ADC 2021 : Isn’t it nice to be back?

I don’t flinch from controversy. The subject of today’s talk is: Isn’t it nice to be back?

I’ve tried to distil something from the last couple of years. Not the easiest time to run a conference, and definitely not the best time to start an electronics company based in England.

There must be, I think, a way to examine our shared adventures over the last two years that ends ADC on a high. Some kind of three-act structure that mixes two pertinent themes, and leaves us with a positive feeling about where we’re heading.

Yeah. I haven’t worked harder for five minutes of material in my life. 

Act I

We have every reason to be happy to work in audio. This is self-evident. The world will continue to be short of engineers long after it no longer matters to us. If we weren’t happy, we’d be sitting in a different office. Generally, most places that need our brains outside audio offer more money, nicer weather, and fewer of those customers with grand delusions and landmine detonators on their foreheads.

What, then, keeps us happy? Near the top of the tree is our resemblance to the entertainment industry that feeds us. We are driven by the same dreams. We and music-makers are united by a long apprenticeship, a deep love of the art, and a lifelong pursuit of self-set and ever-changing ideals. This in spite of the fact that we know how music is produced, and by whom.

Yesterday’s professional rivals are today’s stablemates, and will be tomorrow’s rivals again. The sense of community and shared destiny at these events is intoxicating. And, I must say, exhausting: who knew that social fitness was a thing? Or that I could get so out of shape in less than two years?

But our community is big enough that rivalries are real. It is good ethical practice to encrypt your firmware so that others aren’t led into temptation. It is folly to leave a valuable trademark unattended if you’ve ever used it. You must in all endeavours clap your hands and pretend to believe in money, or you won’t be taken seriously. We still must keep our own tribes defended, for some Music Tribes are led by bastards.

The unresolving forces of cooperation and competition are the most effective engine of creation that we have. In my experience, the best agent to bring these forces together is not venture capital. Nor is it any form of political system. It’s probably conferences like these, that force our little gangs to appreciate one another.

That and alcohol.

My most satisfying moments in engineering and commerce can be traced back to happenstance: the side-channel conversations we go to conferences to create. Sometimes they can send one weeping back to the drawing board. But some colleagues once formed a temporary alliance with a competitors to make our platforms compatible, which threw us a lifeline and reflected well on them. In another job, we fixed a messy problem by giving the community some work for free, and it wasn’t bad to start with, so they improved it for us. We ended up owning a de facto standard.

Not meeting in person has dulled these channels: we’ve been left entrenched in slo-mo since 2019 because the online world isn’t set up so much to build bridges as to dig moats, and control who gets in.

Act 2

I found a problem with my talk yesterday, ‘How to make hardware without losing your shirt.’ In its title is an implication that we can make watertight assumptions about what we’ll achieve before we set out to do something.

We have no idea how successful any mission will be. We can’t control or mitigate as much as we think. There are catastrophes we cannot predict every few years that create accidental winners and losers, and these won’t get easier as the planet gets hotter.

But it gets worse. Not only can we not control a complex world; we can barely measure it. Learning any lessons, let alone the right ones, involves turning an amorphous sea of inputs into an engaging story we can understand. The success or failure we feel, learn from and talk about doesn’t come from data, but whatever story we let the data tell us.

And how could that possibly misfire?

Act 3.

Did I lose money making head trackers? Of course I did: I launched in February 2020 with no sales or distribution channels. The world shut down before I could establish any, and we’re halfway through a two-year hiatus where I can’t physically manufacture any more.

Is it a failure? Well, the correct answer is that it’s my product and my company, and it’s a huge success, so shut up.

The story I’ll tell myself about my product for the next year is that it’s been rather like writing a textbook. Now, those who need to know and care about my work at least know about it. They can benefit from it, and tell me where it’s not right.

Will it turn into anything more? I hope so: no idea.

God, what a cop-out! Imagine being this Panglossian fool, sitting pompously on this stage going, ‘Oh, look at me! Everything resolves to a qualified success! Every voyage is a golden adventure into the unknown! What a wonderful profession; aren’t we so lucky?’

… Achievement has several opposites, and I’ve shared a meeting room with most of them. One opposite of achievement is squinting into a crystal ball.

Predictions can’t be falsified and don’t last, but principles can and do. This year’s first is never to gamble so much that you can’t give the wheel another spin. The second is to take risks in the first place. Embrace imposter syndrome, because it means you’re in a place where you might be challenged, rewarded, and appreciated.

Luck is partly skill, and most of the rest is rotten. Failure is most likely not to be your fault, because the counterexample is Roland and he isn’t here tonight.

And if your luck doesn’t improve, you’ll just get up again. No matter how badly things sometimes go in the recesses of our industry, keep at it, because the data tells me that you’re bloody loving it.

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