Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Good Old Days - or - How to Build a Supercomputer and Still Lose the War

The Autobiography of Ben & Bob
Chapter 13: How to Build a Supercomputer and Still Lose the War

Everyone sees the limits of his own vision as the limits of the world.”
Arthur Schopenhauer. 1788-1860.

“I worked with guys who made some tremendous contributions and you have never heard of them.”
Chuck Elmendorf quoted in Jon Gertner’s The Idea factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”
Advertisement placed in local papers by Ernest Shackleton for the Endurance expedition.

I ran into an old friend recently and we reminisced about the great fun we had working together at MIPS and Silicon Graphics back in the late '80s and early '90s. As we talked, I was reminded of several anecdotes that have colored my memory of those days. Almost none of these are actually related to the projects we were working on but are rather about the experiences we had together as a team.

  • SGI was famous for lavish parties and team offsides - to Hawaii, to Tahoe, to Napa. It was apparently a cost effective way for one of the hottest high tech companies in the valley to retain talent. I took my team on one of these trips - to Tahoe. Let's just say it was an expensive trip. At one point during the team dinner at the top of Caesar’s hotel, I came to find that practically everyone in the 150 person team had decided to order $200 cigars and $500 shots of Cognac for "dessert". The next day, we went for a group outing on ski mobiles. Several members of the team managed to flip and totally destroy their assigned ski mobiles, some doing so even before we had left the parking lot of the rental agency. I was worried about the massive expense report but no one at the company even batted an eye when I filed it.

  • It's well past midnight on a cold December evening in Mountain View, CA. Several of us have been pulling an all-nighter in the lab, hunched over oscilloscopes and logic analyzers and prom emulators. I honestly can't remember now which one of a handful of projects this was - probably the SGI Super Challenge or the bad ass SGI Origin. Those days are mostly a blur now. But I do remember the guys starting to complain that they were hungry and couldn't find a local restaurant that would deliver food after midnight. An hour or so later, someone came up with the brilliant idea that we could go to the local 24-hour Safeway, fire up the grill, and make ourselves some steaks. So it was that I found myself manning a barbeque at 3 am in shorts and a t-shirt in freezing temperatures.

  • We sit around a table at the Prince of Wales Pub in San Mateo egging each other on as we eat our habanero hamburgers, tearing streaming down our faces. These burgers earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the hottest hamburgers in the world, a well-deserved distinction given the gastrointestinal havoc they caused. Someone on the team had turned us on to these vile sandwiches and we had turned it into a rite of passage. If you wanted to join my team, you had to eat one. If you wanted to leave the team, well… you had to eat two! We ended up going back to the hole in the wall pub roughly once a month, laughing our asses off and wiping tears from our faces as we introduced new members of the team to “the experience” or said goodbye to departing colleagues. For some reason, no one ever wanted to leave my team.

  • It's 4 pm on a Saturday afternoon. I walk back from the hardware lab to my office down the hall to find my daughter curled up and sleeping on the floor under my desk. I had left her there to study as I went to work in the lab. You cannot imagine the amount of guilt that image brings back. Not only did I just spend the entire day at work but I also managed to ignore my daughter whom I'd taken to work on a weekend day when I was supposed to be spending "quality time" with her. No one was forcing me to be there that day. I was just obsessed with the project, with the company, with the goal, with the code. Work/Life balance? What's that?

  • My wife confronts me at 3 o’clock in the morning as I pull into the driveway. Why are all these memories in the middle of the night!?! "The neighbors think you're having an affair. They won't believe me when I tell them you're just at work." She said it in jest, in exasperation, an "I give up on you" tone of voice. It took me months to convince the neighbors that nothing nefarious was afoot.

  • We are all hunched over a table in the lab looking at the guts of a system with probes hanging every which way. "I think it said [hex] 82". "No way. You missed a bit. Run it again. One One Zero Zero… See? It’s C2." We were counting LED lights - the only way we had to debug the hardware as we brought up a new processor. Somehow, in all our wisdom, we had decided that we should build a brand new massively complex supercomputer from the ground up. Everything was new. The processor, the memory subsystem, the IO subsystem, the BIOS, the operating system, the compilers used to build those piece of software, you name it. What balls we had. It was either that or pure naïveté.

System bring up literally meant blinking LEDs to diagnose error codes, one bit at a time, because that's the only path in the system we could get to work reliably. Every time we changed a line of code, we ran into yet another compiler bug, yet another CPU bug, yet another cache bug, yet another memory corruption, yet another OS bug. Oh what fun we had! We would spend days tracking down a mysterious bug only to find that it disappeared because we had managed to change the timing in the code or we had managed to force a second level cache eviction, totally invalidating the experiment. You'll have to forgive me when I scoff at developers who tell me they can't debug a problem despite the 30 GB of log files they generate - per hour!

Of course we had already brought the OS up on a simulator, brought up a 64 bit version of IRIX (SGI's version of UNIX) on an earlier generation of hardware, brought up the CPU on another board, etc. We had done as much as we could with previous generations of hardware and software and simulators. But now we were bringing everything together in the lab for the first time. And, of course, anything that could go wrong did go wrong.

The good news is that the Origin was truly a groundbreaking system. Its shared memory NUMA architecture allowed you to build ever larger systems out of what we called "Lego" nodes. In its first incarnation, we built systems with as many as 128 processors. Its architecture supported up to 1024 processors and the company shipped systems that large several years later. By then, however, the industry had zigged while SGI zagged. Loosely coupled clusters of personal computers were now fast enough to undercut the likes of SGI with their proprietary hardware architecture.

When that project started, the Top 500 List, the list of the fastest supercomputers in the world, was dominated by Cray Research. SGI was making the bold bet that it could dethrone that giant - and it did. By the time I left a few years later, roughly 140 of the top 500 supercomputers in the world were from SGI. Cray was in trouble, so what did SGI do? Of course, they “bought” Cray! Somehow, the executives at SGI convinced themselves that it made sense to buy the dying company - for their "brand name" and “customer loyalty”. It’s odd to use the term "buy" in this case because SGI was actually smaller than Cray in almost every sense - market cap, employee count, revenue, etc. No worries; we'll just borrow some money!

In the end, the combined company collapsed under its own weight. The once lucrative high end 3D graphics industry had shifted to using clusters of Intel x86 based servers instead of tightly coupled shared memory multiprocessor systems. The cold war had also ended and the government no longer needed as many supercomputers to simulate nuclear weapons. SGI had missed an inflection point in the industry because they were too busy dealing with their existing customer base and their needs - typical innovator’s dilemma.

Nevertheless, SGI was an excellent company with a superb cadre of individuals at all levels. I thoroughly enjoyed my years there. The company was hip, a Silicon Valley high flier as well as a Hollywood darling. I honestly don't remember how much my equity in the company was worth at its peak. Not that it matters. I never sold the stock, hanging on to it, continuing to believe in the dream - long after it had crashed and the company was on its way to not one - but two - bankruptcies!

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Put Down the Phone and Step Away!

“We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrassed us. This is moral progress.”
Sam Harris. The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values.

“There’s nothing more exhilarating than pointing out the shortcomings of other people.”
Jeff Anderson. Clerks.

“Next time your kid's watching television, just come up behind them when they don't know you're there, and just turn it off without any warning. Just go--pfft. Watch what happens. They go-- [Screams] Do you think that's a good sign? You think it's a sign that it's healthy for them? That when it's taken away they go-- [Mutters] because you've created such a high bar of stimulus that nothing competes. A beautiful day is shit to a child now. A gorgeous, panoramic day with hawks catching fucking mice and flying away and bears with fucking fish in their teeth. And the kid's like, [screaming] ‘I want to watch the television! This is nothing!’"
Louis C.K. Hilarious.

I recently published a blog (about banning laptops and smartphones in meetings) that received quite a bit of attention. It has had two orders of magnitude more views than I normally get as well as lots of comments on HackerNews, where a colleague kindly posted it. Interestingly, the comments seem to fall into several broad categories.

As usual, there were those who agreed with me wholeheartedly.

A few people pointed out that it was idiotic of me to ask people not to use their laptops. They needed the devices to take notes in the meeting. Yes, of course it’s perfectly reasonable to take notes in a meeting. I said so in the second sentence of the blog: “... if they wuere used for the purposes of the meeting itself - to take notes or to make a presentation.” These are not the people I’m talking about.

Some people commented that they suffered from ADHD and that they actually perform better when they multitask. Great for you. You’re not the people I’m talking about either. Roughly 10% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD (and that’s after a 40% increase in the past decade). That leaves the other 90% of the population. Those are the folks I’m talking about.

There were also those who pointed out that my meetings must be awfully boring if people are resorting to laptops for entertainment. Yes, I agree wholeheartedly that it's the job of the presenter to make the meeting content useful and the meeting itself interesting. I said so as well: “As the meeting organizer, I should, of course, strive to make the meeting relevant and the decisions concrete. Otherwise, I deserve to be ignored for the latest tweet or alert.” But, here, I want to refer back to Louis C.K.’s words. You are likely to find your digital world more entertaining than pretty much any meeting content - exactly because it’s constantly changing and updating and new and increasingly relevant to you. It would be pretty hard to find a speaker and a topic that can compete with a dozen simultaneous social media feeds, news sources, email, and chat conversations. To do so for an entire hour or two would be a Herculean task when compared to ten popups a minute.

I would even be willing to buy this argument if the folks I'm talking about open their laptops and pick up their phones only in a subset of the meetings they attend. And I definitely see some of those folks - fully engaged when the meeting is relevant and their attention is needed, but also with their heads buried in their laptops when the meeting is irrelevant. More power to you if you can do that consistently.

Instead, what I've found is that even the best of us become bewitched by the digital genie in our laptops and phones. The email, chat, IM, stock ticker, Facebook, Twitter, and the browser tabs with my favorite news sites - all conspire to create a massively compelling and constantly engaging digital universe that no meeting can match. Cue Louis C.K. As soon as there is a lull in the meeting, the first thing we do is open our laptop or grab our phone. This digital universe is so compelling that it becomes addictive. Pretty soon, the same well meaning folks are slumped in their chairs in every single meeting, grabbing instinctively for their digital crutches.

These are the folks I'm talking about: the Fellowship of the Digitally Addicted. Believe me, I know the disease of which I speak. I'm not only the president, I'm also a client. Over the past dozen years, it seems, we have become so addicted to our devices that we don’t even notice any longer. I keep finding myself buried in my phone for hours on end while commuting on the train, just trying to catch up with the news or some urgent mail from work, reading and responding to email at 3 am while lying wide awake in bed, even thinking about a dozen burning fires at work while spending time with family and friends. It's relentless and it has become so commonplace so quickly that we don't even realize it's not normal. it's not healthy. It's not smart.

I do admit to having found one small saving grace - one small silver lining - in all this digital addiction. On weekend days, I usually go for a three to four hour bike ride. Doing so forces me to walk away from the digital world for a few hours. This is the only activity that seems to clear my head of all the clutter of the past week. I often find myself coming back from these rides, taking a glance at my inbox, and instantly recognizing a solution to a nasty problem, some common theme between multiple projects that is really the root cause of our problems, or even a new idea that we should be pursuing.

I don't claim that these are all my ideas. In fact, I’m sure I have heard bits and pieces of these same ideas from colleagues over the past week or month. It’s just that I've been so busy with the details of a spreadsheet or responding to emails or keeping up with Hipchat or handling operational issues at work that I have failed to see the forest for the trees. I just didn't have enough time to put two and two together.

We have to give ours brain a chance to digest the barrage of information, to draw parallels amongst the various threads, to actually think instead of being told what is “new” every second and every minute of the day. Then and only then do the answers become palm to forehead obvious.

Yes, of course, we are all slaves to information and hungry for more of it. We used to get our news, at most, once a day. And we used to spend the rest of the that day pondering the ramifications. Now, we get our news every minute of every day through a dozen channels and it’s tailored to our exact requirements - be it work related or personal. Even assuming we need to know all the minutiae that that entails, you have to admit that our brains need some time to make sense of it all. The endorphin rush of constant stimulation is indeed addictive but allowing others to tell you the “right” answer every minute of every day is not a recipe for success. And the main problem with constantly plugging into the digital world is that our brains are so busy processing the incoming flow of information that they don’t have a chance to think for themselves.

So my advice to you is this: Put down your phone. Close the laptop. Step away slowly. Stop jamming all that information into your brain every minute of every day. Clear your head. Stop looking at the screen. Get out. Do something analog. Maybe even get some exercise!

It’s that simple.

I’m sure this will be ridiculed by some as obvious and by others as impractical. I would have said the same thing a few years ago. But, I promise. It works. Try it. Not for five minutes. But for five hours. Can you avoid touching your phone for five hours?

Admittedly, meetings were the first digital-free zone for me. My time on the bike is a second such digital-free zone. I hope, one day, there will be “PDA-Free Zones” just like we have “No Smoking” zones today. I hope, one day, to be strong enough to stop reaching for my phone even when talking to a friend or having dinner with my family.

I'm not telling anyone how to live their lives or whether they should check their Twitter feed in meetings. I'm just reporting on what has worked for me. If you are like me, if you are addicted to your digital life and to multitasking (the two are often more intertwined than we care to admit), then do yourself a favor. Admit it. Acknowledgement is the first step on the road to recovery.

Unfortunately, I already know that I'm fighting a losing battle, Don Quixote up against an impossible windmill. Our species' hunger for knowledge and stimulation is so all-encompassing that we will never, I fear, free ourselves from this addiction. It's too strong.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Of Donald Knuth and Lobsters: Stress as a Creative Force

“Lobsters are a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand. How can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining. And the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell, and produces a new one. Eventually, that shell becomes uncomfortable as it grows again. Back under the rocks… the lobster repeats this numerous times. The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow. Because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable, he goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets a Percocet, feels fine. Never casts off his shell. So, I think, what we have to realize is that times of stress are also times of growth. And if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”

“Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you”
Queen & David Bowie. Under Pressure. Hot Space.

“No pains, no gains.
If little labour, little are our gains:
Man's fate is according to his pains.”
Robert Herrick. Hesperides [1650 edition].

At my last job, as CTO of a large software company, I had the privilege of hosting several industry legends in events we called “The Distinguished Speaker Series”. They usually gave a talk about a subject of their own choosing and answered questions from the audience.

I remember Ken Thompson talking about building the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs and how he was told by his supervisors not to waste time on it! I remember him also talking about his passion for cryptography as he displayed an original Enigma machine from World War II. I remember him talking about the Go programming language and its evolution.

I remember James Gosling talking similarly about the birth of Java. I also remember him talking passionately about his current work on autonomous watercraft used for forecasting weather patterns. I remember feeling jealous about the fact that he gets to swim in the waters off Hawaii to do his work while I get to sit in a dark conference room all day.

But the one speaker that has stayed with me the longest is Donald Knuth, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, and author of the classic The Art of Computer Programming, a book that is still studied with awe almost fifty years after its publication. Let me repeat that. A computer science book still being studied fifty years after it was first published. Before the age of Internet, before the iPhone, broadband, Facebook, and Google. Before even Microsoft. Before UNIX. I have seen CEOs and CTOs who proudly display their autographed copy of the book in their offices. Fifty years in computer science is about the same, roughly speaking, as a thousand years in normal human years. How many other thousand-year-old books are still taught in colleges and referenced as an authoritative source on scientific concerns?

Professor Knuth is also the author of TEX, a typesetting program that is still used - forty years later - in scientific circles for publishing papers. We are talking about a piece of software that pre-dates PDF, Word, Apple, and WYSIWYG editors. Dr. Knuth will even still send you a check if you find a bug in his code from all those years ago. Every once in a blue moon, some lucky bastard finds himself in possession of a check for $2.56 (“the number of pennies in a hexadecimal dollar”) - an admission by the master that you found a bug in his code. Forty years after the fact. How many other programmers can say the same?

On this particular visit, Dr. Knuth gave a fascinating talk about what he calls "intentional programming" but what struck me most was his response to a question before the speech. I innocently asked when he had been most productive in his entire career. Here's what he had to say:

“If I think back about my own life and I ask what was the period when I did my most creative work, had the best ideas, and somehow things worked out to be wins… I have to say, it was the time when I was under the most stress. I had two babies… two years old, three years old… and I was having trouble with ulcers and I was on all kinds of committees and there were all kinds of things happening… I was supposed to give lectures for the ACM and I hardly had any time to research, but somehow, during those years, I had the most creative ideas I’ve ever come up with.

So, the answer is, of course, to torture you guys. [laughter]

When did Stravinsky write his best music? He was living in a garret in Paris and starving. Well, that’s not really sustainable but there is something about being under pressure that forces you to do the things you really have to do, that you’re called to do. That’s when you do your best work - when you’re responding to this calling.

I’ve met people from Eastern Europe and they did their best work before the fall of communism because they had something to rebel against. Unfortunately, that seems to be the answer but I have to leave it to you managers to figure out how to make it sustainable.”

The comments resonated with me partly because I was doing two jobs at the time. I had recently switched jobs from managing a large engineering team to being CTO but ended up performing both jobs for nine months while we searched for a replacement for my former role. I remember it as one of the most stressful, but also one of the most productive, periods of my career.

Stress is a great stimulator of productivity when applied in reasonable quantities. Of course, too much stress opens the door to destructive psychological and physical traumas but I do believe that a certain amount of tension, a certain amount of stress, a certain amount of pain is required for productivity. There is even a growing body of research out there that shows a historical basis for this thesis. Just compare the number of advanced civilizations that have thrived in the relatively harsh climates of Europe and America to the number that languished in the tropics. The harder you have to struggle, it seems, the more you thrive.

If necessity is the mother of invention, I guess I can argue that stress is the mother of productivity, if not creativity. You could say, a certain amount of stress is, well, healthy. Unfortunately, stress also has a severely debilitating effect on us physically. If you don't believe me, just take a few months off from work to see the difference with your own eyes.

I was lucky enough to take six months off from work last year. Absolutely nothing changed in my life - other than the fact that I didn't go to work every day. The time normally spent at work was replaced by many hours of biking up and down the local mountains and time spent with friends and family. The reduced stress - not having to worry about a thousand things at work - and increased physical activity were amazingly rejuvenating. I quickly lost thirty pounds in weight, shaved forty minutes off my best time on a favorite three hour bike route, and slept like a rock at night. Most importantly, I felt twenty years younger.

I've been back at work for six months now. My exercise is down to two days a week and has been replaced by the usual stress associated with a demanding high tech job. I've gained back almost fifteen pounds already, slowed way down on my bike route, and am happy if I get four hours of sleep a night. Pretty damning evidence, I would say. No, it's not a scientific experiment and it's only one data point but I'll stick with my conclusions.

Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of taking six months off from work. In fact, the few days a year that we do take off for vacation are often spent checking work email, jumping on critical conference calls at odd hours, and getting even more stressed about the projects that are falling behind.

More work, more stress. More success, more work, more stress. It's a vicious cycle. Those who thrive in this world are the ones that can withstand the ever increasing levels of stress. These are also the same people who skimp on their own health and family, working ever longer hours and taking on ever more responsibilities. More success, more work. More work, more stress. More stress, less time. Less time, less rest. Less time, less exercise. Less time, less family, less friends. Less family, more work. It’s a vicious cycle.

Let's face it. Europeans have a much better system when it comes to vacations than we do. Everybody, go away for the month of August. No one in the office(s) means no urgent meetings and no urgent emails that need your attention. Of course, you need a skeleton crew to run operations and keep the place going but the idea of having everyone take vacation at the same time seems so much more efficient and, well, healthy.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

If Your Laptop is Open, You're Not Listening. It's that Simple!

"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
Alfred North Whitehead. 1911.

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." 
Marcus Aurelius. 121-180 AD.

“If your laptop is open, you’re not listening. It’s [that] simple.”
     @rands on Twitter. Emphasis added.

A colleague forwarded this tweet to me a few weeks after I announced a total ban on laptops and phones in my meetings. I would only allow the devices if they were used for the purposes of the meeting itself - to take notes or to make a presentation. No more seances with people sitting around the table staring at their screens and doing their best to ignore the speaker. No more huddles with half the team mentally absent.

The tweet came as a welcome surprise. It is so obvious yet most of us choose to ignore it. It was refreshing to hear someone else say the same thing and in such simple terms. If your laptop is open, if you’re looking at your phone, you are - by definition - not listening to what I’m saying. It’s that simple.

It’s easy to see this behavior as yet another manifestation of our obsession with multitasking. What's bizarre is that we seem to have all come to the mutual agreement that the "correct" behavior is to multiplex and ignore the meeting for something momentarily more urgent or more captivating.

The human brain, I'm sorry to say, has not evolved to handle multiple simultaneous but unrelated inputs efficiently. By necessity, nay - by evolution, it has learned to tune out one source in order to focus attention on another. That means you’re really not paying attention to the meeting while you read your email. Trust me, you’re not. Unfortunately, we the enlightened denizens of the twenty first century have recently stumbled upon the increased mental stimulation delivered through multitasking. Who cares if I ignore this guy for a few minutes while I pay attention to that email? I can follow both threads and get more work done at the same time.

There is a fatal fallacy in this argument. It just doesn't work. The human brain cannot do it. Period. You have to pay less attention to one input in order to focus on the other. Over an extended period of time, you have to let go of some details in one or the other thread of cognition. You have to drop some bits. Be it texting while driving or staring at your phone while sitting in a meeting, If you don't believe me, try reading a book while you are also pre-occupied with work. How often do you look up and realize you haven't parsed a single sentence in the previous paragraph - even though you "read" every word? If you still disagree with this logic, I would urge you to name two intellectual activities that you can do simultaneously with the same efficiency and attention to detail as doing them one at a time. Any two. Walking and chewing gum at the same time doesn't count, neither does rubbing your belly and patting your head.

I guarantee you that you are tuning one of the two trains of thought out for extended periods. I don't care if you are surfing the web or reading an email or tweeting or checking the stock market or even responding to an alert or debugging your code. You cannot do both at the same time. You are ignoring important details going on around you in the meeting in order to concentrate on the other input. The ubiquity of the information feeds coming at us at Internet speed does not reduce the intellectual capacity required to absorb them. If anything, it increases it as we try to time slice between the streams ever more frequently.

"You must pick up one or the other Though neither of them are to be what they claim"
Bob Dylan. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. Highway 61 Revisited.

Now, since we are talking about attending meetings... The next logical question I have to ask, with no disrespect, is: Which one is more important? If your tweet, your email. your alert, your whatever requires your attention right now - by all means, please step outside and deal with it. Otherwise, please put it down and pay attention to the meeting. If the contents of the meeting are not important or relevant to you, why are you sitting there? Please go away and deal with the more important or urgent matter. When you are done, feel free to come back in. That way, we will all know which part of the discussion you missed, which action items we shouldn't depend on you for. When you sit there, you are giving everyone else in the room the impression that you are engaged, you are understanding their concerns and expectations, you are thinking through the problem. If your brain isn't there in the room, your body might as well not be either. Again - no disrespect intended. It's just human nature to not be able to multitask and the sooner we recognize that and compensate for it, the sooner we will all be more productive.

To be clear, I have personally been one of the worst offenders of this rule for many years. But I have repented. I stopped taking my laptop to meetings in order to resist the urge. The phone, I'm afraid, is surgically attached to my wrist and travels with me everywhere, even the bathroom. But I try not to - I constantly fight the urge to - pick it up during meetings.

The good news is that, in the intervening few months, we have managed to hold some excellent no-laptop no-phone meetings; ones where all attendees actually engaged in the topic at hand and participated actively in the discussion instead of reading their mail, IM’ing, tweeting, checking their stock portfolio, or otherwise distracting themselves.

It was tough going for the first few weeks. I had to keep reminding people of the rule. It was only after a few weeks, though, that I realized we had this whole thing backwards. I shouldn't have to ask you to close your laptop or put down your phone. Either you are interested in the topic of this meeting or you are not. If the former, please participate fully. If the latter, please leave so we know and can find someone else to fill the hole. As the meeting organizer, I should, of course, strive to make the meeting relevant and the decisions concrete. Otherwise, I deserve to be ignored for the latest tweet or alert.  But I shouldn't have to beg you to close your laptop. Just like you shouldn't have to ask me to put down my cell phone. The onus should be on the offender to remedy his or her priority inversion problem. To me, this is a very binary situation. Either the meeting is more important and you should pay attention or your electronic friend is more important, in which case you should step outside and deal with it.

I'm happy to report that my meetings are more engaging, more purposeful, and more collaborative than before the rule was enforced. But the model falls apart as soon as we meet with other teams or other companies. As soon as we see the bad behavior reinforced, as soon as we see someone else "lighting up", we fall right back into the same old bad behavior and bury our heads in our phones too. Just like teenage peer pressure and smoking. If they can do it, so can I. And the whole enterprise falls apart.

Multitasking has become so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted and fall back into bad habits at the first opportunity. Even our social encounters have suffered the same fate. How often do you look over at the next table and either the husband or the wife or the kids all have their heads buried in their phones? It wasn't until we, collectively and as a society, recognized smoking for what it was - an addictive and cancerous substance with no redeeming qualities - that we finally started to wean ourselves off of it. Even then, the effort took decades and required the re-education of an entire generation. I suspect the same pattern will repeat itself with our current infatuation with the glowing screens of our digital assistants. And, in this case too, the effort will have to start in the workplace.

A computer can multitask efficiently because it has perfect memory. It remembers every single memory location, every single register content, every single block of data on secondary storage, every open network connection - and restores them faithfully every time it returns to a task. Just as importantly, that task is suspended while the computer is busy with something else. Neither of those rules hold true in real life. Any operating systems guy will tell you: try dropping a bit from a single memory location, try corrupting a single register, try returning the wrong disk block, and the processor will screw up the task at hand. The computer can only multitask because it has perfect memory. We don't.

So - Am I cured? No, of course not. My case was more acute than most others. But I am glad to report that the disease is in remission. I have pretty much completely stopped carrying my laptop to meetings and I almost always avoid the temptation to pick up the phone during meetings. Almost always.

Go ahead. Close your laptop. Pick up a notepad. Maybe take some action items. Maybe even act on them later. Or just summarize the discussion for yourself. If you read it a week later, I promise you will realize you had already forgotten some of the finer points. Or forgotten to follow up on something you promised to do.

Let's start by having a "Leave Your Laptops at Home" day. Home, in this case, being your desk at work. Why not a "Step Away from that Phone" day? Let's holster it and leave it parked in your pocket for the duration of the meeting.



Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Autobiography of Ben & Bob
Chapter 12: The First Half Century

“All my words come back to me
In shades of mediocrity.”
Paul Simon. Homeward bound. Parsley, Sage, Rosemary, and Thyme.

“My goal is to not be bored by what I do.”­
Itzhak Perlman.­­

Recently, a colleague used these words to introduce me: “Ben was born in Iran but left prior to the 1979 revolution, moving to the US with his brother on their own when they were still kids.” I thanked him, half in jest, for the intro and the "almost accurate" biographical sketch. The truth is much more complicated than that… and already seems a million years away - in every possible sense.

My parents and uncles claim that I started reading at age two and was soon reading words out of my uncle's university books - not understanding the meaning, of course. I am sure there is some exaggeration in that statement but the truth of the matter is that I started pretty early on my education, skipping first grade and entering second grade at age five. The emotional and psychological scars that this left on my one-year-older brother are a subject for a whole different book. Thankfully, I don’t remember any of this as I seem to not have any memories before the age of ten.

I was a bookworm from the start, spending my happiest hours under a blanket with a flashlight and a book, reading late into the night. I used to eat nothing but the cheapest food at school so I could save my money for books. I was always most content when I was alone with my own thoughts and those of others.

I was lucky enough to go to a top notch private elementary school and later attended Alborz high school, by many accounts the preeminent high school in all of Asia at the time and hands down the best in Iran - this being the early seventies, in a country flush with petro-dollars and a Nouveau Riche upper middle class as well as many university educated professionals. My high school teachers were almost all university professors. What a privilege to have spent four years in that environment - years that were interrupted by the Islamic Revolution.

I started teaching myself English at age ten (no one in my family spoke a word of the language) and augmented it with classes at the American and British language institutes then available in the country. I spent the summer of 1978 in the UK improving my English language skills. When I returned to Tehran in the late summer of ‘78, the revolution was already in full swing - with protests, million man marches, tanks on the streets, tires burning, banks looted, schools closed, political prisoners paraded on TV, tear gas and gunfire at every corner… you name it.  

The peaceful country we had left a few months ago - the "island of stability in the Middle East" as proclaimed by President Carter just a few months earlier during a state visit - was smack dab in the middle of a revolution. Not an Islamic one, mind you. What started as protests against the political repression of the regime included everyone from communists and nationalists to illiterate villagers. And yes, religious folks too. But almost no one expected the country to turn so religious.

It's hard to believe the regime was toppled in such a short span of time. It's also hard to believe we packed so much violence in so little time. Of course, the embers were hot for many years but, as a teenager, I was unaware of them. As a thirteen year old coming back from the UK, I gobbled it all up - everything from communist books to nationalistic histories to religious speeches to political propaganda. It's amazing how much a thirteen year old brain can absorb in just a few months.

By February 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini was back in Iran as the supreme leader. By coincidence, I left the country the very next day. So I was there to see his arrival first hand as millions came out to greet him as the savior. I clearly remember climbing a tree near the main University entrance as his car slowly parted the massive crowd. I didn't see him in person, nor did I see the repressive Islamic regime in action. I didn't live through the devastating and meaningless eight year Iran-Iraq war. I didn't get bombed by Saddam and I didn't have to go to the front. I was privileged and I didn't even know it.

My parents had somehow finagled an I-20 to a high school in Boston. I still had three years of high school to finish. So it was that at age fourteen I showed up in Boston with a suitcase in hand and roughly $5000 in my pocket. That would have to pay for tuition and rent and food until my parents could send me some more. Meanwhile, the Iranian currency had collapsed and a few thousand dollars was suddenly a hundred times more expensive to acquire on the open market.

I suppose the whole idea of shipping a fourteen year old boy across continents to live on his own is too bizarre to contemplate. I mean, how would he rent an apartment? Pay for a hotel room? Open a bank account? To be sure, the same story happens even today. Every time there is a revolution or a civil war in a country somewhere around the world, armies of adolescents are sent forth to study in the US or UK or Canada or other European countries. Most of them arrive to a dormitory or the home of a relative, either way with someone to greet them and take care of the logistics. This is the part of the story that no one seems to have explained to my parents.

So there I was on a Sunday in February, 1979, "fresh off the boat" if you will. After taking a cab to my pre-booked hotel near the school, I went out for a walk. Like any self-respecting teenager, I walked boldly into a grocery store and picked up a bottle of cheap brandy and a box of cheap cigars. No one even raised an eyebrow or asked for an ID. Back in my hotel room (and with the window cracked open), I smoked the entire six pack of cheap cigars and drank the entire bottle of cheap brandy over the next few hours. To be clear, this was not my first time drinking. While in the UK the previous year, I had spent many a night at pubs and discos. No one in the UK seemed to want to see my ID, either. I can't imagine getting away with the same thing today.

Monday morning, bright and early, well maybe not so bright given the massive hangover, I showed up at the private prep school where I was supposed to finish the last three years of my high school education. Later I would learn that the school specialized in bringing kids from traumatized countries to the US. At the time, this meant that 303 out of the 306 registered students were escapees from the Iranian revolution. I would return fifteen years later to find the building jammed with teenagers from sub-Saharan Africa.

The school did offer dormitory living at a nearby community college as an option but I had little cash and needed to preserve as much of it as possible. So, instead, I opted to stay in a series of dilapidated apartments with anywhere from one to half a dozen roommates.

The assistant principal at the school pointed me across the street to a bank where I could open an account. I presented my passport for identification as well as the cashier’s check I was carrying and was promptly given a checkbook. I could now pay tuition and rent, buy groceries, etc. Again, no one batted an eye at a fourteen year old walking in and opening a bank account on his own.

Eleven months later, in January 1980, I entered University of Massachusetts as a freshman. Somehow, I had managed to finish the entire curriculum for grades 10 through 12 of an American high school in less than a year, passed the SAT, and gotten myself accepted to college.

Two years later, at age seventeen, I graduated with two Bachelor’s degrees - one in Psychology and another in Computer Science. Friends and family all made fun of the speed with which I was plowing through courses but I didn't feel like I was doing anything special at the time. I was doing what everyone else was doing. I was just doing it a little bit faster than them. That's all. No big deal.

That covers only the first third of the promised "half century". I won't bore you with the thirty four year saga of my career. Suffice it to say that I have been privileged to work with some giants of the industry. Not only Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Steve Ballmer but also Jim Gray and Avi Tevanian and Dave Cutler and Jim Allchin and Paul Moritz and so many other geniuses. All I can say is that I learned something from each and every one of them. I have been privileged and am thankful for a successful career.

My younger brother? Oh, yeah! That was just a misunderstanding. He did leave the country but that was seven years later, also as a fourteen year old, trying to avoid getting conscripted into the army during the Iran-Iraq war. Hey, if you can pick up a gun and go to war at fourteen, why not live in a foreign country on your own at fourteen? He had to spend several years in Turkey waiting for a visa and working odd jobs. By the time he arrived in the US, I was married with a child, barely out of grad school, and working three jobs trying to pay the bills. But that’s a whole other story.