Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Getting (Real) Things Done

I'm a technologist. I like technology. Specifically, I like bringing real change to real problems, using technology. I spent 10 years as an academic, engaged in, as my father liked to say, the examination of the frontiers of human knowledge using a magnifying glass. But, by far, the thing I loved more than anything else as an academic was to build things, both machines and software. Instead of relying on paper notebooks, I rolled my own web-based lab notebook, in a combination of object-oriented Perl and JavaScript (this was a decade ago, and to this day, my colleagues insist on endorsing me for Perl on LinkedIn, which I think is about as valuable as being endorsed for trepanning.) In the end, one of the reasons I left academia was precisely because I liked building things a lot more than I liked discovering things of marginal value, and one of the reasons I love my job is because the things I build have immense value.

I put all this forward as a form of credentialing, though, to give you my bona-fides as a techno-optimist. Because what I really want to say is: the vast majority of the problems in our world will not be solved by apps, hackathons, or data jams. They can only be solved by talking to people.

Let's be honest: most engineers and nerds hate talking to people. I met my wife through a dating website, because I am gripped with terror at the idea of introducing myself to a woman in a social setting. I book my restaurant reservations using Open Table because restaurant hosts at upscale restaurants are some of the most odious people to talk to on the planet.  So, faced with a problem, we will opt to write software to solve it. Witness, for instance, this article about StopBeef.com, a “matchmaking app for murder mediators”, as PandoDaily puts it:

A high profile shooting on Mother’s Day that injured 19 people got hacker Travis Laurendine thinking about how homicide was impacting the city. The National Civic Day of Hacking was fast approaching, so he decided to try “hacking the murder rate” for the New Orleans version of the event.

Laurendine was friends with Nicholas through the rap community, and he turned to him for advice. “I was like: you know this inside and out, what do you think would help?” Laurendine said.

Nicholas told Laurendine about a recent mediation experience he’d had. Two guys were beefing and carried guns. The conflict had escalated over time, and it was starting to look like one would try to take the other out. But Nicholas knew both of them, and one of them asked him to help settle the issue.

An intervention was staged, and the two beefers showed up with their entourages to Nicholas’ restaurant. “They both really wanted to stop the beef,” Nicholas remembers. “I told them it didn’t make sense for them to die over nothing.” The entourages agreed, and with their friends (and a local celebrity) asking them to stop, the beefers were able to end the disagreement without looking like they had backed down.

When Laurendine asked Nicholas for hacker app ideas, Nicholas relayed this story and said, “You need to do something like that! You can hit this app, log in, tell them who you’re beefing with, and someone from the neighborhood can come spoil.”

After submitting the stopbeef app to the government, Laurendine was picked as one of the 15 top “Champions of Change” nationally in civic hacking. He’s headed to the White House to receive recognition tomorrow.

I don't mean this as a dig against StopBeef.com, which I'm sure has provided some really valuable outcomes, and may have even saved lives (although the linked article doesn't cite any specific success stories.)  But, it's pretty clear that the key element here is people talking to people. And I have to wonder: if Laurendine et al had spent the time learning about the community, talking to people, doing volunteer work with local tutoring organizations or Boys and Girls clubs, or finding a way to actually engage people directly, would it have had a higher impact than the equivalent amount of work spent trying to get their CSS to look just-so?

Social problems are particularly prone to this kind of wishful thinking. When I first started looking for volunteer opportunities when I was in graduate school, I reasoned that there must be dozens of organizations looking for someone to build them a web site, or a database, or maintain their PCs, and that I could bring my highly valuable skill set to bear on these problems, to great plaudits. What I in fact, discovered, is that volunteer organizations need people to do things for other people, not for machines. And, the less interesting and high profile the work, the more they need it. Habitat for Humanity had so many church groups, schools, and companies calling on them to volunteer that the local chapter didn't even bother to call me back. The San Francisco Food Bank has a several week waiting list if you want to come in and help sort canned goods. Even the Martin De Porres soup kitchen in my neighborhood sometimes has too many people doing dishes when I come in to volunteer. In grad school, I wound up driving a van for a program called Mothers Too Soon. On Thursday nights, in the winter, I would pick up 15 – 17 year old African American girls from the outlying areas of Champaign-Urbana, and drive them and their young children to a local church. There, I would sit and read journal articles for a couple of hours while they had dinner and counseling, and then would drive them back home. It wasn't particularly fun, but that was the point: nobody else wanted to do it, which was why there was a need. The only skill I had that it utilized was a drivers license, and a willingness to help out.

But, techno-optimism bedevils the corporate world just as much. 99% of my job could be done from the comfort of my home office. I can video teleconference, Webex, call, SSH, and pretty much do all of my job functions without ever so much as standing up. But I hop on a southbound train from San Francisco to Palo Alto every morning at 7:19AM like clockwork, and I fly back and forth to DC and New York (as I am doing right now) several times a month. And I do it because, in spite of all the things I can do with just a computer and a wifi connection, nothing important ever gets accomplished unless I'm there in person. You can commit code to the git repo for years on end, but it's not until a person is actually using it that you've accomplished something.

For example. I have occasionally planned trips to client sites not because I needed to get something done there, but because being there, in person, forces the client to make sure I have something to do when I get there. So, I tell them that I'm coming in to configure the networking, and they need to have the servers racked by Wednesday. The truth is that, if they just plug in the Remote Access Console, I can configure the rest of it from Palo Alto, without the need to fly anywhere, or even put my pants on, for that matter. But if I did that, I could spend the next month or more calling, e-mailing, and sending carrier pigeons, for all the good it would do me; the servers would get racked when the IT team had nothing else to do, which is not a condition that has ever prevailed since the invention of the abacus (“Abacus help-desk hours are between 2AM and 4AM on the first new moon of the harvest season. If you require assistance outside of these hours, please consult our rice-paper scroll for self-help and Frequently Asked Questions.”) Is this a huge waste of jet fuel, money, and 3-ounce bottles of shaving cream? Yes. But it's less wasteful than flushing three months of a six month software pilot down the drain while I wait for the servers to get racked. And, while I'm there, I can stop by the analysts' desks and chat with them about their work, their workflow, and what kinds of actual, real-world problems keep them up at night. I can take the clients' project lead out to lunch and let them dish face-to-face about who's trying to block the roll-out, and what kinds of changes we might want to make to turn their opinion around. I can ask for an introduction to the head of a different department or someone who works at a different firm, and see if they're having the same problem, and whether we can try to solve it for them too. And I can hit up my college friends who live in New York and DC, toast heartily to our health, and hear about their latest project, whether or not it has any bearing on my work or not, just to expand my mind a bit.

Software and the internet has changed our world, and in most ways, I think it's been for the greater good. People like to throw digs at Facebook for its triviality, but I landed my current job because I connected with someone on Facebook who turned out to be friends with someone who I had met years before and not seen since. So, we reconnected, and started talking, and when my postdoc was over, he suggested I interview.  Not only that, but in the ensuing years, he's become one of my best friends, and was the officiant at my wedding. I can confidently say that my life would be less rich and less happy without Facebook. But the good that Facebook, and JDate, and GMail did for me were that they brought me into contact with people who mattered. The internet has lowered the barriers to human interaction, but it is always the human interaction itself that makes the world a better place. Next time you want to write an app to solve a problem, ask yourself: could I do more by volunteering, or community organizing, or even just reading and learning about this problem, than I could by debugging jQuery? Or am I secretly serving my own interests by doing something I enjoy or learning a new marketable skill, or maybe just avoiding the fact that, for better or for worse, the problems in our world are really, really hard?

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