How to Stand Poised on the Brink

Right now, I’m in the middle of a large project, and there are a bunch of folks helping me out with that project. At the same time, there are big things going on in Santa Cruz. Specifically another TechRaising, which will happen this weekend at the Cruzio offices on Cedar.

I’ve been involved in one way or another with the folks who put together TechRaising for something like four years, but it hasn’t been a “we’re technical people, so we should get together and do technical-people things” kind of relationship. It’s been a “how are your husband and kids? we should have lunch soon” kind of relationship where we talk about who’s got chicken pox and who’s kids are struggling in school and where can a girl get a decent haircut in this town? We’re friends. Busy, yes, but friendly.

But, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book Outliers, the reason that successful people are successful is not just that they’re smart and driven (although they are that). It’s that they are in places such that, when an opportunity arises, they are able to take advantage of it. I’ve seen people that I know and love pass up wonderful opportunities, saying “I’m too busy,” or “It’s not really my thing.” To me, that’s a limitation of thinking that keeps people from achieving amazing things.

Yesterday, I decided to put together a TED talk to present at the next Santa Cruz TEDx and it turns out that one of the folks I was talking to about something else is a sponsor and wants to help get me in. After that meeting, I went to a coffee shop to pass some time before I met my family for dinner, and while I was there working on a piece of fiction, another friend came by with news about starting a magazine and said “I want you to write an article for it!” I told him about the TED talk, and he was wildly enthusiastic.

On a normal basis, I don’t consider myself any kind of special. But days like yesterday, where all the work I’ve done, all the relationships I’ve built, are paying off in unexpected ways, lead me to believe that there is a “right” way to success. That “right” way is to say yes to everything, all the time. Because even in the very worst case, you will meet wonderful people and do amazing things, and that’s not even a little bit bad.

Tech Raising pt 3

I handed off my documents Friday night – about a dozen nodes of text, a spreadsheet showing how they all interrelated, a text description of the expected functionality, a PowerPoint presentation showing all the functionality I wanted to have in the reader.

I felt like I lucked out in the group of folks who worked on my app. First, I had written all of my nodes with the programming interface in mind, writing them all as text files and tagging each one with the relevant character names and locations. I had used a spreadsheet with linked documents to organize my writing, so the programmers knew exactly how everything fit together. The logic was there, it just needed to be programmed into an interface. After the talks we had and the questions they had asked, I felt like they knew exactly what direction I was headed.

Saturday, I hung out at the Cruzio co-working space and answered questions and nibbled on snacks. I hovered around the guys working on my project, but every once in a while, I heard other people in other places mention the name of my project. It’s like being at a party and hearing your name from across the room being mentioned by people you don’t know – that thrill of curiosity, that hope that the mention is something good.

There was plenty of talk Saturday about what folks were working on and how the work was going. I met with a guy who would do the UI design, I talked with the engineers, it was exciting. I had to cut out early to make it to the opening night of Faust, and that was nice too.

The Big Day

Sunday was a little more involved. I got there early-ish and fielded questions from the team. Both Saturday and Sunday were a process of whittling down the number of expected features for the demo. It was important that we have a complete feature set for the demo, but that everyone involved have a good time. While I waited, Douglas Crets from Microsoft BizSpark interviewed me for his blog. Finally, my team handed me a demo already loaded with my text and, as an amazing bonus, the text of Hamlet so that we could demonstrate the ability to import existing text and manually index it for education purposes.

I gave my demo, and was told several things by the panel of judges:

  1. My hair is fascinating.
  2. I have good shoes, too.
  3. The idea of non-linear literature is brilliant.
  4. Because this is a new invention, I should be patient if people are slow to get it. People are always slow to recognize a fundamental shift in thinking.

On my way back to my seat, people high-fived and fist-bumped me. Chris Neklason, Cruzio founder who gave a lovely little talk before the presentations Sunday, told me I had nailed it.

Looking back on the whole experience, the value I got out of it wasn’t what I thought it would be. I thought that the value would be in having my idea turned into a reality and getting to show it off to people. That was certainly nice, and the first step in what will be a long process of turning this idea into a full-scale usable product, but it wasn’t the very most valuable thing. The very most valuable thing was what I did the very first night: getting up in front of everyone and asking them to confirm that this idea I had was worth something. The very best part was not just having people nod and say “Yes, I think that’s a swell idea,” but having people like it enough to spend time working to make it a reality, wanting to hang around and talk about its applications and possibilities, thinking about how to make it a reality and what all the buttons and knobs should look like.

As I go through the process of finishing what I started, I feel that the experience of having this group of smart, talented people telling me that they thought my idea was great will help carry me through the hard work ahead.

 

Tech Raising pt 2

The Runup

When I conceived the idea for the novel, I knew exactly how I wanted it to work. There would be a single story told from the point of view of six characters. It would take place in three countries equally spaced around a fictional world. As in the world we know, it would have a night and day, people would sleep and eat and all the things they do in real life, which meant that there would be several characters active at any given moment, but others who would be sleeping.

I started writing the content, but quickly realized that I had to figure out an organizational means of keeping everything straight. I settled on a fairly low-tech solution – a spreadsheet and a series of linked documents. The writing itself was fun. The less-fun part was constantly trying to explain to people what I was writing and how it was all going to eventually work.

The Pirate encouraged me to pitch my idea at TechRaising. I signed up and had sort of mentally prepared myself for explaining my vision to a bunch of people, but I have to be honest – at no point did the real difficulty ever enter my mind. The real difficulty was less about explaining my passion and vision to others, and more about standing up in front of strangers and laying bare my hopes and dreams. I was asking a roomful of people who don’t love me to validate my dreams. I can’t remember ever being quite this nervous.

TechRaising

The Pirate had prepared me for the process, letting me know that I needed to keep it short, high-level and to the point. I gave my pitch, frightened that I might literally vomit on the people in the front row. But the funny thing was that the minute I got up in front of everyone, all I thought about was non-linear literature, the possibilities for storytelling and writing, the number of people who would become re-engaged with literature through this new medium.

I got through my pitch and was received with applause and cheers, although my brain tends to blank that bit out. But the pitch turned out to be easier than the next bit. Once everyone had pitched, we were all supposed to mingle and talk. Engineers with an interest in a project were to get together with the person who pitched the project to form a team. The problem is, I don’t do well in crowds. At parties, I tend to stick to the one or two people I know, only branching out if someone I already know introduces me to someone new. Here, there was no one to help me. I knew no one except Margaret Rosas, one of the three organizers of the project. A couple of people came up to me to express admiration for my idea, but none of them was an engineer, so it wouldn’t do me any good. I finally hid in the back, and Margaret told me that if, by the end of the evening, I still hadn’t hooked up with a team, she would see what she could hook up.

But in no time, a couple of engineers approached me with questions about my idea. They were excited by the possibilities, and wanted to be on the team. They were both back-end guys, but we needed front-end guys as well. I had ideas for the logic required and for the interface, but no idea how to code any of it. The great thing about a small community, though, is that everyone knows everyone else, and these guys knew other guys at the event who were willing to help. Late Friday night I sent them everything I had, including the documents I had describing the project and a PowerPoint showing my expectation of its functionality.

Raising Tech pt 1

Now that TechRaising is over, I’ve been asked about four million times just what happened and what I was doing. It seems like every time I try to explain exactly what happened this weekend, I end up telling a slightly different version of the story. The weekend was so full of action and emotion that it would be hard to tell the whole thing, and I’m always focusing on different parts of it and re-thinking them.

The Back Story

Back in December when I did my first grad school residency, I came up with the idea of writing a non-linear novel. In the strictest sense, any literature that involves more than one character is non-linear because every author talks about what this group of characters is doing, and then backs up in time to fill in what other characters were doing at the same time. As readers, we understand how this works and are able to follow along. We live our own lives that way, doing our own thing all day, then getting together with our friends or family and getting filled in on what they were doing when we weren’t around.

When I talked to my husband about it, he offered to figure out the programming necessary to make it happen, but I turned him down. My husband is a genius of a software engineer, but IOS programming (I had my heart set on an iPad app) isn’t his power alley, and it would take him a while to get up to speed. In the meantime, he just started a new job and he’s still working hard at being a competitive bagpiper. Those were some of the reasons I gave him for letting him off the hook, but the real reason is that I’ve been a project manager for a long time, and my way of getting things done is to be demanding and unreasonable (although in the nicest possible way). These are great when you’re cracking the whip over guys who would otherwise spend all day sending each other links to xkcd cartoons, but less great when you’re working with someone that you have to sit across the dinner table from.

 

When Worlds Collide

I’ve spent the past two days at TechRaising in downtown Santa Cruz. The Pirate crystallized the mood here as a lot of really smart people committed to sharing their expertise in the interest of creating a new and exciting future. Folks came here with great ideas, including an application to use a smartphone in order to determine the cost effectiveness of installing solar on your house, a micro-gifting website and a smartphone interface to control a quadcopter with speakers and lasers. There are all kinds of folks here, and the mood is universally can-do, hopeful and upbeat. These folks recognize that they’re making a difference in the world by being creators rather than consumers.

Last night, I went from TechRaising to Opera San Jose – opening night of Gounod’s Faust. The Pirate and I always attend the opening night dinner, an event held at a restaurant within walking distance of the California Theater in San Jose, where the wine flows freely, everyone is rich and white, and the food nearly always sounds better than it tastes.

Before dinner started, the Pirate and I were lurking near our table, surveying the crowd. I had been social all day, which is tiring for me, so I was contenting myself with watching the crowd rather than wading into it. A woman approached us and asked us if we were sitting at her table, and even though we weren’t, we all introduced ourselves and started talking. Everyone starts out the conversation with the same question – How long have you been a fan of opera? From there we talk about other operas we’ve seen, other places we’ve seen opera, etc. This woman asked us where we were from, and then launched into a tirade about how Arizona and southern California were becoming overrun with immigrants, stealing all the jobs.

The woman making this observation wore a silk tunic over silk pants. She wore gold and diamond jewelry, her hair was nicely styled and her shoes were new and expensive. She looked and sounded like a person living a comfortable, upper-middle-class life in America, but she sounded angry and frightened by this brown wave crashing over the border.

I don’t know which jobs she thinks they’re stealing. They’re certainly not stealing the “standing in the median holding ‘will work for food‘ sign” jobs, which I’ve only ever seen from white folks and black folks. Never brown folks. Maybe all those people who’ll work for food are on the median because when they were standing outside Home Depot, people actually expected them to work. She did opine that “they” let the immigrants in because the immigrants vote Democrat. I’m not sure who “they” are, but it’s their fault and she’s not happy.

That this woman is a bigot is beyond question. I can’t count the number of times that people have disparaged Mexicans to me because I am rich, educated and look white, and they therefore believe that I must hate foreigners who are threatening our way of life. My way of life is entirely made possible by foreigners. The products I buy were largely made in China. If I have problems with those products, I call India or Canada for support. My food comes from South America, Europe or Mexico and is made according to recipes from everywhere in the world.

What I heard from this woman wasn’t intolerance so much as it was fear. The world is changing, and she is becoming unsure of her place in it and her value to it. The paradigm she grew up with is changing, and she doesn’t understand those changes. That’s so different than the attitude of the folks here at TechRaising, where there is very much a feeling of competence, confidence and capability. Whatever the future will bring, the people at events like this will be the ones who bring it to you.

Where are you? Are you crouching in the dark, worrying about what the future may hold? Or are you out in front of things, creating innovative ways to solve your problems, connect with other people or make folks happy?

Getting Closer…

I’m in the middle of writing a hypertext novel – I think I’ve told you about it. And at the time, I told you that I was chewing over the programmatic difficulties just to get out of doing the writing, because I’m the most procrastinating monkey ever. But, as often happens, by letting the problem stew in the back of my mind, I’ve made some decisions.

First, the whole point of this hypertext novel is to invite the reader to take a more active role in the text. There are decisions to make – whose point of view do you want to read? Is there a location that interests you? So, I realize that I need to write both a list of the dramatis personae and the settings.

The first thing that a reader will see is an interface introducing them to the players and asking them who they want to hear from. Alternatively, they could pick any of the three settings and say that they’d like to hear the entire story in that setting. If that’s the mode they choose, they will be directed to the character with the earliest entry in that node. When you’re in a page, it should have some kind of background image that tells you which character you’re seeing – perhaps a light wash of color and a graphic. There will be a next button and a previous button. The next button will take you to the next node in the timeline of the current character, the previous button will take you to the previous node for that character, even if the node you came from was a different character. Along the bottom will be icons for any other available characters for that node. Along the top will be icons for the other settings, and when you mouse over the icon, it’ll give you the choice of any characters with nodes at that point in the timeline.

I get that this post is about as exciting as a detailed description of my breakfast oatmeal, but trust me on this one. Anyone reading this: this is something brand new and cool that we’re inventing here. When it’s done, it’ll be revolutionary. The important thing is this: the next TechRaising event is in May, and I’m hoping to pitch this project to a team who will, in one weekend, create the UI. Are you ready? I’m totally ready.