Technology and recessions: the rich (unfortunately) get richer

For some high tech companies, this recession has been the best thing that’s happened to them in a long time.

Recessions do some crazy stuff to product markets. When you have a recession, or in general when there’s a lot less spending going on by your consumers (businesses or people), the available revenue for all firms in the industry decreases. It’s sort of like rainwater collecting in a bowl. When there’s a drought, there’s less rain and less water collecting in your bowl. Consequently, there’s less water in the bowl at any given time, and only companies that are very good at drinking from the lower water levels can survive.

In economics terms, this ability to survive on less communal water has to do with something called cost optimization. Companies will always produce at the quantity where marginal cost (MC, the cost to produce the next level of output) equals marginal revenue (MR, the revenue you get from producing at the next level of output). Profit is the difference between the revenue you get at this intersection (point a) and where the point maps on the average total costs (ATC, all of the costs it takes to produce the good including the startup costs to get the company and operation up and running). This difference – positive being a profit and negative being a loss – is economic. It’s not just money; it takes into account essential things that aren’t easily represented on a balance sheet like how much time it takes to sell and produce a good or what the company could’ve been doing otherwise.

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The importance of shutting the hell up

If I’ve learned anything being a product manager it’s that product managers are all  incessant know-it-alls. This position (and probably most of the high tech leadership positions) specifically attract nerds who have type-A personalities and at some point fancy themselves some weird combination of Alan Turing and Warren Buffet.

This makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the amount and diversity of the information you’re working with. A PM has to be both evil suit and unkempt hacker – or at least enough of each to be able to fluently communicate with both extremes. If I go into a room with a software engineer and I can’t speak in algorithms and programming, I’m not going to be able to really interface with that individual and get the information I need. Similarly, not being able to understand finance and corporate strategy renders you completely useless and unintelligible to essential folks who work in both capacities.  Ultimately, a PM lives and dies by his or her knowledge of everything and anything related to how their product is created, sold, and ultimately received by both the customer and the competition. If you’re a know-it-all, you’re more likely to be motivated in your pursuit of trying to master everything.

And you’re probably going to miss a lot of stuff along the way.

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What you learn after midnight on a quiet mountain road

Sprawled out before us, in the alpine pitch of a Californian night, was the Bay. It was beautiful. A thousand points of light marked the cities of San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland. Between them, trails of falling stars marked familiar sprawl of the in-betweens: verdant Palo Alto, prestigious Menlo Atherton, industrial South San Francisco. But here none of these descriptors mattered. Neither Hillsborough’s blue bloodedness nor East Palo Alto’s penchant for the pitter-patter of gunshots was noticeable. Each was the same: a point of light. Here we were distanced from the world and abstract.. This was a silent Olympus, and we mere mortals stood slackjawed at the majesty of it all. And it was all beautiful.

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4 proof methods your discrete math class didn’t teach you about

Proof by question wording:

The property or statement is true because the question is worded “Prove the following.” QED.

Proof by lecture:

This is the exact same problem from the lecture yesterday. You’re simply reusing it because you don’t want to write new questions. QED.

Proof by intimidation:

I assert that the above statement is true because I have both an incriminating video of the both of us drunk and naked and the e-mail address of the dean of students. QED.

Proof by Vin Diesel:

This above is true because Vin Diesel says it’s true. QED.

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Google Code Jam 2010 (aka how OSX ruined my life)

I started GCJ with about 40 minutes left in the competition. It took me about 20-30 minutes to come up with the solution to ThemePark (complete with reference to Fabulous’ Can’t Deny It). It took me half a f4#@%ng hour to try and get OSX to do basic stuff like raw text editing and set up Eclipse. Long story short: you’re killing me Apple.

Following the competition I searched for a very tall building to jump off of, but I’m in San Jose so even that didn’t work out very well.

Here’s my code for ThemePark. It works with the small input sizes:

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The dream lives on

For the last few days I’ve been in Washington D.C. competing in the US finals for Microsoft’s Imagine Cup competition. My friend Parris and I wrote a software suite called Tesla that models the carbon footprint and electrical consumption of computer systems as a function of their workload and their components. This week has been the culmination of months of work on our part to create the technology behind Tesla and prove that it was marketable and worth being funded. And it’s been one hell of an adventure.

Being a finalist in Imagine Cup has been an amazing experience. Watching Tesla go from seventy quickly-scribbled lines of C# and an ugly-as-sin GUI to over a thousand lines of code (not including the server) that evoked “oohs” and “aahs” is an indescribably satisfying thing. Tesla wasn’t even the best in show too; the quality of work and brilliance of the folks I had the pleasure of meeting at the finals was nothing short of astonishing.

While technically the whole thing was a competition for prize/seed money and a chance to represent the US in Poland for all the marbles, I never really felt like I was competing against the people I met there. Despite the variety in topics – health care, climate change, women’s rights – each team was less in competition with each other and more locked in combat with the difficulties of bringing their ideas to fruition. We all fought the same battle to bring our work from pipe dream to polished and productized solution. And there was unity to be found in such a fight.

So as I sit here homeward bound a plane somewhere over the Appalacians (note: I’m posting this up after I land), remarkably sleep deprived and searching desperately for the words to try and recount what happened in an enjoyable and semi-comical kind of way, I feel like maybe talking about what actually happened isn’t the best way to approach it.  It’s not really the exact details that are important so much as the moral of the story – the grand lesson imprinted on one as they watch their crazy idea become a reality:

If you work absurdly hard, dare to be radically innovative, and really believe in yourself, you can do pretty much anything.

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In a future without jetpacks

My friend Joyce once showed me a Threadless t-shirt called “Damn Scientists” that I believe describes the popular reaction of college grads my age to the real world. On the front of the shirt in caustic white/black monochrome is the following:

The text is as follows:

they lied to us.
this was supposed to be the future.

where is my jetpack.
where is my robotic companion.
where is my dinner in pill form.
where is my hydrogen-powered automobile.
where is my nuclear-powered levitating home.

where is my cure for this disease

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