Archive for August 2007
It’s Wednesday. You know what that means right? That’s right, it’s business time!!!
I’ve worked at a variety of companies ranging from large 20,000 employee behemoths to small 15 person startups. One of the things that’s always come across my mind is the direct correlation between company size and bureaucracy. It really bothers me that as a company grows, its bureaucracy increases and a subsequent lack of productivity follows. This inevitably leads to the company being overtaken by a smaller, faster competitor.
Everyone says that the increase in bureaucracy isn’t a choice, but rather a byproduct of a growing organization. But why is this the case? Is it because of conflicting personalities, too many cooks in the kitchen or just laziness? At my first engineering job, my boss used to say “in a given 8 hour day, you only really work for 4 hours.” I thought it was just him that thought that way, but I’ve seen the same thing occur at every place I’ve worked at since then. I actually think that it’s a function of company size. In fact, I made up this graph to illustrate the phenomenon using completely made up data.
Google is the first company I’ve seen that’s really tried defying this, as they realize that once they become big and slow that someone else will beat them at their own game. They’ve done this by keeping teams small and isolated on their own projects. It also helps that it feels like a nerd version of Disneyland when you walk around the campus, but the small teams is the real reason.
One such example is the team of a Google product that I use every day, Google Reader. It’s composed of 9 people. That’s a pretty small team for a product like that, but it’s a great product and they get things done.
In the same vein, I’ve been working on my own for a couple months now, and the amount that I’ve been able to get done in that time is leaps and bounds more than I’ve been able to get done at any company, even the smaller outfits. With the absence of meetings, conference calls and commuting, I’ve been able to work half as many hours with twice the productivity and the freedom to travel all over the world. It even improves the quality of my work because I can work when I want and where I want, which does wonders for an engineer’s mind.
All of this makes me wonder why organizations hire so many more people than they need. However, if companies only hired as many people as they needed to function, we’d probably have insanely high unemployment rates. In all honesty, I think the real solution would be to find some sort of new management paradigm that allows for growth without loss of productivity. You’d think that with all this grand new technology that facilitates better, more open communication that we could reduce some of the headaches and optimize things, right? Perhaps it’s the people that are the problem.
Ever since Russia launched Sputnik 1 in 1957, America has been obsessed with the bachelor’s degree. The combination of World War II and the Cold War produced an innate fear of being second place in the new emerging world of science. My father once told me that right around when he was in high school was when the big push for everyone to go to college started, as he didn’t really know anyone older that had a degree from a university. However, I argue that the American university will not hold the value that it once did in the coming future. The value of a bachelor’s degree is becoming less valuable every day.
Of course, I must preface all of this by stating that I myself do not have a bachelor’s degree. I dropped out of college with 5 classes left in order to start a company back in 2003. I came back and finished 3 more classes in 2007. Part of me wants to finish the remaining classes, but I have this passion to create things and help progress society, and finishing school doesn’t really help me accomplish these goals; it only slows me down.
So back to my point. The reason I see the bachelor’s degree becoming less valuable is because I feel that it’s starting to reach its saturation point. Before the 20th century, the masses were not allowed to attend universities. The major push for everyone to have a bachelor’s degree has destroyed the scarcity that once gave the degree its value.
Note that I don’t believe that education lacks value, just the piece of paper that comes along with it. Despite my lack of a degree, I spend a majority of my day reading as many articles, papers, blogs and books as I can get my hands on, thus increasing my intellectual value. Yet I lack this piece of paper that supposedly defines my intelligence, which everyone claims is the only rite of passage into a career. This notion strikes me as odd because I’ve been working in my industry for 8 years now without one…
My lack of faith in the bachelor’s degree wouldn’t be so stated if I hadn’t actually been to college and seen what it has really become. A degree used to mean something when only the truly intellectually curious pursued them. I feel that undergraduate majors do a great job of preparing the student for graduate school in the subject they study. Yet a great majority of the students have no plans at all to attend graduate school and only went to school in the first place because they were told they wouldn’t get a job otherwise. Let me tell you, almost no jobs actually utilize the skills you acquired as an undergraduate. I’d even argue that a year or two of intensive training in a particular subject (similar to a trade school) would prepare you better for a job, so why does the bachelor’s degree exist?
The bachelor’s degree exists for the same reason the SAT exists. With increasing numbers of people coming in and out of the massive education system, big business (which includes universities themselves) need some sort of indicator of whether a person is capable. However, standardized measures are never accurate measures and I’m not sure why no one has come up with a way to rid society of these inaccurate forms of self-evaluation. With all the technology we have today, we shouldn’t have to endure broad generalizations anymore. I’m apparently not the only one that feels this way about the state of higher education. The wikipedia page on the university contains the following gems:
In his study of the American university since World War II, The Knowledge Factory, Stanley Aronowitz argues that the American university has been besieged by growing unemployment issues, the pressures of big business on the land grant university, as well as the political passivity and ivory tower naivete of American academics.
In a somewhat more theoretical vein, the late Bill Readings contends in his 1995 study, The University in Ruins, that the university around the world has been hopelessly commodified by globalization and the bureaucratic non-value of “excellence.” His view is that the university will continue to linger on as an increasingly consumerist, ruined institution until or unless we are able to conceive of advanced education in transnational ways that can move beyond both the national subject and the corporate enterprise.
The ironic thing about these two studies is that they were done by professors! If the professors at these universities have such a bleak outlook on the system that they’ve devoted their entire lives to, isn’t that a sign that there’s something wrong with the system?
A trend that I’ve noticed with the rise of “Web 2.0” and open source software is something that I call Digital Communism. The concept is similar to regular Communism in the sense that everyone pitches in for the good of the populace, but doesn’t relate to economic systems as much as it does our digital lifestyles and software. Here I will present the different classes of users that power Digital Communism so that I can better illustrate what it all means.
There are many ways that people contribute to the Digital Collective. People write articles in Wikipedia, upload videos to YouTube and submit news articles to Digg. None of the people doing this get any sort of financial gain, but rather do it because they want to share their knowledge and media with others. In reality, a lot of it is probably powered by the narcissism of the current generation wanting to be noticed in an increasingly anonymous society, but it’s a different type of currency than money; it’s social currency.
In the realm of open-source software, these are the people that submit their code to the world for scrutiny and improvement. They are people like Linus Torvalds, who started a small software project as a hobby that eventually turned into Linux, which is the operating system that powers the Web 2.0 revolution.
Contributors make up about 1% of a particular community’s user base.
There are also many users that don’t necessarily contribute to the Digital Collective, but they actively participate by leaving opinions, correcting mistakes or tagging items. Rather than create uniquely new content, they edit, critique and help organize the contributions of others. In some communities, this has the great benefit of improving the work and offering alternative perspectives. In others, it is not so valuable.
Participants in the open-source community are extremely valuable as they find and report bugs, help fix bugs or even assist with documentation. Some might say that the participants are even more valuable than the contributors as they help improve the quality of the raw contribution.
Participants make up about 10% of a particular community’s user base.
The major critique of Communism is that not everyone does their fair share and that holds true in Digital Communism. The passive users of the Digital Collective are the ones that absorb the information but do not interact with it. They read, they watch and they listen but they do not want to be heard. However, that does not mean they are without value. Without consumers, production would be for naught.
Users in the open-source community give a particular product a base of users, which increases its clout as a product. Firefox claims to have almost 400 million downloads, which gives it a lot more exposure than if it was only used by some guy in his basement.
Also, over time users tend to become participants, who then in turn become contributors. One example of this is Facebook, which used memcached to make its site faster, but then needed to make it better so they fixed some bugs and now they’re the biggest contributor of code to the project.
Passive users make up about 89% of a particular community’s user base.
As you can see, the different types of users reflect the different statuses of the users. In fact, the distribution of users sort of resembles the distribution of the medieval caste system. Back then, you had one ruler with a small group of advisors and aristocrats, and a huge lower class of peasants working in the fields.
The industrial revolution then brought many of the lower class up into the middle class. The real question is if the same will happen with Digital Communism. If a large majority of the users start participating with the media, what would happen? It could either trigger the Golden Age of Information or perhaps go the complete other way and degrade the quality of information by saturation. It will be interesting to see how it all turns out.
I’ve been a huge fan of xkcd‘s comics for awhile, so I figured it was about time to post some of my favorites into a blog entry. I’ll start with the less nerdy ones, and then get into the hardcore nerd ones. Here we go!
Now time for the extremely nerdy ones!!!
I’m currently sitting in the United terminal at LAX waiting for my flight, and the plane that’s currently at my gate is going to Orange County. Has traffic in LA become so bad that flying from LA to Orange County is a faster alternative to driving? Let’s find out.
Google Maps says the distance between the two airports is 41.5 miles and would take 47 minutes to drive. United says the flight itself takes 40 minutes, but factoring in getting to the airport an hour early for security and picking up baggage, the entire trip via airplane should take somewhere around 110 minutes. It’s obvious that it’s much faster to drive, so all I want to know is…
Who are these people that I’m watching board right now!?! And why does United even offer this flight to begin with??