on.

What Did I Learn?

In all honesty, I was pretty bad at most of the skills. I joked that in a true survival situation, such as on a life raft,  I would be the first person to be cannibalized by the others.

But there was something about being in a situation in which All. That. Matters… is staying hydrated and putting one foot in front of the other. In that context, everyday things such as email and deadlines and vacuuming the bedroom seem infinitesimally trivial.

And while I did get something from that feeling of being close to nature, the main thing it gave me was an appreciation for civilization.

The area we were in was made up of beautiful, breathtaking sandstone mountains. You know the kind – layers of rock that make you realize just how old this planet is.

Sandstone Mountains in Utah

Can you believe that these were once underwater?

But the thing I thought about was the unseen layer – the layer of human culture that has accumulated over the last 150,000 years and which separates us from the truly brutal aspects of being an animal in the wild.

Now as I walk or drive around town, or even my townhome, I try to cultivate a feeling of gratitude for just how easy life is compared to a thousand years ago. This ease is a tremendous gift bestowed on us by countless generations of innovators.

Awe and Knowledge

Another realization I had is that what separates humans from animals is the sense of awe we get when looking at a beautiful landscape, or a starry sky. While I believe this is a fundamental aspect of the human condition, I also believe it is dramatically enhanced by knowledge.

It’s one thing to look at pretty lights in the sky. It’s another to know that those lights come from stars that are millions of light years away.

In the distant past, humans had practically no knowledge about the stars, or exercise, or nutrition or germs. But we wanted to know, so we made up stories to explain things. Gods, spirits, UFOs, “the ether” – all of these are attempts to explain the unknown. Most hypotheses have been discredited, and many more will be. Nonetheless, there is something beautiful about the desire to know and how knowledge impacts our ability to feel a sense of awe about the universe.

Posted in Travel | 2 Comments

My New Daily Affirmation

Destiny awaits us all

Destiny awaits us all

I’m not a fan of affirmations.

I tried them for a while several years ago. I would write down 5-7 affirmations every morning first thing, but I never really felt like I was getting anything out of the exercise. On the other hand, I have had a hit of financial success since then so maybe I’m wrong. Scott Addams, who I think is one of the most interesting thinkers alive today, is a believer and obviously has had truckloads of success.

Recently I’ve been reading The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman (I found it via this excellent review from Ben Casnocha). It’s an easy read that nonetheless delves deeply into fundamental ideas about human nature. If I had to boil it down, I’d describe it as stoicism meets Buddhism. These two philosophies have always resonated with me. Buddhism I’ve been vaguely aware of since I was a child. I first became interested in stoicism  while reading Tom Wolf’s exquisite A Man in Full.

The Antidote has a chapter about the role of death in happiness. Counterintuitive, I know. Burkeman suggests that we should all contemplate death on a daily basis. By doing so, we are less likely to fall into the trap of not seeing the happiness that is right in front of us. Much of what he writes in this chapter is based onThe Denial of Death, which I also happen to be reading. (Six-word review: very good, but also very dense.)

This is not a new idea. “Live every day as if it is your last” is a common inspirational message. Steve Jobs’ famous commencement address is often cited. The speech is indeed inspirational, but I think it misdirects somewhat.

Why? Because the meta-message of Jobs’ speech, even if he didn’t intend it, is that you too can become one of the most successful businessmen in history if you adopt his philosophy. You can change the world!

But what if you don’t change the world? What if you are just another insignificant blip? Is that failure? Should your happiness dim?

No.

“Live every day as if it is your last” leaves out the most important word: death. You will die. Oblivion awaits. Someday in the not-distant future there will no longer be a “you” to experience reality.

The point of thinking about death, I believe, is not to think about  “success.” Rather, it’s to think about fear. Fear of losing your job. Fear of starting a company. Fear of introducing yourself to someone you’re attracted to. Fear of telling the truth in your relationships. Fear of ending a relationship that’s not working. Fear of failure. Fear of being alone.

In other words, fear of revealing your true self, your true desires. Fear of vulnerability.

The human mind is excellent at denial. We believe that we are immortal, and anything that challenges that belief is either avoided or transformed into a story of immortality (i.e. the afterlife). We use icons like Jobs, the Buddha and Jesus – who all appear quasi-immortal to us – to wish away reality. These people are all dead, and they will remain so for eternity.

(Apologies to any Christians who believe Jesus will return. My intention is not to start an argument. Suffice it to say that I personally believe he was just a very wise man who is now dead like all the others.)

It’s not just people. We use institutions, too. Monuments, culture, nationalism, patriotism, sacred books, the Constitution, presidential libraries: all of these reinforce the illusion of immortality.

Perhaps we could all learn from Woody Allen, who once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work… I want to achieve it through not dying.”

So that’s all a prelude to my new daily affirmation, which I put as a recurring task on my calendar to pop up every day at 8:45 am:

Someday, perhaps today, you will die.
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