Well, Sol is now 30, and seems pretty on-track in his law degree and articling firm, with good friends, and hobbies. I figure it’s safe to take down his posters from the wall and declare this room the DaveCave.
So, sporting a new coat of paint, and a trip to Ikea helps the transformation. Here’s the tour: from left to right.
- Dave’s Arduino Emporium
- Apollo 11
- TV Test Pattern
- Creo metabadge
At the inaugural Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire I thought it’d be cool to introduce several simple Arduino-based projects and give people a chance to see how easy it is to get started in electronics and micro-processors. My friend Tom helped build a number of stands and a few sketches showed the range of audio and light-based projects that could be cobbled together in just a few minutes, particularly with the goal of getting school-age children interested.
The Apollo 11 flight is the core of my enthusiasm, interest, and ongoing involvement in high-tech. More about this here.
TV Test Pattern
There was a time when TV stations didn’t broadcast 24×7 but had daily start and end times. When I was a little kid I would see this on the TV at 6:45 Saturday mornings as I waited for the cartoons to start, then later learned it was a test pattern to check the TV stations transmission quality.
This picture connects me to Dan and to CFRN-TV in Edmonton, another place I found fascinating and interesting in the golden days of local television.
This prototype was designed by Lahav Gill of Kangaroo Design for the metabadge project but the project didn’t get to this stage before it was killed.
When I was growing up in Edmonton, Saturday morning car rides were filled with the sound of CKUA Radio, from the University of Alberta. Opening with Ethel Merman belting out “There’s No Business Like Show Business” came the weekly musical. Camelot, Kiss Me Kate, Brigadoon – all accompanied by my mom Esther z”l singing along with every one. Musicals made mom very happy, she had a good voice and a great memory for lyrics.
Years later my appreciation for CKUA came from an afternoon show by the legendary Bill Coull (yes, pronounced “Cool”). Bill had the most varied and wonderfully-connected radio show I had ever heard, at least until FM started experimenting, and CBC’s Alan McFee’s Eclectic Circus came to late-night radio. Bill Coull’s show is legendary for a particular reason – he refused to follow a formula. His show made connections that I had never heard of, or imagined. Bill would play a classical piece then show how that theme had been lifted and put into a piece of prog rock, then play a jazz trio who played in that same musical mode, either making connections or contrasts. For me Bill defined the word eclectic.
Eclectic is the opposite of what most of today’s algorithms value.
What is an algorithm? It’s just a computer program. The algorithms I’m referring to are of a particular type – the ones that try to determine what you should read, or listen to, or watch next. These predictor algorithms are all around us in the online world. Facebook builds a timeline for you that try to keep you on-platform, where they can sell more advertising space to entice you. Twitter tries to do the same. So does Spotify, and Netflix is happy to tell you about how they do it too.
What these predictors are missing are serendipity, and non-trivial connections, and eclecticism. They are no Bill Coull. They are no Roger Ebert. Their scope of deciding what you might like next is based on popularity and the assumption that your taste is just like everybody else, that if you like that, then people like you also liked this.
Thankfully I have a variety of friends (and children) who know me well enough to suggest things that break up my own or algorithmic silos. I am grateful for that. And I am worried. I’m worried about the people who don’t have a diversity of friends to challenge their thinking, the people who want to only hear about and believe the people who think just like they do. Because the decisions about who should run our countries, who we should trust, whose businesses we should support and which we should boycott, and whether some acts of law enforcement officers are fair or racist, are being affected by algorithms that value polarization over diversity. And that’s a problem for all us.
Facebook is the most powerful opinion-shaper for many people these days, and their algorithmic choice “For instance, the Pages and Groups that people identified as most meaningful were often the ones that they’d followed for a long time, the ones they engaged with often, and the ones that had a lot of posts and activity.” What that means in practice tends to be the posts you are likely to agree with, and posts that are highly polarized.
At Thoughtexchange we’ve built a platform that brings people together over decisions that matter – like priorities for building new schools, how to make company cultures more equitable, and how we balance safety and connection as we forge this path through a pandemic.
One of they key elements that makes Thoughtexchange work is a diversity algorithm. The algorithm that selects which thought you should consider next is based on randomness, fairness, and diversity. We find that providing a diverse set of thoughts to consider and rate in a safe space without knowing whose thought it is, and without having to defend your choice to people who might disagree with you, helps connect a community to one another, helps them increase empathy for alternative points of view, and in the end informs decisions that are representative of the group’s highest shared values.
Recently Yvonna Cázares, Director of Community Engagement in Oakland California posted this on LinkedIn after running several city-wide exchanges and being exuberant about the engagement and insight Thoughtexchange provided adding, “Thanks for making democracy possible in this important moment!!”
Until now we haven’t able to make decisions with the active participation and discussion of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a timely, fair manner. Maybe now that we can we should replace the polarization and animosity that seems to accompany majority-based voting. Imagine democracy created by conversation and active engagement to find the common ground to move ahead together.
It might be time to re-think democracy.
Being closer to the end of my career than the beginning, when I look back the path looks different from this end. This week I was marvelling at the culture of Creo and how it sustained rapid decision making and competitive advantage even through its rapid growth.
Many companies adopt one or more of these principles. In this post I will try to show you that these interlock to form a network of behavioural reinforcement that encourage each person to do what’s best for them in a way that’s also the best for the company.
Creating a culture that continuously adjusts to realign employee interests with company interests takes this kind of attention, and just like kicking the accelerator into gearing down, the speed of innovation and decision-making can be an order of magnitude better and faster that in an unaligned culture.
Those principles were:
- Economic Thinking
- Distributed Decision Making
- Act Like You Own the Company
- Leadership without Management
- 360 Review and Share Options
Amos Michelson, Creo’s CEO taught every employee the basics of economic decision making including fixed and variable costs, opportunity cost, demand and supply curves, optimal pricing strategy and capturing consumer surplus. You can hear some of these articulated by Amos here.
By having every employee understand the basics of economic thinking we could discuss at any team meeting decisions from a shared objective viewpoint and compare alternatives in terms of their costs and benefits instead of using opinion and authority.
Distributed Decision Making
Distributed decision making is an active commitment to push decisions out to the edges of the company. It is the opposite of hierarchical decision making. For example, Creo did not centralize decisions as to when people should travel (although they had a centralized travel agency to coordinate trips and get best prices). If you thought you needed to go to a conference or to a customer site you might confer with your colleagues but did not have to submit a request for review. In contrast, when Kodak purchased Creo they instituted a policy that the Kodak CEO had to approve all travel. This meant delaying any decision at least a week or two, and drove ticket prices way up once you were inside a two-week pricing window, and the criteria for who was permitted to travel and who was declined was opaque, arbitrary and without rationale, creating appeal cycles and email and negotiations that made decisions even slower and forced flight cancellations and rescheduling that more that destroyed the gains they sought by centralizing the decision-making.
Distributed Decision Making requires three elements;
- employees that are smart, confident and empowered enough to learn principles and be able and expected to apply them
- shared understanding of direct, indirect, and opportunity costs
- information sharing about current company revenue and expenditures so as to make contextually good decisions
Act Like You Own the Company
Any decision has to be rational and based on the best information you have at the moment. The results of being trusted to make good distributed decisions meant occasionally having to verify that your decision-making criteria was correct.
Creo let everyone in the company purchase what they needed and issue a purchase order. Within a day of me (nervously) ordering two Apple computers to run QuarkXPress, Ken Spencer, Creo’s first CEO came into my office asking about them and I had to explain how we needed to have the same software as our customers use to test our prepress system and that had I obtained the lowest price through our developer discount. He left satisfied that I had made a good economic decision.
Leadership without Management
Creo avoided hiring managers, preferring leaders. The theory was about added value: In a traditional corporate hierarchy, managers try to create perceived value by holding information and making decisions for their team, as opposed to leaders who share information and are rewarded by their team being autonomous, learning from their shared mistakes and growing in scope and expertise.
The few times we hired managers they failed miserably, like a Grand Marshal running to the front of a parade trying to demonstrate that the parade didn’t know which direction to go without them. But when you have a company full of smart, self-motivated people who share in the company growth and have the information and tools to make almost-as-good-decisions as the CEO, management was a brake, not an accelerator.
I had forgotten how important commitment was to the Creo culture until I worked places where deadlines slipped and there was ongoing forgiveness for it. Making a commitment to a colleague at Creo was a serious statement, and the 360 review top question that contributed to your annual share allocation was “How well did I meet my commitments?”
Making a commitment is not about trust. It is a promise of delivery. We trust each other to be honest and to do the best of our ability within the time and resources. But when you made a commitment, people counted on you, and a critical path was established. If you missed a commitment, that usually meant a trickle-out effect, and other people’s commitments would be at risk, which all would lead back to you, and that cascade was key to your 360 review, so was taken very seriously.
Not to say things always work out as you expect, but if you could not meet your commitment, the culture required you to alert your stakeholders as soon as you knew so their plans could be re-arranged.
Consensus is a difficult value to achieve, and requires both active listening and the ability to adapt to new ideas in real time.
By the Creo model, consensus meant “I can live with this decision” – not necessarily that you love it, or think it’s perfect, but after you would agree to a consensus decision, when you left the room it meant you had to actively support the decision and not sabotage it. It’s very damaging to a culture to have people leave a meeting not feeling heard and actively or passively trying to make that decision fail as a result.
Consensus is not the same as decision-by-committee or groupthink. Leaders had responsibility to deliver, and to make the decisions that would move the team forward. Good leaders gather information, share it, listen to ideas, discuss possibilities and tradeoffs, and lead the group to consensus, ensuring the team is aligned and running in the same direction. When there isn’t broad agreement, a leader ensures everyone has a voice and feels heard, then makes their decision explaining how they reached that often-difficult compromise and asks if everyone can support it.
360 Review and Share Distribution
Pivotal to a distributed economic decision-making and non-hierarchical structure is a 360 review with teeth – something that people really care about excelling at when that evaluation comes around once a year.
While salary was determined by the external market, Creo tied 360 review to share option allocation so there was a clear monetary aspect to performance. At its simplest 360 review was two questions, each with a rating from 1-10:
- Did I meet my commitments this year?
- How would you rate my contribution this year?
Through a somewhat-onerous series of reviews, team leads would place staff on a spreadsheet sorted by contribution, then divide them into several buckets, the highest getting significantly more options than lower buckets. By building just one list for the entire company (and after managing a complicated meeting scheduling to ensure people didn’t argue their own rating) a distributed ranking of everyone in the company emerged. Perhaps surprisingly hierarchy wasn’t always reflected strictly in the ranking. A stellar team member could rank well above team leads two or three levels above them some years when a project they worked on drove a spike in revenue, profitability, or in customer satisfaction.
Many organizations use 360 reviews but the results only go to the employee and their team lead. Because they have so little weight they tend to float up to be “attaboys” or appreciation without the hard edges of comparison or improvement. By linking the 360 review with actual incremental financial reward, people took great care to find equity in this additional compensation, and as a result Creo had a large distribution of people who could put a significant dent in their mortgages after the IPO who were from a wide range of roles within the company, not just the C-suite.
When you look at all the places you have worked, one things is clear: The culture a company lives (as opposed to what is says) determines how employees feel about working their, the velocity at which decisions can be made (and un-made), and the quality of those decisions. It’s the difference between a place people work at, and a company they work for.
These days I spend a lot of time helping people use video conferencing software over the web, like Zoom. Once people overcome the various strange myriad of settings, and learn how to mute, un-mute and turn their camera on and off, the conversation often turns to how un-conversational it is to have a group discussion. Delays and audio switching makes us create a whole new set of conversational cues, as we adapt to the strange jumps and gaps that characterize communication over the internet.
The limitations of internet conferencing are made particularly acute when people try to sing or make music together. The delays between singing and hearing other people are long and uneven making it impossible to sing in synch. This is pretty disappointing to choirs and musicians, and we all wish it worked as well as being in the same room. But the limitations of being able to synchronize multiple destinations over the internet isn’t the fault that any app can overcome, they are limitations of the internet itself.
In the early days of the replacement of analog networks to digital, two models for communications were developed, one called circuit-switching and the other called packet-switching. It’s pretty easy to understand circuit switching. You’ve seen circuit-switching in action in these old photos of switchboards.
Circuit-switching is defined by providing a fixed channel between two end-points that remain in place for the duration of the connection. Even if no information is passing from one end to the other, the circuit is dedicated to that connection. The biggest circuit-switched networks in the world was the international telephone system. Until the 1980’s every phone call was made by switching circuits to provide a pair of copper wires that connected two telephones. The equipment to switch all those circuits was immense and each neighbourhood has large brick buildings without windows that also housed air conditioners and backup batteries. Circuit switching is inherently wasteful. It dedicates an entire circuit whether it’s being used or not. As the demand for global communications increased, and fax machines threatened to alone double the number of circuits needed, analog telephone engineers looked for more and more clever ways to get more calls onto a pair of copper wires that carried the conversation. In the early 1980’s they developed a way of listening for silences, or breaks in conversation over international phone lines and inserting other calls into those gaps, an approach called multiplexing.
But the circuit-switch world was already losing ground to its digital rival, packet switching. With packet switching, analog information is converted to digital thousands of times a second, collected into packages and sent over the internet to their destination. Packet switching makes more efficient use of the channel and many simultaneous conversations can share the same connection.
The protocol for how to send this digital packages over circuit-switches was designed by the telephone industry, and digital over circuit-switched networks had one benefit we didn’t miss until we didn’t have it anymore, and that is low-latency. Latency is important when you want to synchronize events. Many easy digital cameras had considerable latency, the delay between the time you pressed the “shutter” button and the time it took the picture. You can hear latency if you use you cell phone to call your partner in the same room and compare what they hear with when you said it.
Why are there delays in packet-switched networks? The answer lies in the origins of the internet. What we now call the internet was born on January 1, 1983 when the US Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) chose TCP/IP as their protocol to exchange digital files and messages between computers located far apart. The primary goal was to have reliability, and the design of packet routing systems provided high reliability that a digital packet sent from one computer would eventually get the the destination computer, by letting each relay point along the way determine the best way to get it there. When your computer sends a packet it doesn’t really know how it will get to the destination, it just sends it along to another computer that then relays it, like a bucket brigade where each person in the line only knows who they get the bucket from and where to hand it next. Dynamic routing created a very robust and reliable network, and at the time the importance to the DoD to have a communications system that might survive a nuclear war was a higher priority than a bit of unpredictable small delay along the way.
It’s the “small delay” that makes it impossible to sing in synchrony over the internet, because the delay varies for every packet. We don’t usually notice it when using email or browsing, and video conferencing works hard to minimize the latency of the audio so we can hold conversations, sacrificing video speed and quality if it needs to. But to perform or sing together over the internet is not a question of which video application is better than another, but a basic limitation of the underlying structure of the internet itself.
The pending and controversial 5G network which is supposed to replace the current LTE cellular network is designed to have ultra-low latency to the extent that in the never ending battle between internet service providers and cellular network provides, we might end up being to sing and perform together over our new cell phones better then we will be able to through our home networks.
Dave worked at Mitel, a company that designed and built one of the first digital PBX exchanges in 1984, around the time that the circuit-switched and packet-switched worlds started to diverge.
It’s been 50 years since Apollo 11 launched, and its impact on my life has been profound. The Apollo mission was the most audacious engineering project since the Tower of Babel, and it inspired me in many ways.
The Apollo program is a powerful lesson about bringing together political will, the corresponding budget, and a lot of math and engineering. While the engineering was state-of-the-art for 1969 it is still so amazing that I meet people who think the challenge was so formidable that it was impossible, and was actually just a film set directed by Stanley Kubrick.
The history of designing the Apollo spacecraft is amazing in itself, and there is a beauty in the flow of necessity. The key decision was made to send 3 astronauts, to have 1 in orbit around the moon while the other two descended in the Lunar Module to land on the moon, then to launch and rejoin the orbiting command module. Once you know the mass of the astronauts, their living supplies, the weight of the spacecraft and fuel, the size of the Saturn V was “just math,” calculations that lead to the required velocity and power needed, creating the largest machine every built.
As a software engineer I have a great appreciation for the complexity of building a real-time computer in the 1960s when computers were the size of rooms, and the invention of the transistor was less then twenty years old.
Margaret Hamilton is one of my new-found computer engineering idols, who not only coined the phrase “software engineering” but also showed us by example the difference between computing science and software engineering. Science uses hypothesis and experiment and failure teaches as much or more than success. Engineering is about building things that don’t kill people even when something goes wrong.
Even though the Apollo Guidance Computer was state-of-the-art at the time, it had quite limited capability, something more like a scientific calculator that took input from sensors and a crude user interface called the DSKY. Margaret realized that it was possible for the computer to become overloaded if the sensors send data more often than they should have (an event that actually happened by mistake) and that by creating a computer task whose job it was to self-monitor, could decide to drop low-priority tasks in favour of the critical ones, which included monitoring the landing radar and calculating distance and velocities.
I may have only been 11 years old when the Eagle landed and became Tranquility base, but seeing that people could use science and technology to make a dream come true has been an inspiration for me ever since.
We might feel the same when people set foot on Mars.
This May Kodak will sponsor their Graphic Users Association (GUA) a user group meeting founded by Creo the 1990s. It’s my honour to be a guest at this year’s GUA as they celebrate the 20th anniversary of Prinergy’s launch at Seybold San Francisco in 1999.
Not many products stay viable in the market for 20 years. While Prinergy started out to be 5 years ahead of the competition when we designed it, none of us expected it would still be around, and sold as a viable business and valued customer solution twenty years later.
In 2012 Prinergy won the first ever Legacy Must See ‘Em award of the annual Graph Expo trade show in Chicago, the print industry’s largest US show.
One judge commented, “Nothing else on the list went on to become as widely adopted and used as Prinergy. It’s a bedrock technology that continues to evolve as it drives productivity throughout the industry.” Another said, “This is still the most widely integrated and automated product on the market … it’s a fixture in the industry.” Other comments described it as “robust” and “a complete success.” Clearly, the Selection Committee felt that in consideration with other progressive MUST SEE ‘EMS winners since 1999, Prinergy was a standout with a significant long-term impact on the graphic communications industry.– Editor and Publisher Magazine, October 8, 2012
Many developers worked on Prinergy, and it evolved over time to match the needs of commercial printers as digital print, automation integration with mis systems, web-based job preflight, and color-accurate remote proofing all emerged as critical parts to help differentiate print against the onslaught of web-based content.
For those who know me, none will be surprised that we are the owners of a shiny new Tesla Model 3. We like being the early adopters of new tech, especially around sustainability. Tilly bought one of Vancouver’s first Prius’ in 2001, when you could buy “any colour you want, as long as it was sea-foam green”
When we got a phone call in June that our car would be ready for delivery in two weeks, we had kinda forgotten about it. After all, it was April when we put our deposit down on it, April 2016! We had agreed that we would give up our two cars, Tilly’s 2001 Prius and my 1996 Volvo station wagon and consolidate around one car. With so many transportation options around, from SkyTrain to Evo, Modo, Car2Go, and Mobi bikes, it seems a safe bet.
There are many blogs and youtube videos about driving the Model 3, so I’ll stick to the things that are part of our own story.
Driving an electric car
Driving an electric car is a liberating experience. It has high acceleration, it’s very quiet, and there’s never that telltale smell of exhaust that always made me feel guilty.
When you think about a gas-powered car it’s incredibly complicated, and over the 110 years since the Model T, cars have become amazingly fuel-efficient. But they still run by exploding gasoline hundreds of times a second inside metal cylinders, then have chemistry to try to take all the noxious gases out of the exhaust. The engine is really only efficient in a narrow band of rpm, so there’s a transmission to link the wheel speed to the engine, and the engine burns gas even when you’re slowing down or stopped.
Electric cars have a speed control you dial with your foot, and when you want to slow the car down, it turns the car engine into a generator that pumps that energy back into the battery. Brakes last a long time because you hardly use them except to hold the car at a stop light.
Test Flight #1 – Rossland, BC
One thing we were warned about is charging and range anxiety – the worry that you may run out of electrons before the next charge stop. To test this out, we have taken two trips, one to Rossland BC and the other to Los Angeles. Our trip to Rossland took us though the BC interior where there are no Tesla Superchargers, but it turns out to have many smaller chargers, most every town has at least one. Because we wanted our car sooner than 2019 we opted for the larger battery, which holds up to about 500km of range when fully charged. This is about 50 km more than my Volvo would take us on the highway with its 80-litre tank, so charging stations didn’t have to be any more plentiful than gas stations.
One of the benefits of being early in this wave of electric cars is that it’s still a novelty, people are curious, and there’s still innovation in charging approaches. We found this EV charger at the Kettle River Museum in Midway, BC.
While battery capacity is a key consideration in an EV, it turns out that charging is the bigger factor. Gasoline is 10x more efficient in terms of energy per litre than the fastest chargers we could find. You can fill an 80l gas tank in 5 minutes, but it takes far longer to charge a battery. Here are some speeds;
- Level 1 Charging (home 115V 15A circuit) ~7Km/hour
- Level 2 Charging (Oven/Dryer circuit 220V 30A) ~30 Km/hour
- Tesla Superchargers ~300-700 Km/hour
Here’s where you start to see the vision of a person like Elon Musk, despite his foibles, he understood that for EVs to really be touring cars over long distances, a charging infrastructure was key.
Since we planned a pleasant drive to Rossland, we used the Tesla Supercharger in Hope to top the battery up to 100% (you don’t do that often as it reduces the battery life) then planned on an overnight stop in Osoyoos. Being newbie EV drivers we stopped at many of the places that ChargeHub said had Level 2 chargers just for curiosity, and found a number of delightful restaurants and stops along the way that took us to more out-of-the-way places than we would have if we had just stopped for gas. Like the Copper Pit in Princeton, BC, and the Borscht Bowl and the fantastic Tastie Treat in Grand Forks.
When we finally did get to Rossland, they had a single working Level 2 charger and left the car there overnight for it to get back to our standard 80% charge. (430km / 30 km/hr = 14 hours)
Our return trip was marked by charging at more luxurious locations, including the dedicated Tesla chargers at Burrowing Owl Winery, a Level 2 charger at the Eldorado Hotel in Kelowna, and the ever-appreciated Superchargers in Hope, BC (with a side stop at the Blue Moose Café)
Test Flight #2 – Vancouver to LA
Travelling 2,000 km really starts to show the difference between Level 2 chargers and Level 3. If your car can only charge at Level 2 chargers you basically have to find hotels and charge your car for 7-10 hours every 300km, but there are growing networks of private Level 3 charging hubs will make that more viable. Tesla installed their own network to ensure their cars were on highways and not relegated to being (expensive) commuter cars, to differentiate them from several other ev models.
The Tesla Superchargers are located in smaller towns, typically where there is a shopping centre or outlet mall. With the growing number of Tesla Model 3s being sold, we expected more congestion but travelling at the end of October mainly on weekdays seems to have reduced that worry.
The Tesla Route Planning App (beta) in the car is very good – it considers the current battery level, the historic consumption rate of your driving, and upcoming distance and traffic as provided by Google, and calculates where your next Supercharger stop needs to be. We grew more comfortable as we drove that we could take the battery down below 10% and still be confident we’d make it to that charge point. When it once started to warn me we may no longer have enough power to make to it the next supercharger (maybe my fault – I was accelerating past folks on hills – so tempting!), the ChargeHub and PlugShare apps helped us out by showing us a Level 2 charger enroute where we could top up.
While the ratio of public charging stations to gas stations is about 1:3 today, evadoption.com points out that when you include the fact that pretty well every EV owner has a charging station at home, and there are about 0.29% of cars are EVs (of 270 millions cars!) there are already far more EV charging stations than gas stations.
It seems in the foreseeable future that we will see a few things happening around electric cars. Most of them will have self-driving options, and owning a car will start to be less attractive then just calling one when you need it and having it take you where you want to go, and booking another for the return trip, auto-dispatched to your door. Freeways will have express lanes for self-driving cars that will whisk past the human driven ones, reducing the traffic jams that paralyze thousands of cars from one person’s poor judgement. Many of these are well-articulated by Terry O’Riley.
We’re very glad to have waited for the Model 3, enjoying the nice sound system and warmed seats. Next project is to put solar panels on the roof, and charge it from the sun!
[wppa type=”slideonly” album=”2″]
Yes, I am very good at procrastinating. But that’s not the reason it took 50 years to make. Well, at least not completely.
Each generation marks moments of life with particular music, and by significant songs. Some of those songs aren’t memorable to others, but for many of us, certain songs bring back the emotions of a pivotal life moment. They become the soundtrack of our lives.
For me as a high school student in the 1970’s Edmonton, one of those artists was Elton John. Touched by the Bernie Taupin’s lyrics and sentiments of Your Song, Elton & Bernie’s music became emblematic of sensitive insight, and of celebrating life. Hearing his music even today reminds me of the nervousness, and excitement of those teenage years, full of potential and open to the possibilities that were ahead of us.
When I heard the song “The Greatest Discovery” from Elton John’s eponymous first album, its imagery played through my mind’s eye like a movie, and I imagined how I could actually produce that 4 minute film. I had by that time shot and edited two short films in Super 8mm. “City in Snow” was a series of sequences in and around Edmonton in winter, and technically challenging in learning how to create in-camera titles, and synchronize a cassette music track. “Doublecross,” done for a film course offered by the Edmonton Art Gallery, featured my friend Randy and his cousin David z”l in a short that involved a mocked-up newspaper headline and Hitchcock-like (so I hoped) suspense.
Both those films benefitted from my father’s advice and experience as a film editor and producer, but my vision for The Greatest Discovery was beyond what we could achieve at that time on 8mm film. Even beyond the technical challenge, was the problem of casting. It needed two small boys, one young enough to still wear pyjamas with feet, and be amazed by the arrival of a new brother, and of course, a new-born. And it would help if he had green eyes. I recall scouting friends of my parents to see if their children were a match and their house had the requisite frosty windows and stairs with a handrail.
It was kind of a half-hearted attempt, since the technical barriers presented by film technology at the time were beyond my budget to solve. Randy and I had recently taken a film course from Gene Topolnisky at Jasper Place High School and I was greatly influenced by the film “La Jetee” which in spite of being a motion picture consisted almost totally of still pictures. Another technique for film story-telling involved moving the camera during the filming of a still picture, an effect the documentary film-maker Ken Burns popularized in many of his historic retrospectives. To make a film like that that at the time required an animation stand, and painstaking process of moving the camera on the stand, taking 1 frame, then moving it again. In order to get the resolution I needed it would have taken a 16mm camera, and weeks of work, and if I told you about what it took to create black subtitles, let alone animated ones, we’d be here all day. Assembling this combination of equipment was appealing to me in principle, as it would recall my Dad’s early career with colleague artist Al Guest when they started a small animation house in Toronto, but buying that amount of film, having it developed, as well as the cost of renting the camera, animation stand and editor would have been far beyond my student budget. So the project languished.
I remember thinking to myself though: On the off-chance that I get married, and we have two boys, a few years apart, and maybe the elder has green eyes like his Grandmother Esther and Great Aunt Ruth, well that would be a pretty sure sign that I should make this film.
Funny how life works out.
Among many of her charms, I fell in love with Tilly’s blue-green eyes, and our son Sol’s arrival in 1990 changed our life. His brother’s addition in 1994 reminded me to take this project idea out of mothballs, and start it for real. Even in 1994 though the technology for making this film on a computer was just a glimmer of a possibility, with iMovie still 5 years away, but I nonetheless set the stage, and captured many of the stills that I imagined would make the story work, shooting by available light on my Canon AE-1 on 35mm Kodak Tri-X film.
Twenty-three years later, in preparation for Elia’s birthday, I scanned those old pictures, and sat down at our beautiful and powerful 5K iMac to finally pace and edit this video, leveraging several decades of technology development that made it simple enough to be able to bring this old vision into reality.
It only took 47 years.
So, in memory of Hans, Leni, Esther, and in honour of Dan, and most of all dedicated to Elia on his 23rd birthday, and to Sol, big brother and role model for all of us, here is “The Discovery,” inspired by the music of Elton John and the lyrics of Bernie Taupin.
It takes a lot to build a company worth $1B, but according to Amos, doing anything less is irrelevant. A billion dollar market means that even with a reasonable market share, you can still have a sizeable company that can make an actual difference in the world.
Of course, a billion-dollar company needs a multi-billion dollar market, and those aren’t lying around like gold nuggets on the ground waiting to be claimed. Those markets are discovered, disrupted and replaced by new paradigms that usually sweep the unsuspecting incumbent market players by surprise.
What does it take to build a billion-dollar company compared to a multi-million dollar one? Both take a good team, hard work, economic decision-making and a corporate culture that attracts and retains good people. The differences are 1. imagination, and 2. to not listen to customers.
Yes, I said NOT listen to customers. Sounds crazy, no? Stay with me for a bit here.
Every viable company has to listen to its customers. Companies that lose touch with the customers and prospective customers fail. The ones that succeed follow this mantra: Listen. Build. Sell. LBS is a sound strategy and many companies run profitably using it, often highlighting how importantly and attentively they listen to the voice of their customers and how much their customers appreciate getting the features they ask for. They are good companies, and provide goods and services to their satisfied customers, and inspire careers and create financial support for many employees.
But it’s not the way to build a billion dollar company. The mantra for these companies is the one Creo adopted: Imagine. Create. Believe. ICB is far more powerful a motivator that LBS, one that risks verging on arrogance and creating a cult-like corporate culture. Whenever you tie into the human belief system, you are playing with powerful forces.
Let’s unpack the mantra a bit.
Imagine: World-changing companies imagine what is possible, imagining a possibility that requires a technological breakthrough, and sometimes meets a historically un-meetable need. It’s not the imagination of the science fiction writer, it’s a grounded business logic with the added spice of imagining the creation of a thing that has not existed before. It takes a leap of faith.
A world-changing company knows that the vision of a market where this imagined device exists has to be achievable by sustainable economics.
For Creo, the economics of computer-to-plate digital laser imaging didn’t come from the customer. It came from observing the business of the customer, identifying where they spent (and wasted) money, and providing them a solution that saved them many times the cost of the equipment. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, it’s not our customers’ job to define what they want, they are busy trying to make money with their existing systems. Not listening to customers doesn’t mean ignoring them, it means going beyond listening to asking questions, observing what they really do (vs. what they say they do, or what managers think their staff does), to find the economic value that your product or service can save.
It’s up to us to have the technical imagination to know what is possible, and to understand our customers’ business so well that we can develop and deliver products with a return-on-investment that our customers never imagined were achievable.
Create. Because our imagination is audacious, and our customers may not recognize or understand the technology that we imagine, we have to demonstrate viability. In hardware or in software, that means prototyping, testing and verification. Forward thinking customers may fund these early prototypes, and secure their early production systems once they shown to be viable, as RR Donnelley did for Creo. Crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter have popularized this reward for pre-production funding on a large scale.
Believe. Who is that needs belief? Certainly the development team does, the sales and marketing team does, and the investors and employees all do. Why then put belief at the end of this mantra instead of the beginning?
It’s because the one-day-billion-dollar company already believes they will be that company long before they get there. It’s part of their DNA. The company’s belief system and culture is stoked to change the world with their offering long before the first beta versions hit the streets. They know they have a great product, and that the challenge is now to convince the world.
That’s why Believe is at the end. To become a billion-dollar company takes the evangelical passion of hundreds of believers to imagine the solution, have the faith, conviction, talent, and skill to bring it to fruition in the real world, then the energy to make believers of enough of the world to make a difference.