Previously, I blogged about “The Ultimate Nerd.” In this post, I will introduce you to some people who make my list of Ultimate Nerds. The only rule I made for my list is that I’m not writing about people I know personally. I’ve done this to force myself into doing some research and thinking through the reasons why each of these people have made the list. There were people who I initially thought were no-brainers that came off and people I added much to my own surprise. It will be interesting to come back to this list in a few years and see how things have changed.
Fans of Bjork won’t be surprised to see her on my list. She left “has a good beat and you can dance to it” somewhere in the last millennium in favor of risking weird crazy experiments that don’t always work out but can be quite inspiring when they do. Whenever I read about her projects, it’s not just about her singing or coming out with a new album, it’s about some new technology she’s exploring for making her music. ReacTable? Check! Tesla Coil? Check! Swinging pendulums? Check! Check!! This is someone who sees technology and pushes it through music. In my dream of dreams, she and Jack White have a love child. But that’s another blog post.
Charles Joseph Minard
There are so many reasons why Minard makes my list of ultimate nerds. Aside from being a pioneer in the field of data visualization, he’s a study in sticking with what you want to do even if it’s not something those around you care about or immediately understand. He earned his living as a civil engineer and retired as a superintendent for a school of roads and bridges at a French university. It was only during his retirement that he started producing visualizations.
Beyond the fact that his visualization of Napoleon’s Russian campaign is ground breaking work, this is something he created at seventy-eight years old. There is so much focus in tech on completing your most important work in your twenties or maybe early thirties at a stretch, and it’s bullshit.
While Minard could have chosen any number of subjects for his visualizations, he chose to visualize the loss incurred by war. Looking at his flow map of Napoleon’s Russian campaign the horrific losses of troops are immediately visible. Minard has set an example of visualization as humanitarianism that I intend follow with the open data available on today’s web.
In addition to being the former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt wrote the forward to one of the few “business books” that managed to hold my attention, Artful Making. You can see Chris McMahon’s blog about it here.
Recently, James Whittaker wrote a post about why he quit Google. In the post he talks about the culture of innovation that Schmidt fostered at Google and it’s right in line with what I read in Artful Making. In the testing world, Google has recently gone through an exodus of A-talent in testing. It’s quite telling that a good number of the folks whose talks I most enjoyed at the last Google Test Automation Conference have quit the big G.
By all appearances, the company is undergoing a lot of change and seems to be embracing more of a top-down management. Seeing this change and looking at the “leadership” I’ve experienced in my own career has shown me that it is much more challenging to embrace the path of trust and letting smart people do what they will than it is to throw on the black turtleneck and go all Steve Jobs on people. Screaming may have worked for Steve Jobs, but those who decide to follow his leadership path should take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves 1. Am I really that brilliant? 2. Am I living in the same context? (Hint: the answer is NO.)
In my own work life, I often hear ideas that I myself would not reach for. I work at saying, “let’s see if this will work out” instead of “you are freaking crazy.”
Eric Schmidt makes it onto my nerd-of-nerds list because he had the audacity to hire smart people, trust them and let them go. Look at what they built. The ideas about software and software testing that came out of Google under Eric Schmidt’s leadership changed me and my career forever. I suspect I am not alone. We need more leadership like this in software and software testing.
Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg
These two people are a dream team of data visualization. Although they both do solo work, they work mostly as a team. In fact, Google hired them as a team and they lead Google’s “Big Picture” visualization research group. Although their work is always gorgeous, it’s also thought provoking and always has a solid basis in data. Their first collaborative project, a visualization of Wikipedia, highlighted the controversy amongst some of the pages which, to be honest, I’d never stopped to consider before.
The artist statement on their website reveals how connected they are to what they do. Although it’s worth reading the whole thing, (it’s not that long, actually), here are a few of my favorite bits:
“…our artwork complicates and subverts a tool that is largely used by the business and military elite. Unlike these traditional uses, we believe visualization to be an expressive medium that invites emotion.”
“Eventually we start to ask questions that can’t be answered by direct observation.”
For me, this team is an example of being open about collaborative work they do to move technology and mankind forward.
There are a few reasons why Ward Cunningham makes my list of ultimate nerds. He’s the father of the wiki which is a tool I consider mandatory to be effective for exploratory testing and can also be a framework for automated tests. He helped lay the groundwork for design patterns. He was also involved in the writing of the Agile Manifesto which is something I frequently reach for to remind myself about the human aspects of software.
Currently, Cunningham is a fellow in the “Code for a Better World” program at Nike where he oversees the Smallest Federated Wiki project. This is a really neat project as the focus seems to be creating a community of wikis that can talk with each other. It is also completely open and available on Github. You an look back through some of the closed issues and see the constructive way in which Ward engages contributors to the project.
Part of the skill for maintaining longevity in a tech career seems to be the ability to simultaneously have a vision but also the ability to break that vision down into pieces small enough to implement. Cunningham’s engagement with the idea of a wiki over time has shown me what this looks like.
So that’s my list of Ultimate Nerds. In these people, I see what I wish for myself reflected back at me. There are themes of collaboration, creativity, experimentation and longevity. It’s easy to get burned out in this industry, but we are surrounded by fantastic mentors and role models if we choose to seek them out.
Last Fall, I ran a half-marathon. Everything after mile 8 happened through a wall of exhaustion, but I stuck it out. When I made it to the finish line, there were people lined up outside of the barricades on the street, cheering all of the finishers on. I ran over to one side and got high-fives from anybody who would give me one, and ended the race feeling ecstatic. When I feel burned out or when I just don’t know where I’m going with my tech career, it will be easy enough to picture these people lined up and ready to give me a high-five. Now, there’s a visualization.