Monday, October 31, 2022

Special Places

Oil painting of a cafe scene by Edouard Manet. Man at table with top hat in the foreground. Waitress drinking behind him. Another woman in the distance in the background.Source: from Google Art Project and on display in Walters Art Museum.
At the Café by Edouard Manet from the Google Arts & Culture via Wikipedia

Los Alamos, SRI’s Augmentation Research Center (ARC), Café Guerbois at the beginning of Impressionism. For the right person, each was a special place. What must it have been like to be at Los Alamos with Fermi, Feynman, and others for the Manhattan Project? Or to be at the Augmentation Research Center for the development of the future of personal computing including the mouse, the graphical user interface, and video conferencing (culminating in the Mother of All Demos)? Or to be in the Café Guerbois with Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, and others for the birth of Impressionism? Just imagine the ideas and excitement that must have been in the air in each place.

You cannot go to any of those places today. Sure, there’s still a research lab at Los Alamos and the ideas of ARC are everywhere. But those exciting, special times are in the past. Special places don’t just exist in a place, they also exist in a time. It is easy to mourn that these special places no longer exist. I think this is misguided. Instead, we should celebrate that they ever existed!

What Is A Special Place

It is easy to come up with examples of special places, but harder to define what they are in a useful way. It’s tempting to use the porn rule (you know it when you see it). I think we can do better than that and can determine some common features of special places, even if we do not come up with a precise definition.

First and foremost, a special place brings great people together. Without great people, none of my examples would have amounted to anything interesting. Wonderful things can happen when you collect exceptional people in one place.

But a collection of exceptional people is not sufficient to create a special place. For example, academic conferences often bring together exceptional people, but they usually don’t bring them together for long enough to do something extraordinary. Special places bring great people together for an extended period of time so that they can do something extraordinary.

I posit that to bring extraordinary people together for an extended period of time and to do something incredible, you need a common purpose. Los Alamos and the Manhattan project are a poster child for shared purpose, but so are the Impressionist meetings in Café Guerbois or the ARC.

Not only is purpose needed, but the group and purpose have to exist at the right time. For example, the Manhattan project could not have succeeded without our increased understanding of atomic physics from the previous decade. You cannot split an atom if you don’t understand that an atom has a dense nucleus consisting of protons and neutrons.

A Funeral Should Be A Celebration

None of my examples of special places still exist in the same way they did. Yes, there’s still a lab in Los Alamos, but the lab today is not the same as the special place I described above. The ARC and the Café Guerbois no longer exist except in history.

We have a way of remembering someone who has passed; it’s called a funeral. Funerals are often sad, somber affairs, but they don’t have to be. Part of my heritage is Irish, so I’ve been to multiple Irish wakes and funerals. While there is sadness for our loss, the room is usually filled with laughter as people tell stories about the deceased. Yes, we mourn, but we also celebrate the life lived and we celebrate that we were able to be a part of that life.

We should treat the passing of special places the same way: We should celebrate that the special place ever existed, the advances it produced, and that we were able to be a part of it in some way. Special places are rare. So many things need to go right for a special place to exist. It is a wonderful thing whenever a special place comes into being.

My Two Experiences With Special Places

I have been blessed to be a part of two special places: IBM Research and MongoDB.

I joined IBM Research after completing my PhD. I worked with some amazing people who had done incredible things. Some highlights from my time at IBM Research include meeting and talking to Fran Allen (Turing Award winner and inventor of the optimizing compiler), Bob Dennard (inventor of DRAM, Dennard Scaling Law), and Dick Garwin (designed the first hydrogen bomb, and generally went around IBM being brilliant). Fran, Bob, and Dick were all still working at IBM when I joined and they had done their greatest work within IBM Research (h-bomb excluded).

Here’s the thing – all that work was done in an earlier era of IBM Research. There was still cool work being done when I was there (e.g., Blue Gene supercomputer), and the key people were still around, but IBM Research was already a different place than that special place that created those incredible innovations.

By the time I joined, IBM Research was an echo of its previous glory. Still, I was blessed to experience that echo and work with those brilliant people. However, others had a different experience. Some of my colleagues had worked at IBM Research during its heyday and ever since. They knew they had lost something special. Some of them were bitter or frustrated over the loss. They started their careers in a truly special place, but they were ending their career in a lesser (but still interesting) place.

Those colleagues were focused on their loss. They should have focused on celebrating that they were part of something special in the history of humanity.

Now, I work at MongoDB. When I joined, the company had less than 400 employees, was privately held, and had grand ambitions. We had the beginnings of a revolutionary database, but not all the features or stability needed for a database. The CTO and co-founder was brilliant and he knew he needed a lot of good people to build out this new database.

There was so much possibility, so many problems ripe to be solved, and so many great people in a supportive environment. It was a wonderful and terrifying place to join. For my part, I helped build (from scratch), a world class performance testing infrastructure (for example, see this, this, and this) from essentially nothing. Others built out the missing features or built fundamentally new things (e.g., transactions, Database as a Service, Queryable Encryption,…). We regularly had time set aside to work on side projects, we had internal hackathons, and we had yearly off-sites for all of engineering at waterparks. I got to know and work with many brilliant and kind people.

I still work at MongoDB and I think MongoDB is still a special place, but it’s already a different special place than the one I just described and I originally joined. How could it not be? Over 8 years MongoDB has grown by more than 10x, became a public company, and filled in all the basic features required of a database. Many people use MongoDB for large scale production workloads that are critical to their businesses.

Put another way, MongoDB is a real product and database; it’s no longer just the potential for something real. And it’s not just a database either. It has added a suite of related products including a database as a service offering, and is now expanding into being a platform for developers.

The company is larger and the software is more mature, but there are still many interesting challenges to face, and many brilliant people to work with. If anything, there are a lot more brilliant people now because we have the space, capacity, and resources to address the next level of questions. We continue many of our special traditions, such as our internal hackathons, and adjust others that we’ve grown too large for (e.g., we have too many people for the waterparks). As MongoDB continues to grow, I hope it continues evolving as a special place for as long as it can.

Special Places Contain The Seeds Of Their Own End

However, MongoDB will not remain a special place forever, just as Los Alamos, ARC, and the Café Guerbois are no longer the special places they once were. Special places are dynamic things, in which extraordinary people are brought together at the right time and with the right purpose. They exist for a reason. There’s some potential or problem in the air that is ripe for addressing. If the special place is successful, it grabs that potential or solves that problem. However, with the problem solved, the motivating reason goes away. It may be replaced with another, but then it’s a different place.

If the special place is a company or government organization, the place will grow with its success. A 20 person place is fundamentally different than a 200 person place which is fundamentally different than a 2000 person place. The dynamics are completely different. So, even if a special place holds on to its reason for being, its success will completely transform the interactions and structure of the special place.

Eventually, every successful special place will come to its end, through some combination of solving its defining problem and growing into something unrecognizable from where it started.

A special place can try to delay the date of its end through reinvention. It can continue to bring in more great people, update its purpose and goals to align to current opportunities, and adjust how all those people work together. It may successfully delay its end for an extended period of time, but eventually it will meet its end.

Celebrate The Special Places

While the end of a special place is inevitable, its end should not be sad. We should celebrate that each and every special place had a chance to exist in the first place and graced us all with something wonderful. If you are lucky enough to be a part of a special place, even for a short period, you should be extra grateful for that experience.

I know that I am. I am grateful for my experience in the echo of IBM Research’s heyday. I was exposed to wonderful people and ideas because of it. I am grateful that I was able to join MongoDB as it moved from an idea with potential into something real, and I am grateful that I now get to continue working on the challenges of a scaling company with a product that is used widely. As my friend Eoin put it “MongoDB is the best place I’ve worked”. I hope that I continue to get to work at special places – I will search for them. And I will celebrate each and every one of them.

Special thanks to my friend and colleague Eoin Brazil for reviewing this post and for our discussions on the subject. The examples in this piece were particularly improved from his feedback. 


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