Reflections on the Linden diaspora
As I write this, I’m on the Feng Wah bus that runs between Boston’s Chinatown, and New York’s. The Chinatown busses have grown up a little bit — the Feng Wah actually stops at the South Station bus terminal now, instead of down on the main, but narrow drag through Chinatown — I’m doing the cheapest trip to NY I’ve done since I was a teenager, I think.
I’m going to a(n un)conference on the “real-time web” sponsored by ReadWriteWeb, and I got the ticket almost by accident. Marshall Kirkpatrick, the executive editor at RWW, tweeted Sunday that the three people who got in touch with him with the best insight into the real-time web would get free passes to the event. I wasn’t considering going (especially if it wasn’t free — the tickets are about $500 and it’s not my core business these days!), but I clicked through to the event description anyway. On the event page, I found a doubled quotation mark had made one of the links out unusable. I tweeted the news back to Marshall, and followed up with a tweet that said, “the rise of the real-time web will be doing a service to the economy, because no community manager in the US will be unemployed.”
Which brings me to my personal thoughts on the layoffs at Linden Lab this week.
Fish and I were sad today to see the list of Lindens we know axed from Linden Labs. In his case he took the news with a lot of pathos, but for myself I have to admit, a long career in business has me inclined to take this kind of news with set teeth. I’ve been waiting for something like this since I heard that people like Pathfinder (John Lester, now an advisor to Oddfellow Studios) and Maedbh, both outward oriented Lindens, parted with the lab.
The fix is in. I suspect LL is making themselves an attractive target for acquisition. The depth of the cuts makes me wonder if they already have a suitor with its own support staff. Regardless, this is why businesses make these kinds of cuts — because someone else is going to take over and they already have the people in place to take those roles.
At least, I kind of hope I’m right there, because if I’m not, my last ounce of understanding of Mark Kingdon just evaporated.
After my initial sad and grim anger on looking at the list of casualties, I have been trying to “think forward” on the issue. And here’s the most positive comparison I think I can make.
Mark Kingdon has seeded a diaspora that will improve a lot of other companies.
I’m part of a similar, mostly more gradual diaspora. In the early 80’s I was a young engineer at Digital Equipment Corporation — DEC to its friends — who at the time were the top of the field for mid-range computing. Mid-range in those days basically meant anything bigger than a desktop (and remember, the IBM PC wasn’t out yet, and the Mac was a distant dream), and smaller than the IBM “big iron” that was required for some of the most intense transaction processing for businesses like banks.
The DEC VAX was the sweetheart of the industry — this was the machine, less powerful than your desktop, that was used to render the special effects for the original Star Wars movie in 1977. It was an agile, versatile machine, and ran either DEC’s own VMS or a version of BSD Unix. DEC was the kind of engineering company I can only aspire to emulate — one very hard to develop in this age of VCs and taxes on dividends (but that’s another rant).
My project there was ground-breaking. We licensed the PLATO system, a transformative project in itself, and threw millions of dollars at it to create the IVIS (Interactive Video Information System) system, an authoring system that included interactive color graphics, video, sound, and dynamic flow programming for adaptive systems. The original intent for the system was educational software, but we also invented the touch-screen kiosk during my tenure there, because we found that the same interface we used for education made for some very slick and (at the time) futuristic marketing displays.
But then in 1984, the PC really hit, and we were delivering our programs on a $17,000/seat solution — we couldn’t compete with educational software (more media-primitive but still) delivered on the cheap $5000 PC desktop. As often happened at DEC, our group broke up, and while some of us went to other jobs at DEC, a lot of my group’s leadership went off with Negroponte to start the Media Lab at MIT. Not having the grace of a degree, I wasn’t invited to that crew, so I decided it might be time that I’d picked up enough skills to go home to Vermont and be able to make a decent living in my hometown (yet another story!).
The point is, that since 1984, there’s not a job I’ve had that hasn’t been tinged with lessons I learned at DEC. There’s hardly a professional event nationally or locally in Boston where I don’t run into DEC “alumni,” and there’s an instant understanding between former DECcies. It’s like having come from a really great engineering school like MIT, but the reputation and culture made you part of something regardless if you were an engineer, or a sales droid, what have you.
DEC eventually got sold to Compaq, which got sold to HP. But the important legacies for DEC are in the American culture of technology innovation. The group from Spitbrook Road, where the VMS operating system lived, went on to help create the best parts of the Microsoft operating systems, allowing Microsoft to build servers for serious business work. Hardware engineers scattered from “we make it all” DEC to a dozen or more areas of hardware design and production and improved the breed, as a whole. Even our sales guys spread the very modern, customer-centric, dare I say social media and relationship savvy style of DEC sales that is only now getting real recognition in many big businesses.
So, I feel like not only was I part of something, as this infant terrible Chief Software Engineer for a kickass company, but I am still part of something nearly 30 years later, a web of deep blue thread running through the drab cloth of American business and engineering culture, making everything a bit brighter.
And, getting back to the recent pogrom at Linden Lab, this is Mark Kingdon’s gift to the world — like the Chinese driving out the lamas of Tibet in 1959, he is taking some of the best front-facing people from the company he inherited, and sending them out into the world to improve the rest of his industry.
I can’t say I believe it’s a good thing individually or collectively for anyone involved right now. I’m frankly really worried about Linden Lab’s (well, really, Second Life’s) future. But if you wait 30 years, maybe there will be a bunch of gray hairs like me, looking back and thinking, “Maybe having that project canceled was a good thing for my career — and for a lot of other things, too.”