All posts filed under “Inspiration

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Paul Simon – a true master

Whether or not you like Paul Simon’s music, I think everyone can agree he’s a hugely accomplished musician, songwriter, and performer.  I still can’t believe it’s been 25 years since his legendary album “Graceland” was completed.

But what made him a real legend in my eyes was the news about a concert last month in Canada.  In between a couple of songs, some people in the audience cried out asking him to play “Duncan”, a song from an album he released in 1972.  He agreed to, even though he was throwing his setlist out the window.  But then the most amazing thing happened.

A woman right up front yelled out that she had learned to play guitar by playing “Duncan.”  Paul Simon motioned for her to come up on stage.  The next thing you know, he was not only throwing his setlist out the window, but putting his guitar in her hands!  She played the entire song, right up front, on Paul Simon’s guitar.  And of course, it was all caught on YouTube:

Paul Simon has to be a true legend and gentleman to stand back and give a completely unknown fan the spotlight.  A real heartwarming experience, and I’m just glad it was caught on video so the rest of us could enjoy it, too!

[more on the CBC, which has an interview with Rayna, the woman in the video]

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What I struggle with every day…

Seth Godin truly nailed it on the head today with a short blog post titled “In and out“.

That’s one of the most important decisions you’ll make today.

How much time and effort should be spent on intake, on inbound messages, on absorbing data…

and how much time and effort should be invested in output, in creating something new.

There used to be a significant limit on available intake. Once you read all the books in the college library on your topic, it was time to start writing.

Now that the availability of opinions, expertise and email is infinite, I think the last part of that sentence is the most important:

Time to start writing.

Or whatever it is you’re not doing, merely planning on doing.

I grew up loving reading, loving learning and this has transformed me into someone that constantly juggles half a dozen books, a couple magazines, a never-ending Twitter feed and a truly never-ending Google Reader.  But as much as I enjoy it, when I step back I realize that I really love doing something about what I’ve learned.

The problem is saying “enough is enough”, stepping back, and taking action.

It feels like I’ll never get the balance right, but I try to get better every day.

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The Checklist Manifesto – A hugely important book

Back in 2007 I read a fascinating article called “The Checklist” written by Dr. Atul Gawande in the New Yorker. Atul Gawande is a practicing surgeon, MacArthur Fellow, Rhodes Scholar and professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. The article described how a doctor convinced a group of hospitals in Michigan to do a wide-spread trial of a simple experiment: a checklist. The checklist aimed simply at making sure staff completed five key steps to limit central line infections, an unfortunately common source of infections in hospitals.

The result?

In one hospital:

  • 10-day infection rate went from 11% to ZERO
  • Prevented 8 deaths
  • Saved $2million in costs

Across ICU’s in Michigan:

  • In three months cut infections by 66%!
  • Typical ICU cut infection rate to ZERO
  • In 18 months, prevented 1500+ deaths
  • In 18 months, saved $175,000,000

These are amazing results, and his book on checklists, “The Checklist Manifesto,” was recently published. Click below to order it from Amazon.

This book is inspiring, educational, engaging, riveting and fascinating. It’s extremely well-written, and is a fairly easy read. I’ve never written a blog post immediately after finishing a book, but I am now because not only is it GOOD, but this book is IMPORTANT.

Dr. Gawande led a huge study of a “safe surgery” checklist, a simple set of steps to be checked in each surgery. It was used and studied in eight hospitals: four in the developed world (US, UK, etc.) and four in the developing world (Tanzania, New Delhi, Jordan, Manila). Thousands of patients were studied for months before and after checklists were implemented. The results?

  • Rate of complications fell by 36%
  • Deaths fell by 47%
  • Infections fell by nearly half
  • Even in advanced hospitals in developed world, complications were decreased by one-third

I mean…. WOW! Cutting infection rates and death rates in surgery by half (with marginal differences between developed and developing countries) is simply incredible.

But here’s a choice quote from the book:

Take the safe surgery checklist. If someone discovered a new drug that could cut down surgical complications with anything remotely like the effectiveness of the checklist, we would have television ads with minor celebrities extolling its virtues. Detail men would offer free lunches to doctors to make it part of their practice. Government programs would research it. Competitors would jump in to make newer and better versions. If the checklist were a medical device, we would have surgeons clamoring for it, lining up at display booths at surgical conferences to give it a try, hounding their hospital administrators to get one for them – because, damn it, doesn’t providing good care matter to those pencil pushers?

Checklists are powerful, and not just for surgery. Gawande writes about data from investment managers and venture capitalists that shows that those that use checklists are much more successful than those that don’t. They’ve been used in aviation for 70+ years, ever since airplanes became so complicated as to be dangerous without checklists. The modern construction industry uses checklists to ensure their projects are safe and properly constructed.

I’m very familiar with checklists; operating a nuclear reactor in a US Navy submarine means you live with checklists in everything you do. But I accepted it without too much thought since we had no idea there was any other way of running such a complicated machine. It’s amazing to me that other complex professions don’t also use the same procedures.

Checklists are threatening to many people and professions. Using them implies that professionals don’t know what they’re doing, that they don’t have the ability to do their jobs. Even with the results described in surgery above, many surgeons still don’t use them. (Despite the fact that they continually prove to save patients’ lives, everywhere.) As Dr. Gawande describes above, if the same results were achieved through a pill or machine, doctors and hospitals would be racing to adopt them!

Dr. Gawande goes into real detail not only in what makes a good checklist and how to develop them, but also why they work. They work by simply making sure that key simple steps are accomplished, and by freeing your brain from concerning itself about the easy stuff (since the checklist will catch anything you miss). This frees the brain to think about the hard stuff, and able to deal with complications more directly. Good checklists also make communications easier, so that when things do go wrong, the experts involved can address them more directly.

Fundamentally, time after time, in study after study… checklists WORK.

Summary

This is a hugely important book, and I honestly can’t recommend it more highly, It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, if you deal with or manage complexity, you NEED to read it.

If you want to efficiently improve your performance or your teams’ performance quickly and substantially, a checklist is your way to do it.

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A tale of two (entrepreneurial) cities

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I got my bachelor’s degree (Aerospace Engineering) from the University of Michigan, which is located in the lovely town of Ann Arbor, Michigan (about a 45 minute drive from Detroit). As one of the top research universities in the US, the greater Ann Arbor area is home to major R&D facilities and company headquarters from the pharmaceutical, automotive, and engineering industries. There are interesting, fun things to do all the time in Ann Arbor.

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I got/am getting my MBA degree from Cambridge University, in the ancient town of Cambridge, UK (about a 45 minute train from London). As one of the top research universities in the world, Cambridge is home to major R&D facilities and company headquarters from the semiconductor, software, and general technology industries. There are interesting, amazing things to do all the time in Cambridge.


Theory on resources

I believe strongly in the notion that prosperity leads directly from two things: natural resources and population size. (It’s a big reason why the US economy has been so dominant: amazingly large & diverse land mass with a large enough population to exploit it.) As an example, there is an extraordinary correlation between the Olympic medal table and just five factors:

  • GDP
  • Population size
  • political structure
  • climate
  • home nation bias

The same elements apply to cities and their business cultures. As most of the western world generally has the same political structure, and home nation bias is irrelevant in this argument, the only things that matter are GDP, Population size and climate. It’s here that Ann Arbor and Cambridge are strangely similar.

According to Wikipedia, Ann Arbor boasts a population of 114,000 with students making up 32% of that. Greater Cambridge boasts a population of 130,000 with students making up 17% of that. As I mentioned above, both are home to major tech employers. (Strangely, both have engineering centers that are both well away from the main University centers… in Cambridge: the West Cambridge site, and in Ann Arbor: North Campus.) Even the climates are fairly comparable, though Cambridge doesn’t get quite as warm, or quite as cold, as Ann Arbor.

But what I want to address are the differences. As I am now tied more strongly to Cambridge, I’d like to show how those differences can provide lessons to the Cambridge community.


Advantages of each

Cambridge’s advantages over Ann Arbor

A huge advantage that Cambridge has over Ann Arbor is its next largest neighbor. Ann Arbor is closest to Detroit, which is slowly coming to grips with the fact that it will never come close to being the legendary Motown again. Detroit (and the entire state) is suffering from severe economic hardship, and unfortunately it’s not going to end anytime soon.

Cambridge is lucky in that the closest city is London. London has weathered the recent economic hardships well, and is still a leading center for the financial and media industries throughout Europe. Being an easy 45 minute commute away truly puts the world at Cambridge’s doorstep. (Key airports also put most of Europe less than half a day of travel away.)

Another advantage Cambridge has over Ann Arbor is Cambridge University. Where the University of Michigan is one of the best US universities, Cambridge is world-class. Literally, Cambridge University been ranked as one of the top 3 universities in the world. The number of incredibly smart people around the city is vast.

Finally, Cambridge has a huge funding advantage. Because of Cambridge’s history in the last 50 years in the tech world, there are a lot of accomplished investors between the angels and VC’s in the city. The city is still seen as a strong source of leading-edge technology; for example, Xen Source (since acquired by Citrix) was one of the few international investments from Kleiner Perkins.

Ann Arbor’s advantages over Cambridge

Ann Arbor has its own advantages over Cambridge. For one, the standard of living is cheaper. (Partly because of the general malaise in Michigan, partly because it’s a student town, and partly because exchange rates favor the dollar.) This makes it generally easier to start a business since your cash lasts longer.

Ann Arbor has some great facilities. I highly encourage people in Cambridge to check out this site: Tech Brewery.

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The Tech Brewery is an old brewery that’s been converted to offices for entrepreneurs & startups for just $50-$250 a month. It’s pretty close to both central Ann Arbor and the College of Engineering campus. Looking at the site, twelve companies are located there, including Hab.la/Olark, a Y Combinator company. That’s a space that will attract interesting, vibrant startups.

(On this note, there is a bit of a shining beacon in Cambridge. Red Gate Software, through its co-CEO Neil Davidson, has built something a bit similar at their headquarters in Cambridge. In addition to hosting the new Springboard program, they’re also home to a group of startups that work from the Red Gate offices and get to share in the free food there.)

But Ann Arbor also has the Workantile Exchange, located in the center of town. It’s essentially a cool (and again, attractive) co-working space attached to a coffee shop.

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Additionally, Ann Arbor has the Center for Entrepreneurship. It has a pretty focused goal: it’s a “Michigan Engineering venture that empowers students, faculty and staff to pursue entrepreneurial achievements that improve people’s lives, drives the economy and helps innovators bridge the gap between inventors and venture capitalists.”

(Compare that to the Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. It’s goal is more educational: “to ‘Spread the Spirit of Enterprise’ by providing educational activities to inspire and build skills in the practice of entrepreneurship.” In other words, while Cambridge focuses on learning, Ann Arbor focuses on doing.)

Finally, there is simply a bit of a culture gap. I’ve simply been told too many times, “Of course; it takes an American to start Cambridge Tech Meetup / Cambridge OpenCoffee.” It’s honestly a little depressing that that was the case.


What can Cambridge take from this comparison?

Entrepreneurs will naturally cluster… help them

I would LOVE it if Cambridge had a space similar to Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery. A cool, convenient, cheap place to work with fellow geeks. While there are hopeful signs between Red Gate and the Hauser Forum, I think there simply needs to be a space near the center of Cambridge that can accommodate 10-20 startups, or around 60 people.

I don’t think this can or should happen at St. John’s Innovation Center or at the Cambridge Science Park… they’re too far out from the city center. (Red Gate’s office works because they’ve got amenities like proper food on site.) Young startups need to be in a vibrant atmosphere, which generally doesn’t exist right now.

There is the CityLife Social Enterprise Centre, which has very cheap office space and is home to a number of small companies. (Some who were there last year have since moved to Red Gate’s offices, though new ones have also moved in.) This is absolutely the right idea. Unfortunately, I understand that the owner of the building is looking to tear it down & redevelop it; CityLife is in there for the next year or two until that happens.

Unfortunately, finding/creating an attractive space takes effort, resources (both time and money), and a decent business plan. I know the economics can work, though it might require a bit of “barn-raising” to make it happen. Just take a look at the space that Ann Arbor’s Tech Brewery has to offer above… surely Cambridge can do something similar!

A focus on Doing, not Learning

The Cambridge Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning is a good institution. My criticism is its focus on Learning… not Doing. Business plan competitions are fine, Enterprise Tuesday is interesting the first year or two (until you’re tired of hearing the same sessions/advice every year), and teaching students the elements of building a business is great. But it never extends to actively supporting the startups that are trying to get off the ground. A simple example… where is the list of student startups from Cambridge? Here’s the one from Ann Arbor.

Cambridge Enterprise should be in a position to help, but its focus is on commercializing university IP… not helping generic startups get off the ground. (Where a startup is leveraging university IP is clearly a different story, and they do offer free 40-minute business “surgeries” to anyone.)

This is one of the main reasons why I started the Cambridge Tech Meetupto celebrate Doers. To help promote the entrepreneurs and businesses that aren’t just learning about taking a new technology to market, but those that are actually doing it. (There were many others, but this was a big one.)

Now, this isn’t to say that people in Cambridge just talk about new technologies and products, and don’t develop them. There are plenty of companies around that are “doing”. But the University and the organizations in orbit around the University, those that have the biggest effect on potential student entrepreneurs, need to switch their focus from learning to doing.

There are amazing lectures in Cambridge all the time; it’s all part of the 800-year-old Cambridge tradition of learning. To help breed more and better startups, the culture needs to believe in building and making things just as strongly. Which leads me to the next point below…

More smaller, dynamic groups

Here is a sampling of Ann Arbor groups: Ann Arbor New Tech Meetup, a2geeks, a2buildbunker, CoffeehouseCoders, Ignite Ann Arbor, A2 Mini Maker Faire.

Whereas in Cambridge, I know about Cambridge Tech Meetup, Cambridge OpenCoffee (which has been a bit anemic lately), SuperHappyDevClub, Refresh Cambridge, Cambridge Geek Nights and Cambridge Geek Day. (There are also paid events, like FOWA Tour Cambridge and StackOverflow Dev Day).

Oh, but wait… there are over 50 more groups for Ann Arbor listed here.

Cambridge needs to have people just plant a flag in the ground and start a group that focuses on cool stuff. This seems to be far more of a cultural issue than a capability issue. Individuals with some talent just need to get a small group together, do cool stuff, and make sure people talk about it. Of course some aggregation will be necessary to help people find the right groups… I’d be happy to advertise any and all of these at Cambridge Tech Meetups to help spread the word.


Summary

This started as a tale of two cities, but ended in lessons for the city of Cambridge. I’m just one person, these are just my opinions, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people that will disagree with me. But being in the midst of the startup scene in Cambridge has left me with an overarching feeling: poorly-tapped potential.

Cambridge is a fantastic city. There’s amazing talent, reaching from university labs to local startups to the R&D centers that are scattered around the city. There’s money ready to invest in cool new technologies and products. There’s mentors all over that have lived their startup experience and can help others’ with theirs.

What Cambridge needs is a cultural tune-up. (aka, a collective swift kick in the ass to go out there and MAKE something.) Some of the important things I think should happen:

  • A place for startups to cluster
  • A new focus on doing
  • A whole mess of small, dynamic groups that do different cool things

Going to see speakers and hear talks is fine. (There are millions in Cambridge.) But lets start taking that knowledge and turn it into action, products, and companies.


What are your thoughts?