Are human beings redundant?

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 16, 2017

Rory Sutherland, the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group, interviewed on the Knowledge Project podcast, gave a great example of the what gets lost in automation, talking about the difference between an automated door and a doorman, pointing out that while an automated door offers the main benefit, it misses the ancillary benefits of a doorman from security to status to accepting deliveries:

This is a criticism that I have for Silicon Valley, that what they often do is they take something that a human does, they define it’s role very, very narrowly, devise an algorithm or technology which replaces that very narrow role and then assumes that the human being has become redundant…

You realize that what Silicon Valley is doing is sometimes they take the simplest and most salient part of someone’s job, replacing that, and then leaving the rest of the functions to go hang…

Quite a lot of these [jobs] have evolved to have multiple purposes of which one may be the most obvious; but that doesn’t mean if you replace the one with a technological solution, that all three somehow become miraculously technologized…

I’ve been to 3 conferences in the past 3 weeks: GlobalLink NEXT (for clients of’s translation and localization technologies); Tableau 2017 (for analysts and business intelligence experts); and SlatorCon New York (focusing on language services). Each of them has focused a lot on two concepts:

  • The growing importance of machine learning to businesses; and
  • How this machine learning still points to the paramount importance of people to an organization.

I’ll be writing about these concepts more in the coming weeks – as I think navigating between these two concepts will be the key for any organization in the coming decade.

A special thanks to Shane Madden of TransPerfect for pointing me to this podcast. As he said… It was brilliant.


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Water seeks its own level

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 9, 2017

As my father used to say:  Water seeks its own level.  I never knew what that meant as kid, but what I’ve learned as an adult is that it means if you do the right thing, over a long period, build love and trust with enough people and help make them successful, then you’ll be OK…maybe even better than OK.

Phil Shawe on ethics and karma.

Especially in an age with politics and current events as dark as ours has gotten, as corruption is rewarded and an obstinate refusal to negotiate results in windfall power, it’s important to realize that what you do matters over a long enough time horizon. To act honorably, and to realize that in the end, to quote clergyman Theodore Parker:

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice…

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The largest group of people you can convince to build a different future

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 5, 2017

New technology tends to come from new ventures — startups. From the Founding Fathers in politics to the Royal Society in science to Fairchild Semiconductor’s “traitorous eight” in business, small groups of people bound together by some sense of mission have changed the world for the better. The easiest explanation for this is negative: it’s hard to develop new things in big organizations, and it’s even harder to do it by yourself. Bureaucratic hierarchies move slowly, and entrenched interests shy away from risk. In the most dysfunctional organizations, signaling that work is being done becomes a better strategy for career advancement than actually doing work (if this describes your company, you should quit now). At the other extreme, a lone genius might create a classic work of art or literature, but he could never create an entire industry. Startups work on the principle that you need to work with other people to get stuff done, but you also need to stay small enough so that you actually can.

Positively defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think…[T]hat is what a startup has to do: question received ideas and rethink business from scratch.

Peter Thiel in the introduction to Zero to One.

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Building systems beyond our ability to intellectually manage

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 4, 2017

One of the smartest articles on software development and what it means that I’ve read:

Software is different. Just by editing the text in a file somewhere, the same hunk of silicon can become an autopilot or an inventory-control system. This flexibility is software’s miracle, and its curse. Because it can be changed cheaply, software is constantly changed; and because it’s unmoored from anything physical—a program that is a thousand times more complex than another takes up the same actual space—it tends to grow without bound. “The problem,” Leveson wrote in a book, “is that we are attempting to build systems that are beyond our ability to intellectually manage.”

Our standard framework for thinking about engineering failures—reflected, for instance, in regulations for medical devices—was developed shortly after World War II, before the advent of software, for electromechanical systems. The idea was that you make something reliable by making its parts reliable (say, you build your engine to withstand 40,000 takeoff-and-landing cycles) and by planning for the breakdown of those parts (you have two engines). But software doesn’t break…[In the case of major failures such as with Intrado:] The software did exactly what it was told to do. In fact it did it perfectly. The reason it failed is that it was told to do the wrong thing. Software failures are failures of understanding, and of imagination…

This is the trouble with making things out of code, as opposed to something physical. “The complexity,” as Leveson puts it, “is invisible to the eye.”

James Somers on The Coming Software Apocalypse in the Atlantic.

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A TransPerfect love story

Experiences - Joe Campbell - October 3, 2017

Find the best people. Align incentives. Get out of the way.

(Or why I turned Google down)

Seven years ago this month, I started working at TransPerfect. Andy, with whom I had co-owned a small startup a few years before, recruited me for a small technology team here.

When I first joined, I considered TransPerfect to be a temporary gig. I saw it as a way station before I would go on to found my own company. As I started, I learned how the company’s core technologies came together and how the company produced work. I sat with the production and sales groups for a week, working with them, analyzing. I created a list of 11 suggestions consisting of small web apps and information passed via connectors to existing APIs. Together, they would help bridge some of the gaps that I could see causing frustration and pain. My suggestions weren’t taken seriously. As a result, I didn’t feel empowered to effect positive change – and that frustrated me. Moving on to another company seemed to make more and more sense. In early 2012, my boss quit and I started looking for options.

Changing course

Three events in rapid sequence changed the course of my career in early 2012:

1) I met with a senior manager who explained to me that they didn’t value technology. We didn’t add to the bottom line because we didn’t produce revenue. “All tech people were lazy,” they said. “Except you I guess.” (Probably because my jaw had dropped.) I didn’t see that as a ringing endorsement, and I began to look for a new job in earnest. If that’s what one of the most senior folks at the company thought…how could my team succeed? And how could the company succeed given the increasing importance of technology?

2) Because my boss had quit, I began to work with co-CEO Phil Shawe. It was sometimes frustrating. Phil would make a point adamantly. And though he wouldn’t direct me to take a course of action, he’d insist on trying his suggestion. That was fine. What was annoying was that he turned out to be right quite often. I couldn’t understand why – which made me realize that I had a lot to learn from him. The guidance he provided led me to better understand TransPerfect as a whole. I realized that while some senior managers dismissed technology, it obsessed him. He encouraged me to take his feedback, but also to disagree and to try out things on my own. In short, he empowered me to start tackling things I felt were important as well as what he did. I began to knock out my list of 11, rather than waiting on someone else to do it.

3) When I started to put my resume out there, Google started recruiting me. Google is my all-time favorite company. I had introduced my friends to Google in the late 90s after reading a blurb on the small company whose search was “like magic”. I was a Gmail and Chrome beta user. I tried out Google Wave while it crested. I mourned the loss of iGoogle. I have a Google Phone, a Google Home, a Google Chromecast. I tried unsuccessfully to introduce Gmail to TransPerfect. If there was one company, aside from one that I ran myself, that I would jump to, it was them.

The choice

Like LeBron, I had a decision to make. And it wasn’t an easy one.

The encounter with the senior executive lingered. They had made clear to me that I should treat the company as theirs – and that they saw my team’s hard work as waste. But Phil empowered me to treat the company like it was mine. I had a team and the backing of the co-CEO to try to made the company a better place.

So I turned Google down. I had begun to see TransPerfect as the best place to train me to be an entrepreneur.

Over the next year, I rolled out one small tool after another from my list. (I’m using the first person ungenerously. As I’ve written before, I would have achieved nothing without talented partners: Eugene K., Alex P., Chris M., Chris C., Bill B., and more.) Senior developers gave us guidance (thank you, Nils!) but we were mostly on our own.

The first web app we launched was adopted immediately. Within months, two of our tools generated well over half of the company’s quotes. It was clear we had found a need and fulfilled it. The second tool we put out in beta facilitated communication pass-offs between teams. Today, teams use it to exchange over 13 thousand messages a week. As success breeds success, people began to throw more projects at us – and we took on many of these as well.


By 2013, my team had completed all but 1 of my 11 initial projects. The remaining one was the most ambitious. To facilitate communication between major apps that were inefficiently integrated.

I wanted to take this project on – but needed a handle to do so. I found it when Phil tasked me with creating a client “WOW” experience in replacing the company’s portal (working with Raja M.)

It was a frustrating ball of competing priorities – and we struggled to get adoption. The road to success began when we brought on the right team. Igor, Leroy, and Iskandar came on to stabilize the development team. And Nathan Gao brought a passion for user experience that transformed the product. (I’m missing so many people who contributed as the team grew  – Alric, Victoria, Madhur, Silviya, Lenny, Patti, Anto.)

In the end, we succeeded because the team was passionate, we challenged each other, and cared about the product. From that, came TransPerfect’s 3rd flagship product – TransPort.

Over the past 2 years (as explained at the just-finished GlobalLink NEXT conference), the product grew to over 20,000 enterprise users. Hundreds of companies submitting thousands of projects a week. With just about 100 trainings over all that time. (How’s that for user experience?)

There’s no better graph you want to see as an entrepreneur. It tells you that you’ve identified a need, and that your product fits it.  If the graph keeps going on long enough, then it reveals the most important thing: that you have the team that supports the problems of growth.

The TransPerfect model

As an aspiring entrepreneur, an “ambitious overachiever”, it makes a lot of sense for me to focus on founding a startup. There are upsides and downsides – but it best fits what I want out of life. That’s true of many people on my team. In fact – when I’m looking to hire someone – that’s one of the things I tell people: We run our team like a startup within a larger company. That is the key to the team’s and product’s success.

Eric Ries writes about this in his forthcoming book, The Startup Way, as a strategy more established companies need to adopt. Reading some of Ries’s interviews, I realized this approach is exactly what made TransPerfect attractive to me – and is what I tried to describe to people I was recruiting for the team.

Phil has managed to apply these principles, hard-won, over his career at TransPerfect – as evidenced by team after team that operates similarly to my own. It’s what has made all the difference over the 20+ year history and is why TransPerfect is now a leader in the field.

At GlobalLink NEXT last week, Phil summarized the core of what has driven the company to succeed:

– Find the best people.
– Align incentives.
– Get out of the way.

That this is what has made the company a success is generally agreed.

I can say that this is what enabled TransPort to succeed, as I applied the same principles to the product. And it is what empowered me to create the team in the first place.

I have always wanted to form my own company. But TransPerfect has offered me the experience of running a startup within a larger company. It remains a great place to exercise an entrepreneurial spirit. And so long as that’s true, I’ll continue to (as we say here of TPT spirit) bleed blue.

* I expect to get some grief for this headline from my colleagues. So be it.

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Done is better than perfect

Quote - Joe Campbell - October 2, 2017

Another one of my favorite posters at Facebook declares in big red letters, “Done is better than perfect.” I have tried to embrace this motto and let go of unattainable standards. Aiming for perfection causes frustration at best and paralysis at worst. I agree completely with the advice offered by Nora Ephron in her Wellesley commencement speech when she addressed the issue of women having both a career and family. Ephron insisted, “It will be a little messy, but embrace the mess. It will be complicated, but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it will be like, but surprises are good for you. And don’t be frightened: you can always change your mind. I know: I’ve had four careers and three husbands.

Sheryl Sandberg in Lean In on page 125.

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The greatest chance of success comes from trial and error

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 27, 2017

Taleb believes in tinkering – it was to be the title of his next book. Trial and error will save us from ourselves because they capture benign black swans. Look at the three big inventions of our time: lasers, computers and the internet. They were all produced by tinkering and none of them ended up doing what their inventors intended them to do. All were black swans. The big hope for the world is that, as we tinker, we have a capacity for choosing the best outcomes.

“We have the ability to identify our mistakes eventually better than average; that’s what saves us.” We choose the iPod over the Walkman. Medicine improved exponentially when the tinkering barber surgeons took over from the high theorists. They just went with what worked, irrespective of why it worked. Our sense of the good tinker is not infallible, but it might be just enough to turn away from the apocalypse that now threatens Extremistan.

Bryan Appleyard quoting Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Sunday Times.

Taleb also cites the work of Philip Scranton who has demonstrated that:

the original developers of the jet engine had no idea of the theory behind it, which was only developed after the fact. The jet engine was arrived at through tinkering and rote trial and error.

The theory to explain why it worked came later.

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A product is useless without a platform

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 26, 2017

I came across an accidentally publicly shared Google Plus post by Steve Yegge years ago in which he described one of Amazon’s turning points…

[One day Jeff Bezos who] makes ordinary control freaks look like stoned hippies…issued a mandate…

1) All teams will henceforth expose their data and functionality through service interfaces.

2) Teams must communicate with each other through these interfaces.

3) There will be no other form of interprocess communication allowed: no direct linking, no direct reads of another team’s data store, no shared-memory model, no back-doors whatsoever. The only communication allowed is via service interface calls over the network.

4) It doesn’t matter what technology they use. HTTP, Corba, Pubsub, custom protocols — doesn’t matter. Bezos doesn’t care.

5) All service interfaces, without exception, must be designed from the ground up to be externalizable. That is to say, the team must plan and design to be able to expose the interface to developers in the outside world. No exceptions.

6) Anyone who doesn’t do this will be fired…

There are without question pros and cons to the SOA approach, and some of the cons are pretty long. But overall it’s the right thing because SOA-driven design enables Platforms…

A product is useless without a platform, or more precisely and accurately, a platform-less product will always be replaced by an equivalent platform-ized product.

My excerpts are shit. Taking so much of the personal observations out of it. Read the whole thing. It’s an incredibly insightful piece of writing. A few years later, I read another angle of this from Brad Stone in his The Everything Store:

In the engineering department, employees were constantly trying to fix a technical infrastructure that was now an aging, sprawling mess. The company had outgrown the original framework devised by Shel Kaphan in the 1990s, the monolithic code base dubbed Obidos that for years was held together by what Amazon executive Werner Vogels later called “duct tape and WD40 engineering.” And when Amazon cloned its clunky code base to run the websites of Target and Borders, those deals were lucrative but they magnified the company’s infrastructure problems. Instead of fighting flames emanating from a single building, engineers often had to deal with a neighborhoodwide inferno.

Like a lot of other technology companies at the time, Amazon got an education in the wisdom of moving to a simpler and more flexible technology infrastructure, called service-oriented architecture. In this kind of framework, every feature and service is treated as an independent piece and each can easily be updated or replaced without breaking the whole.

Led by Amazon’s chief technology officer at the time, an avid pilot named Al Vermeulen, whom colleagues fondly called Al V., the company rebuilt its technology infrastructure as a series of these independent but interconnected parts. The awkward and extended transition to this new code base, one element of which Amazon called Gurupa (after a section of the Amazon river where the tributaries diverged), took over three years and caused all kinds of excruciating pain…

Brad Stone in The Everything Store (pp. 201-202). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.

This type of pivot is tough for any company to make. And it’s really only possible in a company that values technology. For in a company that doesn’t, the next day’s sales take priority.

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The fine balance between structure and mess

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 21, 2017

Lindsey Collins & Andrew Stanton

“I’m a firm believer in the chaotic nature of the creative process needing to be chaotic. If we put too much structure on it, we will kill it. So there’s a fine balance between providing some structure and safety—financial and emotional—but also letting it get messy and stay messy for a while. To do that, you need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.”

Lindsay Collins as quoted in Ed Catmull’s absolutely excellent Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization (Kindle Locations 3534-3538). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Incidentally, the definition of good project management I’ve always given to people who I’ve worked with is almost exactly her conclusion:

[Y]ou need to assess each situation to see what’s called for. And then you need to become what’s called for.

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The authority to make messy changes

Quote - Joe Campbell - September 20, 2017

MIT Building 20

Building 20 was a “hastily erected” wooden building at MIT during World War II as an emergency war measure to house the scientists collaborating to work on technology for the war. It was always considered “temporary” during it’s 50+ years of existence and never received a formal name. But it housed some of the world’s greatest scientists who had breakthrough after breakthrough while working in this ramshackle building. In his meandering but insightful exposition on how disorder has often led to great things, Tim Hartford including Building 20 as one of his prime examples, pointing to the building’s hodge podge of different scientific disciplines, to the poorly thought out office numbering which lead to people getting lost

This absurdly inefficient way of organizing a building meant that people were constantly getting lost and wandering into places they didn’t intend to go. Better still, because Building 20 was low-rise and sprawling, when chance meetings occurred, they didn’t happen in elevators, the eternal home of the glib, tidy monologue we call the “elevator pitch.” They began in long corridors, where a genuine conversation could develop.

More important, the combination of people who could have those conversations was strange and wonderful. In the early 1950s, Building 20 contained departments that were wartime holdovers—nuclear science, flight control, the “Guided Missiles Program Office”—but also plastics research, the adhesives lab, the acoustics lab, the electronics lab, and even an outpost of the architecture department: a lighting design shop…

This unlikely mess made possible chance interactions among innovative researchers that paid such spectacular dividends. Who would have guessed that throwing the electrical engineers in with the Model Railway Club would result in hacking and video games? Or that the electronics specialists, the music department, and the acoustics lab would end up spawning technology pioneers such as the Bose Corporation and Bolt, Beranek and Newman? Nobody would have guessed, and nobody tried to guess, either. The hodgepodge of Building 20 was the result of simple expedience and neglect…

But also important, perhaps more so, was that the building’s occupants felt empowered to make changes:

Another key element of Building 20’s success was that the space was easy to reconfigure. Its services—water, phones, electricity—were exposed, running along the corridor ceilings, supported by brackets. This was ugly but convenient. Researchers thought nothing of tapping into them directly for whatever experimental needs they had. Paul Penfield, a longtime occupant of Building 20, recalled: “You know that if you want to run a wire from one room to another, you don’t call Physical Plant, you don’t plunk down a thousand dollars to call an electrician and a carpenter, instead you get out a power drill or a screwdriver, and you jam it through the wall, and you string the wire, and you take care of things right away, and you do it in one afternoon, rather than waiting six months for a purchase order to come through.” …

Building 20’s true advantage wasn’t so much that it was reconfigurable by design, but that the building’s inhabitants felt confident that they had the authority (if only by default) to make changes, even messy changes. It was that it was so cheap and ugly that in the words of Stewart Brand, author of How Buildings Learn, “Nobody cares what you do in there.”

Tim Hartford in Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives (p. 76-79). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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