Applications: Guest Speaker Mike Hawley

For this week’s Applications class, the group projects discussed Margaret Gould-Stewart‘s lecture last week on collaboration and not being an ass.  I thought Justin made a good contrarian point that people should not be so nice to each other at the expense of pushing for great ideas and doing really bold artwork.  I thought this was poignant because it seems to me like there have been places in history where one after another great artists have come from, and they very often hate or at the very least compete against each other.  That edge made everyone stronger and forced them to be bolder, even if it made for a meaner environment.  Then you have environments like this week’s speaker, Mike Hawley, talked about, like Bell Labs, which he forlornly said was a great, collaborative, unique research lab that was broken up before its time by the courts.  Maybe there’s no rule to being competitive versus being collaborative.  Maybe some people need either, or both, at varying times.

What I think through my own experience is that it’s great to have a strong team, but the team members have to be allowed to play to their own strengths.  More importantly, shit needs to get done.  One of the things I hate most is worrying about whether someone else will get his shit done or not.  When you find people who can execute, they are more than worth it, even if they don’t get it exactly right.  Things can be fixed later, within reason, but people who dawdle make everyone else suffer, waiting on them to finish their work.  This might be reinforced by the current argument for development, which is “release early, iterate often”.

The other thought I had with regards to the group projects was that I don’t really mind if someone is an “ass” as long as he’s being an ass for a reason.  Is he being mean and arrogant and an asshole because he’s challenging people to do better work, because he knows they can?  Is he giving people an opportunity to try harder and to improve, or is he just taking away their self-respect and dignity?  I never minded being yelled at by drill sergeants or sergeants in the military, as long as I trusted that they knew better than I did and were trying to instill something in or teach something to me.  Humans really need to be pushed pretty hard to be the best they can be, and hopefully enough of them will eventually take the ball and start pushing themselves harder than anyone else ever could.

So our guest speaker last night was Mike Hawley, who worked at the MIT Media Lab, NeXT, Apple, and LucasFilm, and who has the ear of key players in business and government.  He really is a badass Renaissance Man.  What struck me about him was that he was really zeroing in on America’s priorities while understanding how Congress won’t fund anything, and while figuring out where the greatest risk/reward is.  For instance, he was interested in getting our feedback on how to revitalize libraries, since his friend, Tony Marx (a rival Princeton Woodrow Wilson grad), the president of the New York  Public Library, is meeting with President Obama today.  How can libraries be streamlined for the digital present, while still maintaining that key sense of community and place for knowledge that it has always been?  He was also interested in electric cars that would obsolete human driving as well as reduce car accidents, which are the number one cause of death for Americans under 35.  These are crucial considerations for what America wants to be in the future.

Hawley is also fantastic at distilling the key points of audience questions into their key components, which is something many speakers can’t do.  Clearly the man is brilliant, and has been mentored by some of the best American minds in history.  He makes the Q&A part of lectures actually MORE exciting — usually I want to walk out once a speaker’s done.  Plus my fellow classmates are actually quite insightful and aren’t pushing some pet cause they have, which was often a part of many Q&As I went to while in Washington DC (where almost everyone has an agenda).

One thing is that he clearly sees technical solutions as catch-alls.  When asked about cultural differences affecting the success of autonomous cars, he essentially argued that it was just a coding/design issue to remove any possible flaws in the code.  But how will you ever get a perfect system for driving?  There will always be human drivers to some degree, even if just a few in a mostly computer-driven road system.  What if cars could be hacked into, or if they go haywire?  You can’t have a perfect system, and it’s true that some cultures will take to the technology different than others.  But the key points remain: car accidents are a massively undervalued problem, and even some form of computer-assisted driving would solve all sorts of follow-on problems (e.g. congestion, safety, free time for working, reliance on gasoline, etc.).

The main thing I took out of Hawley’s visit was that I hope that more Americans like him have the ear of our senior leaders for envisioning how great America could be in the future.  I also hope to be one of those Americans who contribute as much as he has, one day.

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