The SOPA Fuss: Why the Old Guard is Losing (Relevancy)

Yesterday, history was made. An unprecedented number of ordinary citizens called their Congressional offices to voice their opposition for the anti-piracy bill SOPA. The formidable old guard in Washington was forced to listen as Internet giants backed by activist citizens mobilized across the country through Web blackouts and continuous criticism. The message was clear and lessons were learned. By creating a grass roots community to “Stop SOPA”, ordinary people conveyed the message that people are the innovators capable of making important change. Washington learned that the Internet matters. Citizens were refusing to give them permission to break it. Perhaps the old guard needed to be reminded again what space in time they stood in. Welcome to the New Economy. Hello?

Jonathan Nelson, organizer of the San Francisco/Silicon Valley SOPA rally (and Chris McCann, co-founder of Startup Digest behind him with the big smile)

A substantial number of people convened at the Civic Center in San Francisco for the local SOPA rally organized by Jonathan Nelson, founder of Hackers and Founders. He lined up a group of effective speakers: founders of technology companies, a high-profile Silicon Valley investor, local politician, celebrity, start-up attorney…. It was a group of relevant individuals contributing their thoughts about the historical matter.

MC Hammer: “We need to inform and educate. Government cannot shut down sites with undue process. It’s barbaric.”

The key takeaway from this rally and the national effort was that SOPA is not about creating a deeper divide between government and the people. It’s about reducing the tension, creating a bridge and finding a solution together. Jonathan Nelson and Ron Conway perhaps summed it up best. Mr. Nelson had simply and profoundly stated “We need to educate our legislators.” The intent of SOPA is good. Piracy is bad. But the law is too broadly written by people who are not equipped with the right knowledge and expertise in the (technology) field.

Ron Conway had proposed, “Find a way to innovate a solution. Put together a committee of technologists to solve a problem with technology.” There is no simple solution for a complex matter which involves the Internet, Constitutional rights and the human population. But the relevant discussion should center on educating the lawmakers. How can a law centered on a revolutionary entity called the Internet be effective and do good if it is written by people who are not in the industry? Could it make sense to get the brightest minds in technology who are embedded in the culture – who live, breath and understand the culture, to help come up with a solution for this complex matter?

Ron Conway, high-profile Silicon Valley investor

As we recently observed Martin Luther King Day and as the one year anniversary of the Arab Spring unfolds, we are witnessing a digital community of ordinary citizens mobilizing to stop unfairness. From SOPA to the NDAA, global citizens are trying to create more awareness about social and humanitarian injustices. There is a collective consciousness at work.

These influential citizens of the digital age are the New Establishment. They are the relevant voices. The old guard in Washington and old media are becoming less relevant. Ordinary people are now able to do extraordinary things. They are able to make an impact on society. Hello, extraordinary you. What are you planning to do today to ignite discussion? What are you doing to stay relevant?

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The StartUp World: Buzz Words and Terrible Elevator Pitches

I just got an assignment for another one of my Stanford Startup business classes which starts next week. The assignment is “to find a really bad description of a company”. This is also called a terrible elevator pitch. My instructor posted an example from a student:

(Company X) is an enterprise social media internet cloud company that enables user-created, annotated, and self-published media. Users personify areas with dynamic and rich content, complete with web 2.0 modalities. “

Huh? This is not clear, concise communication. (I’m scratching my head.) Who are they targeting? What do they really do and how do they make money?  I call this Buzzword Barfing. If you are trying to build a tech related business, have you tried explaining it to non-technical, ordinary people? Do they understand you? If you are still not clear on what a buzz word is, just visit a LinkedIn resume.

I see and hear buzz words all the time, everywhere. I’m even guilty of using them.  This brings me to another thought which poses the question: What is the difference between “buzz words” and “jargon”. I looked it up in Wikipedia but was confused by their explanation. So I Googled it and found a more clear and concrete opinion about it here: Jargon Good. Buzzwords Bad.

This assignment makes me think of the way we communicate daily with each other as human beings. Would we become better communicators if we tried really hard to use less words to convey a thought? Is concise communication the road to better relations? In any case, let’s choose our words carefully.

Learning to Code Part I: The Power and Elegance of Ruby

I love the San Francisco Ruby community. This community is not based on jewelry lovers but refers to  Ruby, the computer programming language which originated in Japan. The San Francisco Ruby or SFRuby community is a group of developer volunteers and learners.

This weekend I was fortunate enough to participate in the Railsbridge Outreach for Women to learn beginning coding via Ruby on Rails. Ruby on Rails (RoR) is a framework for Ruby. Railsbridge workshops were founded by Sarah Allen who contributes her time and resources to encourage the representation of women in the technology space. She recognized the need to improve the diversity gap in programming. The Railsbridge community is currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area (imagine the Golden Gate Bridge) and Ms. Allen’s vision is to “bridge the gap from aspiring developer to contributing open source community member through mentoring, teaching and writing.”

The Golden Gate Bridge: I took this photo when I first moved here.

The Railsbridge workshop started on Friday evening and was completed as an all day event on Saturday. I learned enough skills to build my own game by the end of the course! My instructor was engaging and funny. He had long hair and wore a pink shirt. I had fun learning the new lingo. It was cool to learn about hash rockets (=>), arrays ( [  ] ), and strings ( ”  “) among other things. And even though I got barfing text along the way (think error message), the journey was rewarding.

The guessing game I built.

To me learning Ruby on Rails was not about applying technical skills or thinking like a Math major, but more like using a humanities approach of learning a new (foreign) language and thinking like a Philosophy major. Perhaps the misconception of computer coding is that you have to be equipped with technical skills to learn it effectively. Not so.

At the end of the day, Ruby is a language. Human beings use language to communicate effectively with each other. We learn foreign languages to do good and metaphorically build bridges with outside lands to foster peace and goodwill.  In the Ruby case, we are simply trying to communicate with another entity called a computer. Similar to the multi-lingual diplomat who is trying to do good, the aspiring developer dreams of building something big that will impact society in a positive way. I am not denying that evil exists and there are multi-lingual people who do bad things with their skills, and evil hackers determined to break something good or destroy the world. However, I think the power and elegance of learning a new language is in its potential to do good. Both the diplomat and the developer are both attempting to improve the human experience. I’m just connecting the dots between politics and technology. What have you done lately to contribute to society?

Mint Plaza: Cattle Friendly Italian Food and Start Up Stories

Here is a photo I took on New Year’s Eve 2011 at Mint Plaza in the SOMA neighborhood of San Francisco. (I was organizing my Desktop and this photo winked at me.)There was something about the yellow leaves and the gray tiles which captured my attention at that moment in time. 

I discovered Mint Plaza when I first moved here and a childhood friend from Honolulu invited me to dinner at 54 Mint, an Italian restaurant. The food was great, the value was agreeable, and the ambiance was terrific. It wasn’t mom-and-pop style nor stuffy white tablecloth establishment. In the landscape of food politics, it felt philosophically very Center or maybe marginally Right of Center towards the white tablecloth. In general, it was a very San Francisco dining experience. After all, they “perform regional Italian cuisine” and they serve “responsibly raised meat.” (as per their website) Remember that this City is a stage where you can be anyone at anytime and how you treat your cattle is very important.

If you look closely at the photo you’ll be able to spot the “One Way” sign. The big windows behind the sign peers into Blue Bottle coffee. I am not partial to Blue Bottle or Philz Coffee for that matter, two very popular non-Starbucks coffee venues and also two San Francisco Bay Area based companies. I recall one of my Quora inbox updates (tagged under Entrepreneurship, I think)  which answered the question: Which coffee shops have inspired startups?( Or which coffee shops bring together a group of people to discuss ideas?)It listed a handful of places in San Francisco and a few in Palo Alto. Blue Bottle was mentioned specifically at this Mint Plaza location and I remember it since I like the general space at the plaza. It feels modern, clean and discreet compared to the rest of the immediate neighborhood.

Fantastic Italian fare and local coffee houses in San Francisco. Nothing new there. But throw in the right people with the right dialogue and the weeknight dinner event or standard coffee house becomes an incubator of ideas.

Sexy Octopus: A Broad Stroke of Intelligent Insight

I just re-named my blog “Sexy Octopus.”

Sexy because I hope what I say is alluring to your mind and inspires you to think and act differently. Sometimes we are so comfortable in our lives that we get stuck in a sameness and miss the opportunity to try new experiences. The octopus is known to be an intelligent creature. I think intelligence or being intelligent in the digital age is about understanding the value of information coming from a wide range of subjects and “expertise”. Connecting the dots between superficially un-related topics does create meaning. So, I hope my voice provides the broad stroke of intelligent insight which can resonate with you.

 Cheers, Cara

Lesson Two: Do Not Listen to Customers

….. cont’d from Lesson One: Why Social Media Experts are Idiots

Lesson Two: Customers cannot tell you what they need. According to Mr. Kawasaki, Apple does not use focus groups. As an entrepreneur, if you want to make a revolutionary change it is not effective to listen to customers. They will only describe their needs in terms of “better” and “cheaper.” They will not describe them in revolutionary terms. So does this mean, “As an entrepreneur, you need to tell your customers what they need”?

This is interesting. Compare the above Lesson from an Apple disciple with how Eric Ries and his book The Lean Startup posits the value of the customer. The Lean Startup movement or being “Lean” is a very popular topic in the Valley and the Start Up World which has developed somewhat of a cult following. The Lean approach of’ “build, measure, learn” quickly and efficiently  seems pretty customer-centric to me.

So what role does the customer play? Does it depend on the nature of the product/service? Would you prefer to Listen or Tell?

Why Mentorship is Dangerous

I’ve been thinking of this concept of mentorship. Through my young adult and professional life I have always been encouraged to seek out a mentor. And we seem to read about it a lot in career advice columns, blog posts, self-improvement literature, etc. And yes, I have had a handful of more wise, experienced individuals guide me through challenging and uncertain times, both men and women. Not sure I would call them mentors though.

Here’s the observation that I’ve made. It becomes dangerous when the mentor is treated as a hero. Then the mentorship experience becomes hero worship. This creates limitations on your self development. You fail to develop to your fullest potential because you become so focused on BEING your mentor. Do you really want to be a second-rate copy of your Mentor or a first-rate you? So here lies another meaning of “bcc”: do you want to become a Blind Carbon Copy?

Here’s a simplified analogy regarding the above. Steve Jobs died this past year in case you didn’t hear. He is probably the first person associated with that brand called Apple. There was a lot of attention focused on him after he died. Lots of people were sad. There were a lot of tributes written about him. He was worshipped and he continues to be worshipped. He has been deified.  So the question I’ve heard is “Who is the next Steve Jobs?” And it continues with “Who is the next Mark Zuckerberg?” Or “Who is the next Arianna Huffington?” Or “Who is the next Angela Merkl?” Or “Who is the next Margaret Thatcher?” (Huh? That was a curve ball, right?) Yes, I look forward to watching Meryl Streep portray the Reagan era politician in “The Iron Lady” which is coming soon to a theater near you. These questions are silly. Seeking out “The Next” whatever creates limitations and ceilings on inventing something different that can change the world in even a greater capacity. Sure, the aforementioned people have made a major impact on the world but that does not mean that they represent the absolute potential. Mentorship and learning from great leaders has value but be careful not to diminish your own ability to do amazing things. Do something different.