The Startup Wife: a Lightning Talk I didn’t give

Last summer, a friend and former colleague handed me a paperback edition of The Startup Wife, and asked me if I wanted to borrow it. How could I not?

The Startup Wife is Tahmima Anam‘s fourth novel. She is an accomplished and acclaimed author, a doyenne of Radio Four, a director of ROLI, and the wife of its CEO. From the inside out, her novel takes on romance, the lifecycle of a tech start-up, women in technology, and venture capitalism.

Naturally, the romance and the start-up go awry. The paperback’s publication last September also coincided with the collapse of ROLI. The Startup Wife keeps a convenient distance from its nonfictional counterpart. But, as author and company director, Tahmima was not a mere recorder of events, but a controller of them. An insider cannot read this book and sit comfortably.

I try drafts for my open-mic ADC talks on a couple of long-suffering friends. If they don’t warm to the subject or the substance, I think again. More often than not, my friends save me from myself and I write a better talk. This year, I barely had two talks in me to add to the hour-long lecture that was actually on the programme schedule. Here, then, is the open-mic talk I didn’t give. As a five-minute spot, it has three problems that no reasonable rework could fix:

1. A golden rule of satire is that punching up is good; punching down is bad. Parody works only if the audience agrees that the target is deserving. Two hundred strangers with no prior context are unlikely to appreciate this talk. I’d just be sitting on a stage, punching myself.

2. There are too many ideas here to weave something neat over the space of five minutes. There’s a precis of Tahmima’s book, a satire of her affectations, a critique of the wasted opportunities taken by her angle of attack, and a little swipe at her complicity in the archetypal story. It’s tightly written but at least three minutes too long already, and might do with being longer still.

3. It’s a ROLI talk. To quote a friend, the institution has been ‘living rent-free in my head’ for three years now, and this is the last part of the eviction process. Most of my former colleagues have moved on, and I want to be like them.

I’m publishing this anyway, warts and all. It’s the best review I could write. I’ll tidy it up when I understand how.

The talk

I remember the first time I met Cyrus, when we were both at school. He was the precocious one so we didn’t talk much. But since then I’ve become a feminine icon. I’m not just brilliant at doing science and code, but also at being empathetic, making biryani, and winning arguments.

You can’t fully grasp how amazing I’ve become — how very intelligent and driven and incredible — unless you’re almost as clever as me. You’re not. So it helps that I have an endless queue of strangers come up to me and tell me how great I am, again and again and again.

In today’s world, scientists are vital to public life, like writers reading their serialised novels on Radio Four. If I fail to turn up to work one morning, it’s because somebody of either gender has been hypnotised by my brilliance, and is manifesting their new love for me with bestial physicality. Right now, it’s the turn of cipher — er — Cyrus.

‘You’re awesome,’ I say to Cyrus, as he holds me with his blue eyes, in his manly arms, and largely responsible for developing the AI in our company’s core technology.

‘And you’re so brilliant, Asha. And really important and prestigious. Like a combination of Leonardo da Vinci, the Pope, and Sir Simon Rattle.’

At that moment, Jules walked in: Cyrus’s best friend. He’s gay and eats animals, so he isn’t Jules from ROLI at all. Psych! The day that this Jules came out to his absurdly wealthy parents, they disowned him. Brutally, he ended up with the keys to their least favourite house in New England, a substantial monthly allowance, and regular invitations to their place in the Hamptons. Cut from their lives.

‘Miss anything, did I?’ asked Jules.

‘Just foreshadowing rich white men and their money, about to ruin everything!’ I said.

Cyrus and I were quickly married. He invented the wedding ceremony from various pieces of cultural bric-à-brac that make him look worldly. Oh, I don’t know: the Tibetan Book of the Dead narrated by Alan Bennett with costumes from Return of the Jedi. That’ll do.

‘Hey,’ said Jules, reading my internal monologue to save time. ‘I was thinking that we could use AI to invent all kinds of ceremonies. Middle-class people like us, but less sexy, could buy custom-made rituals whenever they needed them.’

‘We’d take culture from all over the world, use a questionnaire to smash it all together, and render the shattered remains into ceremonies that resemble a Sunday Times lifestyle photoshoot. I mean: take a trust-fund New Age Traveller with a house on the Heath. They’re desperate for a connection to something higher, as long as it involves either buying or selling stuff and then bragging about it. Yurts. Annual trips to bazaars in developing countries. Mindfulness consultants. Steamed vegan milk. Pretending to read Ayn Rand.’

Cyrus ran with the thought. ‘Asha can totally make an app that does that in a week by scraping Wikipedia, and then asking me to type everything I know about Hinduism into Excel.’ ‘Yeah,’ I shrugged. ‘AI is a piece of cake when you happen to be a genius.’ The previous afternoon I had finished a program that imbues machines with profundity and wistfulness. I played Chet Baker to a factory robot and watched it shed a tear.

‘I’ve been noticing how brilliant and strong and right you are, Asha.’ said Jules. ‘Like a combination of Garry Kasparov, Emmeline Pankhurst, and Dame Thora Hird. Now, Cyrus and I are going to fade out of the narrative for a bit, to raise some capital and propel us into our second act.’

Switching to the present tense to convey urgency, I hire Yuta from ROLI but change his name to Ren. In my story, he’s just a nerd so remains entirely one-dimensional. After changing the background colour of our website for the seventeenth time, Ren looks up. ‘Sorry: miles away. Did I miss anything?’

‘Just clumsy exposition.’ I say. ‘We’re about to uproot the eternal quest for meaning from its cultural foundations, and subtract human agency. Nothing can go wrong.’

Between mouthfuls of pulled pork banh mi, Jules announces: ‘Of course, we need to own everything: the algorithm, the platform, the ceremonies; whatever our users share.’

‘But, nobody really owns software or data, do they?’ I actually say, on page 79, having spent the most formative decade of my adult life working in the most marketable field of study on earth. ‘It’s only ones and zeros!’

Cyrus’s gorgeous eyes flash. ‘Let’s not waste ink describing how a technology company might actually make money. But there are many great places we could go with this scenario. I mean …’

Jules interrupts: ‘What happens when we train an AI, aim it at needy people with a hankering for meaning, and demand that it supplies them an exponentially-increasing volume of instant purpose? The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg. Only this time, in our hubris, we’ve fed it its own eggs, and then laboured it to death. Our product burns out amid forces both sinister and banal. With nothing to show for it, and nothing to redeem us.’

Cyrus, our walking textbook, pauses for thought: ‘Nah, Roland’s trying to get breakfast with Nick Clegg. Don’t go off-message about the metaverse. Maybe our story could focus on the fate of a small religious sect? We could pose the question about what authenticity means in a world governed and mediated by vested interests.’

‘Or,’ says Jules, ‘We solve the problem of authenticity for our users but, even as we produce good monthly figures, the mission backfires. Our wildest material dreams come true, but we learn to despise them, and that ultimately pulls us apart. While trying to deliver something truthful to the wider world, we retreat from our own sources of truth and lose sight of who we are.’

‘It’s an old story,’ I muse. ‘We could give it a twist of zeitgeist. But I’ve just been for a walk around Foyles, and I suspect that the world really needs another book where a woman of colour rails against rich white men.’

Jules eats the last crumb of his bacon sandwich. ‘Fantastic! Reorient the whole thing around a doomed attempt to smash the patriarchy! You would find yourself patronised in the boardroom, marginalised at the moment of your greatest triumph, and ultimately exiled from your creation.’

‘Jonestown meets The Apprentice.’ I say. ‘With a chance to use the word ‘hegemony’ in interviews! Although I’m getting a weird sense of déjà vu, as if I’ve visited all that upon someone else before. But how do I end the novel?’

Jules thinks for a while. ‘How about: With barely any provocation, Cyrus metamorphoses from a sensitive and gentle spouse into a self-absorbed, tantrum-prone bully. On page 254 he’s still agonising about money’s propensity to poison and corrupt. By page 256, he’s weaponised high-denomination banknotes like a Russian at the Old Bailey.’

I nod vigorously. ‘And it all ends badly. And I’m right all along. And Cyrus is mired in nemesis, wanting me but realising that I’ll always be too good for him.’

An uncomfortable silence is shattered at last by Cyrus. ‘You’re … You’re going to break my character, just so you can rant about how all men are contemptible bastards? In that case, I’ve got a suggestion. Before you type all those clever words with your pretty little fingers, be a poppet and mop the kitchen. There’s a fat slice of coke waiting for me at the Groucho, and it can’t snort itself.’

Knit your own head tracker

As we all know, Knitwear is an anagram of IT wanker. But a friend of mine, of the former rather than the latter persuasion, has made it her mission to master industrial knitting. The appeal of this seems to be that it is equal parts art, programming, production engineering, and swearing at machinery that contains tiny moving parts which require regular maintenance. This is all eerily familiar. I am about to showcase two of her masterworks.

The first is a head tracker. It’s 20:1 scale (about 5 inches wide, and four metres long) and is based on Supperware’s flex-rigid printed circuit board.

See how far you can zoom in to the home-made mosaic image. Banana for scale.

It’s a scarf!

It’s a banner for the support group we put together to keep the product in production!

It’s a perfect centrepiece for a very specific seasonal feast!

If you want a head tracker scarf, we’ll sell them. Really! (If you want one that isn’t a scarf, go to our other site.)

The second thing that needs a special mention, although it gets one in a soon-to-be-published ADC21 talk for which I wore it with pride, is T-shirt with a pocket. The pocket encapsulates my golden rule about starting a hardware business, and subverts an omnipresent brand in the process.

We mean it.

Here at Supperware Ltd, we embrace the hypocrisy of embedding a warning not to manufacture objects into a manufactured object. It’s our thing. Our daily exercise — mine, yours, and all healthy people — is to shrug and contemplate the absurdity of the human condition.

ADC 2021 Lightning Talk : 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.