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I’d like to introduce you to a few of my closest friends

This is the transcript and slides of a keynote talk I gave at CUSEC 2016 in Montreal.

I’d like to introduce you to a few of my closest friends

Michael R. Bernstein

CUSEC, Montreal, QC, 15 Jan 2016

Hello, and thank you for having me - I’m honored to deliver a keynote speech to this group of wonderful people for a few specific reasons.

Firstly, I used to be a teacher, and I miss being around students. Your energy and intelligence never cease to amaze me. Thanks for all of the great conversations I’ve had with organizers, attendees and fellow speakers so far this weekend - I’m looking forward to a lot more.

Secondly, I’m used to speaking on very specific topics to a room full of industry professionals or seasoned Academics, some of whom have heard it all before, know everything, and yet still continue to attend conferences! It boggles the mind. In this case, I get to address a group of students about a topic entirely of my own choosing! Though you probably still think you know everything if college-aged me is any indication.

David and the rest of the CUSEC committee are very brave for inviting me to do this, and after I got the invitation I felt like I had to give the kind of talk that you wouldn’t typically hear in this scenario.

I really didn’t want to let you all down, so I started to think long and hard about what I can personally bring to the table to talk about that would be unique to me.

I’m not a well-renowned programmer, nor have I ever innovated or created any kind of popular world-changing programming language or web framework, so talking about a specific technology was out.

I’m not a researcher presenting original thought about Computer Science, so unfortunately today I won’t be giving you a sneak peek at my current work, nor giving a retrospective of my famous work that you’re already familiar with. Mostly because I’m not working on anything original and I don’t have any famous work that you’re already familiar with.

I wasn’t employee #3 at a famous social media startup that makes a product that everyone in the world uses. Your parents and that weird cousin of yours who lives in the middle of nowhere have never heard of anything I’ve worked on.

I’ve never started a company, or made a lot of money from a Venture Capital based exit, or written fiery thinkpieces that have changed the course of … wait, do fiery thinkpieces ever change the course of anything?

All of these poor credentials of mine pushed to the side, I began to get a little bit scared. What was I going to talk about? There must be something that is unique to me that I can write an hour’s worth of words about.

So here I am, blessed with the singular opportunity to address a room full of promising, wonderful individuals, with not much to talk about. At this point the conference is a mere few weeks away, and I still haven’t cemented what I wanted to communicate to you.

So I took a deep breath, and did what I usually do in this kind of situation. I looked to one of my friends for inspiration. In this case, I cracked open a book of poems by one of my favorite poets, Wallace Stevens.

I turned to a well worn page in my Stevens anthology, the one where my favorite poem of all time lives. It’s called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and I’m going to read it to you now.

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens


Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.


I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.


The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.


A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Are one.


I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.


Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.


O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?


I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.


When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.


At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.


He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds.


The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.


It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Dedicated to Wallace Stevens, and all XIII Blackbirds

That poem, published almost 100 years ago in 1917, was one of the first poems I ever read multiple times. I really don’t even remember how I found it, and I have an impossible time explaining why I like it so much. But for some reason, I look to it often for answers, and sometimes, mercifully, it provides them.

This talk is the product of reading this poem many, many times, so I de facto dedicate this talk to Wallace Stevens, and one of his earliest poems, about which he would probably be terribly embarrassed if he were still alive.

So what was the realization that I came to while reading this poem for the fifty-eleventh time?

That most software engineers don’t count poems among their greatest influences, or at least if they do, they don’t spend enough time talking about it.

It dawned on me somewhere between the 8th and 9th birds in the poem that the best thing I could do to encourage a room full of eager, open-minded students, was simply to be myself. I should use the things I know the best, the things that are closest to my heart. And be vulnerable.

So that’s what this talk is all about. I’m going to introduce you to 10 (well, 11 if you count Stevens) of the individuals who have impacted who I am and how I think, from the beginning of my intellectual explorations as a child until today.

I call these individuals my friends because in my mind that’s what they are - companions, there for me when I need them most, unwavering in their support, often helping me understand my surroundings but just as often asking new questions that I could never hope to have the answers to.

I spend a lot of time doing things that have nothing to do with computers. The longer that I’ve worked in technology, the more those outside experiences have shaped my job choices and day to day activities.

If you’re confused or uncomfortable right now, or if you keep looking around to see if you’re really at a conference about Software Engineering being addressed about poetry by a bedraggled and bearded weirdo, then I’m doing my job. Stay with me.

Since this talk is about me and what I’m calling my friends but are actually my influences, let me just tell you a little bit about myself first.

I’m Obsessed

I used to begin my talks with this slide. I would put this slide on the screen, like it is now and say “Hello, my name is Michael R. Bernstein, and I’m obsessed. Not with anything in particular, just, you know, in general.”

While it was good for a laugh, I realized over time that that’s probably not the best way to introduce myself, for various reasons.

First of all, even if I was “obsessed in general,” that doesn’t sound like something I should be boasting about, and it certainly doesn’t lead to very healthy behavior.

Second of all, it doesn’t at all convey what I thought it would, and instead tended to give people the impression that I feel that being obsessed is the only way you can learn things. This is far from the truth.

So, I decided to make a change.

I’m doing just fine thanks

Hi, my name is Michael R. Bernstein, and I’m doing just fine - thanks.

So enough about me. Today I’m going to introduce you to some of my friends, roughly in the order that I met them. I’ll distill the lessons that I’ve learned from these individuals into one or two words, which is by nature super reductive but I think serves the purpose of illustrating how all of these disparate pieces fit together inside my head.

So without further ado, let’s get started.

Thelonious Monk - Improvise

I first met Thelonious as a teenager. I was young and didn’t know anything about music. Vanilla Ice was popular and I was cool with that - this is the kind of state of mind I was in back then.

One day my friend Mark, who was learning how to play the trumpet at the time, came over with a CD of Miles Davis’ seminal album “Kind of Blue.” We listened to it on my crappy JVC boombox, and I was super confused.

Where were the words? What kind of weird songs are these? No electric guitar? Were these people even stopping, collaborating, and listening? Turns out they were.

I didn’t have access to “Kind of Blue,” but I knew that my dad used to play the trumpet and was at least a little bit into this kind of music, which I discovered was called “Jazz.”

I went upstairs to the attic and rifled through his record collection, disappointed to find that he didn’t have “Kind of Blue” - I still need to ask him why the hell he didn’t have a copy of that record, by the way - but I did find this record: “Monk’s Dream” by Thelonious Monk.

I took that record from his old dusty box and brought it downstairs, where I had set up his old turntable and connected it (without a pre-amp, I might add - ask me later why this is an important detail if you don’t know what a pre-amp is), and played it over and over again. It dawned on me that music didn’t always need words.

I started to make all kinds of musical connections because I was fortunate enough to have access to this album. I realized that music conveys emotion on its own, that vocals and lyrics can be secondary to the music, that song structure is something that can be played with, bent, molded, and shaped.

After listening to this album a bunch, I asked Mark about it, and about “Kind of Blue.” What was going on here? Did they always play the songs the same way twice? Some of the tracks were long, and it seemed impossible that they could recreate this whenever they wanted.

Mark told me that no, they don’t play the same thing every time and that Jazz musicians are known for something called “improvising.”

“Improvising? Sounds cool, what’s that?” I asked.

“Well, the musicians work within a pre-defined structure, but they improvise within it. You don’t know much about music but there are basic rules, and improvising is all about expressing yourself, while staying as close to these rules as possible, but also trying to push things, you know, make them sound interesting.” Mark replied.

Wow. I was floored. First of all I loved music A LOT up until this point and though I had tried to take some piano lessons that never really stuck, I had never really thought about what music was made of, how it was produced, how it worked, how we understood it. But I was completely fascinated by the idea, and it really stuck with me, to say the least.

Here’s a picture of me about 10 years after I first learned about improvised music. I’m playing a homemade synthesizer in a quartet of improvised musicians and wearing tie-dye. So really, not much has changed in the 10 years that have passed since this picture was taken.

So Thelonious (and tangentially, Mark, wherever the hell you are): thank you for teaching me about improvisation. I rely on this concept all of the time. I try to give myself permission to improvise.

Improvisation is about starting down a well-known path and ending up somewhere you could never imagine, and is a crucial skill for human beings in general and software engineers in particular.

In your career as programmers, project managers, entrepreneurs, psychedelic synthesizer warriors, etc, you will often be expected to find your own solutions by starting somewhere known. Your ability to improvise might not help you get there any quicker than anyone else, but I can guarantee that you will have a more interesting journey.

If you’d like to know more about Thelonious and his amazing life, I highly recommend this authoritative biography by Robin Kelly. It will change the way you think about the history of music, and if you’re reading closely enough, it will change the way you think about the world in general.

Gilles Deleuze - Question Everything

Speaking of changing the way you think about the world, a few years after I got deep into spending a lot of time with Thelonious and Miles, I started to spend time with some interesting (if not kind of dour) people named Franz, Friedrich, and Gilles.

I was a classic pretentious teenager with pretentious friends who collected difficult books and tried as hard as possible to sound intelligent, therefore sounding very unintelligent indeed.

Regardless, something about the work in Gilles Deleuze’s “A Thousand Plateaus” stuck with me and seriously continues to impact my thinking in ways that I don’t think any other person’s thoughts have done for me.

“A Thousand Plateaus,” which is subtitled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” is a book that is very difficult to describe. It is the second volume of a collaborative effort between Deleuze, a philosopher, and Felix Guattari, a psychoanalyst.

If you were to ask me what this book was about, I would hesitate to say “everything,” but would probably end up saying “everything” anyway. As Deleuze and Guattari romp through subject matter as diverse as economics, biology, psychology, and more, they make one thing very clear: everything is to be questioned.

What we are taught, on the surface, about how to think, how to read, how to exist in a society that is permeated with the need to be more productive, and happier, and better, and richer, should all be questioned. “A Thousand Plateaus” is not to be read in a linear order, it is to be absorbed, osmosis-like, in any order you see fit.

“A Thousand Plateaus” teaches us that societal and economic control are not the big, scary monsters that you think - they are the combinations of millions and millions of small, supple actions that in aggregate present to us, on the surface, the society we are a part of.

After reading and re-reading and trying to read and failing and reading again, this line of questioning seemed very deep to me - is the binary really binary? Is God a lobster after all?

What does an obscure book that is ostensibly about Postmodern theory have to do with software engineering? Part of the point of this talk is just that - books, art, music, etc. don’t have to have “anything to do with” software engineering to help you become a better software engineer.

Without blowing the rest of the talk for you by spoiling the ending, you’re going to hear echoes of this idea several more times: to read and digest art, music, philosophy, poetry, and human creativity is to become a better person. If you ever hope to be an amazing software engineer, someone who changes the world with your code and your ideas, it is imperative that you focus on becoming the best person you can be at the same time.

Well-roundedness is not something that you use to pad your resume for work. Well-roundedness is something that you pursue because it is the very damn reason you were put on this earth to begin with - to learn and share.

So thank you, Deleuze, and thank you Guattari, for this amazing beautiful impossible book which taught me to take nothing for granted, to assume nothing, to experience everything.

Baudelaire - Redefine Beauty

From philosophy to poetry, I did seriously attempt to rack up as many points as possible in the column of wannabe smart teenager around this time in my life. Sadly, I probably modeled my idea of what constituted “smart” more from movies and magazines than anything else, but what can you do?

Though I postured in many other ways at this time during my life, claiming allegiances that I didn’t really have, pretending I was something I was not more often than not, I really did see something in Baudelaire. I was fascinated by the anger and disgust depicted in the book, the tortured changing definition of beauty, and these things have never really left me. My deep and enduring love of poetry is something that I guard very closely and am very proud of.

Baudelaire’s most famous work is (pardon my horrendous French accent) “Les Fleurs du Mal,” or “The Flowers of Evil.” A long, meandering, disturbing book, it nevertheless manages to do what I believe Baudelaire hoped it would - it expands your notion and understanding of what is beautiful, of what words can describe, of what a book can make you feel.

In an homage to peeking out of windows, Baudelaire looks upon the world, reports on it, and provokes the reader who asks him whether his observations of the world are in fact “the right story.” Baudelaire replies:

“What does it matter what reality is outside myself, so long as it has helped me to live, to feel that I am, and what I am?”

The preface to the book contains this “malediction,” another provocation, a defensive answer to the readers who he knows will misinterpret his work in some way:

“It’s Ennui!—his eye brimming with spontaneous tear / He dreams of the gallows in the haze of his hookah. / You know him, reader, this delicate monster, / Hypocritical reader, my likeness, my brother!”

There are many poets who have since taught me lessons that have helped me redefine my aesthetics in subtle ways. Baudelaire was simply one of the first to bring a hammer to my naive, narrow notions of the capabilities of words.

So thank you, Baudelaire. Every time I find myself stopping on the sidewalk to stare at some peeling paint, every time I decide to not limit myself in order to experience as much as possible, every time I manage to find beauty in what others pass by or reject, I think of you.

I’m not going to try and connect Baudelaire to software engineering because I think that would be even a bit profane for Baudelaire’s tastes, but I will simply restate - reading poetry makes you a better human, and being a better human makes you better at whatever it is you’re trying to do.

Brian Eno - Hone Your Aesthetics

From “Music for Airports” to his famous pop albums of the 70s, Brian Eno is one of the deepest and most successful sound thinkers of the 20th century. I learned about Eno late in my High School career. Again I don’t really know how I first came across him.

Eno was a maverick who created an entire world of music out of nothing. He was one of the founders of the group Roxy Music, who infused a hell of lot of weirdness into the 1970s UK Rock Scene. Roxy Music, like the Velvet Underground, is one of those bands about whom you can say that “Not many people liked Roxy Music, but all of them went on to form their own bands.”

Eno’s solo work is defined by an amazing, precise attention to detail. “Music for Airports” is ambient music, to be played in the background. It is composed in a way that if you try to pay too much attention to it, it just squirms out of your reach, defying definition and stasis. If you do what Eno suggests, and let this music define your environment and impact your mood, that’s how you can really get the full picture of what Eno is trying to achieve.

The amazing and brilliant thing about Eno’s music is that he was not a trained musician, did not really know “how to play instruments,” and was still capable of defining a fabulous aesthetic arc that continues to this day. Listening to his work with the recently deceased David Bowie, for example, you can hear what sounds like thousands and thousands of layers of sound rushing together to create a warm pool of sound that you could spend your whole life trying not to drown in.

Though Eno is often touted as “experimental” and his music “obscure,” he is fact one of the most fastidious and purposeful creators of sound in the history of modern music. Though he embraced chance and John Cage-like systems that allowed him to create dense, shifting landscapes of sound, he never released anything that wasn’t, at its heart, beautiful.

Eno has lots of somewhat obvious lessons to you as a group of individuals who are in various stages of your journey into the real world. I’ll share two that come to mind:

First, regardless of how good your idea is, implementation is what counts. Take the time to make your work beautiful. Take pride in your craft, make it count.

Second, it’s often people who “shouldn’t” that end up changing the world. By all accounts, an art school drop out whose only skills were fixing reel to reel tape machines and synthesizers “shouldn’t” have made some of the most beautiful music this world has ever seen.

In your travels, you’ll meet people like this - people who don’t have the same training or background as you, but remain stubbornly amazing at what they do. Don’t shun them, or make them feel bad. Embrace them, and learn from them, and watch as they amaze you in ways you never thought possible.

So thank you, Mr. Eno, for never giving up, and for proving that what counts is what you leave behind, not the so-called legitimacy of your history.

Virginia Woolf - Use Your Real Voice

The first time I ever picked up a novel to be completely blown away by the voice and perspective that it was written in was Viriginia Woolf’s “To The Lighthouse.” This was around my Senior Year of High School or my first year of college, in a literature survey of some kind, and I was completely not prepared for what was contained in the book.

A somewhat mundane story ostensibly about a family and their travels to a summer home in Scotland, “To The Lighthouse” is really about thinking and voice more than anything else. In it, Woolf extensively employs a stream-of-consciousness style of writing where the thoughts of any number of characters are laid bare for the reader to interpret.

Lacking the omniscient narrator that both authors and readers tend to rely on as an anchor in a novel, Woolf instead relies on the constantly moving thoughts and changing perspectives of the characters, not so much to “tell a story” as to get you to think.

This brilliant technique really worked for me. I recall an assignment related to “To The Lighthouse” where we were instructed to write something in a stream-of-consciousness style ourselves. I absolutely loved it. I tried to write about what I was thinking. I ended up writing about thinking and thinking about writing. And thinking about voice, and what it meant to “have a voice.” What it meant to change perspectives. How many different ways there were to tell the same story.

One of my favorite quotes from the book either sums this whole section up perfectly or completely muddles what I’m trying to say, rendering this section useless. That’s for you to decide:

“What is the meaning of life? That was all—a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.”

So thank you, Virginia Woolf, for showing me the malleability of perspective, for encouraging me to use and develop my own voice, by showing me that you could use and develop your own.

And that’s the lesson I want you to take away from Woolf and “To The Lighthouse” - that your ideas, unique and wild as they may sound to you in your head, are worth exploring. That it’s possible to change BIG THINGS, like the way stories are told. On top of that, it never hurts to be inside someone else’s head for a while - it often helps you once you end up back in your own.

Harry Smith - Obsess

Though I no longer wish to introduce myself in association with obsession, I still feel that we have a lot to learn from people who are or have been truly obsessed. My favorite obsessive individual is by far Harry Everett Smith, so I’d like to introduce you to him.

Harry Smith was a truly American icon of the 20th century, someone who most people don’t know but was a big inspiration for people much more famous than him, including poets like Alan Ginsberg and authors like William Burroughs. Smith grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, where he was fascinated with his surroundings and began earnest documentation projects in his early teens, notably recording the ritual and ceremonial music of the Kiowa Tribe who lived near to his home.

Over the course of his life, it Seemed that what Smith collected was less important than the fact that he was collecting, and this was for a very logical reason: his primary interest was in the relationship between things, not with the things themselves. Smith had a way of seeing every day life in ways that revealed subtle, intricate systems and connections that inspired him to continue his life long mission of collection, curation, and creation.

Here’s the story of how Harry Smith ended up moving to New York City, where he completed his most famous projects - an epic abstract film and a collection of folk music for Folkways records which led directly to the proliferation of American rural and spiritual music to the emerging folk scene that birthed Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and more:

“In 1950 Smith received a Guggenheim grant to complete an abstract film, which enabled him first to visit and later move to New York City.[10] He arranged for his collections, including his records, to be shipped to the East Coast. He said that “one reason he moved to New York was to study the Cabala. And, ‘I wanted to hear Thelonious Monk play’.”[11]”

Here’s a list of some of the things that Harry Smith collected throughout his lifetime:

And lots lots lots more.

So Harry Smith: thank you for teaching me how to obsess, how to look just below the surface of the world in front of me. Thanks for teaching me to consider and reconsider facts and their contexts in ways that might allow me to see things that other people might not.

Grant Achatz - Persevere

An obsession that I have been indulging for the last decade or so in earnest has been food and cooking. Because I have a tendency to go “all in” when trying to understand someone’s work, I will often read whatever I can about a Chef or restaurant when I find it interesting.

When I first started hearing about Alinea in Chicago, a restaurant that, by the way, I’ve never been to, I was immediately intrigued. I had experienced some of the type of food that the chef, Grant Achatz, was meant to be serving there: progressive or experimental cuisine, molecular gastronomy, whatever you want to call it.

Achatz was experimenting with ingredients and presentations in a way that seemed to elevate the gimmickry which a lot of this type of food is prone to. Alinea was a serious restaurant, with a serious chef, who just so happened to have a signature desert preparation, shown here, that involves preparing the desert course at the end of a tasting menu directly on the diner’s table. Achatz then implores diners to scrape every last bit directly off the table with provided spoons.

Two years into the life of Alinea, after the restaurant and the chef had garnered multiple awards, including the best restaurant in the country in more than one publication, Achatz announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer of the mouth. He discovered that he had this cancer because of a pain in his tongue.

The intense agony and irony of a world-famous, finally renowned chef getting cancer of the tongue, threatening his sense of taste itself, is an almost unbelievably scary story. Achatz underwent aggressive treatment and was able to recover completely from the cancer, but not before running Alinea as normal, but without the ability to taste at all.

This story is captured in a book called “Life, On The Line” which Achatz wrote with his collaborator and business partner, and is a highly recommended, short non-fiction depiction of a team of individuals thrown into crisis and emerging a success.

He relays an amazing anecdote in the book, one that I think is applicable to almost anyone who spends time working with other people. After learning that he wouldn’t be able to taste properly, at least for some period of time, Achatz realized that he didn’t have as much to worry about as he feared. He was surrounded by an extremely talented and dedicated team who knew all of the flavors and textures that were supposed to be present in the food they were serving. He said that he knew he could relax and “let them be his tongue” as he underwent this ordeal.

Because he had collaborated and trained his colleagues so well, he knew that he could trust them.

After this nearly disastrous bout with a deadly form of cancer, Achatz went on to earn three Michelin stars two years in a row at Alinea, which is remarkable for a restaurant in Chicago, not typically known for being a dining destination previously.

So thank you, Grant Achatz, for reminding me that perseverence is critical to success, that my bad days are probably not so bad, and that if I work hard and trust those around me, I can achieve way more than I could ever hope to on my own.

Nancy Lynch - Formalize

The last three friends I have to introduce you to are all people that I’ve met relatively recently. I’ll start out with Nancy Lynch, someone whose work I got to know very well a few years back when I was preparing a research-heavy talk about distributed systems.

To give you a sense of the depth and breadth of Lynch’s work appropriately would be a difficult thing to do in the time allotted, but I thought this image, which is a screen shot from Lynch’s homepage, would sum up at least the magnitude of her contributions quite nicely.

You can see here that Lynch has been consistently publishing work since the early 70s. What you can’t see here is how many different areas of interest she has had. Lynch is very well known for her work with Fischer and Patterson in the “Impossibility of distributed consensus with one faulty process” (colloquially known as the ‘FLP Result’), and her work with Seth Gilbert, where they turned Eric Brewer’s CAP conjecture into the CAP theorem by successfully formalizing Brewer’s notions regarding communication in distributed systems.

My favorite Nancy Lynch paper, though (not that I have read them all by a long shot) is 1989’s “A Hundred Impossibility Proofs For Distributed Computing.” In this paper she describes the phenomenon of published “impossibility results,” which are essentially proofs where instead of proving that something can be done, you prove that something cannot be done. Roughly speaking. Very roughly speaking. Very, very roughly speaking.

The paper is very entertaining, ranging from head scratchingly dense and challenging to very funny and light hearted. I love, too, how the paper (which is a talk transcript) ends:

“I’ve tried in this talk to give you a good picture of the history, status and flavor of research in impossibility proofs for distributed computing. I hope you’re convinced that it is an interesting and fruitful area for research. Now with some luck, skill and inspiration, we can continue to make great strides, proving more and more things to be impossible!”

When I met Nancy Lynch I admired from afar her ability to put down on paper and formalize what seemed, forgive me, impossible to formalize. Her work is a reminder of the necessary rigor that underlies much of our day to day work. Many of the decisions that we make as software engineers are attributable to the work that Lynch and her colleagues have been hammering away at for decades.

It’s very common for people who studied software engineering in university to do the most formal work they ever do while they are still students. Once you get a job in the industry, it seems, keeping up with the latest trends replaces your ability to continue with the formal, research oriented aspect of your work. The reason I wanted to introduce Nancy Lynch to those of you who don’t know her is for this reason - I think that this is a mistake.

While your muscles for dense, deep exploration still exist, please flex them. Where they are currently weak, please build them up. The world of software, that is to say, the entire world itself, needs more people who know what it means to provide rigorous proof that something is or is not.

Beyond that, I think that these skills are only going to become more important as there are more opportunities to apply formal techniques in every day software engineering practices.

So thank you, Dr. Lynch, for your amazing rigor, your hard work, and your continued explorations of the invisible worlds of digital communication.

bell hooks - Empathize

bell hooks is one friend that I have to say that I wish I had met earlier. It was only 2 years ago that I first read her work - after it had been recommended to me a number of times by a number of people I admired, I decided to give it a shot.

After ordering it online, the small book arrived and I read the entire thing in a few hours. It impressed me so much when I read it that I immediately got in touch with the publisher, purchased 10 extra copies, and then mailed them to random strangers on the internet who requested a copy from me via Twitter.

What the book is about is right there in the title - “Feminism is For Everybody.” hooks, a feminist scholar, author, and activist, collects some short essays she’s written that are meant to describe and lay out what Feminist politics means for her. In the introduction, she powerfully describes the typical interactions she has when people discover that she is a cultural critic, a radical feminist.

The word “feminism,” hooks describes, has gotten so lost and tangled in the capitalist landscape that defines modern American society in particular, that people don’t even know what it’s about anymore. They think that feminism is about “angry women who want to be men,” instead of what it’s really about. “It’s about rights,” hooks says,” equal rights for women.”

hooks delves into a number of topics in the book, including the damage that the patriarchy imposes on people who identify as men. This nuance was new for me - I hadn’t in the past spent much time thinking about the damage that macho posing and predatory teaching does to young boys who grow up into men. hooks has a way of stating in plain terms how her experiences have impacted her, how a patriarchal system really hurts us all, holds us all back, denies us the love that we are due.

So thank you, bell hooks, for teaching me to empathize more deeply with girls and women in their struggle for equality. Thank you for holding no punches, for telling it like it is, and for giving me the courage to stand here and relay these lessons to this group of students.

We all have a lot to learn about the roles that we play in the structures of power that help to shape our lives. As software engineers entering into a field that is rife with prejudice and discrimination, it is your job to ensure that you do your part to dismantle as many of these structures of power as possible.

hooks can teach you a lot about not standing idly by while the world continues to churn in a seemingly endless downward spiral. hooks can teach you a lot about yourself, and make you a better person. So please, read her work, and share it.

Michele Alexander - See through the system

Six months or so ago I was having a conversation with a friend who is well versed in the literature about race, economics, and American History. After hearing some of the texts I was looking into along these lines, he recommended that I read a book that had a lot of buzz around it at the time - “The New Jim Crow” by Michele Alexander.

The central thesis of “The New Jim Crow” is that the incarceration state and its current stronghold in the United States mirrors the post slavery laws, known as “Jim Crow Laws,” which effectively dismantled the rights of freed slaves to the point where it seemed no real progress had been made at all.

In a very precise, systematic, and deeply sad way, Alexander outlines how the combination of discretion in policing, judging, and incarcerating Americans has created deeply troubling patterns for young people of color all over the United States, from coast to coast.

In a world which is supposedly “post-racial,” Alexander shows that the effect of whitewashing hateful rhetoric (which is making an unfortunate resurgence thanks to certain Republican presidential hopefuls with terrible hair whose name I won’t mention) is not what people think. Just because the rhetoric has become less overtly racist, Alexander argues, means nothing when it comes to the lives and times of young people of color, particularly those in major cities.

Alexander reminds us all to not fall into the trap of forgetting that many, many people in the United States suffer from being born into a situation where so many cards are stacked against them that it not only seems impossible for them to rise out of it, it often times is impossible.

The lack of social mobility in America’s poorest cities, the concentration of police, the movement of jails outside of cities to rural areas where local counties can profit off of them, the terrible schools, the non-existant or underpaying jobs. All of this, every bit of it, is part and parcel with America in the 21st century.

So thank you, Ms. Alexander, for reminding me to not become complacent. For reminding me that many, many people have almost no opportunities to thrive, and yet somehow some manage to, against all odds.

I want you all to look into Alexander’s work and contemplate how you might impact your society with the work you do. And before you go down that road - no, I don’t think that an iPhone app is going to help you solve systematic racism.

Only a lifetime of dedication to justice can bring real change. Who of you will pick up that mantle?


So there you have it. 10 lessons from 11 friends.

And two final provocations:


“The best thing you can do to be an amazing software engineer is spend some time doing something besides software engineering.”


“The opportunity is yours to help people live the lives that they deserve to live.”

Thank you for hanging out with me for an hour.

I hope some of my friends will soon become mutual friends to all of us.