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Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben@benwerd.com

werd.eth

 

Thoughts and actions for the week of September 20, 2021

I’m going to start kicking off my week with a list of thoughts and actions. Join me!

Thoughts

  1. There was a time when the web was really fun: a new medium that people approached with a sense of play. Even TechCrunch, back when it was a blog run by Mike Arrington, seemed like a collection of small experiments. Now it’s like reading a list of private equity updates. That’s what happens when an industry grows up, I guess, but I miss the sense of discovery and wonder. Remember the first social network, or marveling at what Flickr was able to do with a web interface? Or being excited by what one person in their bedroom could put together?
  2. The closest we have to this kind of new platform is smart contract blockchains (Ethereum, Algorand, and so on). Aspects of them are pretty cool, but the fact that money is involved creates a de facto barrier to entry. I could get into the web because it was free and because it had relatively low computing requirements. We didn’t have a lot of money. Which kids are getting into Ethereum when just the gas on a transaction is often tickling $100? $1 would have been too high a barrier for me.
  3. I’m therefore really interested in the decentralization without the monetization. What does a totally free blockchain look like? Is it even possible, given the incentives in the network? Are other, non-monetary incentives possible? Does decentralization really have to bake in capitalism? Why?
  4. What else is it baking in? Software carries with it all kinds of implicit cultural biases based on the predilections of the developers who build it. What would a barter-based decentralized protocol look like? Or one designed around paying forward? Or one designed to penalize wealth hoarding?
  5. I’m not an economist, but lately I’ve been lucky to spend a lot of time hanging out with a former expert in east-west trade with an Oxford PhD in the subject, in addition to advanced law degrees with a specialization in contracts. He’s my dad, I should declare, but our conversations on the topic have been fascinating. I’ve tried and failed to get him to blog, but maybe one day I’ll write up one of our conversations here.

Actions

  1. Last week my car was smashed into and all my devices were stolen. Replacing them was pretty quick, but replacing my backpack (a Peak Design Everyday) and getting the glass repaired on my car has been less easy. This week, both those things need to happen.
  2. I spent some time today laying out some architectural diagrams for my job. I need to get some internal feedback and then put them into practice.
  3. Last week, I joined the Zebras Unite co-op as an individual member. I’ve been following the zebras since literally day one, and I’m excited to help them more deeply. I need to learn how I can be most useful to the community and put myself out there. Helping people who are genuinely out to distribute equity and make the world a more equal place is a life-affirming thing to do.
  4. I get to catch up with some friends (outside) this week, and hopefully see some live music. I’m looking forward to it.
  5. I think I’ve got an ear infection, and not for the first time this year. I actually first noticed it months ago, but it was the day my mother died, and I’ve had other priorities since then. No more putting it off: I’ve made an appointment with an ENT doctor and hopefully we can figure it out.

Have a good week!

 

Looking for a writer’s group

I’m looking for a writer’s group that meets some or all of the following characteristics:

It’s completely private. Everyone agrees that nothing leaves the group.

It’s almost all asynchronous. No Zoom write-ins, etc. Every month there’s a check-in where you can read aloud if you want to, but contributors are from all around the world and therefore lots of different timezones, so the synchronous part isn’t required.

Everyone is working on either one long-form fiction work, or a series of short stories. There’s no non-fiction.

Everyone must submit at least 1000 more words of their work every week for everyone else to read. People can leave comments but don’t need to crit.

If you don’t submit work, you’re out of the group. (Maybe there’s a three strikes rule.)

It works seasonally - so you commit to a season, but if you fall out you can start again for the next season.

I haven’t seen anything like this. Have you?

 

Fairness Friday: People’s Programs

I’m posting Fairness Fridays: a new community social justice organization each week. I donate to each featured organization. If you feel so inclined, please join me.

This week I’m donating to People’s Programs. Based in Oakland, People's Programs is a grassroots community organization that serves the people of Oakland and is dedicated to “the unification and liberation of Afrikans across the diaspora”.

Its programs include People’s Breakfast, a free breakfast program for Oakland’s houseless community, a health clinic, bail and legal support, a grocery program, and more. Modern inequality and generational injustices mean that organizations like People’s Programs are crucial lifelines for many people.

I donated. If you have the means, I encourage you to join me here. I also donated a tent from their tent drive wishlist.

 

Restore point

Not too long after I wrote my blog post about cars, my car was broken into. Unfortunately, I'd made the unwise decision to leave my backpack in the boot, with all of my devices save my phone. They were swiped unceremoniously.

I feel pretty stupid about it: never leave your valuables in your car in a public place. Particularly not valuables you use for work.

But beyond that, I have a few observations about the cloud. Because less than 24 hours later, I'm completely back up and running again on new devices that have all the data, configurations, and feel of my old ones.

First of all, here's what Find My says about the ones that were stolen:

The headphones and the iPad pinged first, and then my laptop pinged about a minute later. You can see the thief progress north. Find My is pretty good at pinging through any available connection - that's why AirTags work - but the trail runs cold from there. Out of an abundance of caution, I marked the iPad and laptop as locked and left a message in case anyone tries to turn them on. (Unfortunately you can't lock the AirPods.)

This morning I set up a new laptop, and within an hour I had all my apps and files back. It's the same model as the old one, so it's in effect identical, except without all the cool stickers. I'm hopeful that my property insurance will help me pay for the replacement.

I've been backing up on iCloud for a while, and although I have some real worries about some of the direction that Apple's going in (the shelved plan to scan devices is, despite the obviously good intentions, deeply problematic), I'm relatively comfortable with the safety - and certainly the convenience.

For a moment I worried that I'd lost the video of my mother's memorial, which would have deepened this event from an inconvenience into a tragedy. But no, iCloud had managed to back up the video, and I was able to check it this morning.

For all their power, the value of our computers is in the information we store: and by information, I really mean stories, memories, creative work, and the things we make. When I upgrade my laptop or my phone, I get the ability to take photos in a higher fidelity, or create new kinds of things. But that underlying human footprint - the trail of how I got to here, and most importantly, the people I knew and loved - transcends. I'm grateful that I don't need to worry about losing it. It's all just magically there, waiting for me.

Clearing the broken glass out of my car, on the other hand, was a real pain in the ass.

 

Tesla vs Toyota

I took delivery of a Tesla Model 3 a few months ago. My original intention was to take my mother to dialysis in it (she really wanted an electric car), but when that didn’t work out, I decided to keep it. For one thing, I’ve always resented having to own a car in the US, and I was worried about my environmental impact.

I was wowed: it’s a performant, beautiful car that feels safe. Features like auto-steer and an in-car personal assistant feel like driving in the future. It even connects to my phone and unlocks as I approach and locks as I walk away. It’s seamless: what an amazing thing.

And then I drove across the country in a 2021 Toyota Sienna.

The Toyota Sienna is not famously a beautiful car. It’s kind of got this soccer mom reputation, which shouldn’t malign it (what’s wrong with parents who take their kids to sports practice?), but at the same time it doesn’t give it a reputation for performance or elegance. It’s got a lot of room for suitcases and has a hybrid drive train that allows it to go 500-600 miles on a tank of gas, which made it a perfect vehicle for a long road trip. And it’s pretty comfortable in the back.

It turns out to be a performant, beautiful car that feels safe. It has auto-steer and (through Apple CarPlay) in-car Siri. It even connects to my phone and unlocks as I approach and locks as I walk away. It’s seamless: what an amazing thing.

Furthermore, CarPlay is an order of magnitude better as an operating system than Tesla’s software. The Tesla assistant sucks in comparison - and it’s not like Siri is known for its perfection. There are fewer apps available. And then on the phone side, both the Toyota and Tesla mobile apps leave a lot to be desired, but they also fundamentally do the same stuff.

The big advantage of the Tesla is that it doesn’t need any gas at all and doesn’t make exhaust fumes. I’m very happy with it and I’m not going to trade it in. But it turns out that some of the stuff that wowed me about it is just part of buying a modern car. They’re safer and smarter than they ever were, and the gap between a Tesla and a Toyota is much smaller than I thought.

One caveat: I didn’t spend the extra money to get full self-driving. In part, that’s because full self-driving seems to not quite be ready for primetime, although I’m tempted to try it for a few months for the automatic parallel parking. Automatic parallel parking, by the way, is something a Prius can also do.

That leads me to some interesting questions about what happens when fully-electric vehicles reach real ubiquity. My Tesla has a much higher range than electric vehicles produced by traditional auto makers, but I have to assume that won’t always be the case. What’s Tesla’s edge then? How do they stay in front? It’s not obvious to me.

I’m really happy to be driving an electric car, and I can’t wait until all cars are electric. But in terms of features, I’m not sure there will be a clear winner.

 

MailChimp: an inequitous acquisition

MailChimp is selling to Intuit for $12 billion. Importantly, seemingly because it’s a privately-held, bootstrapped company, it never gave stock options to its employees - so not a single one will see a penny from the deal.

If I was a MailChimp employee, I’d be pretty upset. Venture capital isn’t required to give employees stock compensation; they should have been given some ownership of the company.

To be fair, it offered profit-sharing instead: based on company performance, up to 19% of an employee’s salary was placed in their 401k at the end of every year. That’s not a bad deal as such, although it doesn’t lead to any extra cash in hand in the shorter term. But it was a better deal when it looked like the company was going to stay independent forever: its success is undoubtedly down to its employees, who should really see some upside. There’s a gross inequality here.

But gross inequality is par for the course. This compounds when you remember the allegations of sexism and racism at the startup. As The Verge reported back in February:

Employees say the company’s position as one of the premier startups in Atlanta allows it to view workers as disposable, as there are fewer tech jobs to choose from than if the company were located in San Francisco or New York City. They also say that because the organization is private and has never taken on outside investment, executives can operate without the specter of more public accountability.

It’ll be interesting to see how this changes once MailChimp joins Intuit. Granted, the new parent company recently faced a giant class action settlement from low-income workers who were duped into paying for its tax preparation software, so it’s not like MailChimp is being absorbed into the epitome of sweetness and equality. Nonetheless, as part of a publicly-traded company, it will face greater scrutiny than a privately bootstrapped tech startup.

Regardless, none of this will help its current employees during the acquisition. They’re doing fine - they’re relatively highly-paid tech workers, after all - but they may still be miffed that they missed out on capitalizing on a valuation that was based on their hard work.

 

5 reasons every developer should learn to write well

I'm convinced that writing well is a core engineering skill. Here's why:

  1. Good code is like good writing. Expressing your intentions succinctly, in a way that is accessible to its intended audience, isn’t just about good syntax. You need to structure your work clearly and explain yourself well, with an audience in mind. (It’s worth saying: the audience for code is other programmers, not the computer.) There's a lot you can learn from writing that is directly applicable to coding.

  2. Good code needs to sit alongside good writing. Code doesn’t self-document. Yes, you need to name your methods and variables carefully, and pay careful attention to your layout and style. But you also need to write actual inline documentation, written in human language, that describes what your methods do and why. You’ll help any future engineers who come across your code - and that probably includes you, a few months down the line.

  3. Writing forces reflection and rigor. Before you write a single line of code, you should fully understand the problem you’re solving - and how. Some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with write out their ideas first in specification documents. These documents allow them to receive feedback from their peers, but also help them figure out if they’ve figured out the right details. But it only really works if they’re written using clear language and a strong structure: fuzzy writing is an indication of fuzzy thinking.

  4. Great engineers communicate cross-functionally. The myth of an engineer who puts on a pair of headphones, enters the Zone, and never communicates with anyone is just that: a myth. In order to be able to scope the problem you’ve taken on, and to ensure that you’ve solved it well, you’ll almost certainly need to communicate well with other teams. That means empathizing for them as an audience, writing clearly, minimizing jargon, and only including the details you need to in order to convey your message (but no fewer).

  5. Writing well conveys competence. The previous items describe writing well as a duty of care for your colleagues. The truth is, it can directly affect your career: spelling and punctuation errors lead to worse outcomes for jobseekers, promotions, fundraising, and more. An overwhelming majority of business leaders - i.e., the people who employ you - agree that poor writing wastes their time. It’s not just about showing care for the people you work with; it’s about making a better impression on them, too.

 

A small change to the newsletter

I realized that the existence of my mailing list was encouraging me to post less often and to not publish short posts at all, for fear of swamping peoples' inboxes with short messages.

The simple solution to that is: the newsletter is back to sending digest posts on an every-other-day cadence. If you want to receive posts more often, you can subscribe via the RSS feed (or the all items feed if you also want my link posts, photos, etc).

 

My Covid policy

At this point, I’m assuming that nothing’s happening in person until spring or summer 2022.

People thought I was being super-negative when, last year, I suggested that it would probably be a long wait before we were on top of covid. Looking back now, I was probably too optimistic: I thought we’d be back in action early this year, and that vaccinations would stop the spread more quickly than they have (partially because I didn’t expect there to be hordes of people who refused to take them).

I haven’t arranged to be at any events this year, but I now see that the ones I tentatively booked tickets for in winter 2022 aren’t going to happen - or at least, I’m probably not going to be there. That’s a bummer for me, because I was really looking forward to them, but the more important thing is to stay safe and stop the spread.

So here’s the policy: unless something major changes, I’ll refuse any in-person business meetings or events this year and in winter 2022. (Socially, I’ll hang out with other fully-vaccinated people outside.) I’ll re-evaluate in the winter to see if it’s safe. If we have to take a third jab - or more - I’ll be first in line if they let me.

If you haven’t been vaccinated yet: please consider doing it today. It’s safe and makes you much more likely to survive an encounter with the virus. The disinformation out there surrounding vaccinations is not reality-based. You’ve probably already been vaccinated for a bunch of things (at least, I hope you have) - this is just one more.

I’m really looking forward to the day when we can talk about this period of time with a historical lens rather than being in the midst of a global, deadly pandemic.

 

Just ask

At Matter Ventures, Corey Ford developed a method for figuring out a founder’s mindset early on. It went as follows.

We’d get the startup founders to figure out the biggest assumptions they were making across user risk (do people want this?), business risk (can this be the center of a viable business?), and feasibility risk (can we build this in a scalable way with the time, team, and resources potentially at our disposal?). And then we’d ask them to go out and figure out how to de-risk those assumptions in the real world, usually by talking to experts and asking smart questions.

The answers didn’t matter as much as how the founders reacted to those answers.

Some founders felt that confidence was the key. “We didn’t find any blockers,” they’d say. “We validated our plan.” Often they believed in their own expertise so much that they didn’t even fully test their assumption.

Other founders were transparent, discussed the issues they’d discovered with clarity and lack of hubris, and figured out what their next steps should be based on what they discovered.

Every time we invested in a founder from the first group, it was a deadly mistake. Founders who weren’t precious about their ideas and were willing to take a test-driven approach were exponentially more likely to succeed. It’s easier said than done - particularly when you’re emotionally invested in an aspect of your idea - but sometimes you have to let go to succeed.

I’ve found that outside of the investing world too: colleagues who were willing to say, “I don’t know, let’s ask” were significantly more effective than ones who tried to bluster through an answer or try and figure out a problem based on their own smarts alone. Time and time again, ego proves itself to be a kind of myopia.

A fixed mindset is never as good as a growth mindset. Everyone can learn something new, and it’s never a weakness to have to reach out and ask. Any time you find yourself saying, “I’m just going to assert that ...” in answer to an unknown, you need to stop, take a step back, and find someone who really knows.