Category Archives: reflections

Reflections on ReInvent 2016

Looking through some old things I had written I found the following:

“Last year [ReInvent] felt like a large conference, but compared to this year, it was almost intimate in scale.  Everything was bigger this year–the keynote hall, the number of sessions, the vendor showcase, the giant RePlay party.”

This was a comment about ReInvent 2014–with about 12,000 attendees–reflecting on ReInvent 2013, with about 6,000 people.  I suspect I might start any future ReInvent review with the same comments, as it was just as accurate this year as it was two years ago.  As James Hamilton said in his keynote “There are are 32,000 people here at ReInvent.  Do you think this cloud thing is going to happen?”
In a nutshell, that’s probably the best takeaway from this year–this cloud thing really is happening.  And it is happening at massive scale.  AWS is not just the service for ramen-eating kids with a dream who can’t afford real servers.  Not only a service for early stage start-ups that can’t yet afford their own datacenter.   Not merely the playground for web developers who aren’t running “real” applications.  Not an edge case for web-scale businesses who are only doing one very focused thing.  Not the land of non-technical, trend-chasing CIOs who don’t really get how complex Enterprise IT is to run.

 

No, AWS is now the place where mainstream IT–from start-ups, small and medium businesses, all the way up to global enterprises and massive government agencies–runs, or at least wants to run, their computing workloads.  As I heard from several presenters, the goal is no longer to be “cloud first,” the goal is to be “cloud only.”  And while I had a feeling when I first went to ReInvent in 2013 that this was where we were heading, not many people would say that publicly.  And now it was becoming just another trope repeated by everyone, a short three years later.

Peregrinations

I.  Sitting, Standing, and Walking

I recall a statement from a course in graduate school to the effect of “where you sit is where you stand,” meant to illustrate that your opinions are as much a product of where you happen to be (both physically and intellectually) as they are of conscious decisions which you make.  Of course we have a bit of a hand in deciding where we sit, though the ramifications of those decisions are rarely apprehended at the time, and the reverberations usually apparent only at a distance.  So I thought it was worth a brief tour through where I have spent my life sitting, to reflect a bit upon where I stand.

Some people are happy to find a place, an idea, a cause, or just a small garden plot that they can settle upon and tend to for long periods of time, perhaps even their whole life.  They are focused.  They often have a clear sense of what they are doing, where they want to go, and what they want to achieve, which can range from idle nothing to the grandiose.

And then there are those who are destined to wander.  And I am, most certainly, one of them.  I find myself fascinated, in a weird, out-of-body anthropological way, by where I started, where I’ve been, and where I am now, and left curious as to where I’ll end up.  And I’d say that at almost no point would it have been easy to predict where I’d arrive in the future, which makes it interesting to contemplate what today’s future holds.

II. In the (now) Distant Past

I started my own life in Colorado, but returned to my parent’s home state of Washington before any memories of the Rockies were formed.  Undergraduate life was a four year journey to Southern California, followed by graduate school in Boston, which became an unexpected home for a dozen years.  And now, I’m back in Washington State, bringing my children in closer range to one set of Grandparents (the others, and my wife, are from Houston).  While not a military rotation by any means, it certainly has stretched across distances, and been coupled with a good bit of travel.  I remember an early trip when I was seven driving from Washington to Washington (DC) and back.  My own travels include the typical European Grand Tour destinations, but also the icy obscurrity of Greenland, the virtually unheard of Faroe Islands, and an extended trip on a Coast Guard Icebreaker north of Alaska (well, perhaps there’s a bit of a pattern to my adventure travels).

My own academic and career life was long-focused upon the natural sciences, with an early interest in astronomy to a more lasting fascination with physics, until my encounter with real physics, when I became a chemist as an undergrad.  I was an unconvincing scientist (Caltech rejected me on the basis, I’m certain, of having not competed in Science Fair one year to focus on debate, though that’s probably why I actually fit in at Harvey Mudd).  So the idea of life on a lab bench never had a strong appeal, which sent me into a graduate program for Technology and Policy at MIT.  Though really those terms should have been left in lower caps, for the first question on my arrival was what type of technology policy I studied. Energy? Transportation? Environment?  Two years latter I’d not found the answer, though my thesis title implied it was something to do with the environment.

My post-graduate quest for a career became an amble as well.  I didn’t want to move to DC to do policy, and the local environmental policy firms could obviously recognize my lack of interest.  I was offered a job as a management consultant, but after being told that upon completing a big engagement you usually got Saturday off, I declined, and in crisis found myself walking a mile from the subway into the cold, early morning sun to take the Naval Officer Candidates Exam, though pursued nothing beyond that.  And so I wandered through a few temp positions, including staffing one of the IT support centers at Harvard, which became the first permanent job after my MIT graduate degree.

III.  To Return From Whence I Came

Despite owning a Timex-Sinclair 1000 when I was ten, learning how to program shape tables in Apple assembly language, and always being near computers, I never wanted to “work” with computers.  But computers found me, and that has been my career.  As I was obviously not the typical helpdesk staffer (though to be honest, most entry-level administrative positions at Harvard are staffed by ridiculously overqualified people), I took a variety of positions in Harvard’s Central IT group, managing the helpdesk I started with, working with clients of the main server support group, and eventually helping to run a large internal web development and support group.  And so I guess I’ve come to embrace what I have long been engaged with, but spent a long time ignoring.

And now?  Well, a few small people to raise and a very busy life away from any family became too much for my wife and I, and so we moved to…Spokane, Washington, where my parents and sister live.  So part of my current job is to take care of the children, until such time as I can find a creative way to make a living and pay someone else to take care of them.  My other activity is helping my wife to run our cloth diaper retail business.  Yes, I am not only an ex-chemist turned IT manager, but the Kingpen of Cloth Diapers.  But that’s for a later discussion.

So now I sit in the basement of my house in Spokane, typing out this trot through my past, wondering if any of this reflection will help to paint the future.  Perhaps.  It has been a fun little journey, and a reminder of the strange and interesting things to which I’ve been exposed.  Yet the objective is not to indulge in the past or lean upon stale recollections.  It is to open up thought upon where I have sat, so that I might figure out just where I stand, and towards where I should make my next peregrenations.  Onward!

Squeezing the sponge

I am acquisitive. But not in the usual sense, as it isn’t gadgets, gear, or money that I like to collect and horde. It’s ideas, information, and experiences which I collect. Much of it is useless on its own, but unlike the collections of things which accumulate in garages, closets, and bank accounts, I feel that collecting all of these abstract hoardings together brings value in the connections and relations which can be made between them, and that many new ideas, thoughts, and creative expression can result.

But it hasn’t really happened. Much as with all of the things that get squirrled away and forgotten, my own thoughts and inspirations gather their own form of dust and never see the light of day. Which is unfortunate, because I actually think I have a lot of interesting experiences and knowledge which can be mixed together to produce something exciting. I just need to actually make the effort to do it. I just need to take all that I have absorbed through the years, from reading, travels, experience, and daydreaming, and do more than acquire.

And so it’s time to squeeze the sponge. It’s time to do a bit of mental exercise, to crystallize the daydreams into coherent form, to actually make use of what I learn instead of sending it off into the archives for it to moulder. It isn’t the most novel of undertakings, nor am I convinced that it’s of much use to anyone but myself. But I KNOW that it is of use to me, and that taking the time to do more than just read and ponder is critical if I’m to move my own life forward. And if it happens to pique the interest of a few other people along the way, well, it’s always nice to find the pleasant surprises and enjoy the unexpected.