Knowing When to Keep Your Mouth Shut


Back in ’77, I had recently taken a job at IBM Boca Raton, in the “advanced technology” department. It was beginning to dawn on me that I needed to be somewhat less nerdy in behavior, if not core, attitudes.

A few folks visited what was then Bell Labs, which had been responsible for a lot of seriously good tech for decades. The Bell people proposed a port of the UNIX operating system to our new minicomputer, the Series/1.

(“Minicomputer” is a dated term, but this was the seventies, and I learned coding using punch cards anyway. “Punch card” is also dated, youngsters.)

UNIX was developed by the Bell people based on their work at the MIT MULTICS project, and the name is a pun. I’d studied UNIX a coupla years before, at Case Tech, since it was perceived as a really good example of software development and impressive new tech. It was written in the C programming language, developed by the same guys. That was new in itself, since normally operating system code was done in machine language. (Yes, I’m oversimplifying a bit.)

When our team returned from Bell Labs, they were pretty tepid about the idea, but I was asked for an opinion. I felt that we could do better, but that UNIX would be great for the Series/1. Maybe I mentioned that it was far superior than the official S/1 operating system, developed using what some call the “waterfall” approach.

[One of the most eloquent descriptions of “waterfall” software development by Scott Adams]


My approach was politically and socially clueless. I failed to realize that local management had made a major investment in the official operating system, not only financial but also their careers might’ve depended on the success of the software. My suggestion was a non-starter, and I kinda understood that I needed to grow in non-technical areas.

Sure, I coulda fought hard for some kind of joint effort with Bell Labs to migrate UNIX to the S/1. It probably woulda meant frequent commutes to New Jersey, a mixed blessing, since I’m … from Jersey. (Inside joke for fans of Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars, part of the Thrilling Adventure Hour.)

My take is that UNIX on S/1 would be a great success, given its existing reputation and legitimization by Bell Labs and the phone networks of the time.

That woulda had vast repercussions on the whole computer industry, since much of the subsequent industry was based on UNIX systems, particularly the earliest Internet (ARPAnet and Sun Microsystems). Sun and related servers powered much of the early Net, including about a year of craigslist.

UNIX influenced a lot of development, for example, the filesystem structure of and later Windows. A UNIX variant, Mach, powers Apple Mac and even iOS.

Much more importantly, Linus Torvalds decided that the world needed an open source, free version of UNIX, and went ahead and did it.

The result is Linux, which powers much of the current Internet, it’s everywhere but not obviously so.

For that matter, Linux is the basis for Android, which runs most of the world’s smartphones.

If the Bell Labs folks, with minor help from me, made S/1 UNIX a big deal, this would have disrupted this history in unpredictable ways. It’s probably good that I was timid, and decided to learn un-nerdly social behaviors over the course of decades. (I can simulate normal social behavior, but observe my clock running out at about 90 minutes. Seriously.)

Instead, both a phone company in Jersey and one in Ann Arbor ported UNIX to the S/1, but years later, and it’s rare to find someone who remembers the S/1, or even UNIX.

My path took me less technical for the most part, spending 11 years at IBM as a Systems Engineer, kind of a tech consultant for customers. That’s a technical position, but not like a UNIX porting engineer. I never completely lost contact with what I was about, for example, I remember learning C in what amounted to a storage closet at IBM Detroit in ’85 or so. (If you live in Detroit, that’s the building on Nine Mile, where it hits Southfield and Northwestern.)

In ’95 I learned newer programming languages, Java and Perl, to participate in the incipient dot-com industry, helping develop Home Banking for Bank for America, while starting something called craigslist.

Nowadays I do lightweight customer service, and a great deal of public service and philanthropy. I know enough tech to have a meaningful conversation with people, more than I need.

I guess I’m much better off taking the path I did. The world didn’t need anyone to disrupt the industry, particularly the path of Linux. People do benefit from a mostly-free service (like craigslist), which helps put food on the table, in the short run, and in the long run, ain’t bad to “do well by doing good.”

Middle Photo:

Lower Photo:

10 ways to rule at customer service, hint: watch out for astroturfing

I’ve been doing customer service in different capacities for the last 32 years, more or less… I joined IBM in ’76, became a Systems Engineer in ’82, did CSRthat into ’93. And have been a craigslist (CL) customer service rep (CSR) since 1995. It’s a tech customer service kind of thing.

This is a good time to mention that I do enough real customer service to keep my emotional investment in the CL and grassroots community, but my involvement in CL management ended well over ten years ago, and you need to look elsewhere for a CL spokesman. Getting perceived as spokesman, though, is a big pain in the butt, with no solution. That’s why I’ll direct you elsewhere for CL stuff.

As for my CSR stuff, here are 10 ways to rule at customer service:

1. Treat people like you want to be treated

 2. Talk to people about what they need and want.

 3. Act on what you hear from people.

 4. Repeat #2 – #3 forever

 5. Use your own product, AKA “eat your own dogfood.”

 6. At least, customer service should be a senior position, probably C-level.

 7. Ideally, CEO does customer service.

 8. Focus groups are no substitute for getting out there and talking to real people.

 9. Watch out for astroturfing, fake feedback.

 10. See #1


code is power: Girls Who Code

Okay, I was chatting with Reshma Saujani from Girls Who Code, providing modest social media help, and blurted out that “code is power.” Here’s the deal. 

The easiest way to power is to be born into a family with privilege and elite status. You get more influence by building networks, and far too often, by preventing powerless people from getting ahead. You have to be cautionary: bad actors will try to hijack good efforts, like nonprofits who tell a good story and disappear with the money.

The vast majority of people anywhere don’t usually have much of a voice or any influence. Usually, regular people, the grassroots, only manage to acquire power when they use technology to work together. The technology enables people to magnify their team power, acting as a force multiplier. They can get people to the streets, and raise money.

Most importantly, folks can create the perception that their cause is an idea that’s the right thing at the right time. Victor Hugo observed that there’s nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

Girls Who Code is a nonprofit that teaches under-served girls how to computer program, funded by Google, eBay, GE, and many others. These folks know code as a form of expression, the 21st century way of expressing yourself and your identity. The girls are creating apps to communicate with each other and their communities.

George R. R. Martin observes that a girl is powerful if other girls perceive her as powerful. (As a nerd, I figure I can paraphrase Game of Thrones.)

That is, historically speaking, power and influence is driven by money and coalition building, kind of small scale networking.

Sometimes, grassroots leaders need to invent or repurpose tech to get anywhere. Ben Franklin invented the post office (store and forward network) and used the printing press. Martin Luther used the press, the existing church store, and forward network. St. Paul built the church network.

Then there’s Ada Lovelace who took notes that contained what’s considered the first computer program — that is, an algorithm encoded for processing by a machine. Anita Borg’s responsible for including women in the tech revolution, and founded the Systers online community in 1987, much before online communities were part of the mainstream. Marissa Mayer was the first female engineer hired at Google and one of their first 20 employees in 1999. (Hey, Marissa, I still use Pine!)

All these folks used tech to build grassroots networks to great effect. They’re what we now call “bloggers.”

Now we’ve got the Internet, held together with code, infrastructure where people can build tools which unite regular people for collective influence. The Net tends to level the playing field, and that tendency only increases over time.

That is, the Internet is dramatically lowering the cost of influence and power.

Women Who Tech is doing good stuff with women in the tech world. Diversifying the tech sector’s the main inspiration behind the Women Who Tech TeleSummit. The philosophy is: “If we are going to truly create technology and products for the masses, the tech world must be inclusive of all perspectives.” It goes right back to influence and empowerment. @WomenWhoTech created an infographic that shows how women really influence technology.

My own contribution was based on code I wrote between 1995 and 1999, starting with a desire to give back to the community. It’s worked out okay, and has helped maybe a hundred million people, or more, mostly Americans.

Any influence I get from that, well, I just don’t need or really want; I’ve got what I need, like a really good shower and my own parking place. Instead, I use my meager influence on behalf of the stuff I believe in. You’ll see me either pushing the good work of people who get stuff done, or indulging my sense of humor. (Note to self: I’m not as funny as I think I am.)

To be sure, I don’t feel this is altruistic or noble, it’s just that a nerd’s gotta do what a nerd’s gotta do.

My thing, craigslist, was accidental. It ran much better after people helped me understand that as a manager, I suck, and I got someone smarter to run things. I devoted myself to customer service, but I’ll only be doing that as long as I live.

If you want to see someone building code that might drive very large scale influence, consider Stefani Germanotta, and something called Backplane. She already unites tens of millions of people from the grassroots, people who’ve never had a voice or any power, the “little monsters.” Backplane might be the force multiplier that might really work for the disenfranchised.

It’s quite possible that Ms. Germanotta might become one of the most powerful humans on that planet; don’t underestimate her. I like the idea, while I’m no little monster, as a nerd I’m the 1950’s equivalent of one.

You can use platforms like Facebook to exert influence by building a network and getting people to Share your cause via your social network. We’re really talking about your “social graph,” that is, your friends or Subscribers, and then, their friends and Subscribers.

If you can code, though, you can build something like an app to magnify your influence, doing the force multiplier thing. The deal is, code really is power.

I don’t code anymore, so I’m considering that I should commission the following force multiplier.

If you want to preserve your right to vote, you need to exercise it. It’s “use it or lose it”. Take that literally.

I need an app where:

    1. You commit to voting.
    2. You’re told what you need to do to prepare to vote.
    3. Your commitment is recorded, privately and securely.
    4. The commitment is propagated through your social network, with a reminder that everyone should vote.
    5. You’re reminded to vote, by mail or in person, at the right time…
    6. …when you do so, that’s recorded.
    7. The act of voting is also shared via your social net, reminding friends to vote.

So, #2 functionality is already available.

#4/5/7 require the code to be mildly annoying, just like me. (Note from
editor: “mildly”?)

Hey, @GirlsWhoCode, looking for a good test case?

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