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.

ADC 2020 Lightning Talk : No man is an island. Except the Isle of Man.

When Sartre resolved that ‘Hell is other people’ he was probably trying to get Remo to connect to his microphone. This year’s running theme is definitely ‘imperfect replacements for human contact’. On the other hand, 2020 has highlighted our reliance on other people like nothing else could.

So this year, I’ve set my tone to consolation. Even while certain governments in Europe turn up the despotism, and we in the UK stupidly try to saw the Channel Tunnel in half, I’m not sufficiently angry to do narcissism for a third time.

My mission this year was to launch a hardware product, and my very own very flaky company. I won’t advertise it now: I’ve got a talk on Thursday evening and you’ll be there if you’re interested. Talk about it twice, and I’ll just jinx it.

Last year, I found myself explaining to a man in his eighties that I’d decided to start my own business. He fixed me with a glare. ‘You’ve just had your fortieth birthday, haven’t you?’ 

That he read me so transparently is worrying because I’d hate this talk to bore an octogenarian. On the other hand, this industry needs constant competition and experimentation, without which nothing can evolve. If the output of a thousand midlife crises bumping against a handful of spoilt rich kids can keep us all together, bring it on.

Designing, producing and selling electronics for a profit in a creative industry is deliciously hard. It’s in the category of things that are only just possible to do on your own, like circumnavigating the globe or reaching a human being at YouTube.

So I’m going to talk today about going it alone … Or not.

Many years ago, a commercial director at Focusrite explained that any business needs to optimise three different functions: sales, operations, and management. The message was if you looked after only two of those, you didn’t figuratively have a company, and would soon literally not have one. Managing the tension between sales, operations, and management, whilst looking after business as usual, is what keeps a decent company in a perpetual state of productive conflict. You have to argue to establish what’s most important, preferably with other people.

The thing is — and I’m about to blame the world for my own problems here — the way we are conditioned in early life impedes our ability to put a team together. As soon as you reach an unspecified age of adulthood, your future depends on unlearning most of your childhood conditioning as quickly as you can.

Don’t talk to strangers! becomes, ‘Work the room, build connections, maximise your luck.’

Copying is cheating! becomes … and I’d like to thank Maurice Ravel for the best advice I’ve read about making art … ‘Copy. And if, in copying, you remain yourself, it is because you have something to say.’ (Ravel died in 1937; Uli Behringer was born in 1961.)

Don’t talk back! becomes, ‘Consider, dear colleague, that your argument may benefit from reconciliation with the latest facts.’

Most of us emerge blinking from the same forest of infant conditioning so at least it’s somewhat fair. And adolescence, as long as you do it right, offers a gradual escape.

But as one-person companies, we have two problems with living in our own heads. The first is that our own expertise is lumpy. My Engineering Director is great, but I’d fire my Marketing Director if I could plug in a better one. So I have to ask an appropriate friend to second-guess.

Another former colleague of mine, with his own new company, is a natural at that stuff. His opening gambit was to mock up a make-believe product, collect pre-orders from Facebook, and wade waist-deep into a morass of emotion that would cause my jaw to clench. Which is smart: he is using the fact that he can’t build the physical product himself to his advantage.

But I built a prototype first, because that’s how I articulate myself, and from there my conversation with the market has been very different. No book would ever tell you to work that way, but books are usually written by marketers, not engineers.

So, your company will start as a shadow of your own prejudices and talents. Your engagement with the world must show you at your best, but it will also constrain what your business values.

When you’re an employee, your skills compensate for your weaknesses. Unfortunately, at the top of a business, your weaknesses drag down your skills. This is why you eventually have to hire people because they are not like you and, sometimes, because they do not like you.

I’ve watched a perfectionist kill a business because the product that would have saved it was never deemed ready. I’ve worked for disorganised people running disorganisations, wearing out their social capital by failing to maintain their products and stunting their later growth. A company run by a narcissist is just another limb of that individual: banal, reactionary, unempathetic.

And you have only one brain. (‘One brain’, incidentally, is an anagram of Brian Eno.) Self-discipline is a resource that some people possess in greater quantities than others, but it’s always expendable. Sometimes you need to close your eyes or watch a crappy video, and the entire operation has to shut down with you.

There is nobody else to pick over your internal caffeine-comedown monologue for logical fallacies. All your imaginary personnel get flooded by the same hormones, so are all angry or despondent at the same time.

That email to a supplier, for example, who has just cost you two months and £5000 has to wait until after the weekend, when your business’s endocrine system has settled down. (That was last week. Still a bit raw.)

But this is why we need other people. The most notorious casualty of a solo round-the-world yacht race, Donald Crowhurst, went mad and jumped overboard in 1969 and was never seen again. He left his log book behind, though, from which we learn that his biggest mistake was to turn his back on his family, switch off his two-way radio, and start getting seduced by his own dark thoughts.

Rarely in the adult world are there prizes for going it alone. And even if you want to, at least one opponent is somewhat like a restless, deep, and uncaring ocean.

If you’re having the same embryonic thoughts I was having back in 2018, please prepare yourself, be lucky, and take a risk that I promise you won’t regret. Even if you fail in the process, you will gain so much.

Finally, this is advice to myself, but it applies to any introvert: when in doubt, pick up the phone, and use the person at the other end with consideration. It will only strengthen a friendship.

ADC 2018 Lightning Talk : I feel bad about this, but so should they

Another transcript. The thing that came across in the talk that doesn’t translate to cold text is that this whole experience was amusing. My audience got it. The identity of the company is known to a few people, and I want it to remain discreet. First, I’m not in this business to embarrass people. Second, I’d quite like the choice about where and how I make a living to remain at least partly in my hands. Nevertheless, a true story this good cannot be passed up. While my treatment looks fairly shoddy, I don’t suspect malice: merely the usual consequence of happenstance meeting poor governance.

Update: With my own permission, here is a recording from a phone on the stage. You might still need the transcript. I had exactly five minutes, which is why the pace is pretty quick.

Can you smell that? Must’ve left a bridge in the oven. My topic at last year’s session needed to be handled carefully, so I read from a script. Here we go again.

In April, I resigned from ROLI to pursue a more intentionally fragmented career. My reasons aside, ROLI enters this talk only because the day after I gave my notice, I received an email from California. That coincidence begins this story.

The weeks that followed included hours of transatlantic phone calls, some easy, some hard. I spoke to ‘audio-famous’ people. The kind who have Wikipedia pages that they didn’t write themselves. These people had achieved a lot in their careers, before taking a corporate vow of silence and retreating from the world.

In June, arrangements were made to fly me to San Francisco, on the promise that I was about to meet a team of great people. I asked about those people. That information (even how many of them I’d meet) was classified.

To paraphrase, however, my brain contained something they might want to borrow. What this might be was a mystery then and remains a mystery now. They told me next to nothing and — joy of joys — gave me nothing to sign.

At the first of what turned out to be eight interviews, the opening question I was asked was ‘Would you please leave the building and come back in 45 minutes?’ This set the tone. The original itinerary was filleted to a fine mist. I was passed from hand to hand and back again, parked periodically on the sofa in reception to improve my acquaintance with their armed security guards.

The project coming together in the building around me was clearly a vast skunkworks, and I tried to piece together the details. I asked questions, naturally: What united cinematic colorists and a recently-acquired spatial audio company? Why was a famously expensive headquarters, ten or so blocks away, missing them? Why the hell, with all this talent on tap, would you fly a man over 5,000 miles only to do so little with him? That information was classified.

One of my interviewers was a co-founder and former CTO of a company that you’ve definitely heard of. On LinkedIn, his job title is now just a dash. I’ve been interviewed by a person who makes a living as a pregnant pause.

He played Bad Cop. Treating my lack of big corporate experience as a calculated affront to his dignity, one of his opening questions is why my career at ROLI had run in reverse. That’s harsh but actually fair: I’d prepared more than one answer to that one on the plane over. Five years after playing a central role getting the first few products out of the door, and four job title changes later, nobody really knew what I was doing there anymore, least of all me.

I didn’t tell him, although it’s true, that I was really after his job as a punctuation character.

Underscoring even those interviews that went well was a familiar note of crisis. Behind the scenes, phenomenal rank was being pulled. I quietly added some marginal notes to the chapter plan of my ‘narcissism in tech’ book.

Pencil sketch: The well of technology is looking somewhat dry in recent years. For want of a better plan, everything’s now driven by engagement data. Big tech is researching the psychological equivalent of crack cocaine while waiting to see if its competitors have a better idea. Little VC-backed companies have a similar problem. With no dependable long-term trends, a long term plan cannot be made to stick, so they grab the first thing they can, just like everyone else. What I saw in California taught me that this pattern extends as high and as wide as the eye can see.

For my entertainment, one of the smarter corners of one of the world’s wealthiest companies was candidly panicking its arse off about the kind of capital it would find down the side of an old armchair. You don’t stay rich by not speculating, but a pet project like this is always bait for executives to meddle.

As my first day in California drew to a close, I got to hang out with ten of my would-be colleagues: this started well, but went on until somewhat past 4am London time. My peripheral vision had started to fade. They were all called Steve. I ached from the mouth up and was numb from the chin down.

Halfway through the second day, I was told the job title I was interviewing for. I learned that I was in the frame because I’d spoken well at a conference some years previously. Not for the first time, I was genuinely impressed that any company had the capacity to review notes going back so far, but was no less confused about the action they had taken as a consequence.

And then, when I got home, nothing. My wife fretted about the possible change of continent while I periodically poked at the anthill across the pond. Four weeks later, I was informed that Bad Cop had the casting vote and I was out of the running for a position I hadn’t even applied for. Not to worry, though: they were scratching around for other opportunities.

In truth, I think I was used as a rubber duck. My purpose there was as an object that they could talk to to rescue their project. A friend of mine, insisting from the start that I should dodge this bullet, showed me a page from a tech-leaks website. There I found a plausible explanation, in the public domain, about what they were doing. It accounted for all of the people I’d met.

One morning, nearly two months after my trip, I awoke to a weirdly terse email from the person who’d first made contact: ‘I’m sorry but our plans do not include you’.

But by then, of course, the feeling was fucking mutual.