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On Left LIbertarianism

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Recently, I self identified as a left libertarian.  I have been asked what a “left libertarian” is.  This is a frequent question by those who associate libertarianism with social conservatism and the right of the single-axis political spectrum.

The following is my personal take on politics, the concepts of libertarianism and essentially “who I am”.  Please understand that others will, of course, define terms differently, depending on how it suits their worldview.  (Words appear to have no absolute meanings in the age of the internet.)

The political spectrum as I understand it

To be able to understand what I mean when I say left libertarianism, some background and terminology need to take place.  The political spectrum is really broken down into three axes.  Social (progressive <-> conservative), economic (laissez faire <-> planned) and intervention (libertarian <-> authoritarian).

Social progressives believe that everyone is equal and we should not be allowed to group people and then discriminate against them.  Discrimination can be in the form of organization, economic isolation, refusal of service or physical or psychological harm.  I am strongly socially progressive, as are most left libertarians.

Social regressives believe that some people are worth more than others and/or that we should have the right to group people and then discriminate against them.  This is a strongly authoritarian view on both the left and the right.  They differ mainly on who they’d like to be the outgroup.

Authoritarians – whether left or right – believe that state power should be used to enforce moral beliefs.  This ties in closely with social regression.  Outlaw abortions, outlaw homosexuality, so on and so forth.  The authoritarian left, for example, typically has strong moral beliefs regarding things like GMOs, nuclear power and so forth.

Looks like you've had a little too much to think

Libertarians – whether left or right – believe that the state should interfere in the life of the individual as little as humanly possible.  Libertarians believe that, by and large, people should be allowed to do whatever they want to do

Left libertarians and right libertarians tend to split predominantly upon along economic grounds.  Both groups believe strongly in market economies, but left libertarians believe in regulated markets for some verticals, with state control of certain key industries.  Most right libertarians believe very hard core in Randian laissez faire economics.

Three views of libertarianism

Personally, I view the difference as that between those who believe in evidence-based legislation and regulation and those who believe in an ideologically “pure” form of capitalism that is for all intents and purposes a religion.

There is another form of so-called “right libertarian” that isn’t libertarian at all.  These false right libertarians are actually nothing more than hypocritical authoritarian bigots using the term “libertarian” to refer to freedom only for the group with which they self-identify.

These false right libertarians are violently against anyone interfering in their lives or telling them what to do, but demand the “right” to dictate what others may/may not do.  The classic example is the individual who protests the building of a mosque but rallies to demand Christian prayers be said every day in school.  Or the individual who protests against public social services for children but demands women not have the right to an abortion.

Believing in “one rule for us, another for them” isn’t libertarianism.  It is bigotry and authoritarianism.

My own beliefs

As a left libertarian I believe that some services are “natural monopolies” that can only be provided either by the state, or by the free market in the context of a heavily regulated environment.  These would include things like national defense, fire protection, education, utilities (power/heat/telecommunications) food (see: lethal pet food, poisoned baby food, etc), parks and recreation, social security/basic income and health care.

We pay taxes and we receive these services.  We also pay taxes to ensure oversight and regulation in areas commerce where industry has proven they are willing to overlook externalities in their business model.  These include things like environmental regulation.  (Not poisoning our drinking water is usually good, and not something industry has a history of giving fvcks about.)

Here is the field in which I grow my fvucks. Look upon it and see that it is barren

In essence, the “left” part of left libertarianism means that I understand important concepts like The Prisoner’s Dilemma, The Tragedy Of The Commons and that both corporations and individuals are not rational actors in an economic sense.  (The myth of “enlightened self interest” is just that.)

Thus the existence of a social contract whereby we voluntarily surrender part of our individual freedom – in the form of taxes – in order to receive a greater benefit collectively than we could ever achieve through individual irrational investment and uncoordinated selfishness.  (My hobby: getting a bunch of left libertarians together so we can all argue about what parts of that social contract are required.)

What sets me (and other left libertarians) apart from other “leftists” is that I emphatically and overwhelmingly believe that, where not absolutely necessary for the state to intervene, the state should keep its nose out of all of our business.  I don’t believe the state should be used to force others to comply with a particular group’s moral beliefs.  Regardless of the group.

Let’s look at some examples.

The war on drugs: taken in moderation, many – if not most – illicit substances have benefits for the majority of people.  The problem, however, is that they can do very bad things to a minority.  Education – not prohibition – is the answer here.  Portugal has proven this.  America’s prison system has shown what happens under the prohibition model.

Censorship: this is a complicated topic.  For the most part, I believe in freedom of speech.  The big exception is incitement of violence.  At some point speech does become a very real and present threat to public safety and action should be taken.  In accordance with my libertarian view speech should be pretty extreme before the state steps in to censor it.  Extreme enough that even in nations of a billion people (such as India) they can be handled on a case-by-case basis.

Insurance: Insurance is an example not a lot of people think about when talking about libertarianism, but it serves as a great example of where different interpretations can and do clash.  For the right libertarian the ideological purity of unregulated capitalism holds primacy, so they would allow insurance companies to discriminate based on gender, etc.  As a left libertarian, I believe that equality holds primacy and thus accept regulation of the insurance industry to ensure everyone is treated equally.

Spying: I believe governments shouldn’t spy on their people.  Nor on the civilian population of allies.  Too often has this sort of power been used not to protect against existential threats such as terrorism, but to seek out political dissidents and silence them.  The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.  That vigilance is not the burden of the state, seeking to protect its own power, but the burden of the individual to protect against the undue expansion and misuse of state power.

Removing planks from the house of privacy to build the fence of false security

I could go on for quite some time, but I think you get the drift.

Thoughts on localism

Government encroachment on individuals is arguably more impactful the smaller you go.  The condo board has a greater chance of interfering in your daily life than the federal government.  Similarly, the condo board is far more likely to be interested in what you, personally, are up to than would be your federal government.

Here – as with anywhere else – the discussion is one of balance between the common good and the rights of the individual.

For example, it is rational and supported by evidence that laws exist requiring individuals and corporations to shovel any public sidewalks on their property within X hours of a snowfall.  This is a clear health and safety issue.  Left unchecked, unshoveled walks become icy and dangerous.

Part of the social contract is that we give up our “right” to be lazy douchecanoes and shovel our walks for the common good.  There are other possible ways this social contract could be handled.  Taxes for shoveling could be levied communally and all public walks be handled by the municipality.

What is irrational and not backed by evidence is a social policy of leaving the walks unshoveled, or leaving it up to the individual to shovel “if they feel like it”.  Such a social policy would also be highly discriminatory.  While young, wealthy and able-bodied individuals might be able to afford the right clothing and tools to safely navigate a city of unshoveled walks, a significant percentage of the population could not.

Thus a minor surrender of individual liberty (a requirement to shovel walks or the paying of taxes to have them shoveled) results in greater liberty for the majority and prevents an unacceptable instance of “one rule for us, another rule for them”.

A converse example is that of condo board regulations against air conditioners.  Most cities have laws about volume levels emanating from individual properties.  X decibels until 11pm, for example, and then Y decibels until 8am.  Assuming that these laws were implemented as the result of a rational and evidence-based approach then condo boards should have no call to ban air conditioners that do not breach these laws as there is no evidence to support a rational appeal for restricting the individual for the common good.

Despite this, almost all condo boards claim the right to control the installation of air conditioners.  Some will allow you your air conditioner if you “get permission”.  The granting of this permission is all to often arbitrary and rational for denial or acceptance unevenly applied.  This is abuse of power.

Some condo boards will simply allow no air conditioners at all, though not because of noise regulation; they instead use aesthetics as a rationale.

All of these condo board examples are what I would consider unacceptable infringements upon individual liberty, despite the fact that they are occurring from the most local source of extra-household authority I can think of.  Locality doesn’t guarantee fairness, justice, equality or even that the individual has an equal (or any) say.

The condo board example was picked deliberately because it is a controversial edge case.  When we buy a condo we are presumed to be fully aware of the rules.  If the rules are put in place we are presumed to have a say in the creation of those rules.

Anyone who has bought into a condo and lived with the arbitrary rulemaking and enforcement typical of such entities will know that both full initial disclosure on purchase and ability to affect the creation/enforcement of rules are actually rarely true.

The very personal scope of impact combined with the statistical likelihood of both mild corruption and a lack of any effective oversight make condo boards a great place to stop and ponder about the level of regulatory intervention in the lives of individuals that is acceptable.

Skeptical child smoking a pipe.

As you might expect, a narrative that points out the susceptibility of local regulatory bodies to overreach doesn’t play well with the false “right libertarians” who are actually bigoted authoritarians.   These frequently champion localism blindly specifically because it allows the creation of enclaves of exclusion.

False right libertarians view keeping outgroups away from them and the places they want to be as an important part of their personal liberty and thus typically demand the ability to discriminate and restrict others based upon local legislation.

The localism issue is also a point of contention for true right libertarians.  They are typically very much against government interference in the life of the individual.  Yet part of what they view as the rights of the individual is the right to voluntarily form groups, cliques and so forth that decide what the rules of everyday life are going to be.

Unfortunately, in reality, we don’t all get to choice which groups we’re part of and thus the rules to which we are subject.  This is what causes me depart from the own-group-centric view of right libertarians.

The right to choose

As a left libertarian, I am sympathetic to the right libertarian viewpoint, but also bear in mind the rights of those who don’t get to choose.

The false right libertarian concerns himself with the idea that your right to swing ends at the tip of his nose.

The true right libertarian believes that not only does your right to swing ends at the tip of his nose, but that his right to swing ends at the tip of your nose.

The left libertarian believes that not only are our rights to swing bounded by the tips of one another’s noses, but also concerns himself with the fact most of us don’t have a say in the rules, regulations and laws under which we live.

As this discussion is about my own beliefs, I will use myself as an example.  I am a Canadian.  I did not choose to be a Canadian.  My nationality, citizenship, all of its attendant laws, social contracts, international perceptions and more were thrust upon me.

I was born in the city of Edmonton, Alberta, and I have never been in a position where I could live anywhere else.  I have never had the money to move.  If I wanted a job (generally considered requisite to reliably obtain shelter and food so as to survive our winters) I had to get an education, and ultimately a car.  This required crushing debt that I am still paying.

I did not vote for the people who created Canada’s constitution, nor the overwhelming majority of our laws.  I had no say in the creation of the regulations and so forth that govern much of my life.

If I do not obey these laws, then I will be fined or even ordered to jail.  If I don’t pay the fines or I refuse to voluntarily go to jail then people with guns will give me a choice: go to jail or die.  I live under laws imposed upon me under threat of death.

What is important to remember is that those who come after me will also live under laws imposed upon them under threat of death.  Laws that my decisions will affect.  Whether those decisions be action (such as voting, protesting, agitating, etc) or apathy, my choices have played will play a role in creating or affirming laws.  Or, through apathy, simply not altering the extant.

The importance of apathy cannot be overstated.  I firmly believe that – politically, at least – silence is consent.  Choosing not to speak out when confronted with the unethical, corrupt, egregious or atrocious is to condone those acts.  The future is shaped at least in part through our acts of will.

Homer fiddling on an ipad while the plant melts down

Currently, this idea of the rule of law is the most stable society we know of, so it is unlikely to change any time in the next several generations.  While it is easy to chafe at the restrictions imposed by this societal structure, we also bear the burden of responsibility for shaping the regulatory environment of the future.

I thusly concern myself with electing people who will agitate for the lowest possible number of laws.  I strive for laws that will intrude as little as possible into our lives while still bearing in mind that those laws impact not only myself and people “like me”, but everyone to whom they apply.

We will never make perfect laws.  We will never find the perfect balance.  We can never perfectly predict the future.  The best we can do is use a strongly rational and evidence-based approach and hope that we get it right most of the time.  Science, logic, evidence and compassion are the best tools we currently have at our disposal.

Equality and evidence then are key.  For myself to feel that laws are just, but also so that the legacy I am creating is fair, just and honest.  Freedom for me and for thee; today and forever more.

That is what it means – to me at least – to be a left libertarian.

On Canada’s future

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Canada is considering replacing it’s current First Past The Post electoral system with some form of proportional representation. The topic is, to say the least, controversial. I have some thoughts.

Political Background

A consultation process has been put together to provide a recommendation to the current Liberal government who will then either choose to implement that recommendation, or not. The Conservative party is agitating for a referendum before a proportional representation system is put into place. The Liberals are unwilling to commit to a referendum.

If proportional representation is passed the Conservative party – but not necessarily conservatives – lose out.  A referendum on the topic is the last ditch hope of the Conservatives to preserve the First Past The Post system, and they will do anything to avoid any form of proportional representation.

Traditionally I have been a very strong believer in referendums. I certainly wanted them for a lot of the legislation the Harper government forced upon us, however, the Conservatives were vociferously and vehemently against referendums whilst in power.  Now a referendum is their best change to obtain and retain power in the future.

This, right here, is the crux of the whole debate. The electoral system we choose determines who gets into power.

If the politics of 21st century Western nations can be said to be have a single shining thread it is one of stark – and increasingly violent – partisan polarization. Once a party gets power compromise is verboten, and those who voted for other parties simply do not get representation.

It is easy to look to the United States’ gridlocked congress and see any number of politicians acting like spoilt children. Tantrums occur regularly and threats of “shutting down the government” through inaction are the new normal.

The political equivalent of holding one’s breath until they pass out, however, is not a uniquely American approach to governance. The iron fist and the terrible twos are political duopoly of the now in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the UK, France, the Netherlands, etc. Pull on that thread and you can unravel the tapestry of any Western nation.

Cons

Moving away from First Past The Post potentially changes which groups of individuals receive how much representation dramatically. Canada’s current system massively over-represents people in rural areas.

Around 20% of Canadians live in rural areas. Around 45% of Canadians live in urban agglomerations of more than 1 million people. That leaves 35%-ish of people in urban areas of less than 1 million people.

Between 25% and 30% of the Canadian population is estimated to so hard core a Conservative voter that, if you painted a pig blue and ran it in the election they’d vote it in to office. This statistic is actually really consistent across most western nations, with the exception of the US and Australia.

By and large rural voters vote Conservative. More to the point, most of them form the hard core of the conservative base: staunch and intractable social conservatives. Let’s call a spade a spade and say that the % of non-conservative rural voters is functionally a rounding error and that 20% of that 25%-30% of hard core conservative voters is rural.

The percentage of intractable core Conservative voters among individuals in urban agglomerations has been estimated at less than 5% of the urban agglomeration population, and that’s pretty much all in Calgary. We’ll call that 2.5% of the total Canadian population.

That leaves between 2.5% and 7.5% of the Canadian population who live in urban areas of less than 1 million people as the unmovable block of Conservative voters. In other words, the more rural you get, the more Conservative you get. Common knowledge, perhaps, but the statistics matter in this debate.

In today’s First Past The Post system 39% of the votes, if they’re the right votes, will get you 55% of the seats and 100% of the power.

If proportional representation of a % of the vote = % of the seats = % of the power system is adopted, then the Conservative party can no longer be assured of 100% of the power by moving towards the center only enough to convince 9% of Canadians that they’re the party likely to do the least amount of damage.

Under proportional representation if the conservatives what iron glove-levels of absolute power they will have to adopt more moderate views, and that risks severely alienating their socially conservative base. The conservative party is not monolithic. It has split before (remember the Reform party) and it threatens to do so again on a regular basis. (See: Conservatives and Wild Rose in Alberta.)

Why proportional representation?

Dispensing with political correctness (personal blogs are great that way), the reason that proportional representation is required is that the 20% of the population not living in cities don’t get to wield so much power that get to dictate what the 80% of women who live in cities can do with their bodies. I’m sorry if that’s a little forward, but after so much theoretical talk, a practical example is required.

By the same token, I’m pretty sure city folk have no business telling rural folk they can’t own guns.  Tyranny of the majority is no more acceptable than tyranny of the minority.  The balancing act is what we call politics.

Done right, proportional representation has a very beneficial side effect: it forces compromise. Ruling unopposed with an iron fist requires actually convincing the majority of a nation to elect you. In a Westminster-based multi-party parliamentary democracy that’s not exactly easy, and good luck to you with that in Canada.

Change happens slower, but to be perfectly blunt about it, that’s fine. The irresponsible overgrown children we keep electing to misgovern us end up having a significant portion of their lawmaking undone by the courts anyways, making the heedless rush to foist unconstitutional social change pointless expensive anyways.

Taking the extra time to make sure that laws will pass legal muster and don’t alienate over half the nation is a good thing, and something we are only likely to get from an electoral system that makes minority governments the likely outcome.

Why not proportional representation?

The biggest reason not to desire proportional representation is that huge chunks of Canada have almost nobody in them. What about those ridings up north with less than 100,000 people that get their own Minister of Parliament? Do their voices disappear?

Rural voters also deserve to be heard. You or I may disagree greatly with their views, but they are human beings and they deserve a voice in their government. Their beliefs deserve to be considered, and their struggles, failures, problems and triumphs all deserve just as much airtime in parliament as that of any other Canadian.

Cross purposes

The problem nobody wants to talk about is that minority groups aren’t represented by today’s system. When was the last time parliament really gave a bent damn about what happens in the Territories?

How many Canadians know about the horrors our government visited upon indigenous peoples through the Residential Schools system? Did you know that the last Residential School didn’t close until 1996>? Or that the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement wasn’t agreed to until 2005 and that our government didn’t apologize until 2008?

Okay, so it’s easy to point at indigenous peoples and say they’re marginalized. A whole lot of Canadians really don’t care about that, hence why they’re marginalized. But the system not serving minorities hasn’t exactly been doing wonders for the white rural voters either!

The whole reason that the Reform party came into existence – and why it keeps threatening to re-emerge – is that rural voters regularly feel they aren’t adequately represented by the Conservative party. And the truth of it is, they’re right!

25%-30% of the population being hard-core social conservative is between 14% and 9% shy of actually being able to form a majority government under First Past the Post and pass whatever laws you want. They don’t get to run things unless they convince others to vote with them.

Those 25%-30% of hard-line conservatives, however, by dint of refusing to ever vote for anyone except the most conservative party don’t actually matter. The only people that matter to whichever Conservative party happens to be dominant is the 9%-14% of voters necessary to gain power. The 25%-30% can be functionally ignored because they aren’t going anywhere.

These are some uncomfortable truths, by the are the real power dynamics that underpin our current electoral system. Having a few MPs for the territories doesn’t get those people representation. They’ve been ignored for ages and will continue to be unless something changes. Similarly, rural voters will continue to be taken for granted unless something changes.

That something is proportional representation.

Minorities represent!

In a proportional representation system minorities become kingmakers. Many on both sides view this as a bad thing; who wants those holding a political view in extreme opposition to theirs to be a “kingmaker”? In truth, however, this isn’t a bad thing.

There are a couple of ways minorities hold power in proportional representation. The first is minority governments. Minority governments don’t have enough votes to make law. Thus they have to find allies in independent members of parliament or with other parties. These alliances can change on an issue-to-issue or topic-to-topic basis.

Coalitions are another way this can work. In a coalition two or more parties agree at the formation of the legislature that they will hammer out a mutual agenda and govern as one. This usually leads to “horse trading”, where party platform items are negotiated amongst the parties in the coalition until an agreed upon set of laws for the term is reached.

Like any good compromise, both minority governments and coalitions result in combinations of laws that nobody really likes, but everyone can live with.

Ultimately, that’s politics. Canada is never going to be a socially conservative unrestricted free market paradise. It isn’t going to be a libertarian utopia or a socialist heaven either. Canada will always be a set of compromises made by the people who live – and lived – within her borders in the hopes that we can all live decent lives and not kill each other over ideological divisions.

Mixed Member Proportional

Some argue that Canada should adopt a Mixed Member Proportional solution which would, in essence, layer a number of new parliamentarians over the existing system. This would allow for individual ridings to elect a member based on a First Past The Post system and one or more representatives from a larger constituency.

In theory this allows small ridings to be represented by someone who, in theory, represents their local needs, cares about the same things they care about and will vote on their behalf. By adding a number of new representatives in much larger proportional constituencies votes from any one region could theoretically look more like the actual vote distribution.

This won’t work.

First off, Mixed Member Proportional will merely increase the number of representatives without really addressing anyone’s concerns. Amidst the much larger parliament those small local voices will be signal lost in the noise.

More the point, Mixed Member Proportional ignores the fact that, without parliamentary reforms that remove the right of party leaders to force MPs to vote along party lines, local MPs are useless. On the rare occasion they dissent against their party they get kicked out and their riding gerrymandered so that they won’t get re-elected.

Speaking of gerrymandering…it’s a huge problem, and it underlies why most of Canada is clamoring for proportional representation anyways. Gerrymandering is about changing the size and shape of ridings in order to change which party the members of that constituency will vote. Once difficult, in today’s era of Big Data analytics gerrymandering to get exactly the result you want is absurdly easy.

Today it is used to make sure that you can get elected with only that 39% of the right voices by the Conservatives, and to try to stretch that number out a bit by everyone else. It is frequently scrutinized and you can only tweak the numbers so much before people scream.

Under Mixed Member Proportional, however, all the focus will be on the proportional representatives, leaving the local ridings to get twisted into bizarre and non-representative configurations largely without notice. A minor concern compared to the rest, but a real one nonetheless.

Single Transferrable Vote

This brings us to Single Transferrable Vote. For reasons that would make this already lengthy blog far too long to read many of the existing Single Transferrable Vote systems are dumb and Canada should not adopt them.

Keeping things short, Canada should probably be looking at adopting a Single Transferrable Vote system with constituency sizes that are between 7 and 9 members. This lowers the threshold of votes for a party to elect a member in that constituency and gives small parties – or independents – a better chance of being elected.

Along with this, Canada should probably adopt an open list Single Transferrable Vote system. The reason is simple: open list gives voters more say in the individual MPs that get elected. Closed list leaves that up the party entirely, and local is complicated enough to make my head hurt something fierce.

Canada has a unique opportunity here to learn from the lessons of other nations. We have the option to choose the shape of our future in a very real, very tangible way.

An open list Single Transferrable Vote proportional representation system has the best chance of ensuring that every Canadian – especially the currently underrepresented, underserved and simply taken-for-granted minorities – have a say.

Yes, it will require that Canadians work together to build the future of our nation such that it benefits all of us instead of taking turns trying to thwart the “other side” like petty children. But isn’t that what being Canadian is about?

So let’s do this Canada. For you. For me. For all of us, wherever we live. It’s time to leave the electoral system of the 18th century in the past where it belongs and forge a new system to meet the needs of the 21st. A Canadian system.

The future is right around the corner.

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The Liberal party of Canada (the folks currently in charge) had their annual convention this weekend, and voted on fundamental stuff like “the party constitution”, “what should the party do”, etc.

Amongst other things, it is now party policy that the Liberal Party of Canada implement a Guaranteed Minimum Income strategy in Canada. In fact, from all discussions thus far, it looks like this will be a national implementation of Basic Minimum Income.

In theory, this could/would/should replace all other forms of safety net.  No more need for a government-sponsored pension plan, no more need for welfare, income plans for the disabled/ill/mentally ill/etc.   Every single person in Canada gets enough money from the government to pay rent buy food and so forth.

If you want to live somewhere other than a not very nice place in a not very nice part of town, own a car or other things, you must have a job and supplement the government income.  Progressive taxation will work as per normal and the whole thing should be accomplishable without raising taxes.  (A shocking amount of efficiency is possible when you collapse multiple bloated government departments down to one fairly simple one.)

If implemented, this is world changing.  Literally, actually world changing.  Canada would be the first G7 nation to eliminate poverty within its borders.  I could conceivably live to see social change that I would consider “birth of the federation” class advancement in the fundamental decency of socioeconomic policy.

I can only ask: “what took so ****ing long”?

Faith is the enemy of success

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I realize this is highly impolitic to say, in tech it is a really bad idea to be one of those people who allow their faith to guide their every decision.  Believe whatever you want, but the idea that things will work out “just because”, or because a given group/individual/organization was traditionally (or is currently) dominant is patently absurd.

Faith in this context doesn’t mean simply belief in a deity of some variety.  People – especially in tech – become irrationally attached to corporations.  Especially if employed by them.  This attachment becomes faith, as strong as any religious devotion, and just as irrationally immune to logic or evidence.

Just because Microsoft, for example, traditionally dominated the endpoint market doesn’t mean they will forever.  Indeed, by most calculations Apple (iOS) and Google (Android) have a much higher share of the endpoint market than Microsoft.

In response, Redmondian faithful limit the discussion to only talk about traditional desktops and notebooks, because limiting it to that subset of endpoint means that they can continue to believe they are dominant.  They then use their “dominance” to justify all sorts of upsetting things, ranging from compromising the integrity of the Windows Update mechanism (including the Security Updates portion!) to removing the right to control updates, to obscene VDI licensing.

That this fanboyism persists beyond the corporate borders is even more alarming.  It affects customers, partners, ecosystem developers and, sadly even journalists and analysts.  (In my personal opinion this would include Ed Bott as regards Microsoft and Gartner as regards, for example, NetApp.)

I submit to all present that VMware is purposefully fostering this level of Blind Faith.  They are actively attempting to build it not only amongst the customer base – as would be expected from any current competent marketing outfit – but that they are working exceptionally hard to create such an environment amongst their own staff.

This is a problem.

Staff who are blindly loyal to their organization contribute to corporate hubris.  They are incapable of objectively analysing competitors for threats.  They are also trapped in a logic loop where customer needs equate to the product sold, and nothing more.

For many, the foundation of this loop is that customers continue to buy the product(s) in question.  Sales are taken as validation that all is well and that nothing needs to change.  The concept of “they aren’t customers, they’re hostages” is heresy and can’t seem to be considered directly by the mind of the faithful.

For VMware the result is a company where the majority of their staff are simply unable to conceive that their private/hybrid cloud software is wholly inadequate, both in functionality and in pricing.   The minority that speak up are considered trouble makers.  They are either disciplined or subjected to intense peer pressure to keep quiet.

The same holds true for VSAN.  Dogma says it is adequately priced, superior to all opponents and required no major evolution.  Any new functionality that is added – to VSAN, the cloud suite or anything else – is not due to need, desire or requirement.  It is a “gift” to the customer base, developers and ecosystem partners from VMware.

And if those groups aren’t adequately grateful, VMware will retaliate.

We can change names and products and have this conversation about many organizations.  Oracle comes immediately to mind, and is certainly worse about corporate hubris than VMware.  (Though the argument about who is worse, Oracle or Microsoft, could go on for ages.)

Roadmaps can and do exist at these organizations.  They may even address some or all of the concerns that customers or analysts have.  Unfortunately, once a corporation has reached an adequate level of hubris those roadmaps tend to be too little, too late.

Microsoft, for example, is kicking VMware’s ass at private and hybrid cloud ease of use.  The Azure stack should be viewed by VMware as a screaming klaxon of emergency WTF, but it is functionally ignored at all decision-making levels of the organization.  VMware has their nearly impossible to install, configure, administer and use vRealize suite and since that is seeing horrible uptake, clearly the market for private/hybrid clouds is limited.

Boy are they in for a rude awakening!

Similarly, there are still companies out there – from startups to VMware itself – selling (and pricing) hyperconvergence as though it were a product.  It’s not.  It’s a feature.  And all those many and myriad companies that can’t wrap their minds around it are going to get wrecked in very short order.

The examples are many.  The companies and products and failures I can pick on are many.  But it keeps circling back to one thing:

Faith.

The instant you rely on faith to justify your belief in your company’s inevitable and unending dominance you’re done.  You don’t serve your company because you have lost your objectivity and are thus blind to threats.  When the majority of a company – or even just the majority of charismatic influencers who can bring social pressure to bear – at a company relies on faith the whole of the organization’s fate is sealed.

Leave faith behind when attempting analysis.  Of your own company.  Of your competition.  Of anyone.  If you don’t, you may find that the company to which you’ve dedicated your faith is just another name on the list of “might have beens” that litter the history of tech.

Mindspiders

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We – the collective noun in this case being a vaguely accusatory finger pointed at citizens of the “western world” – are really very bad at talking about mental health issues.  We either come up with slang terms that succumb rapidly to the euphemism treadmill or we misuse clinical terminology that is itself constantly changing in meaning.

What do we mean when we say we are depressed?  Are we talking about an occasional bout of sadness, malaise, or lack of motivation?  Something deeper and more lingering?  Or the clinical view that some part of our brain’s activity is on the less active side of the bell curve?

And what about anxiety?  Anxiety is so complex and interwoven into other mental health issues that I am almost certain nobody experiences it the same or has quite the same triggers.

How many people equate the word schizophrenia with multiple personality disorder?  How many people know that this got renamed to “dissociative identity disorder”?  How many people are aware of the theory of serotonin in creating a “spectrum” of disorders that have the Autism Spectrum Disorders (autism, ADHD, OCD, Depression, Aspergers and so forth) on the one end and Schizophrenia Spectrum Disorders (dissociative identity disorder, borderline personality disorder, psychosis, etc) on the other?  Or the fact that quite a few prominent researchers disagree with the link between the two groups of issues?

Mental health issues are huge, complex, difficult to understand and constantly changing.  Is it any wonder we’re bad at talking about it?

Despite all of this, precision isn’t always necessary when talking about mental health issues. A huge amount of what needs to be said or understood is simply that there is a problem, the individual involved is aware of it and that they either do or do not need help.

Please do not use, machine is filled WITH BEES

Please do not use, machine is filled WITH BEES. (Image stolen from http://syntactician.tumblr.com/post/57788867672/filled-with-vs-full-of)

The specific details of what is wrong on that day might not be known to the sufferer.  Or be something that they can easily describe.  I, personally, am someone who primarily engages in non-linguistic cognition, so converting my internal issues into something that is exacting and precise isn’t always possible for me.  And I’m a writer by trade.

That said, we do need to talk about these issues, and I think abandoning the pretense of precision for a more effective metaphorical approach can and does help in the majority of circumstances.  TO this end, I have created the term “mind spiders”.  (Though this rapidly got concatenated to Mindspiders, capitalised by users to indicate that it is a proper noun…and somehow made all the more terrifying in the process.) Other insects – bees seem like a good choice to some folks – seem to work just as well.  (Personally I like spiders, but I that only adds to the meta of the term Mindspidres and ohlookarabbithole…)

The mental image of a person’s head being filled with spiders does a marvelous job of conveying what many mental health issues feel like, as well as give us many lovely ways to expand upon the terminology to explain what is going on without requiring precision.

If I say “the Mindspiders are unusually active today” you get my drift without a lot of further discussion required.  I’m having a bad day due to an unspecified mental health issue.  If I say “sorry, I’m taking a few minutes out to placate the Mindspiders” you can fairly easily grok that I’m doing something necessary to achieve a more positive state of mental health.

This is an effective form of communication, even if it does inevitably lend itself to some silliness.  In practice, I’ve found that it enabled communication about mental health issues, especially amongst individuals who still have a number of social stigmas and taboos about mental health to work through.

It is important to think not just about what we are attempting to communicate, but how we choose to do it.  We are human.  We aren’t Vulcans or robots.  Sometimes indirection and metaphor make difficult topics easier.

So good luck out there, and don’t let the Mindspiders bite.  Or, if they do, bite the little buggers right back.

On the why of social media

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As I write this blog post, I am a little inebriated.  There is some madness to the method and some method to the madness.  The alcohol occurred as a byproduct of a fairly irrelevant social obligation to a friend, but a long (and probably irritating) rambling conversation with my wife triggered something of a revelation about internet usage for me.

I have a theory about the popularity of social media amongst adults: we use it because we want to talk about the things we think about and care about.  But we want to do so without irritating or offending the people in our real world lives that we care about.

One great example from my own life: I sometimes spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about my high school and college years.  Days of youth and experimentation, drunkenness and wild drama llamas.

I really want to talk to about many of these events and people with others, because I am still to this day fascinated by many of them.  They are sociological puzzles, and my mind likes puzzles.  Why did this person behave like this?  How did they (or didn’t they) change with time?  How did this event 15 years ago contribute to who this person is today?

My wife doesn’t care.  And, to be fair, why should she?  She’s as fascinated by intellectual puzzles as the next nerd…but these people mean nothing to her.  They are a dizzying array of names and places and events all wrapped up in drunken memory, nostalgia and might-have-beens.

So, I want to discuss my thoughts, and ponder the imponderables, and think on how these people were reflections of the society of the time, their parents, their schooling and so forth.  It fascinates me.  But I don’t want to bore my wife to tears.

So I write a blog.  I talk on a forum.  I fire off only vaguely comprehensible missiles on social media.  I suspect – though I have little proof other than some intellectual puzzle solving – that this is ultimately why so many of us “waste time” on these mediums, too.

We want to be wanted.  We want to talk to others who think like us, and nerd like us and care about what we care about.  We want our past to mean something and our future to hold hope and promise.  And as much as we love, respect and admire our friends, family and loved ones…few of us ever find that perfect combination of individuals in our real lives that share an interest in all of the bizarre aspects of our personality.

Social media is the 21st century equivalent of howling our loneliness at the moon and seeking relevance in the tedium of our existence.  It is a lifetime of missed opportunity, sexual frustration, confusion, misunderstanding, screw-ups, mistakes, successes and triumphs.  It is our emotions of the moment mixed with curiosity and the desire for validation.  It is a social lubricant even if the only we’re trying to disinhibit is our own selves; to allow ourselves to think the thoughts that bother and fascinate us.

We like to think that as adults we are so much more put together than we were when we were kids.  But somewhere deep inside us there is a scared, confused teenager trying to figure out what to do with everything from impulses and instincts to thoughts about hypocrisy and questioning authority.

We turn to the internet as a place that seemingly has no consequence…even if we know better.  The people we talk to are avatars.  Names, but not faces.  They come and they go; if we offend one group, there are a billion more to choose from.

Being an adult is about having learned what not to say and to whom we must not say things.  Social media is the pressure valve; the outlet for all that we suppress.  That’s why we love it.  That’s why we hate it.  That’s why we’re ashamed of it.  And that’s why we can’t give it up.

 

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  • Published: Feb 7th, 2015
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  • Comments: Comments Off on On being a horrible, no good, very bad person.

On being a horrible, no good, very bad person.

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So I wrote a tweet that caused a minor bit of a stir.  I used the word “whore”.  It is offensive.  I knew it was offensive.  The purpose of the tweet was to offend.  But where Twitter’s 140 characters causes the loss of critical nuance is who I meant to offend, and why.

The tweet in question is here. It reads “Do you work for $vendor? Do you tweet? You’re a tech whore. Cope. Stop getting all shocked when others call you biased, or when they are.”  (I corrected a typo here in this blog.  The original tweet contains a typo.  “Getting” was spelled “gettong”.)

Now, I understand that some individuals will choose to take great offense to this tweet for a number of reasons.  Oh, and yes, I knew that I as wrote it.  You can vilify me doubleplus extra for that, if you’d like.  There are lots of things mean and bad and terribly unkind there, but the one everyone is going to get caught up in is the use of the word “whore”.

That’s a bad word

Some people equate “whore” with prostitution.  It can easily be argued that such a significant portion of our population makes this connection that everyone else – including myself – should fall in line with this particular interpretation of the word.

You know what?  That’s fair enough.  I’m not even going to really debate that.  I am certain there are piles of academic papers, horrible stories of personal trauma and reams of complicated logical flowcharts that explain why I should use the language as others dictate.  I am a horrible, very bad, awful person in their eyes for using the bad word “whore”, and I accept that.  Let’s move on.

Now, I don’t equate “whore” with prostitution.  Why?  Because I don’t accept that the negative connotations of the word should apply to prostitutes, in large part because I don’t actually have any problem with prostitutes.  (Yet another thing some segment of the population can hate me for.)

If men, women, transgendered individuals and whatever other wild and wonderful combinations our species have to offer wish to engage in companionship (sexual or not) for money, I support them in their choice.  I’m not in a position to judge them or their choices, and I don’t have the bizarre religious baggage that so many folks so about the subject.  Whatever consenting adults choose to do is their business.  Have fun, folks.

To me, a “whore” is something else entirely.  A whore is someone who compromises their ethics for money.  For a lot of people, prostitution would be a pretty major compromise of their personal ethics, and so I find that the two concepts (and thus the usage of the term) have become very wrapped up and intertwined with time.

This is made doubly true by the fact that a huge percentage of our population views prostitution as offensive, even degenerate.  There are lots of people who are unable or unwilling to understand that many people choose of their own free will to engage in prostitution and that doing so isn’t a compromise of their personal ethics, because their personal ethics are simply different from the person busy casting aspersions.

If you pay me to perform an act that I feel compromises my ethics, and I do it, I’m a whore.  Whether or not the act in question is sexual in nature isn’t particularly relevant to how I use the term, and my usage of the term is not arbitrary.  It has evolved with this level of nuance as a reflection of how society at large treats the subjects under discussion, and yes, because of the emotions the term evokes.

Social media whores

The tweet read ” Do you work for $vendor? Do you tweet? You’re a tech whore. Cope. Stop getting all shocked when others call you biased, or when they are”.  I want to expand on this.

Twitter’s 140 characters don’t really allow much depth.  The first thing to get out of the way is that this isn’t aimed at “everyone who tweets”, but specifically at “those people who follow me on Twitter.”  Almost exclusively, people who follow me on twitter are involved in the technology industry, and they are all pretty active on social media.

This tweet was inspired by yet another public social media pissing contest between representatives of powerful vendors in the technology space.  Two very senior individuals in these companies (who really ought to know better) were slinging mud and otherwise engaging in tearing down the competition.

These individuals are not bad people.  They are not overly hostile people and how they will behave when not talking about their employer (or competitors to their employer) is completely and totally different to how they behave when shots are fired in marketing anger.

These individuals generally hold everyone else to a high standard of Wheaton’s Law, and usually prefer to see people on Twitter talking about what makes their products great, not trashing the competition.  Yet when it comes to the products they work on, and the company that pays them, they compromise their ethics.

This is very, very common in IT.  So much so that those technologists who are moderate to heavy Twitter users and don’t compromise their ethics surrounding discussions about their employer/product/competition are notable for their rarity.  (Or because they don’t seem to have any standards in this regard at all; either for themselves or that they hold others to.)

Is my making a blanket statement that encompasses all my followers into this “you compromise your ethics for money” statement an overreaching overgeneralisation?  Probably; I have a bad habit of that.  There’s yet another reason I’m a horrible human being.

Bias

The other element of us technoweenies all being whores on social media is bias.  We’re all biased.  Even if only because we are exposed disproportionately to information.

If you have two products from two vendors, and you spend 8 hours a day learning why Product A from Vendor Y is awesome, but only a few hours a week on the benefits of Product B from vendor Z, you are going to end up biased.  Even if you try very, very hard not to be.

The truth is, human memory – and human cognition in general – is really quite fallible.  We are prone to all sorts of weird logical errors.  Our memory does weird things that makes eyewitness testimony horribly unreliable.   We suffer from decision fatigue and ego depletion that make us prone to bad decisions when under stress or when tired, and it makes the whole faulty memory thing worse.

We make emotional judgements, even when we like to think of ourselves as logical, rational beings.  We associate products, brands and – most especially – our employers into our sense of self.  Our sense of self-worth is associated with how well the brands to which we have become loyal perform.

In other words: not compromising ourselves on behalf of those who pay us (or those who make our lives easier in other ways) is really, really hard.  We do it subconsciously, and most of us never stop to think about any of this, even for a second…let alone actively work to correct our perceptions, actions and reactions to compensate for the above.

Are we really all whores?

You might think it unfair of me to use the term “whore” in the tweet in question, even if we accept my own personal definition.  I stated that my definition of “whore” was “someone who compromises their ethics for money”.  Is the usage of the term justified if what’s being discussed is a subconscious compromise of ethics rather than a conscious one?

That is the debate I hoped to elicit.

The truth is, I don’t really have an answer to that.  Even within my own definition of the term, and within the framework of my personal ethics, I’m working that one out.

On the one hand, the information about the fallibility of our own minds is out there.  It’s not exactly news; much of this research is decades old.  I certainly expect educated professionals to have heard of it…and perhaps expecting that is unfair.

Or perhaps not.  Most of those who are following me on twitter are individuals who use social media to magnify their personal and professional footprints within the technology industry.  Knowing the sorts of things I discussed above about how our brains work would seem to me to be a pretty fundamental bit of information for accomplishing the task at hand.  The task at hand, to be perfectly clear, is “influencing others.”

Do bear in mind that a huge chunk of my followers describe themselves as “influencers”, hold professional titles like “evangelist” and join professional groups whose stated aim is the maximization of influence and/or participating in evangelism.  These are people who seek to wield social media as a weapon, and there is no small part of me that feels they need to be properly trained before being let loose on the field in full colours.

Some of these people are perfectly conscious of the fact that they make compromises for their paycheque.  And some of them admit it openly, even with good humour.  Others are deeply offended by the concept.

So are they whores?  That is up to everyone who reads this to decide.  That anyone is taking the time to contemplate the question at all was the whole point of the tweet itself.  (Yes, you can offend people into thinking.  It is a thing.)

And for those of you who want to vilify me for using an emotionally and politically charged term to accomplish my ends, I accept your scorn.  I am a bad person, and I say mean things.

But to be fair, I warned everyone about that in my Twitter bio.

*For the record, I count myself amongst the social media “whores”.  While I own my own company – and thus the ability to be slave to it is rather minimal – I am absolutely slave to products and vendors that make my life easier.  Out of respect for the companies to which I have a sense of brand tribalism, I’m not going to list them here, because they don’t need to be SEOed with a blog post using the word “whore” umpteen times.  Suffice it to say that I am aware of my own bias, and I do put real effort into countering it, many times refusing to take on a client or discuss a given vendor because I know I cannot be objective.  I don’t always succeed, but I do at least try.

My raw, unedited notes about VMworld 2014

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Below are my raw, unedited notes for VMworld 2014 San Francisco.  These are published mostly as background for the article I wrote on vSphere 6.0 on The Register, which can be found here.

These notes then are mostly of historical interest and serve mostly to contrast what I noted at this event against what people are noting about VMware today.  The notes raw and unedited:

In truth, VMworld 2014 felt like an exercise in hyping the status quo, from all sides. Partners were terrified to talk about anything for fear that – and I quote – “they would get Nutanixed.” (I think I have at least two different CEOs saying that on film, if I dug through the GoPro.) If I wanted to get any information out of people about what was upcoming, I had to sign a half dozen NDAs in blood and agree to talk to them off-site because “they couldn’t risk VMware getting wind of their ideas.”

This probably accounts for the functional lack of any interesting announcements from partners at the event. What was announced was all minor evolutionary stuff. Everything beyond that occurred in closed quarters, and most folks would only talk to me if it was me alone. “We’ll talk to you, Trevor, but we have to ask these other folks to stay outside because we don’t know them or anything about them.” There was absolutely not that level of paranoia last year.

And, to be frank, VMware’s announcements were pretty limp too.

1) EVO was a huge disappointment. Maybe it will evolve with time, but I just felt sad as that unfolded.
2) vSphere failed to show up to the ball. I’d like to think it’s because VMware is actually listening to the community and rethinking its stance on “Web Client Only” for 6.0, but I’m too cynical to really believe that. Still, whatever the reason, VMware felt 6.0 wasn’t ready for prime time and they delayed it. Even knowing that it would get bad press. That’s gutsy and I have a lot of respect for it. (Even if the reasons aren’t likely to be the reasons I want to be the case.)
3) VVOLs are still a pipe dream. Sads.
4) Pointless rebranding exercises designed to make us even more confused, and the incremental evolution of some products (like VCAC, SRM, vCloud Suite, NSX, PowerCLI) to a new subversion number. So far so boring.
5) vRealize was announced which may or may not just be a layer of ease-of-use lipstick on existing technologies. The buzzword bingo was so thick I couldn’t tell and I still haven’t had a chance to sit down and cut through it.
6) Expansion of various public cloud offerings into the PaaS and SaaS arenas, all targeting USians (and mostly US.gov). Pass.
7) Some handwaving about Docker. I still haven’t seen the ability to vMotion something from a Docker container on one system to a Docker container on another, so I’ll yawn until someone can explain to me why I should care. Docker seems great if you want to rearchitect your programs…but if I was going to do that, why wouldn’t I just rearchitect for AWS?
8) New certifications. Yay?
9) Some endpoint stuff; Workspace Suite/Airwatch/Horizon that looked interesting. Vague promises that virtualising GPUs might suck less in the future. When it arrives, I’ll be pumped.
10) VMware bought cloudvolumes and which is nice, but then I started looking at pricing out the full endpoint solutions and went back to Citrix.
11) VMware announced Project Meteor, but I had stopped paying attention because it was in the future and I was pricing out Citrix.
12) “The Web Client will be faster, oh please, oh please stop hating it”. No mention of if all the other issues with the web client will be addressed. Everyone still hates it.
13) VMware vCloud connector now does layer 2 extensibility  I cheered.
14) VMware ROBO licensing announced, but I set up a meeting with Pistoncloud to discuss their offering after I realised the pricing was about 2x what I could sell it to my clients for, and even then would leave no margin for me.
15) vSphere 5.5 U2 comes with a C# client that talks to some of the new features!  I cheered, then almost died from the shock.

So, unless I missed something the only items that I took away from the event were:
A) Why was vSphere 6 delayed
B) If I ever get bored, assign time to figure out what the hell vRealize is supposed to be
C) Find out from someone when VMware will launch their version of Horizon that can compete with Citrix on GPUs. Will it be remotely price competitive?
D) vCloud connector has grown up into something awesome! Figure out how to use this with a Canadian VMware cloud provider that has zero legal US attack surface. Sell to clients.
E) New C# client that postpones need to move to Openstack for another year. Sacrifice goat to $deity in thanks.

There were a handful of partner discussions that were interesting, but I’m not allowed to talk about 95% of them, rendering those somewhat moot.

You know me as being the guy who never pulls punches, so let me be blunt: I am not remotely the only person who feels that VMworld 2014 was a bust. The most popular in-joke is “VMware threw a VMworld and forgot the VMworld”…though I prefer my more pitch #StorageWorld2014.

Storage, storage, storage, as far as the eye can see. What can any of you demonstrate that will differentiate your products for me?

If VMworld 2013 was the year I realised how important Hyper-V and Openstack support were to the ecosystem partners in the virtualisation industry, 2014 was the year I heard systems administrators and CIOs openly discussing adoption of alternative hypervisors. Where 2013 was the year where people looked at you funny if you said you were trailing Openstack, or using Hyper-V in production, 2014 was the year where those who only used one hypervisor vendor were practically ostracised to the edges of the gathering.

VMworld 2013 was about the vendors on the floor seeing demand for heterogenous environments, something that was provably uptaken in by VMworld 2014.

VMworld 2014 was about the vendors living in fear of telling VMware what they were up to, for fear their ideas would be stolen and cloned before they had a chance to build a market presence. It was also a year of some very open – and very bitter – griping by dozens of vendors about the politics – and the cost – of being a VMware partner. What will that mean for VMworld 2015?

Based on that, I have a lot of questions about VMworld 2015. I am talking to about 100 different vendors on their views and thoughts, but I am increasingly getting the feeling that VMworld is about to abruptly cease to be “the conference in the IT industry where the future is revealed and the backroom deals are made.” The real question is; what will be? Where will companies go to instead? Will the 2015 east-side startup ghetto be deserted? Will the 2015 west-side vFavellas choose instead to go to BUILD? Will “FossetCon” minicons expand dramatically?

These are questions I don’t have answers to, but am working on finding out as vendors de-stress and do their VMworld 2015 postmortems.

What is clear to me is that there is a brewing crisis of faith amongst the VMware ecosystem partners. Given that VMware’s greatest strength is its ecosystem – and when combined with the ever increasing reports of VMware’s internal politics being “a thermonuclear wasteland” – I am curious how this will play out and what it means for VMware as a whole.

VMware is clearly a powerful and capable technology company. They were able to birth EVO:RAIL in record time, and have managed to create many of the world’s most notable best-of-breed products over the years. They’re enormous, rich, have all the most important companies as their clients and they are still growing their customers and partners every year.

VMware isn’t going to fall. It isn’t going to collapse or evaporate or suffer some major financial cataclysm. That said, VMware may be on the cusp of stagnation. It has been bleeding its top talent for years, has alienated customers and partners alike (vTax, PEX, Web client, “getting Nutanixed”, difficulty/cost/timeframe for being a partner, time to get drivers certified, etc,) and shows no sign of dropping its prices deal with the reality of very capable competition from both Hyper-V and Openstack.

Something has to give. What will change, and who will profit from that change? Secrecy, fear and stagnation were the currents underneath VMworld 2014. Will they drive the flow of the industry through 2015? Only time will tell.

Reflections on VMworld

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It’s been over a year since I’ve posted a blog here.  The last time I posted, VMworld was just over and the feeling of community with the various people I’ve met was strong.  Now that almost a year has passed it’s time to look back on what VMworld actually meant to me.

What a year it’s been!  On the one hand, I haven’t written nearly as much – here, or anywhere else – as I would ideally like.  On the other hand, I’ve made a lot of headway getting various business-related arrangements dealt with.

In many ways my world now revolves around VMworld.  Before one VMworld is over I’m already working with clients to plan for the next.  Everything in tech marketing seems a sprint from one major conference to the next, but VMworld is the big one.

Looking back on VMworld

I spent an awful lot of time analyzing VMworld 2013 from an intellectual standpoint.  “What does it mean to your career” or “what does it mean in terms of making connections with vendors/the community/etc.”  I think I’ve been asked to write that schtick at least a dozen times since then.  It has been analysed and reanalyzed so many times that I think to rehash that from an intellectual level is pointless.

So instead, I want to analyse VMworld from an emotional standpoint.  Without allowing myself to head too deep into things, what are the surface memories?  The bright, sharp emotional moments that float to the surface?

My clearest memory of VMworld 2013 is vBeers.  It was a tweetup held in this hot, cramped bar called the Chieftain.  I remember sweltering.  I remember ordering too much to drink…and I remember encountering some of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.

The counterpoint to this would be a vendor party I attended that was absolutely flaccid.  There were very few attendees, a lot of marketing and chest-thumping by one of the company founders…and not a lot of prominent community members.

The entire event was basically some hoary old executives who all used work together way back when pretending they didn’t despise each other.  They managed it just long enough to see whose  social status had changed in the interim since the last phallus measuring contest, then it was back to trading pointed barbs and a quick evacuation of the premises.

I remember the worn, harried look on the faces of Matt Stephenson and Rick Vanover.  Normally possessed of boundless energy, the event sucked the life out of them and by the end they were mere shells so obviously needing a good vacation that I wished I could do something to help.

I remember certain influential individuals engaging in name calling on Twitter, where they attacked a startup full of good people for no better reason than that this startup had the termidity to compete with a startup their friend worked at.  I remember the sinking feeling of losing respect for those individuals who – until then – I had held in the highest of esteem.  It felt like having your childhood heroes die.

There were booths; so many that they blurred into insignificance and there were interviews and food that I wasn’t sure was food.

Above all, I remember the friends I made.  For all the exhaustion and the heat, the too many parties and the overdoing it on multiple fronts, I made some great friends at VMworld 2013, and that made every moment worth it.

How to succeed at throwing VMworld 2014 Parties

If you are running a VMworld party, let me give you some free advice: nobody cares about your product or your company.  What they care about is meeting and greeting the people they know, or have only “met” on social media.  They want to meet their friends’ friends.  They want to talk, and socialise and that has some very real consequences for how to design your party:

Make sure you have some “key influencers” going. I don’t mean “key influencers” in terms of “these people have highly read blogs.”  I mean “people that other people actually want to spend time with.”

You can have one of the top read blogs of all time but still be an arrogant, egotistical douchecanoe.  Don’t invite these people.  They probably feel they’re too good for you anyways and so you’ll just expend innumerable resources trying to get them, only to have nobody show up because – in truth – nobody can stand being in the same room as these guys.

Instead, troll the vExpert pages and do some research on twitter.  Who are people that other people seem to be eager to meet up with?  If you’re in a bind, reach out to other marketing types who know the VMworld scene for who the charismatic friendly types are.  The community is great, you will get helped.

Don’t try to talk about your product at the party. If your party is bumping, people will remember who you are.  Make sure you give away a bit of swag to all attendees that helps them remember who you are, maybe with a little “thanks for coming” note by your CEO and a very brief blurb about what you do and why people should care.  Give them a link to follow what will contain some nice short intro videos and your various whitepapers.

Don’t crank the music up to 11.  People don’t go to these parties to be deafened.  They want to talk to their friends.  To you.  To everyone.  They want to socialise, and they can’t do that if they can’t hear themselves think.

Don’t cram the place so full that people can’t move.  You want people to move, to mingle.  You want them to make friends and to associate your party with positive emotions a year down the line.  Those positive emotions will become associated with your company, and that right there is the holy grail of marketing.

Consider adding a panel discussion or two to your party.  You are at an event full of nerds.  Believe it or not, inviting a bunch of them to a place where you will give them intellectual stimulation in their chosen profession, food and tasty beverages pretty much guarantees they will like you.

Parting thoughts

People are tired, harried and stressed out at VMworld.  It is their natural state.  Try to work around the other parties going on during the event, and the major items at the event itself.  Many people will want to attend both your party and those of other vendors…even your competitors!  Consider pre-arranging transport not only to and from the event but also to and from other major parties.

Special needs should be taken into account.  Someone with a wheelchair might not be able to take a regular taxi (though a towncar or most of the vans will generally work.)  Someone with special food considerations might be a little upset if the only food on offer is yummy, yummy bacon.

What will really set you apart from the hundreds of other companies that blur into insignificance – either at an after party or in the event itself – is to make the people you are reaching out to feel special.  Virtually every vendor treats attendees like so much chaff to be sorted in the desperate search for wheat.

In the age of social media, remember that even that “chaff” that you dismiss and discard as not relevant to your short term tactical requirements can have far more influence than you suspect.

The goal of VMworld should not be sales.  Very few people attending VMworld are in a state of mind conducive to making rational purchasing decisions.  Your goal should be to raise awareness of your company amongst those who attend, and amongst those who don’t, by means of social media amplification.

Focus your resources on one singular question: “how can I make the lives of the people attending this conference less stressful?”  Succeed, and you will have turn a random bit of “chaff” into a staunch evangelist for your company.

Pull that trick off enough times and, instead of leaving this spectacularly expensive industry event with a handful of new customers and a few thousand e-mail “leads”, you’ll walk away with an unstoppable army of believers.

Addendum

Chris Dearden has a dissenting view to offer:

Its a great Article & I agree with many of the points in it – working for a vendor that I believe does VMworld pretty well ! It all comes down to knowing your audience-being able to staff a booth with smart people to talk technical, to providing something a little higher level for the less technical but influential people – many delegates will have come along with their boss, who ultimatly may hold the purse strings. If you can sucessfully connect at both levels that you have a really sucessfull event.

Panel sessions at a Vendor party ? possibly a little far for me ( personally ) There is a lot of info to take in at these things, so I’d personally want a little bit of time to let my mind rest.

I absolutely agree that “knowing your audience” is the key to victory, be it in love, a military campaign or in technology marketing.  My personal experiences and understanding of the VMworld event state that “non-technical individuals” are in the distinct minority at these events.  That said, I could be wrong.  Alternately, you could be desiring to target “non-technical individuals” instead of – or in addition to – technical ones.

In my opinion, there is no party or booth design, no marketing campaign, no sales pitch that is universally effective.  It is a statistics game.  Who are you targeting?  Why are you targeting them?

Are you targeting the exact same people or companies that every other startup – and all of the majors – are targeting?  Are you irrelevant in the face of overwhelming competition, or have you found a niche where you can be profitable, and expand outwards from there?

There is an old Native American saying that goes “if you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.”  No individual or company can please everyone.  You must decide whose affections you need to draw.

Where my advice differs from traditional marketing, sales and the established mantra of extant vendors and startups is that I honestly and earnestly do not believe that targeting the CIOs of the Fortune 2000 at conferences with slavish obedience is going to net you victory.

Every single vendor, sales geek and marketing nerd at every single conference wants a piece of those same individuals.  If you blur into insignificance for me, a nobody, imagine how antlike you appear to them.  How many times have they had the same pitch? Seen the same fevered desperation in someone’s eyes?

How likely, really, are they to leave their established “preferred vendors” and pick you…and do you honestly and truly believe in your heart of heart that it is the hurried pawing at them during a conference that will win the day?

The above reasoning is why I recommend a different, more community focused path.  It will help you reach out to more than just the same Fortune 2000 companies that everyone else is targeting.

This could well help you find a profitable niche.  But also because it could well help you create trust and respect amongst a community of vocal evangelists that could translate into a grassroots movement around your product…or even your community managers.  (See; Veeam, Unitrends and even VMware itself.)

I respect Mr. Dearden’s opinion in this matter, and I respect him as well.  He has a great deal of experience and knowledge, and – quite frankly – he plays in richer waters than I do.  For all my florid prose, I am still small time, and still a Silicon Valley outsider.

Consider both opinions.  Consider the evidence of your own experience.  Discuss with your coworkers and even your competitors.  Choose for yourselves the best path, and good luck to all of you.

Enjoy VMworld 2014!

Podcasting for Cancer

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If you’ve been paying attention to my twitter – or that of many other vBloggers and vExperts – then you’ve seen me talking about Podcasting for Cancer.  I have been asked by more than a few people why I started this.  What’s the point?  What am I trying to achieve?

Many questions have filtered in amongst the overwhelming support for the idea.  As the project is taking on a life it’s own more and more people are becoming involved.  I thought it would be a good time to talk a little about the whys and wherefores so that all those people who are doing excellent work are given the kudos they are due.

Why I did this is simple: a friend of mine – Gabriel Chapman – has just learned that his mom’s cancer has moved into her lungs.  This is after recently losing his dad to the disease and two of his grandparents before that.  Before I had heard of this, everything that could be said had already been said by others.  No amount of platitudes or sympathy will make something like this better.

I felt wholly inadequate in the face of that frustration and sorrow.  My own worries and concerns seemed small and petty.  Gabe is a good guy; a friend…and he is hurting.  The urge to do something about that is powerful, as is the feeling of inadequacy as I flailed about trying to thing of something that might make even the smallest amount of difference.

I’ve never lost anyone to cancer; not while I was old enough to remember.  Nonetheless, I tried to put myself in his shoes.  I could imagine feeling trapped, impotent, isolated; the whole world turned against you, everyone living their lives while you feel like you’re underwater, struggling for air.  I thought about this and decided that the one thing that I could provide for my friend was the feeling that he wasn’t alone.

vPeeps are amazing

Pushing a few knobs on Indiegogo and filling out some forms isn’t exactly a huge burden.  Putting some time and effort into social networking and rallying the troops around this also isn’t a big deal  I have spent enough time amongst the vBloggers, vExperts and vVendors that make up the VMware community to know that if I only pushed that first domino, they would rally behind it and we would make that $5000 goal.

Gabriel Chapman is well liked.  Cancer is a terrible disease that has touched almost everyone’s life.  Put these two things together and I knew that if we (the community) set out to raise money in the Chapman familiy’s name then that money would get raised.

More importantly, I hoped that Gabe would be shown that even in this very dark time, he is not alone.  He has made an impact on an entire community and made quite literally dozens of friends, all of whom are there for him in whatever way we can possibly help.

The community did not disappoint.

A life of its own

What I didn’t expect was exactly how quick and enthusiastic the response would actually be.  Everyone seems willing to donate time to being on a podcast or a webex as part of the effort.  People are spreading the information through social media, contacting vendors and trying to keep momentum going.  $5000 looks to have been a very shortsighted goal.

The driving forces behind this explosion of community have been Jon Harris and Jonathan Frappier. They’ve taken my very simple idea and infused it with energy, ideas and passion that look set to grow Podcasting for Cancer far beyond anything I could have imagined.

There is talk of tying the event in with Movember and even running it as a regular yearly thing.  Brainstorming and strategy sessions about how to drum up vendor support and really catalyze the community followed.  Discussions were had to get other community organisations – like vBrownbag, vDB and VMUG – behind the project.

In two days these gentlemen have taken an idea I hadn’t really thought out completely and turned the knobs up to 11.  They are amazing.

I set out on this journey with nothing more in mind than making a friend feel less lonely and helpless.  The community response – exemplified in the efforts of “the Jons” – might just change the world.  If there is a bag of kudos to be heaped here, it is upon them.

Thank you, all of you…and let’s keep on podcasting for cancer.

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