Future of Text

I was invited to speak at the Future of Text Symposium. The event was at Google headquarters in Mountain View. It was an open forum to discuss and predict where things are heading with written and visual communication. I gave talk on what we’ve learned about Cola and how messaging is changing the way people communicate and how our app is built to address these issues.

I was one of the few “business” folks presenting. The rest of the speakers were from academia and research. One of the highlights was getting to meet Vint Cerf and get my picture taken with him. He’s a charming guy, and he told me he enjoyed my presentation. That means a lot to me coming from someone like that. I couldn’t help myself, I had to ask if he’s sick of Al Gore jokes.

Me and Vint.
Me and Vint.
Vint Cerf and Peter Norvig
Vint Cerf and Peter Norvig

I can do sincere

If you work in an office, sooner or later, you will experience at least one thing that happens in the movie “Office Space.” Unfortunately, I’ve experienced several in my career. This is just one of them.

Back in 2000 I took a job with a software startup that relocated us to Chicago. It seemed like a good idea…at the time. Within a month of moving and starting, I was told the company was moving to the Bay Area. Ironically, it’s where they had just moved us from. There was an insincere offer to relo us back, but we weren’t up for another cross-country move. Instead, I got a six month package and paid to stick around to help with the transition.

The board replaced the CEO I reported to with someone who lived in San Francisco, and didn’t want to move. Let’s call her Sharon, as I don’t remember her name. She figured it was a good idea to just fire most of the people in Chicago and start over with a skeleton crew out west.

Sharon arrived with her new exec team of former consultants, not technologists. They knew nothing about the product, but it didn’t matter to them.

The next few days were spent trapped in a conference room being told how valuable we were to the company despite knowing our days were numbered. The product was way behind and customers were getting antsy. They patronized us, because they needed someone to deliver the sanitized, bad news they were about to concoct.

They spent hours torturing ideas into an explanation of why the product wasn’t technically late. They reached consensus on a story with just enough plausible deniability. They turned to me and said, “what do you think, can you deliver that?” I nodded and replied, “I can do sincere.” I could tell by their awkward chuckles they didn’t know whether they were in on the joke, or the butt of it.

We broke for lunch. When I came back, Jeff, the old CEO said I wasn’t needed for the rest of the meeting. Relieved, I went back to my desk and surfed the Internet.

The next morning I came in early and Jeff called me into his office. He asked, “what was that all about yesterday?!” I wasn’t in the mood for a lecture and asked what in the hell did he expect. By now, I was angry and raising my voice. I didn’t just move 2000 miles to be someone’s stooge. I’ll be stuck here doing their dirty work, and they’ll be in California. Fuck those guys.

On the way to my office, I noticed Sharon’s goons were already in. They had to have heard everything I said. Jeff’s door was open.

They came into my office, and started asking what kinds of things I like to do acting like they didn’t hear anything. I told them I like doing what I was hired for, leading product design. They told me someone else will be doing that job, as if they were relieving me of a burden. They were worried, I might get bored with nothing to do.

I knew they were hoping to extract some value out of the 6 months severance they were stuck having to pay me. I reminded them, technically I don’t have to do anything to get paid out. So that’s what I did. After 2 days of showing up at the office to do nothing, they told me to just stop showing up.

I don’t know exactly when, but within a year of the whole ordeal, they were out of business like many of the other startups of that era.

It’s not what you know, but who you know

The summer between freshman and sophomore year in college I planned to live with my grandparents and paint houses for money. I was looking forward to it having worked only in restaurants before. I loved the idea of being outside all summer, plus it paid better than the minimum of $3.35 an hour at the time.

Our friend Paul had a painting business everyone wanted to work for. My buddy Dennis told me he got enough gigs to last the whole summer and wanted my help. I envisioned the perfect midwest summer of sipping beer and listening to music.

One perk was not having to get a haircut. I had quite a mop going and wanted to go for a surfer bum look. I had really dark brown hair and even after 2-3 bottles of Sun-in, the best I could do was orange.

Disappointment came quickly. Dennis really only had one house to paint and he wanted it for himself.  I guilted him into splitting it with me because I had nothing else lined up, and Summer had already started.

Instead of making a couple thousand bucks that summer, I was only netting $150, and even that wasn’t a guaranteed if I was dependent on Dennis paying me.

My folks arrived with on the last day of my painting gig and were not fans of the new look. Mom said I looked like a god-damned Aborigine. She insisted I color it, so we applied some Just for Men, and I was back in black. When the light hit just right, it looked purple.

The news about the job didn’t go down well. Fortunately, my grandma’s cleaning lady Janet had connections. Both her kids worked at Bob Evans, the breakfast place, not the sausage factory.

They needed waitstaff, and even though I didn’t have waiting experience, I did know my way around the restaurant biz. The job was mine to lose, I just had to lie and say I had dropped out of college and wouldn’t be going back to Champaign in the fall.

I started on a Tuesday night and reported to the night time manager Glenn. Like me, he wore a black string tie and short sleeved shirt. The only difference, his was yellow and mine white. He kept his part of the orientation brief by saying, “We’ve got some mean mean bitches here. Just stay out of their way.” Then he let the video do the rest of the talking.

That summer, I cleaned up. Of all the places I waitered later I never made as much as I did there. Weekends were the best, I turn tables 3-4 times in a 6 hour shift, and never have to split tips.

Even though I never once though of dropping out, I was more than ready to go back to college. Quitting turned out to be easy. Half the people that worked there when I started were gone including Glenn. So no one really remembered I wasn’t planning on going back.

With the money I made that summer, I spent a good chunk on a sweet pair of Kipsch speakers that I hid from my folks. But that’s another story.