Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Finding Center: Confessions of a Semi-Retired Silicon Valley Executive

“Every whisper
Of every waking hour
I'm choosing my confessions.”
R.E.M. Losing My Religion. Out of Time.

“Today, then, since I have opportunely freed my mind from all cares [and am happily disturbed by no passions], and since I am in the secure possession of leisure in a peaceable retirement, I will at length apply myself earnestly and freely to the general overthrow of all my former opinions.”
Rene Descartes. Meditations on First Philosophy: Of the Things of Which We May Now Doubt. 1641.

“Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward and give us victories.”
Abraham Lincoln. Letter to General Hooker, head of Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. 1862.

“Ambition is a poor excuse for not having enough sense to be lazy.”
Steven wright.

In this day and age, the tapestry of experiences available to each of us, the menu of things we can do and overdo if we so choose, is so broad and multifaceted that no two people amongst the seven billion of us can claim to have the same exact set of interests, the same hobbies, the same passions.

Yet, with all these choices at our disposal to enrich (and enjoy) our lives, we choose instead to lock ourselves in an office building, spending all our waking hours in conflict, in anger, under constant stress or in boredom - just so we can make a living. And we do this for the most productive and energetic years of our lives, all in the hope that we can maybe spend a few years in old age enjoying the things we really like. The irony, of course, is that by the time we reach our goals, we’re often too sick and tired to enjoy the fruits of our labor. What is wrong with us that makes us do this?

We talk incessantly about work/life balance but we seldom, if ever, actually achieve it. Every time we reach a goal, we move the goalpost. Somehow, what we already have is never enough and we want more. Meanwhile, we don’t have time for our family, we are always in a rush, and we rarely slow down enough to understand why it is that we do the things that we do. This may seem like a very cynical view of life. And I’m the last to speak. I’ve had a successful career and life, managing to retire at 52, while still in good health. I worked hard for 35 years and am proud of what I achieved in my career. But I could also look back cynically on the same career when viewed from the broader perch of history.

The “idea” is that we’re going to educate ourselves so we can help society by finding a good job which will mentally challenge us to be our best, that we’re supposed to feel positive about our contributions to society and in the rewards that we get in return. I understand that’s the “idea”. It describes an “ideal”. But how many of us actually achieve that nirvana? In my admittedly cynical view, ten percent would be too high an estimate. Meanwhile, the other ninety percent of us don’t or can’t achieve that ideal. Either because we didn’t pay attention in school or because we hate our jobs or because our boss won’t listen to our ideas or because some competitor beat us to the punch or because we just lost our way somewhere along the road or gave up trying. The level of inefficiency and duplication of effort in our society is mind boggling.

Life, in general, is not fair. The game is rigged against us. The odds are much higher that something will go wrong than that we will do everything right and be fulfilled as an individual, not to mention financially successful. And yet, somehow, the vast majority of the seven billion of us get up every morning for the best decades of our lives and keep pushing that ball up the mountain, believing against all odds that we’re going to be rich, we’re going to change the world, we’re going to make a dent in the universe. Whatever it is that will make us happy.

Somehow, we’ve also simultaneously twisted the intermediate goalposts, the way we measure ourselves, so that they’re always out of reach. What we have is never enough. We need more money. We need a bigger house. We need a faster car. We went to Europe for vacation last year so we need to go to Africa on safari this year. We got a raise last year but Joe got a bigger one. It almost doesn’t matter what we “achieve”. There’s always something more we want to achieve. The goal post keeps moving up, often… no, always… at our own doing.

This problem is mirrored in our approach to leisure. You may like to hike or bike, jog or swim, listen to music or play the piano, play tennis or shoot hoops. These are all enjoyable experiences at heart. Take that same idea - swimming as a hobby, for example - and deliver it as a required after-school activity for a six year old and you get instead: anger, petulance, tantrum, drama, and lifetime resentment. A few kids will excel in this model, are challenged by great teachers and go on to enjoy swimming as a hobby, as a healthy lifestyle, as a fun activity, or maybe even pursue it professionally. The vast majority of kids, I suspect, “the other ninety percent”, will go on instead to hate, or at least resent, swimming. By turning an intrinsically joyful and healthy activity into a chore, one with ever moving goalposts, we create a cause of tension and long term resentment; we crush the spirit in our kids. We teach them that it’s okay not to enjoy things. It’s more important to achieve. The same logic applies in school - with physics, chemistry, and math. With history and English Literature. We manage to suck all the joy out of education.

So we do this for a dozen years or more - “educate” our kids, pat ourselves on the back that we are great parents, and then they enter the workforce where they get to sit in offices all day, attend meetings all day, write code all day, serve tables at a restaurant, or whatever it is we do out there, knowing full well that the vast majority of us will not really accomplish a whole lot, some subset of us will move the ball up the hill maybe a few inches or a few feet, and a few tiny subset may even get to do something heroic or transcendent.

So here’s the riddle for me. Why do we do this to ourselves? What the fuck is wrong with us as a species that makes us do this? It makes no logical sense whatsoever.

And what does any of this have to do with “Confessions of a Semi-Retired Silicon Valley Executive”, the title that presumably brought you here? Let’s just say the observations above are based, at least partly, on personal experience. It wasn’t until I retired that I found the time to go and do the things I love. In my case, I’m talking about biking, about reading, about writing, about traveling, about music. I don’t write to be read. I write to think. But it doesn’t matter what I like. What matters is that I finally have the time to spend on them. For you, that might be piano or cooking or VR games or dinner out with friends.

The reduced level of stress and the improved healthier lifestyle is just a side effect of what retirement has given me. The real gift is the gift of time. It took me a year to realize that. I’m healthier now in every measurable way than I was just a year ago, while I still spent brain cycles and daylight hours on work. Here’s just one example: I spend two to three hours a day biking up the mountain. What used to be painful and a chore is now a joy - I’m getting faster, I’m never sore, I could do twice as many hours in the saddle! All it took was time and reduced stress levels.

It wasn’t until I retired, until I intentionally and purposely reduced the level of stress in my life, until I let go of a hundred little projects and innuendos at work, until I cleared my head of the clutter and the distractions, until I started feeling relaxed and happy and content, that I started realizing what a toll the previous forty years had taken. It was only after I stopped moving the goalpost that I started actually enjoying life, actually finding center. There’s a lesson in that.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Addiction Gene

“If a problem has no solution, it may not be a problem, but a fact, not to be solved, but to be coped with over time.”
Shimon Peres. 1923-2016.

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”
Yuval Noah Harari. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind.

“But if my thought-dreams could be seen
They'd probably put my head in a guillotine”
Bob Dylan. It’s alright, Ma (I’m only bleeding). Bringing it all back home.

Here, I will argue that many of our personal and societal ills, while disparate in appearance, are in fact rooted in a single tendency, that of human beings to obsess over a topic, any topic. This tendency is at least partly genetic in nature and has been shown definitively to transcend national, racial, and cultural boundaries. In fact, even animals can suffer from addictions in a similar fashion so the genes have been with us for millions of years. I will use the terms “obsession” and “addiction” interchangeably. Addictions are nothing but obsessions that are frowned upon by society for one reason or another. Instead of penalizing our negative addictions ex post facto, we need to reinforce the positive ones. Far too much money and effort is spent on fighting destructive addictions late in their life cycles, long after they’ve taken over our lives. Instead, we need to admit that we all have such tendencies and to harness and direct them in positive, socially acceptable, directions. Obsessions, after all, take an inordinate amount time and effort. The more time we spend obsessing over positive activities, the less time and brain cycles we have to dedicate to negative ones.

If you think I’m overstating the case, consider the fact that so many of us have become “digitally addicted” in such a short span of time, seemingly surgically attached to our smartphones and laptops - items that didn’t even exist a decade or two ago. Human civilization has, by necessity, created addicts of all of us - and we are complicit in the crime. It doesn’t matter whether that addiction is destructive in nature or constructive. As a species, we seem to like to obsess over something or other. Sooner or later, we all find things to obsess over. You may be addicted to alcohol or opioids, you may pick food as your drug of choice or cigarettes, you may obsess over videogames or you may choose to cut yourself. There is no shortage of vices to choose from, it seems, nor any end to our depravity as a species when it comes to addictive tendencies: there is gambling, there’s pedophilia, there’s drug addiction, you name it. The common characteristic of all these vices is that we spend hours, days, months, years thinking about them, obsessing over them. Pedophiles don’t just wake up one day and decide, out of the blue, to do what it is that they do. They think about and visualize and fantasize about what they’re going to do long before they ever act on the impulse.

And then there are the obsessions that are deemed acceptable by society. There are those who are addicted to exercise, to music, to photography, to reading, to work. I’m not talking about an hour a day spent exercising or a few minutes spent listening to the radio. An audiophile spends just as many hours thinking about and listening to music as an alcoholic does thinking about his next drink. An elite athlete has no choice but to obsess over the sport of her choosing, spending many hours a day exercising.

I speak, by the way, from firsthand experience. I’ve blogged often about my own personal struggles with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder although thankfully, in my case, one that is mild and mostly positive in nature. I may obsess over the music of Bob Dylan or the movies of Woody Allen or the books of Richard Dawkins. I might obsessively follow their careers, spend hours listening to their albums (or watching their movies or reading their books), I may even admit to reading every Wikipedia article about them. Obsessions one and all, to be sure, but mostly harmless ones. I have destructive obsessions as well, like everyone else, but I find the more time I spend on the positive ones, the less time I have to dedicate to the negative ones. After all, there are only so many hours in a given day.

Here’s another example: I used to be a long distance runner for many years. Anyone who has ever run a marathon will tell you that running becomes an obsession after a while. Our brains just crave the endorphins and we become addicted to the exercise. More recently, due to injuries, I switched to biking. It took only a few months for me to start obsessing about biking - first unconsciously and later consciously. These days, I spend an average of roughly three hours a day biking. This year, I’ve racked up roughly six thousand miles and 500,000 feet of elevation gain. That’s not normal. That’s obsessive behavior by any stretch of the imagination.

To the extent that our lifestyles dictate our behavior, civilization itself is reinforcing many of our addictions. Notice I didn’t say “western civilization”, the usual escape goat. The truth is that you can go dig up any human society in deepest darkest Africa and you will find some addictions running rampant. The propensity for obsessive behavior is in our genes and has also been observed in many other species. Western civilization has merely increased the number of things we can obsess over and made them more readily available to us. Our answer, then, cannot be to attack each and every one of these negative addictions as a unique disease: to fight alcoholism with AA, food addictions with diets, cigarettes with the Nicotine patch, drug addiction with Methadone, etc. We’ve spent years and trillions of dollars doing that with little or no impact.

The right answer is to help people pick the right addictions, the positive ones, and to do so during our formative years - before the negative obsessions take root. Many of our addictions are formed during our childhood and adolescent years. That’s when we first experience cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, sex, and many other vices. That’s also when we become addicted to reading, to music, to studying, to sports. Instead of trying to stop the bad addictions once they’ve already taken root In our psyches, then, we should be spending more money and putting more effort into the years of youth, guiding children and teens into positive activities that will serve them - and the rest of society - throughout their lifetimes. We need more mentors, more engaging art and sports related opportunities, more investments in our future generations. And I bet it would cost a fraction of what we are spending on treatment and incarceration today.

As I mentioned earlier, I use the terms obsession and addiction interchangeably. Addictions are simply obsessions that are frowned upon by society, detrimental to ourselves and/or those around us in one way or another. We all carry the genes and, sooner or later, we all latch onto something and obsess over it. It almost doesn’t matter to us, to our genes, whether that obsession is a positive one or a negative one. We don’t have a gene for alcoholism and another one for gambling and a third one for smartphones, we have a gene for obsession. So the answer is not to penalize and demonize the negative addictions but rather to admit that we have such a genetic propensity built into us and to guide it in a positive direction – before it’s too late. Our current approach, I worry, is scatter-shot, entirely too reactive, and prohibitively expensive.

We’ve already learned that outlawing addictions doesn’t work. A century ago, alcohol was illegal in the United States. Today, it’s so ubiquitous that many people don’t even know about the prohibition and its historical consequences. American society tried to outlaw alcohol - through a constitutional amendment, no less - and failed miserably, eventually reversing course and making it available to the masses. At the end of the day, society realized that the addict, the alcoholic, will go to any lengths to get his hands on a bottle and outlawing alcohol would only open the door to bootleggers, moonshiners, gangsters, and a whole host of other problems. Society, at large, suffered when prohibition was in effect. We realized that repealing prohibition would harm the alcoholic but make many of the other negative societal effects of alcohol irrelevant. Implicitly, society is turning a blind eye to the addict. After all, he’s just harming himself by drinking so much. Let him do it. No skin off my back. This, of course, massively underestimates the communal impact of alcoholism: the broken marriages, the parental abuse, the drunk driving, etc. The current state of affairs, we seem to be saying, is better than what happened during prohibition. We’ll deal with the fallout later!

Addiction to gambling is another example that may be cited here. There are now casinos in pretty much every state in the union, a far cry from a few decades ago. Once again, society is punting on the problem, admitting that outlawing gambling caused more problems than it solved. Here, again, most of the “harm” is self-inflicted. Or, at least, myopically viewed as such by society at large.

It’s only when we cross the line with our addictions, when we get to impacting others with our obsessions, that society finally draws a hard line in the sand and says enough is enough. Pedophilia is as repulsive to most of us as it is addictive to its adherents. So is rape. Both of these crimes, I claim, are in fact addictions. The sexual predator doesn’t just happen to one day decide he wants to grab someone’s genitals. He spends hours upon hours fantasizing about it before he first reaches out. By the time he has sunk so low as to act upon his impulses, he is too far gone, too addicted to the endorphins he experiences just thinking about it. It’s too late to try to fix him then. The damage is already done. You’re fighting a losing battle. Sooner or later, the obsession will come back and take hold of him. The sad truth is that for every convicted pedophile or sexual pervert out there, there are thousands who thought it but never crossed the line. Meanwhile, we are busy punishing the few and ignoring the fact that ninety percent of the iceberg lies under water. We’re basically screwed. We have this gene in us that likes to obsess. And we have this brain that becomes addicted to high levels of endorphins. The best we can do is distract it with, exhaust it with, overwhelm it with positive obsessions.

It’s much cheaper for us, as a society, to invest in creating those positive obsessions in our youth than it is to try to treat the results of our negligence after the fact by punishing or treating people for their negative obsessions. The math, and hence my logic, is simple. The more hours spent engaged in and obsessing over positive activities, the less time I have to obsess over the negative ones. It’s a zero sum game, you see. There are only so many hours in a day. The answer is not to lock up the liquor in the cabinet, to tell teenagers it’s sinful to have sex before marriage, to make cigarette sales to minors illegal, to spend billions of dollars on diets, etc.  The answer is to get Junior so addicted to exercise or books or music, depending on his interests, that he won’t have time for the other stuff.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Twenty Year Itch: A New Approach to Education

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
Samuel Beckett. Westward Ho.

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”                 
George Bernard Shaw. 1856-1950.

“Each year the US population spends more money on diets than the amount needed to feed all the hungry people in the rest of the world.”

"Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years."
         Thomas Jefferson. Letter to James Madison. September 6, 1789.

Anyone who doubts my passion about this subject is welcome to go read my other blog posts on the topic:

I don't think anyone will argue with the statement that we can create a much more meaningful and impactful educational system if we fundamentally rethink our approach to it. The disagreements are rather about the type of system that should replace it.

One thing has become obvious to me. Incremental improvements in the current model of education will not get us where we need to go. Nothing short of a revolution in our thinking about education will address the problems of the current system. We need to stop thinking about sixteen to twenty years of education early in life that prepares you for a lifetime of work. Our world is moving forward at such a fast clip that the education we received even twenty years ago is basically obsolete for today's workforce, let alone tomorrow's information based needs. It makes no sense to assume that the education you are receiving today will prepare you for a career in 2150 or beyond.

Think about a model of education, instead, as something that will prepare you for the next twenty years of your life - not the next eighty, as it is currently being implemented. Rinse and repeat every two decades in order to avoid the “planned obsolescence” almost guaranteed by today's system.

There is an admission here that on the job learning and continual education is required for staying competitive in today's market. Once you reach age forty, in my new mode, you have a fork in the road. If, after twenty years of combined investment in education and work in a field, any field, you find you are happy and content and want to continue down the same career path, then by all means, double down for the next twenty years, pick a specific subfield to specialize in, continue to take more senior level graduate courses to beef up your education and learn about the technology and sub-specialty you're interested in. Remember, you've just spent twenty years investing in this particular field - be it computer science or economics or art history. Now you've come to a fork in the road and decide to double down. Well, good for you. Fame and fortune is sure to be yours as you become a senior leader in your field of study with many years of work and study under your belt.

If, on the other hand, you decide you've had enough and want to try your luck at something else - be it nuclear physics or genetic engineering or finance, well then - welcome to your second twenty year “era”: you have felt the “twenty year itch” and decided to scratch it.

You may go down this other path for several legitimate reasons. Maybe you decide you're just not good at "it" (your initial field of endeavor) and want to try your hand at something else. Maybe you're entrepreneurial and feel you've learned enough about this field (say, computer science) and want to learn more about economics - and the intersection of these two fields of study. These, by the way, I find, are the true innovators today - the ones who don't limit themselves to a single specialty, spending the first thirty years of their lives specializing in some esoteric field of study before their careers even begin. This model obviously rewards generalists and practitioners but it also leaves the door open for specialization - later, as needed and fresher when delivered compared to today's model. Rinse and repeat every twenty years and, I claim, the end result is a much healthier society with healthier, happier people living longer more productive lives.

Lots of interesting business ideas are born at the cross-section of disciplines, not within a single field. We should be welcoming and rewarding polymaths. If we want to succeed in the future, we have to abandon our education system built for the eighteenth century, for the industrial revolution, for mechanization, for memorization, and replace it with one for the information revolution, one based on inter-disciplinary insights. It may have made sense two hundred years ago to educate ourselves once at the beginning of our lives - when life expectancy was forty, not in the next century when it will be over a hundred.

In such a world, to be clear, you would spend the first twenty years of your life learning a craft - be it science or history or economics or medicine. You would then spend your twenties and thirties working in that field - and continue to take classes for further specialization as needed. At age forty, then, you come to a fork in the road. Continue to specialize or flip to another industry, another field of study, another career? Your forties and fifties, I claim, in this model, will be much more productive than what we get today - with the vast majority of people deciding they're stuck in a career they hate for the rest of their lives. It reinvigorates them, I claim, if they are given a chance to pursue another career. Rinse and repeat at sixty and eighty. You get my point. As our average life expectancy increases, it's the only sane option.

Such a system, I claim, would have to abandon the current model of standardized tests and specialized fields of study in its initial iteration. But the first step is to recognize that a rinse and repeat model of education is the right one for our future. Such a model will reduce the teaching of unnecessary minutiae, I claim, and will deliver a more coherent, less specialized model of education in the first twenty years of life. It will do so because it knows it will get a second chance at a subset of those students twenty years later - and maybe even forty years later. And when they come back the second time around, they'll be much more motivated than they were as teenagers and they will have twenty years of experience behind them as well. Let’s face it: Some fields of study just naturally lend themselves to incorporation of past social interactions. It is more fruitful to study, say, psychology or law later in life, as a forty year old than it is to do so as a twenty year old with no life experiences or scars on your back.

Industry would have to collaborate in this model of the universe, accepting people into their employ with perhaps a few fewer TLAs in front of their title. More generalists interested in learning a craft than specialists. In reality, most high tech companies already do this through intern programs that sometimes reach all the way into high school to pick early talent.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

I Don't Think This Is What They Meant by "Retirement"!

“The testicles of a sparrow are about a millimeter long and weigh about a milligram. (That’s one of the reasons you never hear that someone’s hung like a sparrow.)”
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are.

“Honeybees warm themselves by contracting the muscles in their thorax. Wood storks cool off by defecating on their own legs. (In very hot weather, wood storks may excrete on their legs as often as once a minute.)”
Elizabeth Kilbert. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.

“Writers don’t prepare for people to read them, so much as they prepare for no one to read them.”
     Ta-Nehisi Coates. On Homecomings.

It's been almost a year since I “retired”, so I figure it might be time for a status update. I put that word in quotes because, to be honest, it's only a partial retirement, a semi-retirement, a toe dipped in the water to check conditions before full submersion. I still advise a few startups and spend a bit of time working on my own startup ideas; enough to stay engaged with the industry and, hopefully, also to learn new things in the process, to stay relevant.

The rest of the time I bike, I travel, I spend time with the family, I read, I do things that I never had the time to do when I worked full-time. My days start at five or six a.m. I'm an early riser; who knew? And, yet, thanks to not being saddled with work stress, I sleep well. A state of affairs unheard of just a year ago. At first, I thought this was due to the amount of physical exercise I was getting but I realized later that I slept well even on days that I didn’t get a chance to exercise. The only difference was the level of stress in my daily life compared to when I worked.

At one work related event last week, I ran into an old colleague who also recently “semi-retired”. He sits on half a dozen boards, works a few hours a day, reads like a fiend, and also has found out he likes “taking naps in the early afternoon.” He must have really low stress in his life.

I spend two to three hours a day, pretty much every single day, exercising. In my case, that means biking up the mountain. Having destroyed every joint in my body through decades of running long distances, having suffered through lower back surgery and years of related physical pain, I have settled on biking as a much more “reasonable” sport, one that can be enjoyed every day without doing as much damage to your body. I even tried to argue with my wife that, three hours a day times seven days being over twenty hours a week, my time in the saddle should practically count as a part-time job in and of itself. She just rolled her eyes. Whatever keeps me out of the house and out of her hair, I guess.

Another joyous outcome is the number of hours I can spend reading. I've always been a bookworm but I haven't read this much since I was a teenager! And I'm loving it. There is still nothing in the world better than losing yourself in a good book. And thanks to Amazon, there's always a fresh batch of them on my bedside table.

I've also spent quite a bit of time with friends and family. “Quite a bit of time”, in my case, meaning any non-zero positive integer. It's amazing how easy it is in 21st century America to lose yourself in your work, in your online social life, and maybe your immediate family. Spending time with friends and family takes time. And who has time for that after a dozen hours at the office?

One of the most enjoyable events of the past year was a month we spent traveling in Europe with friends and family. The best part was not having to check email every day, not having to jump on conference calls every night, not having to rush back home to attend a meeting. There is definitely something to be said for the slower pace of life that most other cultures enjoy and that American society has abandoned in favor of efficiency and economic advancement.

The truth of the matter, I've come to realize, is that I hate the act of travel. The planes, the jet lag, the hotel rooms, living out of suitcases. I've been on so many trips in my life that the novelty has long since worn off. I still fantasize about and rhapsodize about off-the-beaten-track destinations but we've made the act of traveling itself so stressful that it completely negates any positive feelings we may experience when we finally get to the destination. At times like these, I am thankful that our memories are imperfect and tend to romanticize the distant past.

In the same vein of travel and family, my parents are visiting with us. They spend most of the time living in the old country and come to the US once every two or three years for loooong visits - four to six months spent traveling around the US, staying with their siblings, children, in-laws, nieces and nephews: their extended family. The Islamic revolution of 1979 tore that extended family apart and its members have spent the past forty years living drastically different lives across multiple continents.

I found myself spending many hours talking to my parents over the past few weeks, mostly my dad. Hours that would have been spent at work in a meeting or hunched over a laptop during their prior visits. The sad truth is that we inhabit two different universes and there is nothing we can do to reconcile those two worlds. Here are two octogenarian cancer survivors who don't speak a word of English, have never used a computer (despite our half-hearted attempts), don't have an email address or a credit card. I love them as my parents but I find, increasingly, that I have very little in common with them. That, perhaps, is the saddest part of the story. Having spent roughly forty years of my life away from them, and doing so in a world that has been moving away from theirs at light speed, hasn't helped.

I'm sorry to say my parents have never known what I actually work on. Sure, they know I work on computers. They even know the names of some of the companies I’ve worked for. Microsoft, SGI, Cisco. But push one level deeper and they would be lost. Operating systems? Cloud? Storage? Security? Networking? Applications? Disks? Memory? CPU? Bits? Bytes? Where do even I begin to explain my world to them? I might as well be talking in Chinese. Facebook? Emojis? Texting? Streaming? Netflix? These concepts don't even exist in their universe. Try having a conversation with any such elderly person about the cloud, social media, or pretty much anything in our digital universe and you'll see what I mean. Do so with someone living most of their lives in a third world country and you'll grok my point even more clearly. Try doing so in a language different from the one in which you learned the concepts and you'll have an even better appreciation for my dilemma.

Part of the problem is that our physical world has also moved online while theirs is still brick and mortar. Their daily concerns are so different from ours. They go to the corner grocery store while we order our fruits on Amazon. They stand in line at the bank to cash checks while we snap a photo of the check we want to deposit. They religiously call friends and family on a regular basis just to check in, even if they really have nothing to say. They get on the plane and travel for eighteen freaking hours to come see us in person. Meanwhile, we limit our personal contacts with friends and family to Facebook shares and Instagram likes, maybe an email or a text message if we really have something important to say.

Our spoken languages are almost as foreign. And I'm not talking about the words or the grammar, I'm talking about the concepts expressed by those languages. I happen to be perfectly fluent in Farsi as it was the first language I ever learned. Yet, put a book or newspaper article  in front of me that was published in Iran in the past forty years and I would struggle to read it. Not because I can't read the words. Not because I can't figure out the grammar. But because the concepts are foreign to me. The names of the people are meaningless. The historical events don’t ring a bell. I don’t have this problem with older books, ones published before the revolution. Only with newer books; not because the words are different but because the concepts are.

Our cultures have drifted apart, too. They know nothing about the music I listen to and I've long abandoned theirs. They watch Turkish soap operas while I listen to John Oliver and quote Seinfeld. They lived through a war while I went to school and built a life half way around the world, in a different universe. They see Donald Trump as a maniac. I see Donald Trump as a maniac. Okay, maybe we agree on one thing.

I'm sorry if this sounds insensitive. I don't mean it to be. It's just that, however painful it might be to admit, we inhabit different universes. It's so much harder to find common points of interest when there are so few points of intersection - in our histories, in our daily lives, in our worlds, in our world views. I don't mean to imply that my world is better than theirs or vice versa, just that they are almost inconceivably different, almost irreconcilably apart. And every day that goes by, they become even more so.

So those hours of conversation with my parents are not spent talking about technology or business or the markets or even politics. They often revolve around their “end games”: how we can help if (when) the end comes for each of them. It's been a sad visit. Enough said.

Back to the topic at hand: semi-retirement it is. I'm not sure what I'd do with full retirement anyway. I'd have too much time on my hands - and no one wants to hear about a retired geezer biking up the mountain six hours a day!

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Dr. StrangeCloud – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

I wrote this blog a few years ago when I was still CTO at VMware. I didn't realize it was published on the web by VMware until someone sent me this link today. The last paragraph is a sales pitch for VMware products so I've deleted it below but the rest is a fairly honest assessment of the cloud and its impact on infrastructure that I still stand by.

Dr. StrangeCloud – Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cloud

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By Ben Fathi, Chief Technology Officer, VMware
Marc Andreesen famously wrote “Why Software is Eating the World” in August 2011:
“More and more major businesses and industries are being run on software and delivered as online services—from movies to agriculture to national defense. Many of the winners are Silicon Valley-style entrepreneurial technology companies that are invading and overturning established industry structures. Over the next 10 years, I expect many more industries to be disrupted by software, with new world-beating Silicon Valley companies doing the disruption in more cases than not.”
A scant three years later, it’s time for us to admit that software has already eaten the world. It’s also time for us to get over it and start dealing with the consequences.
Here’s a simple challenge: Name one industry or a single aspect of our social lives that hasn’t been dramatically and irreversibly changed by the power of software. Whether entertainment or education, travel or medicine, genetics or physics, banking or shopping, driving or communicating – I challenge you to find a single activity not influenced by or totally redefined through software. Entire industries – travel agencies, bookstores, photography labs, music stores, telcos – have either disappeared or have had to reinvent themselves to survive.
Until recently, incumbents routinely enjoyed decades of prosperity in every industry – including software. But in this brave new world, whether consumer or enterprise, we are innovating at such a pace that products introduced just a few years ago are already obsolete or being disrupted. As computation and storage costs continue to decrease and network bandwidth increases – as computing finally becomes a true utility – we’ll find more and more applications that can benefit from the power of software.
We are truly starting to live in a digital universe with software at the core of everything we do.
Just like we stream or download our movies and music today rather than going to Blockbuster or Tower Records, we download most of our applications from the internet as well. When was the last time you installed software by going to Best Buy and buying a shrink-wrapped box? The new cloud-based consumption experience is more convenient. It gets rids of the inventory problem, the manufacturing problem and the supply chain problem, but it also presents new challenges. Having these services available 24×7 is no simple feat. To pull it off, we run massive data centers in the cloud, with software designed to be resilient and scalable.
I sincerely believe we are at an inflection point in the history of computing. The future will be “cloudy” – not just for consumers but for enterprises too. The massive and unmistakable move toward cloud computing further reduces the barrier to entry for startups and simplifies the consumption experience dramatically.
We’re already seeing this in the consumer space as the complexity of Windows has given way to the simplicity of Android and iOS—simple operating systems augmented by compelling cloud services, with “worry free” upgrade and maintenance.
The same benefits apply to enterprise software as well.. Many categories of enterprise software are now being delivered as cloud based services: Salesforce for CRM, LinkedIn for recruiting, Workday for HR, Office365 for productivity, etc. Even infrastructure, such as servers and storage, can now be consumed through the Internet with IaaS offerings from the various public cloud providers.
Now let’s put ourselves in our customers’ shoes for a minute: As a progressive virtual infrastructure/private cloud admin, I would like to install the latest release of vSphere once a year so I can get access to the latest innovations from VMware and its partner ecosystem. Realistically, though, upgrading to a new version is often tied to hardware refresh cycles, so I may have to wait 3-4 years for the latest innovations. I also have a lot invested in high-end storage gear and network switches, so I want to continue to utilize them. As part of the upgrade process, I will have to install the right third-party drivers and firmware on the servers and the SAN arrays and the network switches, install and configure disaster recovery solutions, etc. In essence, I become the system integrator and take on a significant amount of work for my IT organization, in the process creating a bespoke environment that is different from every other enterprise.
Now let’s switch hats for a minute and become a “cloud” customer.  I pull out my credit card, go to www.vcloudair.com (or one of our 4,000 or so service provider partners in the VMware vCloud® Air™ Network), click a few buttons, and I’m up and running my application in minutes. If I need high availability, I just check a little box that says “Make my workload resilient to two simultaneous infrastructure failures” and the cloud takes care of the rest.
You will correctly point out that I’m comparing apples to oranges here. I’ve just outsourced my IT to VMware by using their cloud. Some poor administrator is still installing software on those servers somewhere and maintaining them. True enough, but that’s our specialty and I think we’re better positioned to handle it. The key point here is that the cloud provider optimizes their capital expenditure and operational costs by drastically reducing the hardware and software configurations that he supports to provide the service.
Let’s face it. The cloud experience is a major leap ahead of any improvements we can ever make to the “shrink-wrapped” experience. Even if we ship perfect bug-free software, we are still asking the admin to do integration of all the third party components on-site and to manage the lifecycle of all these products by performing upgrades and patching. Increasingly, admins (and CIOs) today are being asked to choose between this model and the cloud model.
... [Rest of blog (VMWare-specific comments) available here] ...