Tag Archives: culture

Startup culture: everything old is new again

I might have additional posts inspired by the New York Times Magazine article “Silicon Valley’s Youth Problem”, but here’s the first. The article is a lengthy piece and not very skimmable, but you might want to take the time to read it.

Isn’t it a hoot when young people think they’re the first who ever had a thought or experience, in the entire history of humanity? I don’t want to bash author Yiren Lu, because she seems like a thoughtful and intelligent person, but similar articles could have been found in WIRED or Fast Company in the 1990s when I was her age. Back in those days, younger people worked on the whiz-bang front end applications — we called it the World Wide Web — while the older engineers focused on infrastructure, networking, and hardware at more established companies. Twenty years ago the exciting place to be was in website development. Now it’s apps. Either way, that’s where the excitement and opportunity is likely to be for younger, less experienced techies.

Side note: Couldn’t the artist have included a female figure in any of the four illustrations accompanying the piece? It’s that sort of thing that subconsciously indicates women are not part of tech culture. It’s no surprise that many of the comments assumed the author was male despite her photo appearing at the end of the article.

My first job in the Internet industry began 20 years ago this month. It was a startup. I interviewed for an administrative position, heard the partners talking about the need for a production manager, taught myself HTML that night, and went on to take the better job instead. It was a bold and stupid move but so things were in the early days of the Web. After a year and a half, I jumped to a job at Huge Internet Corporation, which later acquired the startup anyway. I’ve done contract work for other startups through the years.

Startups can be exciting, especially if they’re lavishly funded. When they’re not? Well, I remember rushing my boss’s personal check to the bank to cover payroll for the week, more than once. I remember months of fighting to get payment I was owed. At one job, I was always first to the office in the morning, which made the day our power was cut off even more exciting. Being young and at a startup is like tightrope walking without a net. There is an adrenaline rush and sometimes the risk can bring great reward, but that wasn’t my experience. In the first couple years I held three jobs simultaneously to pay my rent: a day job at a tech company, retail sales on evenings and weekends, and freelancing in between.

For me, it was much more fun to be at a young company: Huge Internet Corporation in the early days. We still had startup culture, enthusiasm galore, and a sense that we were doing something new, revolutionary, and important. Because the company had existed for a while, however, there wasn’t as much risk and there was better infrastructure. I worked ridiculous hours and there was plenty of grumbling and stress, but my first few year there were the best work period of my life so far. And yes, we had Nerf guns then too, and we shot each other as we dodged between the cubicles. We pranked each other mercilessly. We had Quake tournaments after hours. Most of us were young and single; our social lives tended to mesh with our work lives. Alcohol played a role in that culture, sometimes in the office or at informal parties in the parking lot. We had decent salaries and stock options; a good day on Wall Street could create waves of 28 year old millionaires and a bad day could bring tears.

Ms. Lu might not realize this yet, but companies age too. The culture changes as layers of management and oversight come in and as a maturing workforce changes their priorities to include on-site daycare, parental leave, and better retirement savings plans. Public companies have more paperwork; some of the blame for my burn out at Huge Internet Company can be dumped at the feet of Sarbanes-Oxley. The mandatory documentation, diversity committee review of new hires, accessibility review of every project, and on and on… it adds up, even when the intent is to change things for the better. Throw in some bad reviews from the tech press — oh how we used to fear Walt Mossberg! — and product management starts to get gun shy. Progress slows. Innovation is stifled.

Internet companies are still figuring out viable maturity curves. Some settle into their strengths and stop trying to compete with nimble startups. Some reorganize to make room for established business and creativity, as Google seems to be doing with its recent creation of parent company Alphabet, Inc. Some use size to keep their position while building side products in an attempt to future-proof the business (Amazon, Facebook). Some die. In the case of Huge Internet Corporation, management made some bad decisions, our business model shifted too slowly, and our core technology was outdated by the time it was released. The company still exists but in very different form.

However, when I look though my LinkedIn contacts to see where my former HIC colleagues are working today, I see quite an assortment, not only the “old guard” trying to trudge through the last decades of their careers at stable, long-lived companies. Those I was closest to are between the ages of 40 and 55 now. Many of them have C-level or Vice President titles at startups or smaller companies, or they are VPs or Directors at larger ones. A few started their own companies or became consultants. Others bailed out of the industry altogether to pursue new passions, from nursing to documentary film making to landscape architecture. They scattered across the country and a surprising cluster of them ended up in London. Generalizing about the whole group, just as generalizing about the younger wave of tech workers, misses all the interesting paths that don’t fit the desired narrative.


A short personal note. Some of you who have been reading this blog for a while know about my dear friend Jakob and I wanted to pass along an update. He and I haven’t been spending much time together since I broke my leg — neither of us has much to say, as we’re both housebound and unwell — but we still have a short online visit every day. Lately he’s been active and optimistic, cleaning his house and planning an October trip with his sister.

Unfortunately, he’s now back in the hospital. He had chemotherapy (he has stage IV stomach cancer) last Thursday and was groggy in the days that followed. By Sunday he wasn’t online. Yesterday his sister gave me the news that he was admitted to the hospital with a blood sugar level of 1300. Jakob is an insulin-dependent type 1 diabetic and when he is weak and confused from chemo, he forgets to do blood sugar checks. Since high or low blood sugar make him even more confused, that begins a spiral that he can’t control. I saw this a couple times when we took a vacation together in May. I’m translating from messages his sister sends me in German from her smartphone, but from what I can patch together, he’s reliant on machines right now. He didn’t recognize her and she says his eyes didn’t focus. Meanwhile, she says that his cancer is still spreading. The doctors are not offering her much hope at this point.

It drives me crazy that Jakob doesn’t understand the situation with his illness, and because of the language gap it is still unclear whether his doctors are actively withholding the information or if he’s refusing to hear it. He assures me that his cancer is gone and that the chemo will keep it that way. Of course that’s not true; I knew in May that another tumor had been found in his brain and that the therapy is destroying his liver and other organs. He’s made amazing recoveries before though, so I’m not rushing to say the end is near this time. We shall see.


Posted by on August 14, 2015 in Culture, Relationships


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The changing culture of collecting

This week I’ve been pondering a possible cultural shift that came to my attention in an unusual way: a call from my mother. After I spent half an hour trying to explain the differences between a smartphone and a cellular phone to her, she asked me an eBay question. An elderly relative of ours just moved into a smaller place and thought it was time to profit from the collectibles she had been buying for decades. However, when she went to a dealer, she was told that her Swarovski crystal animal figures and commemorative plates were worthless. “Nobody wants those anymore,” she was told. My mom asked if they could be sold on eBay. I skimmed the pages of listings, noting how few actual bids were placed. “Nope.”

I visited the Swarovski Kristallwelten on my recent trip. They were sparkly.

I visited the Swarovski Kristallwelten on my recent trip. They were sparkly.

It got me thinking about generational differences in collecting, particularly one type: buying and holding onto new products that are specifically marketed as collectible and with implied or expected value as investments. Commemorative plates or coins, limited edition dolls, figurines, etc. I’m differentiating those from souvenirs and memorabilia, which are reminders of an event or location that was personally experienced, though the owners might hope they appreciate. I’m also separating out collections of antiques or second-hand products, because most of them were not initially sold as collectibles, or collections of anything for personal interest where future value isn’t important to the owner. Flipping collectibles for a profit right after buying them isn’t the same behavior, either.

I’m dealing with a limited sample, but I don’t know anyone in my age group or younger who engages in that sort of collecting. The collectors I know fall into the other groups above; even my friend who carefully protects his action figures isn’t counting on them to increase in value. He enjoys the hunt and displaying them as part of his decor. On the other hand, I know a lot of people — all Americans between the ages of 60 and 85 — who have built up significant collections of items that they may not even enjoy. My relative from the first paragraph has piles of commemorative plates in boxes in her basement. Others have rosy-cheeked Hummels or creepy Precious Moments figurines tucked away in closets and cabinets. Nowadays, buyers for those tend to be in the same age range. It’s not a growing market.

So, why don’t younger people buy new “collectibles” the same way as some Boomers? My husband and I talked about this. He proposed that the last collecting fad to hit Gen X and below was Beanie Babies and that people learned from that bursting bubble (a new book came out about that craze this year, and Slate has a good short article discussing it). Maybe. I wonder if it might have more to do with the speed of technological changes and a shifting worldview.

The speed of obsolescence in the last few decades reinforces the idea that things will lose value. I’ve been around long enough to see my treasured childhood vinyl LPs supplanted by cassette tapes, then by CDs, and then digital files. My Sony Walkman was replaced by a Discman and then replaced by smaller and smaller MP3 players. The computer that cost me two months’ salary in 1996 was useless before I had to worry about Y2K. We can choose to spend a lot of money on a new iPhone, but we’re not planning to resell it for a profit in twenty years. We know that we’re really buying two or three years of use before we’ll want the next model. With the housing bubble, we learned that even real estate — long considered a safe, steady investment — can lose significant value.

I think there’s also a growing anti-materialist feeling. While it might be a minority attitude, it can be seen in the maker and craft movement, tiny house trend, and the popularity of articles about simplifying and removing clutter. Those were characteristics of hippies when I was a kid; now they cross subcultural and economic lines. Combine that with more environmental awareness (reduce, reuse, recycle), the importance of authenticity to Millennials, unsure financial times, partnering/marrying after age 30 instead of earlier, having fewer children who might inherit collectibles, and I have a hard time imagining a 28 year old stashing away commemorative plates.

There’s the other side to consider, as well. Why did/do Boomers buy into the notion of manufactured collectibles? All I can do is speculate, but clearly I’m not averse to doing that! I wonder if the financially conservative attitudes of their parents, who went through wartimes and the Great Depression, mixed with the increased affluence of Boomers to create some strange attitudes. Being raised with a knowledge of frugality and the need to save, but having more disposable income? Perhaps the expectation of future profit provided justification for buying. That goes hand in hand with using discounts and sales as an excuse to buy more things.

It certainly isn’t that young and middle-aged adults don’t spend money, buy things, or even collect. Heck, I know a few people who are passionate about collecting digital items in games or virtual worlds, which may not have resale value in any currency. There are some treasure hunters, too — people who might keep the first edition of a new comic mint in the bag, hoping to resell it for a profit later. But, am I completely wrong about that one type of collecting being generational?

As someone who catches the occasional episode of Antiques Roadshow, I could refute my hypothesis in a simple way: tastes change over time. Often, the things that are valuable in 100 years are those that were popular but then went out of fashion, causing most people who owned or inherited them to hide them away, throw them out, or change them (Ming vases converted into lamps, etc). The items that survive in good condition despite decades of being out of favor can become valuable again. We could simply be in an anti-collectible phase, but in 50-60 years, it could be the height of fashion to display vintage Franklin Mint plates.

Also, I could be biased by my personal aversion to stuff. The only things I actively collect are squashed pennies: they’re inexpensive souvenirs and I can keep my entire collection in a small bowl. When I was younger, my great-aunt gave me “collectibles” — Goebel/Hummel figurines, a plate with Raggedy Ann celebrating the US bicentennial, a plate commemorating the birth of Prince William (it seems she was a little confused about American independence). One of my grandmothers always bought me souvenir silver spoons when she traveled and I kept adding to that collection until I was about 30. I have no idea what to do with any of those things now, so I suppose I’m just another person with a box of worthless collectibles in the basement.



Posted by on June 12, 2015 in Culture


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VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 1)

I’m splitting today’s posts about the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference into two parts, to take advantage of my afternoon break and not overload either post.


I arrived at the first session, “Creating Dinosaurs & Earning Badges”, in my finest pteranodon attire, but since it was as anachronous as my normal shape, I reverted to human to sit in the amphitheatre. Presenter Jeroen Frans is a founder of The Vesuvius Group.  He spoke first about a project they did for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, which has a summer program in which middle school kids study cretaceous sea animals. The program only lasts two weeks, which doesn’t allow much time for teaching building or texturing skills, so they created a LEGO-like build kit so the kids could make animated models of the animals in a virtual world. In the photo below, you can see the build kit on the right as well as two types of avatar — a skate and an ammonite — that are used in the program.


It got even cooler. The kids were instructed to think about how their creatures behaved, what they ate, where they lived, etc. This shaped how their creations acted in the virtual world.  Unfortunately, they hit technical limitations and had to reduce the numbers that were active at any time. Jeroen also explained how they set up an orientation area to teach the teachers, so that they could train students ahead of time and not have that cost time during the program. Everything about their implementation was awfully clever and I’m looking forward to playing with their build kit.

Later in his presentation, Jeroen talked about two other projects. One was for the World Bank Institute. The WBI wanted to gamify some of their courses, so Vesuvius created a game show and also an ATV race track, with questions to challenge the participants at checkpoints. The second was for the CATEA project (Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access) through Georgia Tech. They created an environment for mentors to meet with disabled STEM students, but soon found that the lecture-type spaces weren’t used.  So, they gamified the process by creating a HUD that allowed participants to earn badges by attending events and doing things online.


The next session I attended was “Transcending Culture in Global Settings”, in which Steven R. Van Hook discussed his own work. His research question was, “How do we gather a group of culturally diverse people in an international setting, and try to get beyond our differences, reaching together towards a common purpose?”  He did this by using a study group of university students (with more than 24 countries of origin) in an advertising class, looking for positive transcultural themes in television commercials. You can find a paper published from his research here: Hope and Hazards of Transculturalism.


I had to leave that session a little early, so I will have to read the paper to learn more about his conclusions.

I’ll post another update at the end of the night. Now, I’ve got to grab a quick lunch before two hours of social anxiety volunteering as a greeter, and then I’ve got a little break before more sessions.


Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Learning, Research


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Feeling a cultural connection in a video game

I don’t have much to say except: go read “What Sleeping Dogs Gets So Right About Being an Asian American” by Kevin Wong over at Kotaku. He writes eloquently about the authentic elements of his culture — not just Chinese, but also Chinese American — that he found in the game, and also about his own upbringing as the grandchild of Chinese immigrants.


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Posted by on October 11, 2014 in Culture, Gaming


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Avast me hearties! Have a favorite modern holiday?


May ye have fine skies and balmy breezes!

Even if you’re talking like a landlubber today, do you have fun with other “invented” holidays?  How about Pi Day?  May the 4th? Or for some of you perhaps, 4/20? How about Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, April Fools Day, Valentine’s Day, New Year’s Eve?  People will take just about any excuse for some fun, won’t we?

Anthropologists have made full careers studying ritual and celebrations. I find the sheer range of holidays fascinating. The US has relatively few federal holidays, but we supplement these with religious holidays, state holidays, festivals, “Hallmark holidays”, birthdays, and more. We’ll happily appropriate another culture’s holiday if it seems fun (so sorry about what we’ve done with St. Patrick’s Day, Ireland!). Internet culture has helped spread ideas like International Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Growing up, my family celebrated the typical big holidays for American Christians: Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas. I usually marched in the town Memorial Day parade and we often had a family get-together at an uncle’s lake house for July 4th. Gifts were expected for the honored person on Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and birthdays (sometimes with a brunch or dinner). As far as family-specific events, we kept a family tradition for St. Nicholas Day thanks to my father’s German heritage, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve generally had a couple of extra family dinners on the Polish side.

When it came time for my own family to do holidays, the Big Ones quickly turned into hassles. My brothers fled to opposite corners of the continental US and I’m in the midwest, with my parents several hours’ drive away. My husband has some relatives nearby, but his immediate family is in the Southwest. My stepson had to divide time between three parents’ families. We had to start playing the negotiation game: we’ll see you for Thanksgiving and visit them for Christmas next year, and what’s our agreement about birthday presents for the growing gaggle of nieces and nephews?  The joy of celebrating a holiday can quickly get sucked away in guilt and logistics. Maybe that’s why I enjoy Talk Like a Pirate Day, or cutting a pi symbol into the top of an apple pie on March 14th. No obligations, lots of smiles.

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Posted by on September 19, 2014 in Culture


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