Distributed podcast with Stephen Wolfram

A post about the podcast, mostly, but also a bit of a ramble

Listen to the podcast here: https://distributed.blog/2019/10/03/episode-11-stephen-wolfram/

I typically struggle with podcasts, because my brain doesn’t usually like to sit still. I need something else going on — that might be knitting, drawing, origami, or two dots (on the passive side). During our company townhalls (and our keynotes at our Grand Meetup), I’m spoiled by being able to be fully immersed in the hypertext of the call. That is, we are all on one big Zoom call together, but we have twin Slack channels that we interact in during the call (one for questions, one for chatter). The chatter channel is all the rich meta data from the video call. So podcast, which are “just” talking, feel very grey to me — half hobbled, drained of textural meaning. My mind slides away to more complex challenges, and I realize I have missed half of what was said.

That said, I wished this episode were twice as long, and only partly because I’m star struck by Stephen Wolfram! To me, the most interesting part (which kept me occupied) was the natural curiosity both Matt and Stephen (I feel I should call him Wolfram, but I’m going to go with Stephen) had for the things they were discussing, and the way they shared approaching similar challenges (like hiring). It’s also engaging to hear Stephen talk about how he approaches running his company. It’s similarish to Automattic, but I heard some things that felt pretty divisively different from us. It made me think about how content I am with my role and with this company, even though it can be difficult and frustrating sometimes — it’s worth the angst to be doing what we’re doing (and the angst is pretty minimal, I recharge by doing what I do). It was fun to get confirmation that I’m at the right place (besides not being smart enough to be employed at Wolfram), because hearing Stephen speak makes you want to throw in with him entirely, but hearing more about his company approach is a refreshing check. I don’t think any of it’s bad, by the way, it’s just different and I think there are things that would chafe.

One of the phrases Stephen used to describe his job is “explaining why things aren’t impossible” — isn’t that grand? He does go on to say that he also has to be the one to pull people back when he does know that something isn’t possible, but what a wonderful and joyful concept it is to help reality adapt to your ideas, by redefining what’s not impossible.

Matt and Stephen talked about the relative hiring processes they use, and Matt talked a bit about liking to read cover letters from people (I actually don’t know if he is still able to do this for everyone, but he used to literally read every single application — including both of mine), and that he enjoys seeing what application people use to email, to write their cover letter, what fonts are available, what choices they’re making. Which does sound super interesting! But also, I am embarrassed as hell thinking back to my cover letter and what I have to assume was my flagrant use of Yahoo mail (which I still use and will until one of us dies). Fortunately that was more than 7 years ago, and I clearly still got a shot at being part of all this.

I signed up for Office Hours with Matt a few months ago, and one of the things we talked about was (essentially) that being the best at something is not a static thing. You still need to work to continue growing and understanding what “best” looks like for you, and you’re of course going to be embarrassed by where you were a year ago (if you’re doing it right). There’s a certain danger in feeling like you’re “done” — you almost certainly are not. The whole world is changing all the time, and the thing we do is change along with it. I think probably the people who are the very best at this force change and let the world catch up with them.

Anyway, listen to the podcast, and here’s to being open to curiosity. 🍻

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