KEVIN SCOTT: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Behind the Tech. I’m your host, Kevin Scott, Chief Technology Officer for Microsoft.
In this podcast, we’re going to get behind the tech. We’ll talk with some of the people who have made our modern tech world possible and understand what motivated them to create what they did. So, join me to maybe learn a little bit about the history of computing and get a few behind-the-scenes insights into what’s happening today. Stick around.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Hello and welcome to a special episode of Behind the Tech. I’m Christina Warren, Senior Developer Advocate at GitHub
KEVIN SCOTT: And I’m Kevin Scott.
CHRISTINA WARREN: And today, we are doing our Year in Review episode, our year unwrapped if you will, and this means that we’re going to revisit a few fascinating conversations with our guests from 2022. We’ve had some amazing people on the show this year. We had Alexis Ohanian, who is the founder of Reddit and is married to Serena Williams. Simone Giertz, who literally deconstructed a Tesla and made it into a pickup truck, just for the joy of making things. And of course Randall Munroe, who writes the incredible web comic XKCD.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah it really has been an amazing year just in terms of the interesting people we got to chat with. Sometimes I wonder how we got fortunate enough to be able to have these conversations and that folks are willing to let us record them to share with everyone. It’s also crazy that I think this is our 3rd year in Review episode. Like we’ve been doing this for a while now, which I don’t really think about all that much, so that’s sort of cool.
CHRISTINA WARREN: It is cool, yeah I was thinking about that earlier and thinking yeah we’ve been doing this for a while and it’s been amazing to see all the incredible people that come through. And it’s an honor that they’ve chosen to spend their time with us.
One of the things that came up in so many of your conversations this year was representation, and what we can do in tech as an industry to make sure that we are bringing all different kinds of voices and lived experiences into the room.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I mean it really is interesting that representation came up pretty much across the board, no matter who I was talking to this season. It’s just a reminder of how important it is, and it’s just so exciting to see that conversation be organically on the top of people’s minds.
CHRISTINA WARREN: I think the fact that it came up organically was one of the things that really stood out to me. And because it emerged as such a powerful theme this year, I was thinking that we could start with a snippet of your conversation with Irma Olguin [OHL-gwin], who is the founder of Bitwise Industries.
KEVIN SCOTT: Oh yes! Irma and her company are so interesting. She grew up in a family of farmworkers in the California Central Valley, and she got into computer science basically by accident. But it opened up so many possibilities and literally changed her life. And now what she’s doing with Bitwise Industries is trying to create that same transformational effect for other people like her don’t have access to the typical pipelines into the tech industry.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Here’s that interview
KEVIN SCOTT: Do you have any examples of like what’s happened in these communities when the tech jobs come?
IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely. I mean, I have thousands of examples. That’s the best part, is that this is not conjecture any longer. We’ve got literal proof. When a tech job – so, one of the neat things about the technology industry is that it has a high multiplier. And what that means is that for every technology job that’s created in a place, 4.3 additional local goods jobs are also created. We’re talking about the FedEx person, and the panini person, and the box builder, and on and on, and Joe’s automotive shop changes as a result of technology sort of coming into town.
And what that turns into over time is not just that you’ve got this human being or a dozen human beings who are earning high growth, high wage, community transformative money at this point, but those folks are spending that money at home. Ninety percent of the folks that we train stay in their hometowns. That’s tremendous. These folks are buying houses. They are buying cars, they are stabilizing the neighborhoods that they’re already in.
You know, I know that technology generally has a bad rap for, like, gentrification and those types of things and the effect on neighborhoods. But when you literally skill the folks who are from those neighborhoods into these jobs, they get to turn around and give back to their neighborhoods. And so, they get to rebuild them for themselves and for their communities. That’s what happens in these cities, and we’re most excited about that.
So yes, of course, we buy dilapidated buildings and we renovate them. We lease them back out to ourselves and others in this industry. But those folks who come and go from those buildings every day go to neighborhoods that they can change, and we see that effect over and over again.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it’s so awesome. I mean, having grown up in one of these places, like I can tell you, just by watching my friends and family, you know, being employed, like, what a big impact it has. And sort of it’s like this is the industry of the future, right? Like, it’s probably not going to be the case. Like where I grew up, it was tobacco farming, furniture manufacturing and textile manufacturing. And the jobs that those industries provided probably are not coming back to rural central Virginia.
IRMA OLGUIN: Right.
KEVIN SCOTT: But tech jobs could come there –
IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely could.
KEVIN SCOTT: And have a huge impact.
IRMA OLGUIN: Absolutely, that’s a hundred percent right, and same story where I grew up, right? And the job that my grandmother moved to California to take, right, to have in the fields doesn’t exist for me any longer, and it’s not going to exist in generations after me. So, what else are we going to do? We’re going to have to find something different to do with our hands.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and something different with their hands that will help build the community. I mean, it’s not… Like, I mean, I’ve said it a couple of times, I think it’s a really, you know, it’s an important thing to realize. Like, these are jobs that are helping build the future in the same way that the jobs that your grandmother and her friends and family had were helping to build the communities that they were in.
IRMA OLGUIN: That’s exactly right. Yes, that’s exactly right.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was a bit of Kevin’s conversation with Irma Olguin, and as I was listening back just now, I was thinking about how much that conversation shared in common with some of the things you talked about with Alexis Ohanian, the founder of Reddit
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I loved talking with Alexis about his new venture firm 776. He’s so passionate about working with up-and-coming founders, and his firm is really innovating on the VC model to expand how they support their founders, and especially founders of color.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Let’s take a listen
ALEXIS OHANIAN: So, this generation of founder, the Gen Z, they’ve grown up in the shadow of social media. So, they’re a lot smarter, like I said, than I was because they’ve seen the good, they’ve seen the bad. They’re more – I think they’re a lot more thoughtful. They’re playing a longer term game than we were because they’ve seen, you know, 15 years of the first startup boom.
And – but my biggest concern is I do see this sort of nihilism. I don’t know if it’s cynicism. Like, there is also a vein of like, well, why bother? Like, the earth is screwed, right? Everything’s going to hell in a handbasket. And yes, we have huge, huge problems that we need to solve. But the part I think is so important, especially right now and for this coming decade, is to make sure that we have people building to solve problems, and we’re supporting those people who are building to solve problems, because, yeah, we have some huge problems we need to solve.
But the only way we will solve them, the only way we will improve things is by building, is by creating, is by doing. And I want to see that culture win. I don’t want to see the culture of nihilism and, like, well, to hell with it win, because we don’t get better stuff from that, right?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
ALEXIS OHANIAN: And I mean, similarly, we just announced – so, I just funded the first $20 million of a foundation that I very creatively named 776 Foundation that I started for basically our version of a – well, similar to a Thiel Fellowship where telling college students 18 to 23, if you have a big swing idea, like a big, hairy audacious idea for climate in particular, you should apply. We’ll give you 100 grand, take a couple of years, bring you into our network, etcetera, etcetera.
And, like, I know this is an existential threat. I know it disproportionately affects communities of color, marginalized communities broadly. So, like, let’s get as many of the best and brightest from all over the world to be part of this cohort. And we’ll just give you money, resources, network support and just see what the hell you can come up with, because I – you know, every time I see a TikTok video go viral of some kid who’s just depressed about the state of things and, you know, doesn’t want to have any children or doesn’t want all – like, that’s not the energy that’s going to help us solve this.
It’s going to be the folks who inspire us and make us go like, oh my God, how did you figure out a way to capture carbon and do this thing, or how did you create this movement that accomplished this goal? Like, that’s what we need.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I could not agree with you more strongly. And like, I mean, you as a historian should appreciate this. Like, technology has always been the instrument that we use to create the future that we want, you know, and like, inspiring that impulse to, like, figure out how to take the things that we know how to do, how to, just sort of jump off cliffs and try to invent things that we don’t know how they’re going to work yet, like really is the way that you shape the future.
And the – defining who the “we” is who is doing all of that stuff is also super important. Like, it can’t just be a bunch of tech companies, and venture capitalists and urban innovation centers in the coastal United States. Like, you know, you have to have –
KEVIN SCOTT: A whole bunch of people feeling inspired to go create this future.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was Alexis Ohanian talking with Kevin on the podcast.
KEVIN SCOTT: Another leader of a very popular tech company that I was able to speak with this year was David Baszucki, co-founder and CEO of Roblox. We obviously talked about how Roblox is a huge driver of community and creativity, but we also got into another topic that was huge in 2022: the metaverse.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Let’s check out some of that conversation.
KEVIN SCOTT: we’re talking about innovation now, I’d love to get your take on the metaverse. And like I have this definition of the metaverse, which is a metaverse is a fully immersive environment that lets you connect with other people to express the fullness of your identity and to accomplish your creative endeavors.
And so, if I say that definition and I look at Roblox, like Roblox feels to me like a metaverse. Like I – even though it’s a 2D screen, you don’t have to put anything on your head. You know, like I – there aren’t many things more immersive than Roblox for my 11 year old, for instance.
DAVID BASZUCKI: I think that’s very close with what socially the definition’s going to emerge to. I like to think of it as an inexorable category following along mail, telegraph, telephone, video call, simulated 3D immersive communication. Definitely about identity, definitely about friends and connection and a social graph.
Definitely about immersiveness and that that immersiveness isn’t just pure 3D fidelity. It’s functional fidelity. It’s social fidelity. It’s device by device, going from phone all the way to immersive VR. I think it’s typically, I think it will more and more be about an infinite array of places and content and objects as part of that. I think these are evolving to always get into economic aspects.
And then I think metaverses will have various levels of safety and civility. Just like places on the web, we’re leaning in really hard on a civilized place for people together.
And I think it’s still so fun and so early, that every company is still trying to figure out their own view of this. Like, it’s fun because it’s still emerging.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah. Well, so thinking about this stuff as an engineer for an instance, for an instant, there are a bunch of components that I think any metaverse is going to have to have. So there’s, you know, some way for you to richly express your identity. There’s some way to do commerce with other people in the metaverse. Like there’s some, you know, some value store that you’re going to have to have. There’s some way to, you know, like, here’s what property means in this metaverse. So have you all thought about what those things are? Because again, I think you have a whole bunch of them.
DAVID BASZUCKI: Yeah, this is really interesting. And it’s funny because, you know, if we were building cars 60 years ago, this would be some biz school make versus buy discussion and what do you have to make and what can you buy and all of that stuff.
Some of these components aren’t yet invented and that makes it really exciting. So the components that might allow us to go together to a 50,000 person, photorealistic concert, with great audio and hang out and dance and wave across the stadium at everyone else and have them wave back, that’s a long ways off.
So I like the notion that it’s still early and there’s a lot of deep tech that needs to be invented to support this, as well as a lot of proven tech, whether it’s the economy, is it running on blockchain or a database identity. What’s the graphics drivers and all the machines? How do we do a social graph, all of that? It’s an interesting mix of some technologies that are mature and some that are a long ways off and being actively invented.
KEVIN SCOTT: So one of the interesting and like things that’s way more complicated than I think most people would recognize is like you having your own financial infrastructure. So you all have – have this currency called Robux. That’s a thing that players have. You can spend them across all of the games that are happening. Like they, you know, they let you purchase entitlements, you know, inside all of these games.
You know, my best friend used to run product and engineering at Linden Lab and so like they had their own currency.
So and it is complicated, right? Like having your own economy is an interesting thing. Especially you guys are, what, 50 million daily active users. Like that is bigger than some countries, right?
DAVID BASZUCKI: That’s right. Well, it’s complicated in many dimensions. It’s complicated in a reliability, anti-theft, anti-hack, SarBox compliant, SEC way, in that it just has to be run at a certain level of rigor and reliability and fraud detection and all of that.
It’s contemplated from a infra scaling standpoint, which, you know, many companies do really well, but that still we shouldn’t take that for granted.
It’s also, I think, complicated looking to the future where more and more, if we can see things happening in real life, we’re going to see them in digital life. And we’re still very early on this as far as advertising, as far as shopping, as far as collectibles, as far as a lot of other economic things that we’re used to, that have digital equivalents. So there’s a lot of complexity going forward in designing elegant systems that work well in the digital domain that we’re very used to in our real world life.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was from your conversation with David Baszucki from Roblox, and of course that was not the only time the metaverse came up this season. And it seems like most of the time the conversation starts with how to even define the metaverse.
KEVIN SCOTT: That is absolutely right. And this year I was lucky enough talk to the person who actually coined the term Metaverse, sci-fi author Neal Stephenson and one of my heroes.
CHRISTINA WARREN: I love this so much. Let’s check out some of that conversation.
KEVIN SCOTT: So, let’s talk about today, like how – you know it seems to me, at least, that life is imitating art in a certain sense, that many of the things that you talked about in some of your earlier books, and even in your most recent books are unfolding pretty closely to the way that you described them in the books.
So, maybe let’s talk a little bit about metaverse which is, you know, obviously a thing that is going to see a lot of change over the next handful of years, just because there’s so many people inspired enough to invest a lot of their time and energy and capital in this space. Like what’s your, you know, sort of rough take on where things are headed?
NEAL STEPHENSON: Well, you know, metaverse, avatar and terms like that have been bouncing around the technical world for a long time now, but more as a kind of in-crowd kind of terminology and what’s happened in the last year or so is that, that’s kind of broken out into public discourse as a marketing term, as a sort of catch-all term to mean a lot of things, and so the – you know, I think kind of the most general thing I can say about it is just that we’re bumping up against the limits of what can really be done with flat displays.
So, when I look at the – I mean, just the displays that are around me here in my workspace, they’re spectacular, you know, they’re gigantic screens that are showing images in incredibly high resolution. They show movies at, you know, full resolution, full sound quality. I’ve got a TV, which is middle-of-the road, I mean, it’s not a super-special TV, but you know, it’s capable of showing movies that are as finely resolved as my eyes can detect. Like if we added more pixels to my TV set, it would be interesting technically, but I wouldn’t be able to see the difference.
So, beyond a certain point, that kind of technology can’t really get any better, and I think that people who are in the business of selling hardware and the associated software and operating systems to the general public need a place to go. They need a “next thing,” you know, that they can use to drive their businesses forward, and so metaverse is kind of a catch-all term now for stuff that people want you to buy a few years from now, and you know, by process of elimination, it’s got to be something beyond screens. It’s got to be, you know, stereoscopic or better displays, AR, VR, and then with that hardware, there has to be huge jumps forward in the capabilities of the software and the operating systems that drive pixels and sound into that hardware.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was your conversation with your hero Neal Stephenson. And I loved the way he talked about how we have to imagine the future if we are going to invent the technology to get us there. Dr. Daniela Rus said something similar when you spoke to her.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, Daniela’s a roboticist who heads up the MIT Computer Science and AI Lab, which is a very impressive and inspiring job. And we had a fascinating conversation about how robots in the future might be inspired by the natural world.
DANIELA RUS: Now, one of my passions is to bring machines, materials and people closer together. I want to have more intelligent materials, and at the same time, I want to have more flexible, safer, more dexterous machines. And one way to think about this is to consider what robots were like when they were introduced in 1961, or 60 years ago. The first industrial robot was Unimate. It was introduced in 1961 and it was invented to do industrial pick and place operations.
Now, since then, the number of industrial robots in production reached tens of millions. And these industrial robots are true masterpieces of engineering that can do so much more than people do. And yet, these robots remain isolated from people on the factory floor because they’re large, and heavy and dangerous to be around. So, we’d like to have machines that are safer to be around, and that can be teammates for people.
Now, if we compare industrial robots with organisms in nature, organisms in nature are soft, and safe, and compliant, and more dexterous and more intelligent. How can we get to the point where we have robots that are like that?
And so, as I think about our interaction with machines and the natural world, I actually feel inspired to rethink what a robot is, because while the past 60 years have defined the field of industrial robots and empowered hard bodied robots to execute complex assembly tasks in industrial settings, I really wish for the next 60 years to be ushering in robots for human-centric environments and robots that can help people with cognitive and physical tasks.
Now, as we think about what these robots might look like, I’d like to ask us to look back at what our current robots looked like. So, when you think about a robot today, the images that come to mind are like an industrial manipulator, a humanoid or a box on wheels, right? These are the robots that are most used today. And so, these robots are primarily inspired by the human form or by boxes on wheels. (Laughter.)
And so, what I believe is that I believe that we can do more than that. I believe that we can stretch ourselves and go to a different stage, where we think about soft robots that are inspired in shape by the animal kingdom with its form diversity, by the natural world, with its form diversity, and even by the built environment, because then, we would have so much more potential for applications.
I also believe that we can consider a wider range of materials that we have available to us to make these extraordinary machines. The robots of the past 60 years have been made mostly by hard plastics and metal, but what about machines that are made out of all materials available to us? And so, we can consider plastic, and silicone, and wood and paper, even food, and we can also consider synthesized materials. I think there is so much opportunity to create a whole new type of machine that will be a good teammate for people, that will be a more capable tool for people who need help with physical and cognitive work.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I’m really excited about the possibility. So, it feels like we’re at this point in time where we – we’re really ripe for new breakthroughs.
You know I’m a hobbyist machinist and one of the things that I’m seeing in a bunch of machine shops now, and one of the things that people are thinking more and more about, is how to integrate simple things, like six axis robotic arms, into their workflows. So, how you can have a thing that will pick a raw piece of metal up, you know, open a door on a milling machine, like, place it into a fixture in the machine, like cycle start. You know, the part gets made and then you sort of reverse the whole process. You pull the finished part out, put it on a pallet.
And, like, that can be an amazing thing in some of these shops, where you can sort of run an extra shift and keep these really expensive machines running all the time, but they are sort of simple things. You know, you program them by basically having a human guide them through a bunch of waypoints in the process you want them to accomplish. And you usually are custom designing some sort of end effector so that it can pick up the things you want it to pick up.
But it’s really exciting to think about things that aren’t that simple that have, like, really complicated, dexterous end effectors and that can be programmed in more robust ways.
DANIELA RUS: Well, and Kevin, let’s even go beyond that. Let’s even bring more cognition to these tools. And let’s say that these tools, these machines will be able to watch you, and understand what you want to do, and come and give you a hand. So, let’s say you’re trying to lift a heavy box and a machine comes to help you lift it up just like a friend would today.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s a great vision and I’m so glad you all are working on these things.
CHRISTINA WARREN: I love that image of a robot seeing you struggling with a box and just walking over to you to help with it. And if someone was going to build that robot tomorrow it might be Simone Giertz.
KEVIN SCOTT: I had so much fun talking to Simone. I’ve watched her videos so frequently over the years. She creates all of these wacky inventions, but she does it with the mindset and skillset of a serious technologist. And something that really stood out for me was the idea of how valuable mistakes and accidents and errors can be.
SIMONE GIERTZ: it’s like building is messy and it’s always, like, frustrating. And then when you do get it to work, it’s, like, exhilarating. And I think for me, it was always discouraging to watch videos where people just nailed it, because then I would feel like I was doing something wrong, because I’m like, my builds never feel like that. Like, they’re always – I mean, it’s, like, the difference between, like, the really beautiful Instagram vacation photo versus, like, what it actually was. And you’re like, I was kind of cold and hungry and, like, upset with my dad or whatever.
And I don’t know, I’m just trying to be transparent. Plus, like, the thing is, when bad things happen in builds, I’m always – I get so annoyed with it. But then when I’m editing the footage, I’m always kind of happy that it happened because I’m like, oh, that’s where the story is at. And it’s also like, it is nice to see, like, how I can overcome those adversities. Like, even for myself, I’m like, yeah, I did solve it and I was really upset and I felt like I wasn’t going to come around on top. And then I managed to finagle my way through it somehow.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and I don’t know how you think about it philosophically, about just the whole struggle of making things. Like, being a creator, whether you’re writing software or making a company or building a project or whatnot, like, there’s a whole bunch of things that can make that go easier. It’s good if you’re curious. It’s good if you’re willing to explore. But, like, the thing that you show is that resilience is super important. Like, nothing ever goes perfectly.
And I felt this, you know, the same way when I was a young software engineer. Like, all you ever saw was the computer science paper that someone had written where they got into all of the answers, and you saw none of the process, how they got there. And you just felt so bad about yourself that you’re imagining how much easier it must have been for everybody else when in reality, it wasn’t.
SIMONE GIERTZ: The thing is, I think, yeah, it’s resilience, but also for me, the reason that I am resilient in these situations is because I’m so genuinely excited about what I’m doing. If I wasn’t pumped about it, then I’d be like, whatever. I’ll just move on and, like, go play video games instead. But since I’m like, I really want to pursue this and push it through and, like, make this build come to life, I think that’s what’s making me resilient. And also just because I think I am really stubborn.
But it’s not that I’m like, oh, I have to push myself and work harder and, like, be really disciplined about it. It’s mostly that I’m just, like, lying in bed at 3 a.m., being like, oh, I can solve it like this, or what about if I do that, and my brain just kind of can’t let it go because I really want to see it, see it through.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s awesome. Well, so maybe we can talk a little bit about how you get the inspiration to make the things that you make, because you do – you have chosen over the years to make a bunch of interesting things… that are not – I mean, and if you watch makers on YouTube, there’s a lot of… I don’t even know whether…it’s not that people are copying each other, but there seem like there are these things, like everybody in woodworking goes and makes an epoxy river table at the same time. And like, there are these trends and, like, the things that you do are just so unique to you. How do you do that?
SIMONE GIERTZ: I think it’s because I’m setting that bar for myself. I’ve just always been like, I want it to be something that you haven’t really seen before or a spin on something in a way that you haven’t done before. And I think it’s just – it’s because it’s what I’m most interested in making, but it’s also because I am – I think it has to do with the platform that I’m creating for. So, it is now YouTube and social media, and then I’m always like, what’s the hook? What’s the interesting thing?
And then if I – I think if I’m being totally honest, if I was just making stuff for myself, then it would still be in that realm. But I probably wouldn’t push myself as hard. But now, I’m just always like, you know, in some way I think it might all – like, almost be insecurities because I’m, like, to justify to exist in the space, I feel like I have to present something really unique.
And I’m always like – because there are so many different videos I could be making and I’m like, it’s not interesting enough. I don’t feel like I can ask people to spend time watching this if it’s not elevated in some way. And I do think that has a little bit to do with, like, insecurities or, like, being apologetic about taking up space, which goes very against, like, being on YouTube.
But then I think it’s also just what I’m interested in. And I love, like, trying to find unique solutions to everyday problems. And that’s also what I’ve been doing now, trying to transform or, like, apply that thinking to product design. So, it’s like making things for YouTube, but then also using those same kind of qualifiers to develop products and try to create for that arena as well, which is, like, a whole other world.
CHRISTINA WARREN: It was so much fun talking with Simone – like you I love her vides - and that is a great episode to check out on YouTube, where you can see footage of some of her incredible inventions.
KEVIN SCOTT: I’d really recommend it; for all the time I spend on YouTube, which is a lot, Simone’s videos are among my favorites.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Creativity and collaboration were other things that came up over and over this year. Your conversation with Sam Schillace got very technical.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, it often does with Sam and I think in this conversation we got pretty in the weeds. But it was a great conversation, and we also talked about creativity and collaboration. I thought we’d share a snippet of that part of our conversation here.
SAM SCHILLACE: We have this kind of Calvinistic ideal – idea in our heads, that like work is equivalent to suffering, right? You’re not really working if you’re not – if you don’t hate it. And I don’t think that’s true. I actually think the place for people to be – this is the career advice I always give people is like, find the thing you feel kind of guilty about getting paid for and do the hell out of it, right?
Like if you feel kind of guilty that you’re getting paid to do something it probably means you’re really good at it, and it’s fun for you, and if people are willing to pay you for it, just go do the heck out of it. Like career growth usually comes from having impact, which usually comes from doing something you love with a lot of passion, like that’s – it’s not that much more complicated than that – so that’s how – I never started off with like I’m going to go do a bunch of startups. I just was like, what’s the next interesting thing I want to go work on? Let’s just go do that with all this energy.
I always liked working with my friend, so we just kept doing stuff, and we kept making money, and it kept being successful enough, so like why stop?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and I think you had another couple of pieces of interesting career advice in there as well, so I totally agree with what you just said. Like, I also agree that working with your friends, like whether they were your friends before you start something, or whether you like form bonds with folks, you know, when you join a company, and you start working with them, I think that’s pretty important. Because, on most days, like even when you’ve got a thing that, you know, you’re passionate about, and you nominally enjoy, like there’s just a bunch of hard stuff you’ve got to go do to make anything worthwhile. And so you do want to be doing it with people whose company you enjoy, or – and where you feel like some degree of camaraderie with them, otherwise it’s just – I mean, you and I do this now, right, like I don’t want to sell the image that Microsoft is, you know, somehow perfect.
Like we’ve got hard things we work on all the time, and then the two of us, like you know, because we’re friends, we will, you know, we will complain to one another, and you know, the thing that you try to do, I try to do, you know, I even do this in my – in my marriage – is like, you want to sort of be grumpy, out of phase with each other.
SAM SCHILLACE: Yeah, right, yeah, that’s right, you want to be complimented, all kinds of complementarity you want in these partnerships, right, that’s definitely one of them. Skillsets is another one, right? Like you want a linear thinker and a nonlinear thinker, and then you want them to be like, you know, in creative tension with each other, basically, in a constructive way, right?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, I mean the other, like the most interesting, like complementarity advice that I ever got is, I had a mentor years ago who told me to imagine a histogram that has five buckets, and on the extreme left of the histogram, the bucket is labeled “idiot” and on the far right end of the histogram, the bucket is labeled “genius” and in the middle is “average” and you can take everything that you do, and every skill that you possess and put it into one of those buckets. So like that’s not the – you know, the breakthrough thing for me. Like the breakthrough thing was this mentor said, if you work really, really, really, really hard, you can move something over one or two positions on that histogram, which means that if you’ve got a thing that you are an idiot at, like you probably –
SAM SCHILLACE: You might get to average, if you’re lucky.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah, and every minute that you spend trying to get to average is a minute that you’re not spending doing the thing that you’re a genius at, and you know, like what you want to do with teams or partnerships or anything else, to your point, about – you know, nonlinear versus linear thinkers, is you want to – like, you try to do something together, you need a set of skills to go do the thing, so like how do you, like figure out this thing where everybody’s histogram adds up to like above average, where you can have everybody focus on what they’re really good at?
SAM SCHILLACE: Well, and the real challenge with this is that, you know, just to keep going with that example, like sometimes you know, if you’ve got two geniuses that are pulling in different directions, they neutralize, and then you don’t have either genius, and so like – and so, and like in fact, that often happens, right? Like this, I have this tension a lot with my cofounder, with Steve, like you know, when you have genuinely different perspectives on the world, and you are genuinely both good at them – those are often – you know, you’re kind of blind to the other perspective to some degree.
And so finding a way to like understand and respect the other perspective, even if you don’t really get it, like you just understand, like this person, I don’t get their domain, I don’t even maybe necessary fully value it, but I understand that it is valuable and they’re good at it, and so I’m like deliberately – like carving out some space. I always tell founding teams, like pick somebody you like arguing with, like that’s – you know, don’t pick somebody you like. Like it’s easy, you know, don’t just go found something with a friend. Pick somebody that you enjoy arguing with, where like you have genuinely different perspectives where you’re struggling to even find common vocabulary, but it’s okay, like you’re willing to have those arguments to kind of find that common ground in between your domain, because often there’s like super small overlap in the Venn diagram of even like the language that they use, right?
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was from Kevin’s conversation with Sam Schillace. And that theme of collaboration, and feedback came up with another Microsoft person you talked to.
KEVIN SCOTT: That’s right, my colleague Phil Spencer, who heads up gaming at Microsoft. I just loved the way he talked about the feedback that they get from users and how much it matters to him personally.
PHIL SPENCER: The feedback on the work that we do, good and bad, is out there front and center. And while there’s obviously good days and bad days for myself and the teams and the products that were building, for me, that complete loop of we have an idea, whether it’s iterative on something that we’ve already done or completely new. We’re going to work that over multiple years, in the case of these big games that we were talking about, to deliver something. And that end result in the feedback that you get is the thing that gives me momentum into the next thing.
But that’s, like, I said, that’s – that’s kind of how I’m wired. I like the completeness of that. I mean, I’m enthralled by… I think, like, you think 300, 400 years ago, there’s, like, architects in Europe working on these massive churches that are going to take 200 years to build. And they’re in the middle of this, and if you’re, like, a mason, you know that you didn’t see the beginning and your life will not exist – you won’t live long enough to see the end. And these people throw themselves into these builds.
And we have similar kind of projects at Microsoft, as you know, that take, like, multiple, multiple decades, especially some of these things where they’re way out; the horizon three things. And I am just so impressed by people that have that amount of kind of intellectual drive to see through it.
For me, that tighter feedback loop is just part of how I’m wired. And I’m glad we have those people that can think longer term about infrastructure and longer term investments. It’s not just longer term, but kind of it’s at a different level in the stack, the things that we do. And the conversations, one of the reasons I always love having conversations with you, because the conversations of how different people think about these problems and opportunities are just awesome feedback into what we do.
CHRISTINA WARREN: That was Phil Spencer, CEO of Gaming at Microsoft. We’ve got one more guest from this season that we want to make sure and we highlight today. I don’t want to say we saved the best for last but…Randall Munroe, the physicist and artist behind XKCD, is such a fascinating person to listen to.
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah XKCD is one of my absolute favorite things on the whole Internet, so I was beyond thrilled to have the opportunity to get to chat with Randall.
CHRISTINA WARREN: It’s one of my favorite things as well. Let’s take a listen to some of what you two talked about.
RANDALL MUNROE: when I started drawing comics about this science stuff, I really wasn’t expecting it, but people started sending me questions now and then. They’d be like, me and my friend have been arguing over this, you know, Superman physics question, or, you know, this – this thing about the skyscraper or something. And – and they were like, but it seems like it’s like, too pointless a question to bother a real scientist with. So – which is sort of a – feels like a little bit of a burn, but at the same time, I mean, they were – they’re like, you seem like you probably have a lot of, you know, free time, or like, you’re enthusiastic about, like, doing a completely pointless, but incredibly hard task, because it sounds funny or cool. And I was like, sort of insulted, but also, they were – they were definitely right. I was. So I would get these e-mails.
Now like, the kinds of questions that would really hook me were the ones where it seemed like there must be an answer, but I don’t immediately know what it is. And I have a guess about what it is.
And so, I would find that someone would send a like one-line e-mail with a question in it, and I would like, spend six hours like, going down rabbit holes of research being like, oh, it must be this, right? And then I look it up. No, I don’t think it’s that, Oh, man. Well, okay, we could solve it this way, you know, and I would, like, get sucked into that. And I would finally get to the solution, and I’d write them up this whole e-mail and reply, you know, of like, okay, I’ve worked it out, I’ve done this, here’s the citation, here’s the thing, and then send it and then like, the e-mail would bounce or something. And I would be like, oh, okay, you know, they –
And then – and so, at some point, I started thinking, like, if I’m going to put all this work into this, I – other people would probably want to read these, too. And so – so I started, you know, sort of soliciting questions and – and writing up my answers.
But it really is – it’s, you know, it’s nice – it’s a way of showing people that you can use the tools of science to, you know, how to answer questions with them. But it’s really more about, to me, it’s like, you can take a question that is really interesting, and – and showing, like, a way of getting to the answer. It’s not like a way of sneakily giving you science; it’s a way of like, sneakily giving you the answer itself. You know, and like, it’s not that the answer is important, but that’s okay. It doesn’t have to be. It’s like telling you, you can figure this stuff out. You know, there are ways to figure this stuff out. You don’t have to feel like – like, people don’t like asking questions sometimes because they worry that it – it makes them look like they don’t know what they’re – you know, they don’t know something.
And so, I try to encourage that, you know, like, in myself, I have a hard time, like, when someone uses a word, and I don’t know what it means. I had a New Year’s resolution a while back, that was like, I’m going to start asking people what words mean, and it was really hard. Like, it was – I was not expecting that, like, how difficult that is, but then also, they’re happy to tell you. You can just ask. It’s fine, you know?
KEVIN SCOTT: Yeah.
RANDALL MUNROE: And so – so I try to, like, show – encourage people.
KEVIN SCOTT: And – and they don’t think you’re stupid when they – when they respond, right?
RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah.
KEVIN SCOTT: Like they do not think less of you.
RANDALL MUNROE: No, yeah, and like – like, and then the next time someone uses the word, you don’t have to feel like you don’t know it, because you’ve learned it, you know? And so, with, like, these tools, you know, of – of science and calculation stuff, like, they’ll give you an answer. They don’t care if the question is, like, pointless or not, or if, like, why you want to know. You know, it’s just – just like, if you’re curious about something, you can ask. There’s probably an answer out there. If there is, you know, here are ways we can try to find – find it. And it’s okay to not know stuff and be curious about it, you know?
KEVIN SCOTT: It’s – it’s – it’s such an awesome thing. Like, I do think that curiosity is almost like a muscle. Like, the more – the more I let myself be curious about things, like the more curious I become, and like I think that’s a – it’s a – it’s a good thing, like asking lots and lots and lots of questions –
RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I think –
KEVIN SCOTT: – you know, maybe even is more important than being able to answer lots and lots of lots of questions.
RANDALL MUNROE: Yeah, I think – I think that it’s like – like, sometimes people say like, how do you encourage people to be curious or encourage them to be interested in, you know, science or interested in any of this stuff? Like, this is something that I really – I really admire Carl Sagan, who had a really good – I think a lot – a lot of time, the people who would – who would write about science or talk about science were kind of, like, smug or condescending about, like, people are just, you know, incurious, or they’re, you know, they believe in superstition, or they’re not scientific or not rational knowledge.
And like, I think that that – that stuff kind of rubs me the wrong way. Like, and I think one thing that Carl Sagan really appreciated is that, like, people are just all looking for answers. And like, if you – if you don’t offer them answers, you know, if – if you can offer them answers through science, then they will be interested in science. Like, if you can offer them like, answers, like, here’s a way of figuring out the answers to your questions, they’ll – they’ll jump at that. And if you don’t, they’ll find someone else who has answers, you know, someone else who’s offering a way to think about the world that – that satisfies their curiosity, or – or gives them, you know, a sense of understanding and power.
CHRISTINA WARREN: What a fascinating chat with Randall Munroe. Kevin, with the benefit of hindsight and hearing all these great conversations with such fascinating individuals one more time, I think we can safely say that 2022 was an interesting year for Behind the Tech.
KEVIN SCOTT: Before we close, I just want to say thank you again to all our guests on Behind the Tech. Your ingenuity, compassion and dedication to your craft, whatever that may be, truly makes an impact in the world. And we’re grateful that these folks took time away from that amazing work to chat with us.
CHRISTINA WARREN: Yes, thank you seriously to all of our guests. And as always, thank you for listening. As 2022 draws to an end, please take a minute to drop us a note at [email protected], and tell us about who you’d like to hear from in 2023. Be well.
KEVIN SCOTT: We’ll be kicking off the new year with a conversation with founder and CEO of Shopify, Tobi Lütke [LOOT-kuh]. See you next time.