I’ve existed in the world of software development and technology for the past 14 years. In that time, I’ve built countless web sites and applications, built systems that deal with millions of dollars a day in financial transactions and set up more servers than I can remember. I’ve worked in a dozen verticals including sports, accounting, gambling, charity, education, tourism, e-commerce, finance, communications, performance monitoring, life sciences, religion, air transport, scheduling, process management and others that I can’t even remember.
As time goes on, I regularly think back to an article that I once read called “Palaces of Abstraction”. It’s long been lost from the Internet, but I was fortunate enough to save a copy of it years ago.
Invariably, someone asks that question, “what do you do?”. Why is this so hard to answer? Maybe they are just being polite; they could really care less. But something inside directs me to give it my best shot. If they asked, one must assume that they really want to understand how I make a living. The rules of civil society suggest that I should explain in terms that the listener can understand, though, so usually I just respond “I talk and drink coffee.”
This is, I imagine, an affliction of modern society. If you went back a century or two and asked your great-great grandfather to describe his job, quite likely you would report back that “He built houses”, or “he constructed locomotives”. People used to be able to touch their work, smell it, see it. Computer people can do none of these things. I push electrons around. None of what I do really exists; it is all imaginary. The symbols I look at on my screen are constructed of electrical charges that will be recycled elsewhere when I go to sleep at night. When I save my so-called work to disk, my system simply rearranges some magnetic patterns. And that is the end result! Between keyboard, screen, and hard drive, I build palaces of abstractions. Layer upon layer, and when the abstractions become simple enough to do my so-called work, I feel happy. When the abstractions let me down, I refine them. Hopefully I can wrestle these abstractions into submission and accomplish what I want. When everything is done, I will have built a shiny new abstraction for someone else to use to do so-called work. If lots of people use my abstraction in their palaces, I will be very happy.
My great-great grandfather is curious. He wants to see my shiny new abstraction. He wants to experience it with his five senses. With any sense. Too bad, I say. It is imaginary. I could give you a printout that represents the abstraction, but that would be an abstraction itself. You could light a fire with the paper and warm your hands.
The article carries on, but this is the best piece. I find that the older I get (and I’m pretty much ancient at 32) the stronger my desire to create things that are tangible. This is one of the reasons why I find myself drawn more and more to working with Carly (my wife) on building Kitchening & Co. When you make a tangible product (food, for example), you get to watch people interact with it in a way that is quite unlike how someone interacts with a piece of technology that you’ve built (perhaps companies like Apple aside). There has never been a time in my 14 years of working in technology where customers can really see, understand or appreciate the painstaking effort undertaken to make something look and function beautifully on the Internet. How much thought has gone into the flow of a specific set of forms, or the hours and hours that have been poured into designing a proper database structure.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the ‘realness’ of watching the facial expressions of people enjoying our macarons, something we created, is indescribable.
That is why Carly and I can get up at 4:30am, drive to the kitchen where I make caramel from scratch (and then proceed to take the SkyTrain downtown to write code) while she creates batch after painstaking batch of macarons. You can do anything when you’re driven by passion, when you can see the facial expressions of your customers as they’re transported to another place, when you receive emails like this one:
My husband and stopped by yesterday at your counter at the Bay – we had a brief chat about baking macarons, where to find the best ones…
I have to say.. I am not easily impressed. I am an avid fine baker, I know my stuff.
I can say without a doubt – I will not bother with any other macarons again. Yours were exactly as one hopes they will be.
Macarons are like a tiny kiss, a promise, a jewel. When made with great care, their little bursts of flavor and texture have the power to transport you somewhere, wonderful, if only for a second. Carly, I thank you for that.
Our vision is so much more than macarons. It’s a story that’s being written; a story we want you to be a part of.
I’m scared to death of slowly dying throughout life. Of living a life of complacency until death. The only way to not be handcuffed and jailed by all the rules set by the people around you is to fight for the disobedience that will set you free. Mediocrity follows the rules. Unfortunately, both success and failure disobey them. –James Altucher (Breaking the Rules)
Earlier this year I watched Margin Call, a film loosely based on the financial collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008. To me, the most meaningful part of the entire film was when Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) and Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci) are sitting on the steps outside Dale’s house. Part of their conversation goes like this:
Dale: Did you know I built a bridge once?
Dale: A bridge.
Emerson: No I didn’t know that.
Dale: I was an engineer by trade.
The conversation carries on, with Dale describing how much shorter people’s commute to work was as a direct result of the new bridge. He starts to list off the number of hours that the bridge had saved people from being stuck in their car, driving to and from work.
This speaks to me because it subtly reveals how desperately we, as people, desire to build things that matter.