Raw thoughts from Alex Dong

Fart apps and toilet check-in services

Hacker News has long become too watery for my liking but I do routinely check out the “bestcomment” page, which always surprises me with delight and insightful comments.

Like this one on trivial applications and the stagnation of real progress in tech world.

The people in charge have no vision. Everyone makes this complaint, because it’s almost always true. The difference is that it’s starting to matter. You can’t “do technology” without vision. Not anymore.

If you’re running a toothpaste factory, you don’t need vision. You just need competent execution. You need people to show up and follow the plan without complaint. This kind of work can actually be managed. If you can cut costs without compromising on quality, you do it. It’s not about vision. That’s already solved. Vision was relevant long ago when someone figured out how to make toothpaste. Your job is just to keep abreast of competitors and seek rent.

VC-istan is a postmodern startup factory. It’s technically not a company, but as a tight social network, it functions as one. VCs, rather than properly competing, talk to each other and agree on who they like and who they don’t. VC-istan’s “serial entrepreneurs” are just glorified PMs whose egos make them unemployable. The real bosses are the VCs. They want quick exits, as they should, because that’s how the incentive systems that govern them are set up. The “tech press” are a sort of HR organization. Entrepreneurs are PMs, often mediocre ones, and engineers are chumps paid in lottery tickets. This is just a big company that has managed to dress itself up as a thousand small ones that happen to be all controlled by the same people.

Now you have an ecosystem of commodity entrepreneurs hiring commodity engineers to implement commodity ideas. Ok, nothing to see here. Mobiles skwrking, mobiles chirping, take the money and run, take the money and run, take the money…

Is it any wonder that this isn’t producing innovation? It shouldn’t be. Yet VC-istan is doing a lot better than most large companies do. It seems inevitable in large organizations (including economies) that the resources gravitate toward players who don’t have much in the way of vision. Innovation is the exception. It adds variance. Given that we’re social animals who judge one another based on reliability (low variance/minimal performance) rather than capability (expected return) it is socially dangerous.

How many people have the talent and the resources? I’m sitting on +4 sigma talent but have no money. The people with boatloads of money seem (with a few exceptions) to be lacking in vision (which means I can’t tell if they have talent, but I have doubts). I can’t say that I blame them. Why take risks if you have no need to do so?

What we have now is a generation that’s used to technical progress and wants to take part. We have people who have been working their asses off since age 4, are now in their 20s and 30s, and want to take part in technical innovation. Most of them can’t, because there’s so little of it actually going on, and because most work activity is bullshit oriented toward keeping one warlord boss’s status high at the expense of another’s, rather than being invested in true progress. That’s depressing. It creates a malaise. A deep sense of ennui. Yawn, another fart app. We now have an unprecedented number of ridiculously talented, over-educated people saying, “Dude, where’s my machine learning job?”

I think that 2013 will see the beginning of a Flight to Substance, and if I’m right, that will put that talent to better use than fart apps and toilet check-in services. I don’t know how it will play out. I have no clue who will fund it. One sign of this is the increasing clamor for Valve-style open allocation. By the mid-2010s, you won’t be considered a real tech company if you’re running closed allocation (take heed, Google). If I’m right, that will help. That will help our generation work its way toward excellence. At least, some of us will go in that direction. Others will go off into the weeds of fart apps. May the market reward both crowds justly.

Here’s how we fix tech.

  • Open allocation. As long as the work is relevant to the company’s needs, let people work on whatever they want. This enables native growth of technical talent. You don’t have to poach qualified people with ridiculous signing bonuses. They quickly find a project that fits their skills and interests, and they actually improve while they work for you. Imagine that.

  • Stop fetishizing either extreme of company size. Not all large companies are bad, not all startups are good. Nor vice versa. If your 50-person startup is running closed allocation with typical HR policies, then it’s just a big company that failed to get big and it should be considered a massive joke. I’ve heard of people getting turned down for transfers in 20-person companies because of “headcount” limitations. If you want to work at a startup, then drop that shit and work for a real fucking startup.

  • Demand work on hard problems. Don’t build someone’s fart app for 5% equity. If you’re in the press, don’t reward stupidity either. Instead of cheering on idiots who get acquired for outrageous sums, ridicule them.