Enlightened Business, Tech

First Meeting of Dat Jawn (previously Dat Tables)

Two weeks ago I wrote about bypassing cultural barriers in tech and said I wanted to start an open source project here in Philadelphia that will create a module for the dat project. Response has been unanimously positive. The coordinators of Code for Philly encouraged me to set the project up under their umbrella while the dat team have been enthusiastically supportive and encouraging.  Tonight we had our first meeting of the project. Seven people showed up and it went really well.  I’m feeling very optimistic right now.

The dat jawn project page on Code for Philly’s website has a formal writeup about the project, its goals, and how to join the first cohort of participants.

I’ve given myself about 6 weeks to recruit people before calling the cohort “closed”. After only two weeks of recruiting, I didn’t know how many people to expect at the first meeting. A group of students from the New York Code and Design Academy of Philly (yeah, a mouthful) said they planned to come and a smattering of other people had expressed interest over the week.

At first it appeared that only two people had shown up – two guys from the code academy.  That’s a good start, especially since they’re coming off a 12-week boot camp in Rails development.  About 20 minutes later, Ben Novack from Code for Philly called all of the first-timers to get a “Civic Hacking 101” talk. Of the thirty people in the room, about twelve sauntered over. We joined in. At one point Ben prompted me to pitch the project and many faces lit up. When Ben finished his intro, we had gained five more participants, bringing our total number of participants up to eight! Quite an impressive showing for the first meeting.

After confirming that “jawn” is a comically Philly name for the project and “dat jawn” is “beyond perfect”, we spent an hour covering ground level business – intentions for the project, structure of the project, relevant code bases, the initial github tickets, my outline of the habits & practices of great engineers, the technologies involved, etc. We then dove into the fundamentally important topic: how will we communicate? First we got everyone onto irc and said hello in the #dat channel on freenode. We then set up a google group but promptly became embroiled in a discussion about the strengths and weaknesses of Slack. In the end, we resolved to create a dat-jawn channel within the Code for Philly slack team. To join the Slack channel, create an account on the Code for Philly website then go to the channel and log in using your Code for Philly username & password.

A very good start, with more to come.

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Enlightened Business, Tech

Bypassing (some) Cultural, Gender and Racial Barriers by Training Great Engineers

I’m starting up a new open source software project and thinking of structuring it like an ongoing free seminar on how to be a great software engineer. I’ve seen a similar structure work really well in the Hydra Project and now I want to do it again. I think it might be a potent way to help a broader range of people to become empowered, successful, satisfied software developers.

In Spring of 2014 I ran a RailsBridge workshop as part of the Libraries Technology and Gender Summit in Austin, Texas. Almost all of the participants were women who have jobs at libraries around the country. Many of them had technical roles at their libraries but did not work as software developers. Most of them were interested in transitioning into software development roles. At the end of the workshop we had a lengthy discussion about “what next”. If you want to be employed as a software developer the first step is to learn how to code but then you need to get real experience. This creates a Catch 22 – in order to get onto a software development team you need experience, but in order to get experience you need to get onto a team.

Training experiences like a RailsBridge workshop are great, but when you walk out of that workshop you face a different set of barriers.

One woman told us about the dilemma her boss faces – should he give assignments to the two experienced software developers (both men) or should he go out on a limb and give those assignments to a young librarian whose only coding experience was a weekend training and a couple of online tutorials. Her boss was always under pressure to turn around work really quickly so he kept giving the assignments to the experienced developers. She understood her boss’s decision, but she wanted to get “software development” into her job description so she could build those skills in earnest. What was she to do?

Heads nodded around the room in response to this woman’s account. Training experiences like a RailsBridge workshop are great, but when you walk out of that workshop you face a different set of barriers.

One common suggestion for getting experience and establishing a portfolio as a coder is to contribute to open source projects. In theory that’s a great idea — most open source projects are willing to accept pull requests from newcomers. In practice, contributing to an open source project can be an intimidating or outright hostile experience and it takes a lot of up-front communication to work on really juicy features that will look good on a resume.

In practice, self-taught engineers, myself included, and fresh CS graduates have often found their way onto the meritocracy ladder by practicing the age-old art of “fake it til you make it”. Whether it’s by bluffing their way through a job interview or submitting pull requests to a stranger’s github project, they get past their lack of experience by relying on pure chutzpah. This approach favors people who are bold and brash, who have less to lose, and who have been encouraged to take risks. It also falls back on the existing biases of the surrounding culture — I’m more likely to trust you if you look like me, talk like me, and write code like me. As a result, it’s biased against women, people of color, people who have families to support and people whose cultural background feels foreign to the average geek.

What’s the alternative? I propose that it’s not enough to teach people how to write code. We have to teach them how to be great coders. I think that will make a real difference, and I have an idea about how to do it.

In some contexts, meritocracy really does rule among software developers.

Employers don’t just want to hire developers, they want to hire good developers. Open source projects don’t want more Pull Requests, they want good contributors. In some contexts, meritocracy really does rule among software developers. In some places, working code wins and Pull Requests are welcome as long as your tests pass and your code is commented properly.

There are objective, teachable ways to become a great engineer, and the best way to learn those skills is to practice them in a community of peers.

Working in an environment of mutual assistance and mutual respect is incredibly empowering.

A prominent part of my role at MediaShelf was to run HydraCamp workshops. These events, which range from 4 hours to 4 days in length, are focused on teaching software developers how to contribute code to the many components and applications under the Hydra Project’s umbrella. The formal content of the workshops was focused on learning how to use specific technologies like Ruby on Rails, ActiveFedora and Blacklight but the built-in learning goals were focused on the important nitty gritty of contributing and collaborating. We practiced writing different kinds of tests for your code, we practiced submitting pull requests and commenting on them, we talked through the process of planning features and, most importantly, we practiced asking for help.

I think that teaching people how to participate in the collaborative process has made them better, more productive engineers. It has also helped to make Hydra a distinctively positive, supportive, robust and dynamic open source project.

Working in an environment of mutual assistance and mutual respect is incredibly empowering. I helped to create and sustain an environment like that in the Hydra Project and I learned countless things from my peers along the way. Now I want to do it again and this time I want to document the process so others can crib notes and try their own approaches.

I’m interested in gathering a team to contribute a new module to the Dat project. This new module will be immediately interesting to a global community of software engineers and data-wielding researchers. I could write the module myself, or I could hire experienced freelancers to write it, but I propose a different approach. I propose gathering a team of software developers who want to “up their game” and bolster their resumes by designing, building and maintaining this module together with me. Together, we’ll cover all of the stuff that makes great teams of engineers. We’ll work on designing features, managing work with agile process, writing unit tests and integration tests, using Continuous Integration, submitting pull requests, doing code reviews, and documenting code. Surrounding all of this, most importantly, we will practice creating and holding a culture of mutual assistance and mutual respect.

It might make sense to approach this as a long free seminar with weekly installments.

Along the way, in addition to learning the skills of collaborative software development, participants will also hone their skills with NodeJS and get exposure to the cutting edge of technologies that will define the next generation of the world wide web such as blockchains and the new breed of wire protocols inspired by bit torrent. They will also get exposure to topics related to data science, open data, and reproducibility of research. We will tackle those topics together, pulling them apart in a safe, unassuming, respectful environment. We’ll also be able to tap some of the brightest engineers in the industry for answers when we have questions.

In an ideal world, I would like to build this team locally in Philadelphia, my new home. If we’re all in the same city we can meet face to face, which makes a big difference. I would like to draw heavily from the communities of people who have received training from projects like Girl Develop It.  I hear there’s an active chapter in Philly. I don’t know if this is reasonable, or even possible, but it seems worth trying.

If you would like to follow along or join the project, there is a project page on the Code For Philly website. The current working name for the project is “Dat Tables”.

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Enlightened Business, Musings & Adventures, Uncategorized

Thomas W Malone on Collective Intelligence, with interesting findings about Gender and Intelligence

Head to edge.org  to watch this  video of Thomas W Malone speaking about Collective Intelligence.  Among his many interesting findings, he discloses a significant gem about gender and intelligence of groups.  Malone teaches at MIT Sloan School of Management.

at 9:05:

“we found that the collective intelligence of the group was significantly correlated with the percentage of women in the group… it looks like it’s a more or less linear trend where more women are better all the way up to all women.  Now, Also important to realize that the gender effect is largely statistically mediated by the social perceptiveness effect.”

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Enlightened Business, Musings & Adventures

What’s the difference between a For-profit and a Non-Profit?

From the perspective of a founder, or from the perspective of a funder/investor, what is the difference between a For-profit and a Non-profit?

What opportunities or advantages does each structure provide for creating value or benefit?

What is its effect on an organization’s ability to survive

  • major social & political upheaval
  • long-term recession
  • long-term affluence

How does it affect an organization’s definition of value and its relationship with value?

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Enlightened Business, Meditatation, Musings & Adventures

Materialism, Benefit, Disengagement and Stupas

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu

The stupa in Boudha has a magical, peaceful quality. When you approach it on foot, you can actually feel it before you see it. The air changes, sounds become less sharp, and people move more slowly. Around the stupa is a wide, paved circular path where people do “khorra” (tib. འཁོར་ར་) – circumambulation – all day & night while saying prayers,

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

Circumambulating the stupa on the khorra path

talking with friends, meditating or simply passing time. This circular plaza surrounding the stupa, sometimes called the “khorra path”, is lined with shops selling local wares like Buddhist statues, Tibetan thangkhas, incense, jewelry, and shawls. When you emerge from a side street onto the khorra path, one’s natural impulse is to to be swept up in the flow of happy, peaceful energy flowing clockwise around and around. What a wonderful thing to pour oneself into!

In 2011, I coordinated travel plans with my mother and her friends Anita & Larry so that we could meet in Kathmandu. I was coming from Bodhgaya & Varanasi while they had arrived days earlier from Delhi and the Golden Triangle. When I arrived from the airport, while walking along the khorra path in search of the hotel where they were staying, I saw my mother emerge from the cicumambulating crowd with a joyful ease that I’ve never seen her embody anywhere else. With a backdrop of the sun-dappled stupa and elderly Tibetan ladies counting prayers on rosaries, I saw a lighter, happier version of this person I’ve known my whole life.

The busy khorra path and shops

The busy khorra path and shops

According to legend, the Boudhanath stupa was built in the 5th or 6th century CE. It was begun by an old woman and later finished by her four sons. It’s commonly said that the four of them later reincarnated as the Tibetan King Trisong Detsen (tib. ཁྲི་སྲོང་ལྡེ་བཙན), his minister, the Indian pandita Shantarakshita and the great realized master Padmasambhava who together brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.

A lot can be said about Stupas and their purpose. In one sense, they’re said to act like anchors giving stability to Buddhist wisdom and its practice in a land. While that might be true, there’s an inner sense that particularly resonates with me. In Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche’s recent book Not for Happiness he talks about stupas as a bold challenge to the belief that spiritual pursuits have anything to do with material practicality. He quotes Patrul Rinpoche in pointing out that those who walk the authentic spiritual path must abandon the idea that you can fix the material world; to believe that the material world can be fixed, even for the benefit of others, is just another kind of material clinging. Building stupas speaks directly to that view, because Stupas have no practical function. They take a lot of time and resources to build and maintain, for what? Many of them don’t even have doors. They’re like a satire of all the foolish worldly projects we pour so much effort into.

3 workers whitewashing the stupa

Whitewashing the stupa – maintenance operations are ongoing year-round.

So why build them? Because authentic happiness doesn’t come from external things. Erecting and maintaining these odd structures is a substantial investment in the habits and patterns that go beyond hapless participation in the destructive cycles of confused life. It punches a hole in the ordinary rhythms of things so that people might see a glimmer of alternative.

Sitting by the Boudha stupa or walking around it today, it’s easy to reflect on the amazing beauty that can come from this kind of project. Nearly 1500 years ago a handful of people put their resources into something that made absolutely no sense from a practical perspective. According to tradition (and plausible given the philosophical & cultural context of the time), they did it because they truly wished to do something beneficial in the world and they believed that the only way to achieve real benefit for oneself and others is to completely abandon all attempts to seduce the world into giving us what we want, to instead scrutinize our own minds and to strip away even the most subtle forms of ignorance. It’s like that seemingly irrational selfless act put a kink in the armor of ignorant existence. Over time, thousands of beings have come across this anomaly in the flow of things and their minds have been changed by it. Each one has added a bit to the system, and taken away other bits. The cumulative effect is manifestly present. Anyone can go there and witness it.

In light of all these reflections, I find it interesting that, far from being anti-commerce or somehow divorced from daily activity here, the stupa seems naturally mixed with everyday operations. Rather than condemning the practicalities of life, there’s the air of engaging with and elevating them. Giving up material clinging, even going so far as to let go of the idea that we can fix the world for the benefit of others, does not mean doing nothing. Nor does it mean climbing high on a pedestal and looking down judgmentally at the rest of les miserables. This abandonment is something much more subtle and much more challenging because it must happen in our hearts and minds. Inwardly we have no choice but to abandon material views while outwardly we must constantly seek skillful ways to make the world better: to increate happiness, to decrease suffering, to rejoice in positive qualities and to wash away false differences for all beings.

Buddhist practitioners, surrounded by small stupas, doing prostrations on wooden boards on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

Buddhist practitioners doing prostrations on the first terrace of the Boudhanath stupa

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Creative Culture, Enlightened Business, Musings & Adventures

We wanted world peace. Instead we got viral videos.

06 January 2013
Mumbai,  Chhatrapati Shivaji Airport (BOM), International Terminal

On last night’s flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam, along the way to Kathmandu via Mumbai,  I found myself sitting next to a woman who works with the Aspen Institute. She’s a former Fellow of the institute who continues to participate in their activities by serving as an occasional organizer and mentor.  Impulsively, I asked what the Aspen Institute thinks of B Corps.  She informed me that B Corps were actually created by an Aspen Institute fellow, a friend of hers, who worked on creating the B-Corp structure as part of his fellowship.  How exciting!  We spoke briefly about it but she seemed tired and not particularly excited about the prospect of spending a transatlantic flight getting her brain picked by a strangely enthusiastic hacker who wants to talk about about corporate structures.

Etiquette constrained what I could say, and how much of her attention I could presume to demand.  She was, after all, trapped in her seat between me and the airplane chassis.  She was at a disadvantage; basic manners dictated that I should not commandeer her headspace.  What I really wanted to tell her was that I was sitting on that plane right then, escaping to a monastery in Nepal, because I’ve had a crisis of orientation & resolve.  Fundamentally, I believe that the only way to make life meaningful is to cherish benefit for others and to bend one’s life and opportunities towards creating that benefit. How does one translate this conviction into action?  For nearly a decade my path has been to explore what it takes to build technologies and companies that create benefit through dissemination of information, preservation of human knowledge, and celebration of craft.  I intend to continue that work because many things about it ring true but, in part, I’m reeling from a lack of camaraderie because, more broadly, I find myself grappling with unsolved, contentious questions about the structure, function, and limitations of the modern capitalist economy.

I think that corporate culture and startup culture are biased against thinking seriously about social benefit because we all believe, to some extent, that capitalism is fundamentally cold, selfish and skewed in favor of exploiting the poor while rewarding those who are already well off.  Part and parcel with that belief is the assumption that the primary ways of explicitly achieving benefit  are through charity and/or government welfare rather than commerce.  However, when I look at my personal  experiences in business while scrutinizing the mechanisms of suffering, injustice & welfare and considering the past 40 years of research into topics like game theory & behavioral economics, I see a remarkable amount of graceful skill in the patterns of modern capitalism.  I find myself suspecting that free market advocates might be right -that capitalism itself can and does serve as a great tool for achieving benefit, and the things that make capitalism harmful are mistakes of distortion.  This is only a suspicion; I remain skeptical while intrigued.  If my goal was to merely achieve benefit for myself while telling a good story about why my actions are actually beneficial for everyone, I could glean convenient satisfaction from the existing free market argument.  Alas, my goal is the opposite; my goal is to act for the benefit of everyone while telling a good story about why that’s even possible.  This leaves me inclined to proceed with caution.

I’ve personally witnessed how embarrassingly easy it is for a bright individual to raise giant sums of money in order to build technologies and companies whose focus is relentless financial profit.  More importantly, with that money comes brilliant, skillful, well informed guidance from mentors who know how technologies work and  how companies grow.  In contrast, it’s remarkably difficult to find shrewd guidance, funding, or even encouragement when attempting to create technologies and companies whose primary purpose is benefit rather than profit.  In that domain, there is very little support infrastructure that a person like myself can readily access, and there’s even less community.  I’m not saying that this support infrastructure and community are nonexistent, rather that they are difficult to access and insufficiently prominent in the flow of civil discourse.  Organizations like the Aspen Institute are out there drumming up discussions, but we need to see a lot more of it.  For example, If you were to toss around cocktails at almost any bar in San Francisco you would be able to find a chorus of silicon valley devotees proffering intense, opinionated, well informed conversation about topics like profit models for tech startups or equity strategies for stakeholders.  Some of those devotees will be schmucks, but others will turn out to be genuinely talented and insightful individuals who are ready and willing to act as sounding boards for new ideas and new perspectives, as long as your ideas fit within the established paradigm of software startup culture.  Where can I find that same kind of sounding board when I need to have a serious, pragmatic conversation about finding the balance between idealistic vision and sustainability?  Where do I turn when I need to discern between a shrewd business decision and a good one?  Why does it feel like I lose connection with the people asking these types of questions when I assert that market forces and modest profit models are preferable to relying on government funding, charitable organizations and grant cycles?

Venture Capitalists like the Founders Fund challenge us to be strident and visionary — they complain that “We wanted flying cars. Instead we got 140 characters.”.  They have a great point, but they call for a bland, technocratic type of visionary thinking. What about asking whether flying cars will do any meaningful good in a culture that lacks compassion, and what about acknowledging that in the pursuit of flying cars we will run a high risk of inventing new forms of weapons while potentially giving rise to new flavors of coercion, conflict, environmental ailment and strife? Progress is a deceptive thing, and the relationship between technology & happiness is fraught with complexities.

I am a strident technologist, inventor, creator and futuristic dreamer, but I have no interest in merely pushing technology (or art) forward.  That type of so-called forward motion is a thinly veiled illusion.

I know that I’m not alone in harboring these sentiments, and I’m hopeful that the world is secretly bedazzled with a network of pragmatic dreamers who get it. I see their sentiments reverberating in the ideas of those around me, but these ideas are beseiged by skepticism and they grind against the presumption that kindness, generosity and concern for human happiness are incompatible with successful business.

Where is the chorus of benefit-driven ventures?  Why isn’t it the dominant voice in our culture and economy? How can I participate in that chorus? Who will help me steer true?  Where are you?

It’s thoughts like these that are driving me to Pullahari.  I have built plenty of momentum in my work, but that is not enough to ensure it will be benefitial to others.  On a fundamental level, I’m convinced that the adjustment I need to make is mental.  After all, our mental habits and views dictate our actions. Our actions, in turn, create our world.  Hence, a sabbatical on a mountaintop in Nepal, spent translating & meditating on Shantideva‘s Bodhicaryāvatāra, is exactly what I need right now.

I guess the other reason why I held my tongue with my fellow airline passenger from the Aspen Institute is that I don’t have much to offer in the way of solutions or innovations yet.  I don’t even have a coherent critique of what I see as the current state of things.  All I have are open-ended questions, some experience,  a bit of lonely frustration, and a strange long-shot hunch that my next steps have something to do with storytelling.  We will see where this goes.

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