Reinventing Business
Discovering Your Best Organizational Structure

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Mind-Expanding Trip Through Europe

My speaking trips to Europe only occasionally involve stipends; financially they are often break-even ventures. Thus the trip must pay for itself in other ways, typically experiential. This trip was about stretching boundaries, and it definitely accomplished that. I visited Barcelona (and Spain) for the first time, saw both a synchrotron (which generates high-energy x-rays to examine the fundamental structure of all kinds of things) and parts of the CERN collider, getting personal, mind-expanding explanations of both machines. I gave presentations at both these facilities. I also spoke at a conference in Grenoble, France, for those who program such machines and gave a presentation arguing for Scala as a first programming language for the local Grenoble user group.

Lately when giving technical presentations I get this awkward, uneasy awareness that the combined knowledge in the room is far greater than what I’m speechifying about. This is fallout from Open Spaces, where you collect information from people in the discussion rather than listening to only one person. So I think my discomfort comes from knowing that we ought to be crowdsourcing our knowledge together rather than me disseminating my limited experience.

Travel to other countries is always a challenge, especially during the first days. Everything is different so brain filters that you normally use are unavailable. You seem to have no choice but to look at and try to absorb everything, which results in mental overload and perceptual shift. If you’re reading this I suspect you’ve had the experience when you can feel new neural pathways being formed, albeit begrudgingly. They really don’t want to make the effort so the effect is a weird, somewhat unpleasant discomfort in your head. But it is this very feeling we must pursue in order to expand our mental capabilities (or else begin losing them).

I had several experiences that point out how spoiled I’ve become when it comes to traveling. Almost always, someone is there to get me at the airport and make sure I get places. This time, I had several experiences wherein I had to figure out how to get from point A to point B all by myself. And there were certainly some episodes of being lost and wandering around in circles pulling my luggage (I could have taken a cab but I had been assured that the distances did not justify it). When I eventually random-walked to my destination, I felt a different kind of satisfaction. Proof that I was capable enough to go someplace where I couldn’t read the signs and still find my way. The very ability I need for this (Reinventing Business) project.

While I was in Stockholm giving the keynote at the Scandinavian Developer’s Conference, Mattias Karlsson, the head of the Swedish Java User Group asked me to speak at their meeting. Mattias also arranged for us to visit one of the companies there so I could learn about the structure and culture of that company (we signed NDAs so I must necessarily be vague about the visit).

Mattias suggested that I finish the JUG evening meeting by not talking about something technical, but instead giving a presentation about the Reinventing Business project. I resisted, protesting that that I have only questions rather than answers about this subject, and that this is a group that wants to know about programming. He assured me that they often have “off topic” presentations, so I acquiesced, deciding that I could use mostly existing artwork and put together the presentation without too much effort, especially because it was only a half hour.

There are cities in the U.S. that have a reasonably active user group culture; the Silicon Valley comes to mind. The user group culture in Stockholm is several levels above anything you’ve ever seen. Indeed, there are so many user group meetings going on every night, all the time, that it’s like a constantly-running conference. These are held in good-sized halls and they require pre-registration and they fill up. Our hall held 220 people and registrations ran out very quickly, but if you aren’t coming you are requested to cancel so someone else can fill the seat, and even though no one is actually scalping tickets people tend to try to game the system and show up assuming there will be enough unfilled seats from people who registered but forgot to cancel. Indeed, Mattias told me that one of his biggest problems is angry people because he can’t provide enough seats for a particular presentation.

When you’re happy to get a couple of dozen at a user group, it’s rather mind-blowing when you see numbers like this. And it’s not just the Java User Group; apparently most of the user groups have this kind of thing going on. This is a seriously different culture.

And it goes a long way to answering my question of why Scandinavians seem to be so productive and innovative in the world of computers. The list is long, especially when it comes to language designers: Niclaus Wirth (Pascal), Bjarne Stroustrup (C++), Guido Van Rossum (Python) and Martin Odersky (Scala) are probably the most well-known names. Maybe it starts with the weather and long dark winters that make indoor and intellectual activities a natural path, but the Scandinavians have taken this and turned lifelong learning into a foundation of their culture (in the programming world, at least).

My presentation was the last of 5 or 6 -- they started at 5pm and it was about 8 when I began. I was surprised by the enthusiasm and questions afterwards, and I didn’t have that uneasy feeling from the technical talks, probably because my presentation was filled with questions and at no point did I suggest that I had any answers, so the result was perhaps more opening than narrowing.

Note that this is a link to a (live) Google document so it may change over time (ideally, these changes will represent improvements).

Although I suggested to Mattias that he video the presentation and put it on the web, he later said that the guy who does this doesn’t always show up, and didn’t show up that night. I realized afterwards that this would be a good justification for buying a new video camera: If I think that a video of a presentation is a good idea, I’ll ask for a volunteer and hand them the camera.