Tuesday, April 29, 2008

technology awareness

Yesterday, Jon Taplin asked me to give my future of virtual worlds talk to his COMM 306 class, "The Communications Revolution, Entertainment and Art." His class was initially slow to ask questions, but once they got rolling it was great fun. Especially in an extended Q&A after class, they had very good queries about the impact of technology on privacy and culture.

They were quick to work through the implications of always on, mobile devices. Jon asked them whether they would consider life logging, or streaming the world around them to their friends. Initially it was the usual "hell no" but as they built on each others answers and started thinking through the implications, it didn't take long to get to "it's a natural extension of blogging", "I'd share it with my friends", "I'm bad at remembering names", and "I do it with Flickr already."

It was also a chance to sample a group of college juniors about technology. (It's a fairly large class, although predominantly communication and comm management undergrads, so obviously there are biases.)

Approximate percentages who had heard of or used the following (as measured by the incredibly scientific method of asking the audience questions and counting hands):

  • Cell phone: 100%
  • SMS: 100%
  • Digital music/media: 100%
  • Facebook: 95% (ie, almost everyone)
  • Instant Messaging: 95%
  • MySpace: 80%
  • Regularly update something online: 75%
  • LinkedIn: 40%
  • Second Life: 25%
  • Blog: 20% (lots of people who updated their MySpace page did not consider it blogging, hence the something stat, above)
  • Online games: 10%
  • World of Warcraft: 10% (and great reluctance to admit it)
  • Twitter: 1 person (!)
  • Knew about RSS or used it: 0%
  • Had heard of Spore: 0% (!)
  • Had heard of Sony Home: 0% (not as surprising as Spore, but still...)
As we think about games, virtual worlds, and technology -- rants aside -- it's easy to forget the differences between adoption rates and awareness.

To first order, everyone has a cell phone, listens to music, wants to be connected to their friends, and uses the web.

Good lessons as we think about the future.

Monday, April 28, 2008

innovating innovation

One of the best parts of the Second Life experience was its impact on how I think about innovation. From the first conversations with Philip about how to build Linden and our embrace of user-generated content to ESC and Rivers Run Red, innovation has been central to the process. And I do mean innovation – the commercialization of knowledge – not just invention – the creation of knowledge. It’s not enough to come up with interesting new ideas; those ideas need to be taken to a market.

As I zero in on what to do next, innovation is once again a central discussion, so I wanted to write up my thoughts on how I would approach creating an environment to maximize innovation. To maximize the commercialization of knowledge.

(nota bene: “Commercialization”, in this context, doesn’t necessarily mean “for profit.” It means that it has been released into a market. Case in point would be a new standard or piece of open source code released for free in order to create later opportunities.)

Innovation is very much a random walk. As much as we want innovation to be like throwing darts at the bull’s-eye, particularly in disruptive innovation it is extremely difficult to recognize a priori that an idea will be good. Moreover, most disruptive innovation emerges at the intersections of (largely) disjoint communities of practice and of different social networks.

These two realities – no certainty of direction and the need for heterogeneity – have implications if you want to maximize innovation. First, it means you want to create situations where you are able to try lots of different ideas. Second, you want as much diversity as possible in how and who tries. Third, it means you want to recycle ideas as the people and expertise around them changes.

Some of these implications are easier to leverage than others. Y Combinator, for example, does a very good job of optimizing for the first one and a reasonable job on the second. By drawing from a large set of submissions and then pushing participants through a short development cycle, Y gets to do a lot of experimenting and draw from a broad set of people. By focusing on such junior, hungry teams, Y creates massive incentives for those teams to bring a project to market in order to get funding or to be acquired.

However, there are tradeoffs. The micro scale of the funding means that participation is biased towards younger, more junior entrepreneurs. The cyclic approach of not being an incubator means that projects are strongly incented to succeed enough to get the next round of funding, rather than having the opportunity to fully explore an idea, decide there are better options and start over. Finally, Y doesn’t directly participate in funding projects at the next level or supporting more expensive experiments, constraining the exploration space.

(None of these are criticisms of Y, by the way. Paul, Trevor, Jessica, and Robert have adopted a specific strategy that is generating lots of interesting ideas, is clearly a blast, and may end up being financially successful.)

It simply may not be an optimal strategy for innovation, so there are a few aspects that I would approach differently.

You need greater diversity of participation, particularly of experience, temperament, and expertise. You want to be able to build teams that can blend years of expertise with youthful fire, impetuousness with wisdom. Filtering participants down to only those who can dispense with income, health insurance, and non-Ramen caloric sources robs you of the ability to leverage this diversity. Instead, I would argue to make them employees, to give them the scaffolding and support -- salaries, health care, vacation -- required to take huge risks, to experiment freely.

(Of course, this adds cost. Worse, it risks creating a comfy environment without innovation, but I think you address that through cultural and other means.)

Innovation needs a high failure rate. Paul et al are justly proud of the incredibly high percentage of Y teams that reach demo day with a product and that later to go on to achieve funding. However, what if the incentives that drive this performance – the Y team picking projects likely to launch in 3 months, teams not having an easy second chance, tight finances – mean that they are also more risk averse than they should be? If you change those incentives and support greater failure, the initial project ideas can explore a far larger set of ideas, resulting in more failures, but also more learning. Philip had a great saying about the benefits of “noble failures” which I think was dead on. You need to celebrate failures, capture the experience of them, and then preserve that information so that a later group can decide to riff of the failure, to build knowledge and try again.

About now, some readers will be commenting that this looks like an incubator and that all incubators are failures. Yes and no.

This does look like an incubator, but an incubator in the Bell Labs, ARPA, PARC, or Stanford grad school sense, not the modern “will trade space for equity.” Existing teams don’t need incubators, so the idea of providing a home to a set of them doesn’t seem like a good one to me. However, incubating ideas – where you bring bright, motivated, diverse, interested people together, give them challenges, and then get out of the way – has a long history of producing world-changing innovation. So, historically incubators weren’t failures, it’s just that we’ve changed what we mean when we talk about them.

The downsides, of course, are cost and comfort. If you have to employ everyone, to give them competitive salaries and benefits, you have a much higher burn rate. Worse, you must ensure that employees take great ideas out of the incubator to go start them. On the comfort side, you need appointments, contracts, or term limits, combined with a culture that your goal is to join startups. You can probably incent this as well – unpaid parts of your contract get transferred to the startup so startups recruit people, greater ownership of startups you helped launch if you also launch one, etc – but transparency and experimentation is needed here.

The cost is still a challenge, especially if you insist – as I think you should – on focusing the value generation on the launched ventures rather than the incubator. The incubator builds knowledge and expertise but should not be trying to IPO itself, since this strongly misaligns incentives with maximizing innovation.

Because of this, an attempt to innovate innovation may require very different – dare I say innovative? – approaches to funding in order to have enough runway to have a chance to succeed. It might be best applied within a larger company rather than as a stand-alone incubator. Consider a large company with a need for disruptive innovation but suffering from the “raising mice in elephant cages” problems common to large corporations. Rotating employees through a Skunk Works – and potentially letting them mix ideas with academics, outside experts, or interns – might form the kind of catalyst needed to break out of the innovator’s dilemma. As employees came and went from other groups and divisions, a Skunk Works would act as an innovation virus, spreading innovation processes and ideas throughout the organization. More importantly, by committing to experimenting with innovation, funders or the supporting corporation can avoid the micromanagement and hyper focus on short-term gains so deadly to innovation.

When we think about markets or technologies that seem moribund and unable to change, disruptive innovation is probably looming. The challenge is how to avoid Christensen's "Innovator's Dilemma" and drive that innovation rather than letting it happen around you. The answer may be to look backward -- to PARC, to Bell Labs -- in order to reinvent a path forward.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

apoc week 13 aka the future of virtual worlds

This week was the 7th, and final, of my Annenberg faculty lectures. It was by far the most challenging and most fun of the lectures to put together. A look into the future. My guesses as to where this all is going. While I posted some of my early thoughts on Monday, the full talk goes quite a bit further.

The trends fit together rather nicely, I think, and expose some of the false dichotomies that currently limit our thinking. Rich, always-on, networked, wearable sensors are a natural extension of bluetooth headsets, combined with cracking the mobile display challenge, mean that divisions between "mirror world" and "fantasy world" or "life logging" and "game" crumble. Accurate location and pointing information in a head-mounted display combined with crowd sourcing and filtering makes augmented, blended, and alternate realities basic parts of communication, collaboration, work, and play.

This is going to happen.

It's only a matter of whether Microsoft, Nokia, Google, or some startup is going to demonstrate it first.

Monday, April 21, 2008

the futures

This week, both in class and in my faculty seminar, I'll be speaking about the future of virtual worlds. It's been a topic on many people's minds of late, including Trevor's great thoughts, Raph's riffs on those, the open source panel at VW08, and Mitch's 3D camera demo. I'm putting my talk together today and will post on it when done.

But in organizing my thoughts, there are a few things I think I think:

  • In thinking about virtual worlds -- especially in the R&D and innovation sense -- we need to try to see 5-10 years into the future. Projects seeing 1-3 years into the future are already underway, so if predictions are to have value, we need to take a longer view. We need to think about what happens when Moore give us 8-64X more transistors, so either a similar gain in speed, reduction in cost, reduction in power requirements, or a blend between. 5-10 years means wearable or portable displays of some kind, ubiquitous mobile broadband, ever increasing GPS accuracy, vast sets of local search data, and new generations of mobile input devices.
  • As much as I have argued that 3D is a fundamentally different experience than 2D or text -- different, not better -- 3D is not a solution to all problems. It enables different mechanisms for trust building, perception, data organization, etc, but these mechanisms are only useful if they are leveraged as part of larger decisions about what the goals are. Want to sell books in 3D? A 5fps tour of a bookstore that takes an hour to load is a bad use of 3D. Want to enable the power raters on Amazon to give you a personal tour of their favorite books and you have a client that runs on most computers with an easy interface? Maybe that would be a good use of 3d. Want to let people put their data into a 3D memory palace to help them remember and correlate data? Maybe a good use, but text and well indexed search might be better.
  • In my opinion, usability is not appearance. Craigslist is not pretty, but it does an excellent job of loading quickly, running on any browser or computer, and letting you find what you want now. Games and MMOs do a much better job than virtual worlds of answering the "what do I do?" and "why am I here?" style of questions. Virtual worlds in the future will need to do make those answers easy to find. "You can make money" or "you can go listen to music with your friends" are compelling answers, but they're hard to discover -- and compounded by hardware requirements -- today.
  • Attempts to strongly separate "play" and "work" virtual worlds will stunt the growth of both. Communities that play together work together better. And vice versa. While different applications will need to find proper balance between play and work, being able to do both at a distance is a big part of why virtual worlds are so interesting.
  • Future virtual world will obviously play nice with the web, but more than that, they will have to integrate well with browsers. Raph has a post up about 3D and the web, but it's more than 3D. Virtual worlds share a need for features common to many applications that are moving into browsers -- seamless online/offline operation, strong collaboration and sync features, "use anywhere" mindset, painless (or not) installation -- that are at least as important as 3D.
These are just a start. More later today or tomorrow as the presentation comes together.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

why i like data

The Easterlin paradox is a bedrock of social science and pop culture. Roughly, it argues that beyond a certain level of wealth, happiness no longer increases because you just end up wanting more stuff. It emerged from research in Japan in the 1970's and it tells a nice story, that we're more attuned to relative wealth and "money doesn't buy happiness." There are a host of reasons to want it to believe.

However, according to a story in the NY Times today, it might not be.

Feel free to read the story, but be sure to check out this graph:

Sure looks like a tiny bit of a trend there.

apoc week 12

Jason Kirk, VP for MySpace TV, was our guest. I had never looked at MySpace TV, but was tickled to discover an extensive Top Gear section. It seems like MySpace has an interesting opportunity to explore how best to blend various media forms with user creation, although the fact that MySpace TV is somewhat separate will make that harder. The quality level of submissions is steadily increasing, and Jason spoke about the importance of better production and editing going forward.

(It seems like a very obvious combination would be for them to acquire one of the many web 2.0 collaborative video editing/sharing products out there...)

Consider the ways you could combine MySpace TV and MySpace Celebrity, for example...

They currently are US dominated, with 73 million unique viewers from the US, but are looking to become more international. Jason was very focused on their position as an internet company, not a media company, which makes it easier for them to remain creator focused. It also work well with his philosophy that he wants MySpace TV to be a storytelling platform, using video as the catalyst.

Another interesting -- and obvious in hindsight -- point was that user-generated video was very character driven, given the need to be relatively short. Recognizable, repeatable characters help build out the brand, relate to niches, and are transportable to other parts of MySpace and the Web.

In class, because we were behind on time, rather than the normal short presentations from the students, we bounced around the room playing "tell me one thing I don't know." I found this to be incredibly interesting and gave a glimpse into how good all these students are going to be after they graduate. They all bring such interesting prior experiences and interests that when they start making assertions combining their domain expertise and course material, those assertions are worth listening to. I look forward to visiting in 6 months to see their final projects.

If you are an Web focused company in LA or San Diego, you should really start reaching out to these students, because you'd be lucky to get them.

Monday, April 14, 2008

apoc week 11 (part 2)

Continuing our string of excellent class visitors, Charlie Nooney, the CEO of MobiTV, spoke to APOC last week. He's relatively new to his position, but had a host of interesting comments about the challenges of bringing broadcast television to mobile devices. Big picture is that while half the world's population now has cell phones, virtually none of them are watching television, but carriers are confident this will change. In the last few handset releases, video has gone from 4fps to 20fps, although these advances have required custom clients for every phone. Quality and reach are now high enough for MobiTV to register significant usage hits when live events are breaking, such as Obama's speech on race.

He also had some interesting comments from his earlier career, in particular putting live video advertising into Wal-Mart. Turns out the shopping in Wal-Mart looks a lot like a scavenger hunt, with customers spending an hour on average in the store trying to figure out what's new, what's on sale, and where those items of interest are. Live updates in the store via video -- or, one presumes, eventually on mobile devices -- ended up being great drivers of business, got people through the store faster with more purchases, and were appreciated by the customers. Yet another example of well targeted advertising being seen as a service rather than an ad.

We've all shuddered when thinking about the GPS-enabled cell phone advertising future -- you're near a Starbucks and you get an SMS with a discount coupon -- but the Wal-Mart example shows people want that when they're shopping, so the challenge for mobile innovators is how to present those options when people want them. Given how much I now use iPhone's Google Maps and how often I'm working from Starbucks, I suspect location-based advertising could be pretty useful to me.

Friday, April 11, 2008

afghan sloths

My roommate and best friend from the Naval Academy is being deployed to Afghanistan. You're probably saying "I didn't realize that the landlocked nation of Afghanistan required a significant Naval presence" but don't worry, the story gets weirder. We'll call my friend Sloth to protect his identity. I realize this doesn't seem very complementary, but as he once pointed out, sloths spend 97% of their lives sleeping, eating, and reproducing, so what's the downside?

More importantly, it closely approximates the life of US Air Force officers, which is important because Sloth did what is known as an inter-service transfer when he graduated from USNA, moving to the Air Force, which made him a pilot and gave him a sequence of expensive machines to drive all over the globe. Years of training and extensive deployments all over the globe has led to this:

An "in lieu of" mission to Afghanistan.

What the hell is "in lieu of mission" you ask?

In lieu of, or ILO, missions are where highly specialized Air Force airmen and officers -- who the Air Force has spent millions of our tax dollars to train as pilots, mechanics, and analysts -- are being sent to Afghanistan and Iraq in lieu of soldiers or marines.

That's right, because the combined might of NATO and the US Military is unable to meet their commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military is pulling Air Force personnel out of their normal tasks and training to do a job they are not properly trained or prepared for -- guarding prisoners, for example. Apparently I'm not the only one who finds this practice ridiculous. Exhibiting a clear, liberal bias, "Air Force Magazine" -- published by the Air Force Association -- just posted an article about it.

Listening to General Petraeus testify, it was clear that the testimony we needed to hear was Secretary of Defense Gates, Army Chief of Staff General Casey, and Secretary Rice. Petraeus is correctly focused on his operational theater while Congress should be focused on the larger picture of how our military and diplomatic power is being deployed -- and the stresses it is under -- around the world. Many false comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq has been made, but one outcome of Vietnam's extended, unpopular, and ineffective application of force was a long period of reduced morale and material readiness of the US military during the 1970's. As we continue into a more complex and uncertain geopolitical future, why aren't our leaders spending more time focused on the big picture of what our military -- and its missions -- will look like during the next decade?

Sloth, of course, is not complaining. He's doing what he has done for nearly 20 years.

He's serving our nation.

I hope the Army does a good job of preparing him and that he comes home safe.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

apoc week 11 (interlude for bragging)

I know, I go on and on about how brilliant the APOC class is, but sometimes I just have brag on their behalf.

Nonny de la Peña, one the students, has had a pretty good week.

First, on the day of class, she had a story featured in the New York Times. Her article about noisy fish was one of the most emailed NYT articles of the day, and made the national news.

Second, today, her project in Second Life, Virtual Guantánamo Bay, has an extensive write-up in Vanity Fair!

I'm kind of curious what she has in store for Friday.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

apoc week 11 (part 1)

So, to be different, I'm going to post these during the lull between faculty seminar and class. Great fun preparing this one, because I've been doing a lot of thinking about how innovation, education, and entrepreneurship intersect and what interesting projects could be built around that intersection.

But more on that in a later post.

First, the faculty seminar slides:

apoc week 9 (part 2)

So, this is quite late and unfortunately is missing Dmitri's slides for now. However, for completeness, here are the slides from the March 11th Faculty Seminar.

If there is one takeaway from this talk it is that we are at the earliest stages of virtual world research. Lots of activity and lots of claims, but not a lot of data yet. Fortunately, that is starting to change.

i really will do a post on the hearings eventually

But, until then, I'll let the Daily Show take care of the commentary for me.

Pity they didn't actually make the dolphin avatar in Second Life. Congratulations to Sue for getting featured in the report.

Monday, April 07, 2008

connections and networking

I was chatting with Pathfinder at the Virtual Worlds Conference 08 in New York and we realized that there were two particularly long chains of personal connections that were relevant to the event and Second Life. The first was the State of Play conference, the second a video I had just been emailed showing Second Life being used for public diplomacy in Doha, Qatar.

The inaugural State of Play conference in November, 2003 was the first inflection point in Second Life's growth. It was where Philip took down the house by announcing, during a shared panel with There.com's Will Harvey, that Second Life residents would retain intellectual property rights to their creations. This announcement, the culmination of months of debate initiated by Larry's comment about ownership (1) and a complete rethinking of our EULA, generated incredible excitement and is a huge part of Second Life being what it is today.

But how did Linden Lab end up at State of Play, a small conference about games, economics, and law, created by Beth Noveck and held at New York Law School?

To answer that, we back up a few months to the first Austin Game Conference. Chris Sherman -- who also created the Virtual World Conference -- had decided the time was right for an MMORPG-focused games conference in Austin. Robin Harper and I attended, largely because we were still unsure of whether Second Life was a game or not. Second Life had around 1000 users, so basically nobody had heard of it or knew who we were. On the second morning, Raph Koster delivered the keynote that later became "A Theory of Fun", which hit many topics related to user-created content and motivations for creation, so I decided to go up and say hello.

I hadn't met Raph yet at this point, but he knew about Second Life because our first community relations employee, Peter Alau (2) knew Raph from Sony and had setup a meeting where Philip and Peter visited SOE and demoed Second Life. Raph recognized the Linden Lab t-shirt I was wearing as I waited after the talk. We started chatting and ended up talking about music, along with an ASCAP lawyer who had some very interesting questions about music in online games.

As we walked across the main hall, Raph mentioned to the lawyer that he was speaking at a law and games conference at New York Law School. He said that Ted Castronova was going to be there, too, and this it would also focus on economics. I thought that it seemed like a good conference for Second Life, but then didn't think much about it until I was sitting at Austin airport with Robin, waiting to fly home. We were discussing the fact that even though AGC was a great conference, Second Life didn't really seem to fit in. I remembered Raph's comment, did a bit of googling -- since I hadn't remembered which New York school --
and showed it to Robin. She thought it looked interesting, especially since we were in the midst of our IP transition, so once back at Linden, she and Catherine Smith reached out to NYLS and Beth.

And to think that Robin and I considered skipping the keynote!

This will seem like a left-turn at Albuquerque, but it isn't. I just received a pointer to this video:

This video is thrilling to see, because it raises some of the ideas possible when virtual worlds are applied to public diplomacy. It also demonstrates how far networks can extend.

After State of Play, Beth gave a talk at Harvard on virtual worlds, law, IP, and economics. This talk generated a lot of excitement at Harvard and led to me being invited to speak at the Berkman Center, where I met John Clippinger, a Berkman Fellow. John was working on the user-centric identity project Higgins (3) which seemed very applicable to Second Life, so he invited me to a later Berkman conference. At that conference, John, BCG's Philip Evans, and I ended up kicking around the idea that the massive entrepreneurial activity within Second Life could be a model and tool for real-world collaboration and market activity, and that Dubai might be the perfect test case.

John thought he knew the perfect person to ask about it, so a few weeks later we met Della van Heyst in Palo Alto. Della deserves a blog post -- hell, an entire blog -- all to herself, but for this story it is enough to say that she didn't think Dubai was the right place to start but that she was organizing AMD's Global Vision conference and would I like to speak at it, since Second Life was running on a huge grid of AMD-powered computers? That seemed like a great opportunity for us, so I accepted.

Ironically, by the time of the conference, Intel has reclaimed their lead in the MIPS/watt game and Linden had switched back to Intel CPUs, making for a somewhat awkward talk. The evening before my talk, Della hosted a speaker's dinner where I met Juan Enriquez and talked his ear off about virtual worlds and their uses. Juan subsequently introduced me to Cynthia Schneider, the former US Ambassador to Holland and one of the organizers of the US Islamic Forum in Doha (along with Peter Singer at the Brookings Institution.) Thanks to Cynthia, I attended the conference, spoke at Brookings (4) and re-introduced Cynthia to Josh Fouts at the Center for Public Diplomacy (5).

Which led to the panel and video at this year's Doha conference.

Pathfinder had seen the video -- and has met most of the connections in this story -- but as we laid them all out, we were amazed by how infectious the promise of virtual worlds are. It was against the backdrop of that conversation that I found the sudden smallness of virtual worlds disappointing.

Notes, because there are even more connections...

(1) I've written about the impact of Larry's comment in "Collapsing Geography".
(2) Peter, worked at Linden because his then-girlfriend/now-wife and my wife had met at a mutual friend's wedding.
(3) Higgins also has historical links to Andrew Donoho's Papillon project, which arose in part due to State of Play and a tech talk I gave to IBM Austin's Advanced Technology Group.
(4) Which led to the hiring Sue Singer, who Congressman Markey specifically thanked at the hearings last week!
(5) How I met Josh and Doug, and ended up teaching at Annenberg, is in a previous post.

this cracked me up

My dad clipped this Dilbert for me and it generated a spit take. And, before nosy readers ask in the comments, I've never hit Philip.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

the best pizza you won't ever find (but should)

I was in Brooklyn today visiting the Wello folks when lunchtime rolled around. Someone suggested hitting a new pizza joint they hadn't tried yet, Roberta's. As you can see, no expense was spared on the facade and entry:

However, appearances can be deceiving.

The worst pizza in New York is better than the best pizza anywhere else, so I'm not the best judge, but wow was their pizza good. Cooked in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy, the pizza's range from deliciously traditional margherita to a pile of whimsically named originals. My favorite was "The Goblin," a pizza topped with olive oil, garlic, jalapeños, and ricotta. As the New York Times noted, the "Guanciale and Egg" is amazing -- and would be a killer breakfast :-)! Great ingredients, beautifully prepared. And easy to get to off the L.

View Larger Map
It was so good we ate ourselves silly. Do yourself a favor and find your way out to Roberta's, you won't be disappointed.

Friday, April 04, 2008

it's a small world after all

I'm having fun spending a couple of days immersed in the metaverse at the Virtual Worlds conference in New York City. I was out in New York for consulting and the company asked me to attend, so suddenly I'm back where everyone knows my name.

Actually, I know about 1/3 of the people here, the same residents, entrepreneurs, and businesses that have been at the bleeding edge of virtual worlds for the last 2 or 3 years. The other 2/3 are new, which is good to see. With over 1200 attendees there is a fair amount of buzz.

Linden and IBM had a pretty exciting announcement about a new, enterprise solution with a portion of Second Life running on machines owned by IBM. This is a great step and one certain to generate additional corporate interest.

However, what really struck me walking around the show was how constrained the virtual world dream has become. There are a bunch of projects that look like less populated and less functional versions of Second Life, usually with some marketing material promising a "safer" or more "corporate" environment. A few other companies are promising rapid and cheap creation of advertising worlds, leveraging outsourced production.

Is this really the Metaverse? Is this even the 3D internet? Isn't this the same week that we saw Congressional testimony on virtual worlds, on their potential impact on education, community, business, and communication? Technology is just enabling us to take incredibly bold steps, to connect people in entirely new ways. From 3D camera technology to spatialized voice to novel interfaces to mobile to augmented reality, we should be ready to embark on the next exponential curve, building on everything learned from Second Life over the last 8 years.

The future is not a phalanx of walled garden, advertainment worlds constrained by short-term thinking.

I know Linden is going to continue to be bold. I am shocked that none of the competition is.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

good luck, douglas!

Douglas Merrill, Google's CIO until yesterday, is heading to EMI. Douglas and I shared a stage in Singapore about a year ago -- you can watch the video here -- and after realizing we were neighbors, stayed in touch. We each tried to recruit the other -- ironic, given the events that followed -- and ended up as friends. Douglas is one the sharpest people I know, so I'm sure whatever he does at EMI will be exciting to watch.

He is not one to simply rearrange deck chairs.

Congratulations on the new role, Douglas, and good luck.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

one down, who knows how many to go

Went through my first real CEO interview yesterday. While a few very early stage companies have approached me, this was my first full, meet-the-board CEO interview of an accomplished, 100+ person company. Very interesting day, since I can't imagine a harder challenge than trying to pick the right outsider to come in and lead an experienced, successful group to the next level. I'm sure there is a "101 Questions to Ask a Potential CEO" instruction manual somewhere, but I haven't seen it. In my opinion, it comes down to connecting with the current executive team, founders, and board of directors. Do you inspire trust and confidence in your ability to raise the performance of those around you, to face difficult challenges, and to add an effective voice to the decision making process.

The company I visited yesterday had , I thought, some particularly good questions around conflict resolution, style, and vision that were fun to answer and generated more questions on both sides. Like most high-performance technology companies, they were a little less organized than they wanted to be, but the result -- a rotating subset of the interview team -- seemed pretty effective and kept me on my toes. I may incorporate that as a strategy in the future when I'm back on the interviewer side of things!

And, no, I don't know whether it will go forward. I think I did a good job presenting an accurate picture of who I am, what my strengths and weaknesses are, where my passion and experience aligns with their needs, and where we aren't a good fit. Even if they feel I'm who they want, there is no guarantee I would take the job. But I am still interested and spending the day being tested by a really smart group was a blast.

Of course, I feel like I should take this opportunity to talk about Paul Graham's "You Weren't Meant to Have a Boss" post that has been generating a fair amount of blogging noise, both pro and con. I thought his post was particularly apropos, since I'm currently in the process of talking to large technology companies (>10,000 employees), medium companies (>100), small companies (>5), and startups (<5). They all have positives and minuses, although my biases are pretty clear since my last three jobs were at early stage startups. In fact, my last time working for a large company was Lockheed in 1994.

But that doesn't mean I think working for a large or medium company would be foolish. Larger companies have expertise in many areas -- people management, for example -- and resources rarely available to startups. With a young daughter, I might decide to trade off for a different risk-reward profile than I have in the past. I might view it as an opportunity to learn by working in a different environment.

However, no matter the scale of the organization, the key question is how hierarchy is used (or not used.) Hierarchy is often spoken of as a singular structure -- usually the org chart -- but is actually made up of at least two independent components: control and communication.

  • Control: Who can tell you what to do
  • Communication: How information flows between people in the organization
Now, when we think of traditional hierarchical organizations, these two functions are superimposed. You have a boss. He tells you what to do, gives you salary reviews, and fires you. Sometimes, as in matrix management structures, there are multiple hierarchies, so that the person who tells you what to do may be different from the person who reviews your performance.

But, these are not the only choices. Think about control for a moment. Forms of government are a reasonable approximation of management structures:
  • Monarchy: typical management hierarchy, with decider at the top
  • Anarchy: either nobody tells anyone what to do or everyone can tell anyone what to do
  • Republic: everyone selects a group to tell them what to do
  • Direct Democracy: everyone participates in every decision
Or, consider communication parallels:
  • Broadcast: one to many
  • Telephone: one to one, sometimes few to few
  • Blogging: many (well at least a few) to many
Organizations have the freedom to choose whichever structures make the most sense based on their size and requirements. More importantly, different groups and levels within an organization can choose different combinations. When many-to-many communication is failing because of team size -- how many emails can you process a day? -- either adopt a different communication strategy or create interfaces between teams. When you need all hands on deck to fight a fire, democracy might not be your best option, but once the fire is out and you need to innovate, bring on the anarchy!

Which brings us back to organizational size. Clearly, strategies that work for 3 or 5 -- direct democracy, many-to-many communication -- won't work for a company of 10,000. Many-to-many communication scales as O(n^2), so if everyone is trying to engage with everyone else they are going to spend all their time just reading email. Worse, if all 10,000 have to vote on every decision, the stress of knowing everything so that you could alway vote wisely would be crushing.

One response to this is a traditional hierarchy. However, it this hierarchy need not be fractal. If you have teams of 5 or 20 or 50 that operate smoothly with different structures than the company as a whole, that is fine. In fact, it's better than fine -- it's almost certainly what you want! A good example of this were how game teams were run at PCP&L. The team helped build the design, schedule, and budget and then was generally cut lose to exist as an insulated pocket within the company. For all intents and purposes, the game team was a little, entrepreneurial startup, except that you had the surrounding company for health care, payroll, etc. Wholly owned subsidiaries can operate the same way, with the employees within the sub virtually unaware of the structure and requirements of the parent company.

The question comes down to how flexible will the group I work with be allowed to be, because all projects have changing requirements throughout their life cycle. A small company or startup means flexibility is limited by funding and resources. In a large company, that flexibility is more limited by culture and habit. Some people might argue that a small company's limitations are better because "you control them", that it is better to be denied flexibility because you ran out of money rather than some pointy-haired boss' random decision. Maybe, but in my experience, not being able to execute due to a limitation sucks either way.

So, for me, choosing based on company size is the wrong metric. Instead, the question should be about how open your design space is, what opportunities you need, what impact you hope to have, and which constraints most impact these vision and goals. For some, that will mean a startup, for others a big company.

And that will be OK.