Monday, October 22nd, 2012
I have spent a fall weekend in Chicago nearly every year since 2005. But this year I found myself in Montreal, Quebec for Çingleton Deux, a self-styled “three-day Mac developer get-together”.
Old Montreal, the Montreal neighborhood where Çingleton was located this year, is on the one hand very beautiful. The Saint Lawrence river is picturesque, and the whole of Old Montreal has a wet, rain-slick aspect befitting a city that grew up on a river bank. It reminded me of what I imagined Lake-town from The Hobbit would have been like. The architecture is gorgeous; a little bit of Old Europe plopped down into North America. The Hotel Nelligan itself is a beautiful building full of exposed brick and other stone surfaces. On the other hand, the developer conference nightlife staples — cheap dive bars complete with barflies and breakfast-all-night greasy spoons — are nowhere to be found in Old Montreal. The locals seem to be mostly posh bridge-and-tunnel types, with a generous sprinkling of tourists. (After a few days we found some reliable haunts, and it’s been hinted that attendees may be armed with a map next year.)
I did like the area outside of Old Montreal a lot more. It is like any other North American city but with this bizarre French patina. I have a million little anecdotes I could share, but it is only in the aggregate experience that it really stands out. But trust me when I say that Montrealers are more than just French-speaking Canadians.
Oh, and if you like chili cheese fries you will like poutine. I promise.
The weather here was autumnal: cool but not cold. It felt fitting then that baseball was such an omnipresent topic, especially dramatic playoffs baseball. Aside from technology, it was the second most popular topic of conversation. The irony of the watching former Expos being knocked out of the playoffs, their second overall appearance and their first since 1981, all while in Montreal, was not lost on me.
An observation: the realities of a tournament mean you cannot just root for your team. My Oakland A’s were eliminated shortly after I arrived in Montreal, after an absolutely incredible season. If I had stopped paying attention to baseball when the A’s were eliminated and if I hadn’t also been paying attention to the wider baseball situation all season, I would have missed a lot of the drama of the postseason.
I would forgive you if so far you have the impression that I went on a vacation with a bunch of my friends rather than attend a technology conference. Because, well, that’s kind of what I did. The people at Çingleton were all absolutely delightful. At a small conference for a small community it’s really easy to “clique up”. I have had trouble with that myself in the past — just hanging out with a small group of folks for the entire conference. But I don’t feel like that happened at Çingleton. Sure, I saw a lot of the same old faces; that was indeed one of the best parts about the conference. But there also were also a lot of new faces, and a lot of the new faces were mixing with those same old faces. And finally, I really don’t feel like this mixing happened out of sense of fairness or from trying to seeing everyone for the sake of seeing everyone — it certainly didn’t in my case — but because everyone new had an exciting and fresh perspective and an interesting story.
Just like with baseball, this type of wider awareness is really important. Both the speakers and myself spent a lot of time talking about meta-trends and new types of platforms and technologies and such. Ending up stuck in your own little world thinking about your own little problems is can be really dangerous. Instead, I recommend seeking a broad perspective. Enjoy surveying the landscape from mountaintops from time to time. Don’t spend all your time in the underbrush.
Ultimately though, my biggest takeaway has been seeing some of my cynicism evaporate. Although the official theme of the talks at Çingleton this year was scaling, one of the other big themes was change. Particularly this idea that change happens to you, whether you like it or not, or even whether you are ready for it or not. This idea is at the root of a lens which has surprisingly potent for clearing up a particular cynicism I see both in myself and in wider the technology world right now. This cynicism that sneers at the “change the world” attitude adopted by the startups of the current bubble.
But the problem with cynicism is that it still accepts the axioms of the argument to which it is reacting. It is sophomoric. It offers no alternative.
Instead, I’m starting to view things through this new lens. A lens which offers its own perspectives and predictions about the future and about technology’s worth. To summarize: if instead of seeking to be the agent of change, we accept that change is happening to us. (This is especially relevant for those of us who are swimming in the increasingly larger and larger Apple pond.) Viewing the world through this light, we now have the ability perform a bit of aikido. Instead of raging against this particular, ultimately temporary, tide we can use the chaotic, changing nature of the industry to our advantage. We can seize authority instead of waiting for it to be granted. We can try experiments. And if they don’t work, we can iterate. We can revise. We can, provided we remain humble, even revisit old approaches which may now work better.
Imagine me at customs. “Yes, sir, I have something to declare: a new sense of agency and direction.”