kottke.org posts about James Somers

Play-companies and the value of a hard day's workJun 11 2013

James Somers, writer and web developer, ponders the value of the work that he does.

I have a friend who's a mechanical engineer. He used to build airplane engines for General Electric, and now he's trying to develop a smarter pill bottle to improve compliance for AIDS and cancer patients. He works out of a start-up 'incubator', in an office space shared with dozens of web companies. He doesn't have a lot of patience for them. 'I'm fucking sick of it,' he told me, 'all they talk about is colours.'

Web start-up companies are like play-companies. They stand in relation to real companies the way those cute little make-believe baking stations stand in relation to kitchens.

Take Doormates, a failed start-up founded in 2011 by two recent graduates from Columbia University whose mission was to allow users 'to join or create private networks for buildings with access restricted to only building residents'. For that they, too, raised $350,000. You wonder whether anyone asked: 'Do strangers living in the same building actually want to commune? Might this problem not be better solved by a plate of sandwiches?' (The founders have since moved on to 'Mommy Nearest', an iPhone app that points out mom-friendly locations around New York.)

A lot of the stuff going on just isn't very ambitious. 'The thing about the advertising model is that it gets people thinking small, lean,' wrote Alexis Madrigal in an essay about start-ups in The Atlantic last year. 'Get four college kids in a room, fuel them with pizza, and see what thing they can crank out that their friends might like. Yay! Great! But you know what? They keep tossing out products that look pretty much like what you'd get if you took a homogenous group of young guys in any other endeavour: Cheap, fun, and about as worldchanging as creating a new variation on beer pong.'

Winning at the game of moneyMay 10 2011

James Somers noticed that his equity derivative-trading roommate was the only one of his young professional friends who comes home from work "buoyant and satisfied", so he accompanied him to work one day to see what his job entailed. Turns out he basically plays video games all day.

A trader's job is to be smarter than the market. He converts a mess of analysis and intuition into simple bets. He makes moves. If his predictions are better than everyone else's, he wins money; if not, he loses it. At every moment he has a crystalline picture of his bottom line, the "P and L" (profit and loss) that determines how much of a bonus he'll get and, more importantly, where he stands among his peers. As my friend put it, traders are "very, very, very competitive." At the end of the day they ask each other "how did you do today?" Trading is one of the few jobs with an actual leaderboard, which, if you've ever been on one, or strived to get there, you'll recognize as being perhaps the single most powerful driver of a gamer's engagement.

That seems to be the core of it, but no doubt there are other game-like features in play here: the importance of timing and tactile dexterity; the clear presence of two abstract levels of attention and activity, one long-term and strategic, the other fiercely tactical, localized in bursts a minute or two long; the need for teams and ceaseless chatter; and so on.

Athleticism and competitiveness are often downplayed when we talk about white collar careers but are essential in many disciplines. Doctors (surgeons in particular) have both those traits, founding a startup company is definitely competitive and can be as physically demanding as running, teachers are standing or walking all day long, and even something like programming requires manual dexterity with the mouse & keyboard and the stamina to sit in a chair paying single-minded attention to a task for 10-12 hours a day. (via @tcarmody)

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