Do whatever you do intensely. The artist is the man who leaves the crowd and goes pioneering. With him there is an idea which is his life.
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
The recent Healthcare.gov post-launch technical scalability issues reminded me of an engineering story I've never told until now, outside interviews with growth-stage startup CEOs:
During the recession of 2008, Microsoft asked me to make sure the scale of Windows 7 launch wouldn’t crush Xbox live.
Two months prior, I had just arrived back in Canada from a solo 90-day backpacking sabbatical in Europe, at the peak of the US economic recession. I was recovering from a failed startup and a failed relationship at the time. On the second day of October, for the first time in three months I flipped through a newspaper and suddenly understood the reality I had arrived in: the economy was in a free-fall. And I had just spent all my savings.
No startup. No relationship. No savings. I had nothing left to lose. So I bought a one-way ticket from Toronto to Seattle to look for a tech job.
The previous year, in a single week I had secured 27 interviews and three offers. This time, I spent October and November walking into every single startup in Seattle downtown, interviewing. Every interview would end on a confident tone, though no follow-up. Founders who had raised funding were too afraid to spend a dime. Winter was coming.
One of the worst crimes you could commit during the recession was to purchase a car. But I had picked one out. I was in recovery mode early. You couldn’t convince me that a job and a car weren’t in the cards for the rest of 2008. I had just walked eight hours a day through twenty two countries. Whether I was stupid or faithful, I knew that life wouldn’t stand still. There’s always something growing somewhere, even if you choose to see the earth as a barren wasteland.
My final stop was at the office of an agency recruiter whose offer I had turned down a year and a half prior; we'll call him Jason. He was no longer in the business; who was? Nobody was hiring. But he knew a colleague, Adam, who had a position he hadn’t been able to fill despite thousands of laid off engineers in the market. Jason recommended me to Adam based on his past knowledge of my ability to secure technical offers. I asked Adam on the phone “what’s the job?” — “Guarantee that Xbox Live won’t go down”, he said.
The morning after, in early December, I was sitting inside a Microsoft office surrounded with seven strangers who took an hour each, grilling me with technical questions: game design, in-memory data manipulation, scientific methods, algorithm complexity, caching, thread safety, and distributed computing. Seven hours later, one of these future seven friends, Oliver, told me with a curious smile that I’d be hearing from Adam.
Two days later, I bought the car and signed a new rental lease. Adam was ecstatic, and we were both incredulous. I had closed the deal on the project: I had nine months to guarantee scientifically that the Xbox "cloud" wouldn't buckle under the load from an entire world of PC users upgrading to Windows 7 with bundled game clients.
In the next four months, 15,000 employees and contractors got the pink slip. In private, I was upset at times -- probably survivor's guilt. But I wasn’t one of them. On the fifth month, I completed my project and actually paid a penalty to my landlord to terminate my lease. I quit, packed up and moved to California. I had accepted a job offer at a startup and a part-time admission to Carnegie Mellon University.
I had finished early, with a whole quarter to spare. I could have stayed, but "love calls you by your name", as Leonard Cohen says.
I had written a framework that would emulate hundreds of thousands of game clients using hundreds of virtual machines (VMs) running in parallel on a hypervisor. Each client ran a scripted series of game moves to engage the server. When they all ran in parallel, they'd put stress on the server and consume its resources.
Given a single game server and the army of VMs at my command, I could scientifically control the number of frantic games exercised in parallel. And for every given number of players at scale, I could predict with accuracy exactly how much CPU, Memory, Network Bandwidth and Hard Disk Input Output calls (IO) would be required.
In a word, I reported to the VP at Xbox how many game servers they needed to be running in parallel, agnostic of the level of quality of the game code, to be able to "handle release to the entire world".
Three months later, on July 22nd 2009, Windows 7 was released to the world. I was in a Daly City (near San Francisco) cheap motel room, looking for my next apartment; no fan fare, but also to my satisfaction, no national Healthcare.gov style disasters. The growth of Xbox live was behind me, with all the baggage of a high-profile project, missteps towards independence, and the need for any credit under my name. My personal growth had only begun, with half a decade of love and opportunities that I've enjoyed since.
Somehow everyone involved in this particular story was happy with the turn of events. Adam got his much needed commission during troubled economic times; the Microsoft team got the value and certainty they were looking for; I sorted out the bridge to the exact American Dream I was envisioning; a car salesman sold a car; a landlord weathered most of the storm; and most importantly, I learned the following lesson:
Creative Discovery Lemma: The poorly-stationed man (or startup) whose mistakes matter very little will outmaneuver thousands of well-positioned competitors who cannot afford one single mistake, during times of uncertainty.
Reflecting back on how I was reminded of this personal anecdote, I shall add a corollary:
Corollary to Creative Discovery Lemma: The well-positioned man (or company) who cannot afford one single mistake will out-stand thousands of poorly-stationed competitors whose mistakes matter very little, across the chasm of mainstream confidence.
I wrote the corollary in honor of President Obama.
During the month I was running for the Microsoft position to scale Xbox live, Obama was running for the White House. I was a poorly-stationed man, and he was a well-positioned one. My mistakes mattered little; he couldn't afford a single mistake. I was navigating the uncertainties of the economy, while he was certainly across the chasm of presidential primaries. We had many contrasts, but one thing in common: we were both in the running to scale a new service to the entire population. I needed to scale Xbox live to the world. He needed to scale Healthcare to the American public.
Our missions were of a similar nature: a policy-maker scaling a policy, and a tech-maker scaling tech; though what we brought to the table were contrasting qualities. Rationally, you should conclude that what we stand to take out of the process could be different, and you'd be correct. The argument is subtle; so let me make the point as vividly as I can before delving into it:
The absence of preconceived expectation transpires creativity and the invention of many solutions around the same problem.
And by contrast, the presence of preconceived expectations forces sheer determinism and the application of one solution to every problem.
When you're not allowed to fail, you must reduce risk-taking. And reducing risk-taking, in the creative process, is the shortest path to failure.
When I was failing every job interview during the recession, still in the process of creating my future, something magical happened. I started asking myself "if the cost of all my failures are the same, what's stopping me from exploring more embarrassing failures right now? Why am I asking for interviews with junior managers, when I could insist on only taking interviews with CEOs? Nobody else seems to be crazy enough to do it. To me, I know I'll probably fail either way, so what's the difference?"
Since that decision and in a relatively short span of time, I've probably met hundreds of CEOs and many of the investors and VCs that in one way or another have shaped my career or lent me insight. The same career hack will take some friends many more decades to gain. My approach has been simple. I think to myself "I'm not sure we're in the same league. But they don't know that either! And what's the cost of rejection? Nothing!"
One of my friends, Matt, jokes how I might not be in the same league as my wonderful wife. I'm quite possibly an eccentric and at least an introvert, while she's a sweet, generous and incredibly empathetic woman. And I'm glad to report that I'm not the better-looking one. How did I get her to notice me, Matt jokes? Same concept! And in fact, at the exact time that I adopted that philosophy in Seattle: "I'm not sure we're in the same league. But she doesn't know that either! And what's the cost of having my mangled heart broken again? Nothing!" (You will notice her name in the reviewers section below the article. My secret is out already!)
With the acceptance that there are no expectations, and that the cost of mistakes pale in comparison with the burden of regrets, we create what was never there before. In contrast -- and politics is an example of this -- when the burden of expectations highlight the potential cost of mistakes in every direction, creativity is reduced to a one-size-fits-all square peg that must fit a round hole.
The only types of professionals who can execute under such circumstances are salespeople who use distortions to make the square peg sound like it's a round one. And hundreds of millions of tax dollars, in this way, go to consulting companies who deliver the very square peg in the end. It still doesn't fit the round hole. The administration stumbles. And a couple of kids, who had been suffering no external expectations, create the Health Sherpa, further illustrating how much waste can be caused when the creative process is managed by political expectations.
We'll come back to the President.
I should warn you about the subtle difference between expectation and faith. To foster creativity, you want to lower your expectations of success so that you allow for mistakes. But you're going to constantly need to appeal to faith. Without the psychological "knowledge" that you'll conquer a challenge, you never will. Worthy accomplishments are not achieved; they're "recognized".
Recognition is derived from the latin word cognoscere, meaning "get to know". To create an outcome, you must "get to know" that outcome. You must visualize it and live inside its reality through thought. Remember how I mentioned that I had picked out my car in the recession of 2008 before I even had a hint of my next job? That's no accident or foolishness, even though I embrace the latter.
In the wise words of one of my mentors, who has never heard my story above, "Of all the people who can't afford their dream car, nine out of ten talk about it but never get off the couch. The tenth one gets off the couch, goes into the dealership and smells the car. He will then dream up the way to get it. If he's in the dealership today, you can be sure he can afford it next year." Recognizing what you want, without the burden of worrying about mistakes, is the first step towards uncovering the creative ways towards getting it.
Developmental Psychology supports this perspective towards children. When you teach your child, learn to look to him without expectations so that you'll forgive his creative mistakes. But have faith that he (or she) will become a great person. And encourage teachers to think the same way. Numerous studies have shown that the faith of parents and teachers, in the bright future of a child, act as self-fulfilling prophecies.
And when it comes to your personal growth, your inner child is part of that responsibility.
Many people think about life under the lens of false dilemmas. Innovation and reform do not have to be valid or invalid. It's not a binary choice. Their validation does not follow a linear path. For instance, startup companies have several stages of development. At first, they're concepts and require the maximum level of forgiveness and creative openness. You make mistake after mistake in this phase. And you zigzag your way indirectly towards acceptance.
As you evolve towards validating a concrete set of hypotheses -- as the Affordable Care Act has -- you follow a reformation process and demand at least the satisfaction of a group of early adopters. In your third and last phase, as you're scaling, you focus on a single execution path instead of validating several; and you start minimizing mistakes on the customer front.
Startups who reorder or overlap these stages will stumble. The Healthcare.gov website mixed up all three stages at once. It validated, reformed itself and scaled all at the same time. If this was Microsoft, I would have been asking "are you sure you want the customers to stress-test the system instead of emulators?" and besides, you cannot measure what you have not yet defined; the concept of the healthcare system was evolving as it was scaling. And you cannot manage what you did not measure.
The public may have missed it, but the president risked his position to protect the US Healthcare giant startup from the political naysayers who pointed out its many mistakes. His persistence and ability to adapt has been slowly turning the table. The political price of crossing the concept-stage is already paid in full; and even though the administration learned the Silicon Valley game a little too late, they've even hired a proven entrepreneur as a White House CTO to advise on the process.
The next step in the saga, success with early adopters, is what's currently underway. With stints like appearing on Will Farrell's Funny or Die online Video Channel, the President is securing the scale of early adopters he needs to cross the chasm to the mainstream. Don't let the news of missing the X-millions-of-users mark fool you. Startups never hit their numbers on target. They grow on an S-curve, flatly, representing the early adopters at first, and then exponentially.
The common and mainstream man prefers a single winner. In the history of both politics and startups, we have all rallied to crush the undifferentiated second-runners to the advantage of first-movers. When it comes to picking a healthy winner, monopoly be damned, we will all do our parts. And my doctor seems to believe, regardless of whose sermon you may have been listening to, that we will all be better off for it.
Once the current charm campaign comes to a close, the Corollary to Creative Discovery Lemma above will firmly kick in. The president is a manager, not an entrepreneur; and the single obsessive solution of Affordable Healthcare is his answer. The mistakes made are all completely irrelevant. This was never a creativity exercise.
I'll repeat that: Healthcare was never a creativity exercise, therefore mistakes in it are irrelevant.
The reason Healthcare.gov almost failed was the enormous expectations -- or premature scaling in technical terms. When it stumbled, the expectations naturally turned into disappointment and partly vanished. That gave the project managers room to breathe and come up with creative solutions to scale it.
That's the insight of the corollary: the well-positioned man (or company) does not need to maneuver, because his position is "too big" to fail. In face of expectations, he either delivers or makes a bad mistake. When he makes the mistake, expectations go down, and he finds breathing room to become creative. This is why big entities tend to not be creative, until they have to.
(The moment I wrote the last sentence, Google announced that it slashed the price of Google Drive to $10 per 1TB to compete with Dropbox. I think they just illustrated my point.)
In late 2012, I was moonlighting on Tapgreet , my latest startup, while working full-time at Google. I had moonlighted on the retail modernization project for a year, and we had launched our iPad-operated kiosk product into three retail channels. Everything was going according to plan. More importantly, for the first time in the history of my many startup initiatives, we actually had a plan (that's actually not necessarily a good thing, but Steve Blank tells that story better than I do ).
I also had another plan running in parallel: To quit the corporate life cold-turkey and become an entrepreneur. No pain no gain, they say, and I wanted to pay the price of success, in pain. Bring it on. I was still donning the “Movember” mustache, and that’s how I showed up to my exit interview. The interview was conducted internally over a Google Hangout session, which was the newest and latest invention at the time. I was Don Quixote. And I was about to go to battle with the foul Windmills. My quick steed, Rocinante, was my Macbook Air. And I feared no failure. The nice HR lady asked me if there were any reasons for my departure, and I simply alluded to the point that I loved Google so much, I wanted to make another one, much like it.
I wasn’t sure whether my driving force was expectation of success or faith in myself. But I was running from fear of regrets. I was crippled, for the last six months of my stint as a rapid experimenter and resident entrepreneur, with the thought that none of it would matter. I would uncover 99% of the ways that did not work, and in the last few brush strokes on the diamond in the rough, someone else would be recognized for the value. We were “expected" to contribute to the core code-base, and I had been busy for a whole year finding all the ways that did not work for penetrating Small to Medium Businesses in the Ads market. I wasn’t the well-positioned man in the corollary. I was the poorly-stationed man from the main lemma.
Incompatibly, what was expected of me was not to outmaneuver a competitor, but rather, to cross the chasm to a mainstream. As I cited with the startup-stage mixup example committed by the White House, this was never going to work. You can’t take a validation-stage project and be expected to scale it at the same time. I sensed the approaching chaos of a strategic contradiction. And I departed, riding Rocinante to battle. The contradiction came into fruition a month later. The entire department was dissolved, as its direction didn’t meet the expectations of the management. A startup competitor’s product was adopted, and everyone who stayed joined other teams.
It’s an innocent business, these strategic expectations conjured up in the operational mainstreams of large companies (also known as OKRs in Google). I seem to recall the spirit of our mission: it was to “create” a fitting solution to an elusive problem. But by the time expectation took its toll, the mission had changed to “deliver” a solid solution to a wide-scale problem. The solution wasn’t wrong. The niche problem-statement however, was kidnapped by the expectations of the revenue-makers. The Innovator’s Dilemma had arrived on a microcosmic scale. The team's future innovation was disrupted by the current growth needs of the macrocosm. And thus I arrived at my personal Quixotic dilemma: To create new adventures, or to cross the chasm of corporate ladder climbing. My mustache and I vacated the cubicle. I even became a vegetarian, i.e. quit eating meat cold-turkey (no pun intended), out of sheer determination to turn my life upside down; lost 20 Lbs in six months in the process. And Tapgreet became a full-time unpaid occupation.
The one mistake I made was to walk out of the door with the external expectations now internally projected onto myself. My startup now “had to work”, because I had placed too much of my ego on it. Much like Don Quixote, I got my ass kicked and teeth kicked in instead. There was too much that I still didn’t know about startup risk, and both time and money investments had raised the stakes. Six months later my cofounder and I ran out of breath; not because it was the wrong idea. But because expectations had built all the wrong leaps of faith into the business model. The VCs simply had to be okay with high capital costs of hardware (they’re not). Users had to value proximity convenience over browsing convenience (they do, but it turns out that you won’t browse physically what you can’t browse visually). And costs had to come down (they do in a large business plan, but that’s irrelevant for a startup). Expectations closed the door on all creative pivots. In late 2013 we had to quit and go do something else, or sink with the ship.
It felt like I did not sleep for the entire last four months of 2013.
Anxiety was eating me alive. I had 20 new business concepts in front of me, and at least one of them just had to f@%#@#$ work. The more time I invested in one, the more stupid it seemed. When I focused on one thing, it felt like a ridiculous over-investment. When I diversified over several ideas, it felt as if I was boiling the ocean. I even partnered with a brilliant person, widely and expectantly applauded for their own previous accomplishments. The first two weeks would feel like a honeymoon period on cocaine; and after, we’d get into long discussions as to why it feels as if we’re both spinning our wheels. Every investor mentor I talked to would encourage me to drop the entrepreneurship bid and join one of their investments. As much a compliment as that was, I would not drop the lance and get off of Rocinante. Something had to give. I had to be dubbed a knight-errant … uhh, entrepreneur.
Mistake after mistake took a toll on my great expectations. Until one day when I woke up, made coffee and put the laptop, i.e. my high horse Rocinante, aside. I picked up my journal from my Europe backpacking trip in 2008 and started reading. It was beautiful. I was beautiful — as in I was a beautiful person. I wrote well; and more importantly, my writing had a flow to it. I was having the time of my life and I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. There were no expectations dogging my every decision. I was driven by a sense of wonder.
At that moment, this most painful condition of not being able to create new ideas, what I later came to recognize as Writer’s Block, was lifted. I neither had trouble picking projects nor dropping everything and jumping both feet into writing whatever came to my mind. And at this current moment, you’re reading one of those very creations of my labor, on one of those days when it seems as if I cannot create. I am reminding myself, yet again, that expectations kill the hearts of entrepreneurs and artists.
As Robert Henri says, with me there is an idea, which is my life.
I was in Barnes and Nobles of San Bruno, going downstairs to use the restroom. I was periodically driving back and forth to Palo Alto, looking for inspiration. But that day, a spiritual sense of wonder stopped me in my tracks. I love bookstores. My mother used to talk about her faith in me, when we were in Iran, that someday I’d shine in the world because of the many books I will have read. She used to take me to the library at her work. I disliked it at first; but eventually, past the decades of computer revolution, the only wondrous frontier of curiosity that remains is still that of books. They have a motherly and calming quality to them, when you allow yourself to get lost with one. You stop thinking about the past or the future. You become one with the present. And then there’s only you, your breath, and the author.
It was destiny that I was looking for a synonyms book to properly name one of my frustrating projects. And when I extended my hand to grab the dictionary, my attention was grabbed by a book with a red cover right next to it. It said in big bold letters: “Writer’s Block”
I have never wanted to kneel in front of a book the way I did then. It was as if a heavy chain over my shoulders was lifted for a single moment.
I flipped through it with tears in my eyes.
To be honest, I don’t remember anything about what I read. It was the happenstance, not the content, that was decisive. It reminded me of meeting Tim Brown, the CEO of IDEO, when he was invited as a guest speaker to Carnegie Mellon University. He had asked us to draw 30 circles on a piece of paper in a 5x6 grid; then gave us two minutes to turn these circles into familiar shapes, such as a smiley face or a football. The goal was quantity, not quality.
At the end of the two minutes, those who had kept the ideas in their heads had only come up with five shapes. Those who had acted on the ideas without the ‘’expectation'' to do a great job had finished the exercise with nearly all of the 30 circles. His conclusion was that we have a mental pipeline for our ideas. When we don’t act on them, perhaps out of the fear of making mistakes, the better ideas further back in the pipeline don’t come to the front.
Being reminded of that session explains my long periods of creativity paralysis. It explains the incompetence of the American political scene. And it explains why large companies are not creative. In a word, all of these are caused by inaction out of the fear of making mistakes, and the expectation not to do so.
Tim is a truly brilliant speaker. I encourage you to watch the entire TED talk below; but if you’re pressed for time, skip to the two minutes starting at the minute 9:50 where he talks about the 30 circles:
I started 2014 with a lot of faith and very little expectation. I put aside projects on my To Do list, designed only to pay the "price in pain”. And I’ve started focusing on the hundreds of article drafts from over the years that I’ve left unfinished. I write on my web site to help others navigate through the adversities of personal independence. And I write on Quora to engage with topics that matter. Only two months after this creativity diet, one of my writings was read by half a million people, shared on Twitter all over the world, and published by Forbes. It’s weird. We’re all alike. We ignore crap. And we go back to authentic essentials over and over again, as if we’ve connected with the same soul.
In certain books—some way in the first few paragraphs you know that you have met a brother.
Robert Henri, The Art Spirit
For me personally, there's always that return flight to Toronto that I never took five years ago; back to well-functioning Canadian social medicine; back to where I hadn’t mustered the courage or will to go further than four hours of drive outside my city for an entire decade after arriving as an immigrant. It's just that I love vagabonding without station, under the opportune uncertainties of American West-Coast capitalism. These days I scale and grow valuable and validated creations of new dreamers -- and successfully, might I add. When demand is crushing you, like the US President, under scale, call me. I'd love to have that problem; just as long as we're partners this time.
Next time we're rolling out a scalable system world-wide though, please contact me directly; all the people in this story were promoted out of their former positions. Some of them are already vouching for this story as it's being drafted. What a small and wonderful world!
Still shunning the cubicle life, un-expectantly and creatively yours.