Wednesday, 24 September 2014

This Little Light of Mine

I get information from manifold sources; each day, I have about 80 minutes (40 each way) on the train going to and from work that I fill reading the local French news Direct Matin.  It helps me brush up my French and keep up with the news.  I have a Twitter (Motto: You cannot spell "Twitter" without "t-w-i-t", although in France, it's called "Tweeter") account (@DWBudd) and follow friends and some news sites.  I am connected to other social media like FaceBook, from whence all sorts of information arrives every day.

It's from the last (thanks, Aleesa!) that today I read the story of a young man back in the States called John Meyer who has left NYU to pursue his career as an "entrepreneur" full-time.

Please; no jokes about caddish dating behaviours are schmaltzy songs.

The attention-grabbing headline from Business Insider online reads "Meet the 19-year-old developer so successful he turned down an Apple job offer."

The click-bait worked, and over I went.

Business Insider's David Copperfield,
Here Posing with Apple CEO Tim Cook
The story focuses on the most recent David Copperfield of the Tech Beat ('whether I am to be the hero of my own life's story, these pages must tell."), indeed, a young man of 19 who has quit school to focus his efforts on developing his company, TapMedia.

Apparently, since his days as a self-taught programmer in high school, Meyer has developed a series of applications for the iPhone, making enough money at it to fund his life at the expensive Manhattan university.  And, one presumes, a bit more.  Amongst his claims to fame is an application for the phone that turns its flash into a flashlight - a novel idea that I and apparently a few million others, find quite useful.

His latest venture, called Fresco, is a news aggregator that marries photographs with news stories from the legacy press.  

I wish him well.

But the story has a bit of a whiff of self-congratulatory pabulum to it.  First, there is the idea that one way of measuring success is saying "no" to a company like Apple.  I suppose in strictly economics terms, that measure - called "opportunity cost" - is as good as any other.  A job at Apple is a valuable commodity, and thus the ability to forego it for other plans implicitly is valuable.

But his reasons get at something that has been bothering me recently, and that is: I find that so-called "tech" is increasingly less about real innovation, and more about cleverl packaging and marketing.

I wrote about this recently here and here.  My thoughts were picked up by a thread at Reddit called DarkFuturology, a site dedicated to discussing the dystopian impacts of the evolving tech world.  But essentially, my point is that Silicon Valley, which once was led by giants like Shockley and Moore, and produced the semiconductor, has morphed into a sort of casino where the great achievements are re-packaging ways for us to take selfies and share narcissistic "stories", in 140 characters or less, with the world.

In the words of visionary Peter Thiel, we were promised flying cars; we got 140 characters.

In this story, there is a sort of concurrence being writ large.  I am sure John Meyer is a very intelligent person, and he has in a sense achieved a lot.  But is his brilliance really being put to its best use designing applications like "Autocorrect: Fail," whose purpose is to create hilarity out of the idiotic robot speller of iOS?  

Clicking Meyer's Weblog, linked in the article, he describes why he left NYU, and to a point - because one does not need a college degree to be a successful computer programmer - is true.  If one views education as a sort of 'on the job training,' I agree completely. 

His blog is worth a read.

But the problem again is one of opportunity cost.  Inspiration can take many forms, but it often only can manifest itself in one way.  Or at the least, a limited number.  More to the point, ideas require people to birth them; to develop them.  To fund them.  There is only so much oxygen to feed the candles of brilliance.  

And too much oxygen is going to things like Yo dot com.  For every useless and trivial app produced, who knows what real breakthroughs are not imagined?  Meyer might have contributed to AI, but instead, we get yet another way to look at photos.

It is telling that in his piece, subtitled "A Young Entrepreneur's Dilemma," Meyer points out that, in his interviews with Apple, it is revealed that its marketing team prefer not to hire college graduates.  In his own words:

A company with a market cap of $619 billion as of today is preferring to hire non-college grads for their marketing department.

The point is made in bold-face, I suppose to indicate how large an impact the experience had.

I have a different take.  Of course a marketing department does not need college grads to be successful, especially the marketing department of a company like Apple, the value of whose products is almost completely subjective.  They need to think like the people who will buy their products in order to package those products in a way that will connect emotionally with the consumers.

But marketing is not development.  Of course, one needs to connect with the desires of your base to be successful, but marketing does not 'change the world,' the putative goal of the 'disruption' of the companies of the Valley.

This is a perfect illustration of what I was trying to say.  Most of what is going on in the 'tech' community is not 'disruptive' or 'innovative' in any intrinsic or innovative way.  It's largely a game of how best to con the mugs.

Meyer talks earnestly about his choice to forego Apple by saying 
I am, at heart, an entrepreneur. I won’t be happy working for someone else. [emphasis added]
Waiting four years to get a degree before I can completely focus on what I’m passionate about is impossible in my mind. The startup space has never been more vibrant or exciting than it is today. I feel as if I have a duty to build all that I can during this time.
But what is he "building?" What is actually "exciting" and "vibrant" about the "startup space?" And, does "entrepreneur" mean what John Meyer thinks it does?

Simply, he is building wealth (a good thing, I suppose), but no; I do not think he knows what an actual entrepreneur is.

It's not an engineer or a programmer.  

An entrepreneur is someone who brings together talent, money, and connections. (The word "entrepreneur" in crude French is someone who puts himself in the middle of things; a sort of facilitator.)

But as I said before (and the idea was more or less repeated in the DarkFuture thread), it seems that there is a misallocation of talent here.  Meyer is likely to become (if he isn't already) a rich man.  The bubble economy in San Jose is going to make a few people really rich.  But what will it leave behind, and what will it simply miss.

John Meyer is the master of his own talents, and he will profit or suffer based on how he chooses to allocate his time and his skills.  I would not presume to tell him or anyone else how to invest his life (that, I leave to the tax man, who comes each year for his pound - and a bit more sometimes - of flesh).  As a system, though, I suggest it's worth looking at the whole of the balance sheet when evaluating how 'vibrant' Silicon Valley is.

Further, the idea that he will not be working for someone else.... I am not so sure.  There is a current cargo-cult appeal of the startup world, and part of the cult is around talismanic words like "entrepreneur," and the lure of not working for someone else.

For all but a tiny few, this is an illusion.  I was a founding member of a startup that was ultimately mildly successful.  We grew from three to around 100 or so at peak.  So, this comes from experience and not the storyboard of a television sow:

Startups are forever chasing after funding, and that funding is based on a pitch that you will design something that 'the market' desires.  The goal ends more often than not in being acquired by a big company.  And that happens if the guys you claim not to want to work for like what you've done.

The illusion of the autonomous startup is in fact the off-loading of early risk and failure from large company R&D onto young college grads (or, frequently, drop outs like Meyer) who accept zero real social life, all the economic risks,  and no vacations in exchange for the shot at hitting it big.

Startup 'entrepreneurs' are working for Google or Apple or Microsoft.  They just don't know it.

One curious items in the article is hidden near the end: 

If all that wasn’t impressive enough, Meyer was also a finalist in the Thiel Fellowship, he says. That’s a program by billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel in which gifted young people drop out of school to start companies. Only 40 people become finalists, flown to the Valley for mingling. Twenty are accepted, and Meyer wasn’t one of them.

Peter Thiel (mentioned above for his cynical remark about tech) has funded the 20 Before Twenty fellowship.  It's telling that Meyer tried and failed.  Thiel has advanced that we perhaps have reached beyond the saturation point of social media, and his latest venture fund explicitly states that companies that are not 'hard' tech will not be funded.  He rules out social media by name.

Apparently, Thiel may agree with me that creating new ways to foster narcissistic exhibitionishm may be something that 'the market' will reward, but that real innovation, real science - real innovation - lie elsewhere.

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