2013: The year in pictures

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I’ve taken a lot of photos over the past years — about 60,000. One of the cool things about being a photo nut is being able to look back and remember the moments you’ve had.

Capturing time and memories is one of the powerful things about photos. So many things come back to my mind just from a photo: sounds, smells, feelings, lighting, people, laughter and music.

So here are five of my favorites from 2013. I wanted to share a little about why they are special to me and how I shot them. If you’d like to look through more, I’ve created this set for 2013 on flickr.

1. Cathedral of the Holy Cross and Saint Eulalia

cathedral

Tucked away near the gothic district of Barcelona lies this old church. The photo was taken near the entrance, hand-held, with a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Settings: f/4, 16mm, 1/25s

Why I love this photo:

  • Contrast of colors. The lighted dome represents purity and sanctity, while the area below is dark, dirty and imperfect. Not sure how to put it, but the contrast between the two makes my eyes happy — like pizza for my eyes.
  • Symbolism of the architecture. To me, the photo symbolizes the struggle of man and the difference between who we strive to be and who we actually are.
  • The size of the place. The cathedral was enormous, and I couldn’t imagine how hard it would have been to build it back in the 14th century.
  • Gargoyles.  The outside is littered with gargoyles, and I remember going on the roof to see the city from the top.  The wind was crazy, but it was worth it.

2. Sagrada Família

sagrada família

This photo of Sagrada Família, Barcelona’s most famous landmark, is one of many I shot while in Barcelona. I shot this particular photo with an 85mm 1.4/f, handheld. Settings: f/2.8, 85mm, 1/100s

This photo reminds me of a spaceship. It is the canopy above the main altar. The inner dome is littered with very ornate decorations and bathes the altar in sunlight. It looks like something from another world — something man couldn’t possibly have built.

3. Point Arena Light

point arena light

The Point Arena Light is a lighthouse in a pretty remote part of northern California, about 100 miles northwest of Point Reyes. It sits on a thin peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean. This picture was taken from the very top of the lighthouse, handheld, with a 16-35mm f/4 lens. Settings: f/4.0, 16mm, 1/60

This picture reminds me of our last trip before Ella was born. It was the last time we’d take a trip with just us — Jaime, the dogs and myself. It was a time to think: about being a father, of the changes to come. And, yes, a little bit of worrying and convincing each other things would be okay. Luckily, they would be.

4. Hopes and Dreams

ella

Ella was born on May 12, 2013. It was the happiest day of my life. She was born with dark blue eyes and black hair. As she grew, her hair turned light brown and her eyes turned a lighter shade of blue, getting even lighter in the middle. This photo was taken with a 105mm f/2.8 macro lens. Settings: f/4.0, 105mm, 1/60s

This photo reminds me of how I feel about Ella, sure, but it also represents how I feel about time. Ella, pictured here at about 5 months old, has an entire lifetime ahead of her. So many things to do, so many firsts and a world of possibilities before her. What fits in a lifetime is overwhelming — and she’s just starting.

When I look at this photo, I think about all of the things she will experience in her life. My hopes, her dreams — I hope she is fortunate enough to live well and reach her dreams.

5. A Place to Sit

chair

I started my new job on August 19, 2013. After nearly 10 years at Mozilla, which included the Firefox 1.0 launch and many different milestones, I joined Box. This is a photo of a bench at a ranch house in Santa Rosa. I was at a team off-site with engineering leaders, and it was the first time I really got to know some of my peers. It was taken with my trusty 16-35mm f/4, hand-held. Settings: f/4.0, 35mm, 1/200

I sat in this chair for a bit earlier that morning thinking about my life. I thought about the folks I left behind at Mozilla — there are so many memories, and I will always cherish them. I thought about my new colleagues, what was to come and my future at Box. I sat in that chair, between two worlds: the world I came from, and the world I was joining. I felt nostalgic, but after a while two feelings surfaced above all others: I felt lucky and grateful.

What a Year

Among other things, we had our first child, I changed jobs, I went to Europe for the second time, I officiated a wedding and said goodbye to my uncle Craig. It was a full year — a year of change, love and diapers.

To all of you who have helped me along the way: thank you. Let’s make 2014 just as awesome.

If you have time, check out my entire 2013 set.

Calibration

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Every once in a while, if you’re a manager, you’ll find yourself in a massive meeting with other managers talking about performance evaluation.  If you’re lucky, it’s only 2 hours.  If you are growing fast, it might be 2-5 hours.

Either way, you’re probably asking yourself: what is the point of these meetings?! Well, the goal of these meetings is to make sure you recognize accomplishments consistently across your org.  Before you scoff at it, consider what might happen if you didn’t:

  • A worker in another group might get a higher rating with half the work (or, via poorer quality of work)
  • Some teams or managers would promote unfairly or too quickly
  • Workers would reach positions of importance without the competence needed to succeed at that level

Consider the Law of Crappy People from bhorowitz:

For any title level in a large organization, the talent on that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title.”

I consider this to be true — we tend look at the level above us, find the crappiest person, lean back and exalt, “WTF — I’m better than Billy!!!  He can barely tie his shoes.  If that guy is a Level 70 Unicorn, I should be a Level 70 Unicorn.  Ugh!”

Two things:

  1. Don’t limit yourself by comparing yourself to the worst.  Instead, compare yourself to the best person at the next level — or better yet, the best damn engineer/designer/whatever at the company.  I think it’s self-defeating to adopt an obsession with titles and get wrapped up comparing yourself to the worst person with a title/level above yours.  It’s not a great way to make progress.
  2. Calibration and consistency is critical to morale.  Because we all tend to do this anyway, calibration and consistency in gauging performance is critical.  If the worst person at a given level is _really bad_ it demoralizes people bit by bit, one day at a time.  That’s why it’s important for managers to have this meeting — to make sure we get treated fairly and consistently.

At Box, we take care of people and we handle calibration well — it’s one of the reasons I’m proud to work at Box.  My hope is that if you work somewhere where managers don’t do this you should speak up — and push for change.  The adverse side effects of not handling calibration are devastating.

Being a Dad

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Hopes and Dreams

How could I feel so much love for this little person I’ve never met?

I asked myself that when I first held our daughter.  Ella turns six months old tomorrow and I get the same strong, inexplicable feeling when I hold her.

The first time I met Ella, I cried.  I hid it well, but I cried.  Mostly, I smiled.  My cheeks hurt.  My heart swelled.

From the first day, I liked to watch her sleep.  As I watch her dream, I am in awe of the stark contrast between Ella and what amounts to a lifetime of experiences yet to come.  A clean slate, new beginning and sheer, utter innocence.

I envy her — I wish I could see the world without judgement or analysis.  To see things for what they are is a gift a grown man like me isn’t capable of.

What is to come?  Crawling, walking, first words, solid food (stinkier poops!) and so much laughter.  I hope to see her learn to ride a bike, throw a ball, swim, play music and run around in circles for no reason.  I want to be there.  I get to be a kid again, and I will be her sidekick.  Yes!

Before Ella was born, I spoke about how liberating being a father would be for me.  I was ready to be a dad because I was tired of focusing so much energy on things that didn’t matter.  I had to let go.  I would have someone else to take care of.  My own worst critic just got a lot busier with someone more important.

She freed me.  I was able to breathe.  In a way, she’s saved me from myself.

There are moments where Ella stops and looks up at me, almost to say, “hey Dad, you’re silly.”   In that moment, not a whole lot else matters.

Not the apathy of politics, the pain and misfortune in this world, the environment, chores, work, video games.  My faults, insecurities and baggage — it all melts away, like the crowd to a stage actor in the spotlight.  All wiped away — for that moment — by a smile, sound or touch.

Being a father is great, better than expected, and I try hard every day to just to enjoy it.  I try to see and accept these moments for what they are — nothing more, nothing less. Life is simpler, happier now. I have Ella and Jaime to thank for that.

Leadership is simple and simple is hard

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It’s been a while since the last time I wrote a summary of what I had learned about leadership. This post is about some of the general concepts I’ve picked up along the way — partially so I have them written down, mostly so I can share them.

Mind you — there’s no panacea to be found, just guidelines. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I just try to absorb as much as I can.

Management philosophy: lolwut?

A common question I get from folks: “What is your management philosophy?”

My first response to this question is to ask if you think management and leadership are related, mutually exclusive or complimentary. If I had to boil it down, leadership is your ability to motivate people. Management is how well you execute. I’ve also heard that management is doing things right while leadership is doing the right things.

However you define these, I don’t see how you do one without the other. Lean too far in one direction, you’re a babbling prophet with great intentions. Lean too far the other way, you’re a lonely, walking and talking autobot. Both are undesirable fates not meant for humans.

Let’s just say I strive for competency in both and always will.

A useful list of stolen wisdom

I still need to answer the question, which leads to a discussion about non-hierarchical empowerment. I don’t think leadership or management philosophies have a 1-minute elevator pitch, though.

To answer in long form, I constantly draw on a series of idioms, quotes and principles I’ve accumulated over time. Some of them I have borrowed permanently from other leaders, and I’ll link to sources. Others are just things I say all the time. Let’s run through these:

  1. Start with the why, ask questions about how and the what takes care of itself
  2. Hire great people and get out of their way
  3. An engineering team isn’t an assembly line — and shouldn’t be run like one
  4. Success is the quality of one’s effort
  5. The only time I’ll get mad at you is when you don’t try
  6. Look for humility and faith — without those, you have nothing to work with
  7. Know where people want to go and help them get there
  8. Push power to the edges, and find a way to have decisions happen where information is
  9. Work is like improv
  10. No assholes!
  11. Does this have to be said by me? Does it have to be said now? Does it have to be said at all? (Mike Shaver/Mike Beltzner/Canada)
  12. Listen like you’re wrong, fight like you’re right (John Lilly)
  13. Don’t whine, don’t complain, don’t make excuses (John Wooden)

No, you won’t find this stuff in textbooks

Being asked about management and leadership so many times last summer made me realize my answers seem obvious. Five minutes into spewing statements like the above and it sounds “textbook”. I actually got this feedback once after an interview. To that, I ask: what textbook? I’d like to read it.

The truth is you won’t find the answers in just one book. They are all over the place. Many of these concepts are relatively simple or common sense, but most books, blogs or articles work hard at uncovering an undeniable truth:

Simple is really, really hard.

iPhones, web search, airplanes, TCP, cars, 4GLTE — if you look around we are surrounded by amazing, complex things we take for granted. Do you realize how amazing it is that we can fit 40,000 vinyl records into our pocket for less than the cost of a television? Is it easy to give people access to data anywhere they are? Hell no. Simple concepts, impossible delivery.

Management and leadership both have many simple concepts that are difficult to handle. They can be harder than deterministic systems because people are difficult. John Taffer (from Bar Rescue – love this show) always says, “I can fix bars, but I can’t fix people.”

tl;dr

If all else fails, watch this:

And this:

Inspiring people sounds easy but it’s damn near impossible to do unless you believe in what you’re saying. The hardest part of being a leader is putting yourself out there — to be humble, vulnerable but confident all at once. While you do that, you have to constantly fight your urge to take over, take full control. Because leadership is not about power or control, it’s about creating an environment. That is what makes you a vehicle for your mission or idea. That is what makes you a force people are inspired by. Simple, right? Right.

Simple, but really, really hard.

Change is Good

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Having a child sure changes things. So does leaving your job after about 10 years of service. Naturally, I decided to make life interesting and tackle both at the same time.

Tomorrow I’ll be joining the engineering team at Box. Box is aiming to change the way people work and communicate — I’m excited about joining a great team and culture. It’s going to be awesome; even Ella is excited:

Ella in her new gear

So how have I spent the last two months? Well:

  • Watching Ella grow up way too fast
  • Traveling to Oregon, Yosemite and Mammoth
  • Riding my bike
  • Turned 35
  • Took time to reflect on my time at Mozilla, including replying to all of the emails I got when I left (I will miss you folks!)
  • Playing basketball and softball
  • Catching up with old friends
  • Finally getting around to finishing Torchlight (I & II)
  • Reading up on some tech and playing with some koans

It’s been a great summer. Living in the moment, being able to focus on just being a dad, cherishing this rare time in Ella’s life with Jaime by my side has been a blessing.

Now it’s time to get to work, which will be about building things and having fun doing it.

Change is good.

Thirty-five

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H1 at night

I distinctly remember sitting on the yellow fire hydrant outside my house in Mililani. It had a flat top — kind of an odd hydrant, really — but it was cool to the touch, even on hotter days. I used to sit on it and daydream while my father worked on cars in the garage.

I thought about life, why I was here or who I’d be where I’d grow up. I was eight, but something inside of me has always been older. I wondered who I’d marry — if I would ever be? — and what kind of adult I’d be. Would I be a scientist? An astronaut? A basketball player? A doctor? I’d think of these things as I tossed tiny red lava rocks over the retaining wall.

The thinking continued through high school, where I developed a fondness for writing. Creative writing, American literature and advanced writing taught me to see the meaning behind things. A scarlet letter, the eyes of a child, a handful of dust or a rye field — to some they are mundane, nondescript, uninteresting things. To the right person they are heavier than the world or brighter than the sun.

The last few weeks have been important for me. At thirty-five I’ve found space to appreciate the meaning of time, love, patience, loyalty, humility, family and friendship. I’ve the time to daydream again and I’m excited about what’s to come.

Last but not least: Thank you. To my colleagues, friends, family and all of you who have helped me along the way — my eight-year-old self could not have imagined a better life filled with better people. I am definitely lucky. Also, 7-11 serves free Slurpees on my birthday. What?!

Here’s to the next thirty-five.

Interns teach companies too

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To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and heart of the child.
- Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature

Web Excellence Award

Every summer at Mozilla, I was always amazed at what interns are capable of.

I was never a fan of taking the best and brightest and having them do mundane tasks like organizing desk furniture or data entry. It’s such a waste of time for a group of geniuses at the peak of their learning abilities.

So I’ve always pushed to create intern projects worthy of their time — projects that made a difference over Q2/Q3 and were on the critical path in some way. And by doing this, I’ve seen interns teach the company more than the company taught them. Not only was I okay with it — it was awesome to see.

Listen to your interns

There are a lot of simple things you can learn from interns if you’re listening. Their ridiculous, code-monster output can be inspiring and critical, but their feedback is just as important. Consider what you might learn from an intern:

  • Are your projects cool? If your company is doing interesting things, your intern projects should be interesting as well. They should be easy sells when speaking with interns who have a number of options. This helps you understand your cool factor — or the Nike or Apple factor — when it comes to recruiting talent. Are your products worth working on? Are they challenging enough to matter? Is your mission worthy? Interns can tell you this before you even hire them.
  • Do you have awesome engineers? Your ability to lead and mentor interns tells you something about the quality of your engineers. Are they able to teach a younger engineer the skills necessary to succeed? Do they have the maturity and patience to deal with someone who does not have the same amount of experience as they do? Do your interns respect them for it? Does your team even have the time to mentor an intern (and is that a good/bad thing)? Do interns out-perform your full-time folks? Interns can tell you a lot about what kind of people you have on your team and whether or not they have too much on their plate.
  • Do you have good engineering culture and processes? For an intern, the summer is all about getting stuff done. Interns absorb and accomplish things at a high rate — and they are a good litmus test for whether or not your culture and processes empowers people to get things done. If the way you do things is counter-intuitive or paralyzing, they will be the first to feel it. Their fresh perspective and intrinsic motivation make them great sounding boards for feedback on your process and culture.
  • Do your interns have fun? Last but not least, is whether they can have fun. If they can learn, be productive and have fun — it tells you you’re doing something right and this same energy translates to full-time employees. If they don’t enjoy their internship, or feel drained at the end of the day, there’s something wrong with your environment and they won’t be the last people to speak up about it.

Overall, interns can teach you a lot about what type of organization, team or company you have. Make sure to spend time with them and get all the feedback you can get. They are a valuable source of information and don’t have the usual organizational biases. Remember: if you don’t listen, you’ll miss all of it.

Making your internships awesome

So how do you work with, mentor and recruit interns? Here are some tips on how to work with interns at different points of the summer. Everyone has opinions and every company is different — but these worked for me:

  • Start recruiting early. It wasn’t unusual for my team to have our interns locked up before Thanksgiving. I credit awesome recruiters like Julie, Kimber and Jill (kudos!) for this, but ultimately we got to them early through career fairs and meetups, showed we were humans who knew our stuff about technology, and got people interested in the company’s mission. Quick aside: don’t give people exploding offers. You’ll lose people this way but at least you’re not being predatory and putting undue pressure on these kids. When you get a talented intern who wants to be there, you’re going to get the most out of the opportunity both ways.
  • Get testimonials from past interns. There are a lot of books on attitudinal loyalty, but this is a case where it really makes or breaks you. Word of mouth matters, especially in some of the strongest CS programs. When you have a good intern who loved their summer, ask them to write about it — blog it, talk to folks at their school, maybe even help you recruit at their college’s next career fair. And when you’re recruiting, be prepared to talk about these projects and link to these blogs/writings — they are a great way to explain to prospective interns the kinds of projects they might be able to work on (even if you can’t be super specific about exactly what project it’ll be yet).
  • Make a connection. I always found a way to relate to interns and talk about their favorite projects. Robotics, AI, video games, ping pong — whatever it was, I wanted to talk about it. Not only was I genuinely interested in them (I was!), I wanted to connect with them on their terms, in their comfort zone. Maybe they aren’t going to be able to talk for hours about web security — that’s what they are talking to you for — to gain that experience. But give them a chance to talk about their world. Not only is it fun, you will learn something while giving them a chance to talk about who they are and what they love.
  • Show them you care. This comes easy with a little effort, and is usually about you giving them your time. Take them to lunch. Ask them how they are doing. Give them rides home if they need them. Help them find a bike to rent. Give them tips on what to do in the city. Congratulate them when they plow through a tough bug or feature. Buy them coffee! There are so many little things you can do to make their internship special and show your appreciation. Use your imagination.
  • Trophies and stuff. Everybody loves trophies — why not get one for “surviving” their internship? The internet has sites with amazing trophies — so I got some and I went out of my way to take photos. It helps us remember how awesome those summers were. The best part of all of this is the interns get to take the trophies home with them, hopefully on the plane, so they have to explain what it is to strangers. If you don’t like trophies, get them a book, picture or card — something to take home with them and remember their summer. Be creative!

Whatever you do, treat interns with respect and make them feel valued by giving them your time and attention. If you can do this, they will surprise you and your summers will be memorable and productive.

Here are some photos from the last couple of years:

2012 Webdev Interns

Bye Owen!

2011 Webdev Interns

Tony and his mentors