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Mark Spencer 1

Mark Spencer
Photo Credit: Digium, Inc.

Update: I originally published this essay in late-2012. My attention recently drifted back to the topic of disruption in the telecom industry, prompting me to revisit what Mark Spencer achieved with Digium and the Asterisk product. I’m no less impressed today than I was four years ago, and so I put this at the top of the blog list again. What Mark accomplished is impressive and a worthy model for other disruptors to consider.

Mark Spencer presents me with a philosophical conundrum. Before an interview earlier this month I text him to say I’m so excited about our conversation that I hardly slept the night before. (He is understandably cautious of my enthusiasm.) After we spoke, I’m so confounded by the way he chose to tell his tale that I don’t sleep well for several more nights as my mind grapples with what it’s heard.

Mark is chief technology officer and founder of a company called Digium in Huntsville, Alabama. It supports and develops for an open source telecom platform called Asterisk which Mark (for lack of a better term) invented. Digium is to Asterisk what Red Hat is to Linux. And much as Linux evolved into the open source alternative to proprietary operating systems offered by companies such as Microsoft, so has Asterisk become an alternative to closed technology from the likes of telecom giants Cisco and Avaya.

Not everyone likes the open source model, but enough do that Red Hat has made a thriving business out of providing software, support and consulting services to those that do choose Linux. Likewise with Digium. It has found a loyal and growing base of followers who align with Asterisk’s open source philosophy, its price and its flexibility. Some subset of those Asterisk users, mostly small- and medium-sized companies, find value in paying Mark’s company to help them use the platform.

I have little doubt that Mark bristles at my word selection in the paragraphs above.  That I call it “his” company and that he “invented” Asterisk. But those are accurate descriptions. Though he turned over day-to-day operations of the business to professional managers after raising a round of venture capital in 2007, he remains majority shareholder and has de facto voting control over board decisions. But Mark prefers inclusive language. Digium’s success is the result of the efforts of many, not just Mark, he points out several times in our interview. Asterisk’s adoption did not happen because of the code he originated, he adds, but because countless independent developers have committed their considerable energy and intellect to enhancing it and making it a better product for users.

Though its story is still being written, it’s not a stretch to call Digium a success at this point in its existence (which Mark characterizes as being in its late-adolescent or early-teenage years). The same applies to Mark. He has done more in his 35 years than most people could muster the ambition to even imagine accomplishing in their lifetimes. But he lets out a deep sigh when I ask him to tell the story in the context of this success.

Mark rejects my basic premise. “What is success?” he asks with implied disdain but unflinching politeness.

Call it success or call it something else, when he talks about where he is today and where Digium is, Mark has no interest in talking about the things he did. He takes me in a different direction altogether.

Let’s not tell a story about talent or skill leading to success, he intimates. Let’s talk about the importance of luck.

So it is this matter of luck, and its effects on outcomes – success or failure – that has kept me up more nights than I should admit since my last conversation with Mark.

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Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

Abe Maslow (Credit: Wikipedia)

50 years ago Abraham Maslow embedded himself in a Southern California tech factory to study its managers and culture. He kept copious notes and published his thoughts in 1962 in a sparsely-read tome called Eupsychian Management. The book was republished 37 years later, long after Maslow had passed, under the more accessible title, Maslow on Management. In it the great psychologist makes a distinction between the “doers” of the world and all those people who just talk, talk, talk.

After talking with various students and professors who “wanted to work with me” on self-actualization, I discovered that I was very suspicious of most of them and rather discouraging, tending to expect little from them. This is a consequence of long experience with multitudes of starry-eyed dilettantes – big talkers, great planners, tremendously enthusiastic – who came to nothing as soon as a little hard work is required.

We all know these types. I for one have to work hard to make sure there’s not one staring back at me each morning when I shave in front of the mirror. Someone recently told me I’m a great idea person. I think it was meant as a compliment, but my attention is piqued. I sure hope it’s not a euphemistic way of lopping me into that same category Maslow describes above.

Here’s Maslow’s technique from separating the talkers from the doers:

…I have tested people with these fancy aspirations simply by giving them a rather dull but important and worthwhile job to do. Nineteen out of twenty fail the test. I have learned not only to give this test but to brush them aside completely if they don’t pass it. I have preached to them about joining the “League of Responsible Citizens” and down with the free-loaders, hangers-on, mere talkers, the permanent passive students who study forever with no results. The test for any person is – that if you want to find out whether he’s an apple tree or not – Does He Bear Apples? Does He Bear Fruit? That’s the way you tell the difference between fruitfulness and sterility, between talkers and doers, between the people who change the world and the people who are helpless in it.

These are strong words from the father of Self-Actualization Theory. Here we assume Maslow must be this touchy-feely dude since his ideas are so often associated with kindness and making contributions to society. His views appear ironic even given that Maslow was first and foremost a thinker. I’ve never been quick to put theoretical psychologists into the “doer” category.

But he was also revolutionary. His bridge from talking to doing was constructed with rigorous testing, teaching, and writing. The hierarchy of needs thesis would have gone nowhere if he simply chatted with people about his novel concept. No, he had to go out and battle for respect in peer-reviewed journals. He had to promote it like crazy to earn acceptance and create his legacy. And his respect was not earned easily, nor did it come without wounds. It took years of grinding work that dilettantes are just not capable of.

What can we learn from Maslow’s view on doers versus talkers? My lesson is this: being an “idea person” brings little value to the world if you aren’t prepared to support the idea with all the grinding, thankless work it takes to fight through criticism and gain acceptance. This requires much more than brainstorming a few thoughts and patting yourself on the back because they feel so clever. The real value comes from transforming those thoughts from ideas to some kind of action. Even the tiniest action signals to the world that you’re serious, willing to work for your ideas, able to endure uncertainty, and not just another dilettante.

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Starfish, Creative Commons License

Several days a week, before dawn, middle-aged men congregate in small groups around Raleigh. They meet at parks, school playgrounds, and open fields and spend the better part of an hour running through fitness drills. When done exercising, they gather in a huddle for chatter and reflection before breaking and heading their separate ways.

I first heard about these groups a year ago. Over the span of a few weeks, I was approached by no less than six men suggesting I might enjoy the experience. None were pushy. Each seemed genuine and friendly. I sensed no alternative motive, but I demurred. I’m slow to accept new commitments.

If asked last year to wager on whether these groups would still exist today, I would have bet against them. I would have said they’d peter out. People are just too busy and have so many easier options for working out. At best, maybe they’d continue with a small core of devotees. Certainly nothing more.

Well, prognostication has never been my strong suit.

It’s breaking out like a virus. From simple beginnings not many years ago, it has somewhere around 200 participants today. It’s grown from Raleigh to neighboring communities, and there are hints of it expanding even further.

Yet it has no leadership structure. No money changes hands. And there are few hard and fast rules about when and where they meet or how they conduct the workouts. It’s all happening in an organic, self-organizing way.

How? Why?

These are the sort of questions I’m pointing at Will (known in the groups as “Maize”) at the neighborhood pool over Memorial Day weekend. Since there are no leaders, I can best describe him as a champion of these groups. While we both keep an eye on our children splashing at the edge of the deep end, I ask him why this is taking off. What’s the secret?

“It’s the starfish principle, man,” he answers. “You want to understand, you gotta read The Starfish and the Spider.”

So I ordered the book and devoured it early this week.

But let’s step back for a moment. Why do I care?

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Last night Larry Page, Google’s CEO, posted this entry on his Google+ account, “Google Self-Driving Car Project,” with the video below.


“Just imagine,” begins the company’s description a future with self-driving cars,

You can take a trip downtown at lunchtime without a 20-minute buffer to find parking. Seniors can keep their freedom even if they can’t keep their car keys. And drunk and distracted driving? History.

This is bold. It’s exciting. And it’s just one of several projects Google is juggling that could actually change the world. The company calls these “moonshots” and runs them out of its Google X division, an R&D skunkworks charged with making such bold – though calculated – bets on the future.

But the story here is one part fanboy awe over Google’s investments in ground-breaking innovation and one part befuddlement over how  little other corporations are putting into long-term R&D bets. Continue Reading…

Alex is an old linebacker, and a competitor still. Like me, he races the specter of his wife’s better runs. Unlike me, he tends to come out the victor. On Saturday she claimed a 7:45 pace on a four-mile morning run. On Sunday, he roused himself before dawn to push himself and run the same route just a bit faster.

He tells me yesterday that he likes to know when his workouts will end. It lets him know when to release his energy. If the workout ends sooner than he anticipated, he carries the baggage of unspent energy throughout his day. As in his football days, he wants to leave it all on the field. If it’s longer than expected, he may overshoot and lack the fuel to finish.

I’m different. When I don’t know where the finish line is, I turn to energy-conservation mode. I grind in a low-gear, going slow to make sure I don’t run out of gas and get stranded on the trail.

Dorando_Pietri

Credit: Dorando Pietri at the Marathon finish Olympic Games 1908 London, Public Domain

Too often, however, I’ve found myself carrying this approach to my work and long-term projects. These rarely present obvious beginnings and ends. They’re just very fluid by nature, and the pace is defined by an external authority. How do you meter out energy when you don’t know how long the project will last?

I’m finding value in defining those starts and finishes myself; in creating short-spurt campaigns within projects that have fuzzy parameters or jobs that just go on and on and on.

A campaign mindset creates the illusion of control and lets me know when to drop into low gear for long-lasting marathon mode, and when to toss in an all-out sprint to push myself, stretch my limits, and keep things exciting.

The latest exercise physiology teaches us that intense sprints create asymmetrical improvement in speed and increases in strength, provided they are followed by enough recovery. Grinding workouts at the same speed, distance or weight produce less desirable outcomes. Though they aren’t all bad, they can wear you down with the repetition of unrelenting routine.

But to sprint, you have to know where the finish is. You must have that promise that if you burn all your fuel, you’ll get the reward of time to rest and recover.

It’s easier to know the starts and finishes in sports than it is in work and our own creative projects. Even if he doesn’t know when the final horn with blow, Alex can feel confident that the work-out won’t go much longer than 45 minutes. He can release his energy accordingly. In work, the starts and finishes change. In projects, they get blurred. In both, the timeline is often defined by someone besides you.

My goal is to be the one to control my own campaign mindset, even if outside forces control the long-term beginnings and ends. In creative projects that might take months to develop, I can create shorter-term campaign “chunks” that allow me sprint to a milestone, cross the finish line, and then take some time to reflect, refresh and recharge. In work, I can create my own short-term goals; my own campaigns within the framework of a larger project that someone else may control.

I can sprint hard and grow through the intensity of stretching to reach my own goals, and then fall back into a more sustainable pace to recover. I can avoid too much grinding. And like Alex, I can find satisfaction from leaving it all on the field.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An article in which I explore skill acquisition, the beauty of practicing skills for the sheer appreciation of the craft, and announce that I’ve teamed up with software firm TransLoc…

Magical Thinking & Joshua Foer as Skill Acquisition Gonzo

In 2010 Joshua Foer burst onto the non-fiction literary scene with the book Moonwalking with Einstein (1). It’s a brilliantly conceived piece of gonzo writing in which Foer combs through the academic literature on skill acquisition theories and applies them in his own quest to improve his memory.

Joshua-Foer

Joshua Foer, Memory Champ

Foer is a good writer with a knack for unearthing compelling real-life stories to illustrate his points. In the case of this book, he is the story. The techniques he learned (and practiced religiously) carried him through to become U.S. memory champion – yes, there is such a thing – in about a year’s time.

He went from having an average memory to being a champion by approaching memory as a skill…something that can be developed and improved.

It’s a tremendous feat and an even better book. It should come as no surprise when it landed on many 2010 must-read lists, including that of Bill Gates. This interest in skill acquisition and development is a refreshing trend to watch. It once held a prominent place in our cultural discussions of success. Now we seem to focus more on inborn talent driving outcomes. Or we become sloppier yet, ditching our critical natures altogether when achieving an outcome we want. We neglect our post-mortems; eschewing the autopsy and contenting ourselves with the crudest explanations of why some activity turned out the way it did.

Joshua Foer didn’t become U.S. memory champion because he was endowed with a great memory. Nor was it because he was recipient of a gushing torrent of luck (though luck always plays a role). He achieved the outcome because he considered memory ability holistically, broke it down into a finite set of skills, found techniques for mastering those skills, and then practiced like crazy.

That same methodology can be applied to virtually any set of skills in which anyone wants to get better. It can also be applied to the complex combination of hard and soft skills that compose a craft.

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Bill SpruillPhoto Credit: Bill Spruill

Bill Spruill
Photo Credit: Bill Spruill

When an investor believes he has an edge, he’s supposed to stay quiet. He’s supposed to focus his energy on exploiting his advantage, not on trying to teach others the methods behind his approach. That’s conventional wisdom anyway.

And yet here I find Bill Spruill, an angel investor who backs software startups (and a stranger to me just a few months ago) explaining his investing strategy in painstaking detail. It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and we’re sipping warm beverages at the Whole Foods café near my home in Raleigh. We’ve rendezvoused at local coffee houses since September, and at each meeting – despite knowing I’m both an investor looking for ideas and a writer likely to tell my readers all that I learn – he reveals a little more about what we’ve come to call the Spruill Theorem for Reasonable Angel Returns.

In a calm and thoughtful manner befitting a college professor, Bill presents case after case for me to consider. This morning he pushes a folded copy of the day’s Wall Street Journal across the table and points to an article about a high-flying social media venture attempting to raise a fresh round of funding. Its prospects are a bit dimmer than the last time it went looking for cash. “What’s going to happen to the early investors,” Bill asks me in his Socratic style of teaching-by-interrogation, “if this effort fails? What’s going to happen to other promising startups looking to get off the launch pad?”

Those two questions signal the reasons Bill wants to tell me and other prospective angel investors about his insights. What we think we know about the risks of these investments may be misguided. And sticking to conventional wisdom carries with it consequences not only for individuals but for the larger dynamic between investors with cash and entrepreneurs with their creative visions.

It’s bigger than Bill’s portfolio.  It’s bigger than any one startup. It’s an ecosystem issue. And Bill believes that debating the ideas of the Spruill Theorem will make for better informed angel investors and ultimately a healthier ecosystem of software startups in our Triangle community.

“Angel investors are heeding the wrong models,” he tells me. “We’re trying to copy the huge successes, thinking we’ll get the same outcomes. But these stories can be dangerous. These models rarely work for angels.”

He pauses for a moment before adding, “We need new models to follow.”

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Demetri Martin SUCCESSWhat Standup Comedians Understand About Success That You and I Don’t

Demetri Martin, the 39-year old standup comedian and alumnus of The Daily Show, published the sketch above in his book, This Is a Book. It’s been making the meme rounds on Twitter for a few months now, finding a welcoming audience among the business illuminati. They are glad to have a champion who can convey the wisdom (with such brevity and clarity) that the path to success is a tangled and circuitous mess, not the simple story that we so often hear of ascension in a straight line.

With these few scribbles, Martin betrays an insight into the nature of success that seems to be best understood – strangely enough – by standup comedians. As we’ll explore below, they must all hone their craft through constant tinkering in the control setting of comedy clubs. The best of them never quit this testing mindset. They allow themselves plenty of little failures. They don’t wrap themselves in the success label, considering it something to strive for continuously rather than a status to defend.

In other words, they don’t get caught up in “being a success.” We’ll call that the success mindset. They keep experimenting, keep pressing the envelope, and keep finding new ways to make their customers laugh.

There is something here to be learned by entrepreneurs and business leaders.

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