Tuesday, August 7, 2007

I First Met Larry . . .

I first met Larry . . .

[1st draft of 8-7-2007] . . . as we were both arriving at the Planning Dept. a little late from lunch. He was wearing these enormous hi-fidelity headphones for his latest MP3 player. He seemed a bit shy, but also slightly absent, preoccupied. We did not talk much, but exchanged hellos, and he explained he was getting back late because he’d just been to a lunchtime classical concert, been moved to tears, and could not leave right away. He loved music.

This chance meeting must was in 2000 or 2001 and did not lead to a lot of interaction. Over time, I began to see Larry around more regularly as he befriended everyone in the Planning Department. He began to make a brief (more or less) pass through the rarefied realm of long term planning a couple times a week. He’d say hi, finding out what each of us was working on, what type of computer needs we had, freely giving out power-computing tips or solving computer problems, touting this or that latest computer gadget, sharing his most recent musical interest; and, oh yes, having intense discussions on the state of computing (Microsoft vs the world – resistance was futile) and politics.

As I later found out, Larry was an object-oriented software developer who liked to design the front end of programs – the user interface and one-button functionality, that would leverage the power and potential of computers for human use. Philosophically, he was somewhat of an Objectivist (Ann Rand), believing intensely in the responsibility and accountability of the individual and the utmost honesty in human interaction. He believed humans were meant for interaction, for sharing, and he thought that computers represented a huge and powerful new tool and arena for old and new forms of human interaction, experience, and relationship. Practically, he was a bit of a salesman, always coming at you with the sales pitch, the reason why you should do something or other, his most recent wonder gizmo, gadget, or scheme that would benefit both him and you. And he as an economist by training, which was one of our first conceptual connections – a real systems thinker, of which, apparently, there are relatively few by natural inclination and capacity in the population at large, approximately 3-5 percent. This capacity, or curse in some cases, focuses not on the bits and pieces of existence but the relationship between the bits and pieces, the linkages. More importantly, it illuminates potential that does not often exist in the moment. It extends the nature and the logic of the linkages, the relationships, as far as they can go and formulates their implications and highest potential. Larry was always focused on potential, on what could be; and not as an idealist but as a developer -- fully embracing the demanding work of the development challenge to get there. The training in economics and this systems thinking orientation we shared in common, and it became the basis for a few projects, both inside the department and outside. Personally, Larry was principled to a fault, and was willing to take courses of action to their ultimate logical conclusion, regardless of personal cost, if he believed in their righteousness, in some cases, even if they were ill-advised or even wrong.

Larry’s software development interests had been captured by the philosophy and direction Microsoft was taking in the development of its software, not to mention the fact that they were the 10,000 pound gorilla who could make it happen developmentally and in the market place. Their philosophy emphasized connecting people more effectively and efficiently in their various work processes – early Web 2.0! His interest was peaked in 2001 with Microsoft’s first release of it’s new, powerful, social, work process software – SharePoint. He was pleased in late 2001 or early 2002 when the Pl. Department agreed to send him to the center of his professional universe – a five day Microsoft Training in Redmond, Washington on the newly released SharePoint v 1.0! He saw a real career path ahead as a SharePoint and web-part developer for the Planning Department, an organization whose work processes by definition are people-process oriented and involve a lot of information sharing, communication, and collaboration! What a palate for a SharePoint developer. He returned from the conference with lots of fun freebies and DVDs with hours of SharePoint training sessions and software. He was flying high on the power and potential of SharePoint for revolutionizing work processes by connecting people to people authoring their own one-button websites, IMing and presence awareness, busting down the data silo barriers to information, dashboards for business intelligence, etc. It took more than a year of energetic development and proselytizing his IT colleagues in the Planning Dept. before he realized that implementing SharePoint in the Planning Dept. was an unlikely scenario in the near term due to a range of “practical” matters, such as the city’s budget crunch, being too big a cultural and technical change, etc.

In addition to the professional applications of SharePoint, Larry saw clearly a more enjoyable application of SharePoint to information and entertainment sharing among small groups of people to form a new virtual space and realm of relationship enabled solely by information technology. This was one of the concepts Larry envisioned under the theme of datascultping, and he set out to develop it. He started by securing the participation and limited technical commitment of non-techy server hosts that would purchase a server and host it on their own home phone DSL lines, while Larry linked it all together behind the scenes into a powerful, one-of-a-kind wide area network. As most visionary inventors, Larry slightly underestimated the technical learning capacity and resources needed on the part of his DataSculpting administrators and members, and even the needs for a lot of the back end work. So, instead of taking a month or two to set up and a couple minutes of content adding a month on the part of administrators, it took a couple years for the back end work, lasting across a new release of SharePoint which fixed many of the difficulties Larry was encountering with the backend, network, “plumbing” as he liked to call it. Even so, he managed to create the framework and add a lot of content for use by the small virtual info/entertainment sharing community. The evolving product, through numerous problems, new versions, updates, rebuilding, hardware crashes, etc., was a good showcase of his vision and the power and potential of SharePoint. It included a range of documents, forums, many audio files, various videos, tutorials, and streaming audio and video channels, along with user generated web sites, and various communication technologies.

Larry was hoping to use the DataSculping site as a key product of his skill and expertise. He was also hoping to launch his solo career as a web part developer for SharePoint and other .Net (dot.net) applications. As part of that goal, Larry and I launched a test venture called DataSculpting Collaborative Technologies (DCT), an informal joint venture to explore how we might package and market Larry’s expertise and value into a business presence and revenue. We gave this a valiant effort, but ultimately could not connect together with any sustained traction/production, and terminated the effort, or at least put it in mothballs. I did not have the time to invest in the business side and we were not connecting on the software development side where we’d collectively brainstorm ideas, he’d develop prototypes, and I’d provide feedback from an end user’s perspective. Larry really wanted and needed a full-time partner in creativity, so to speak, and I could not be that person.

Larry peeled off solo, yet again, eyes fixed on the prize, as always, and tried to make it work for himself. A year or so later, we tried another collaboration around my sustainability work, with Larry creating a portal and developing some ideas for services, but his full time attention could not be on it, I could not afford to fund the development at this point, my time was consumed with the mundanity of earning a living in planning, and the project eventually imploded under the weight of needed versus affordable resources.

The DataSculpting site embodied all of Larry’s key interests, with the linkage of information technology, community, information and entertainment (especially music) sharing, IT development, multi-media innovation. It probably is unique in the world, vision-wise, content-wise, and technology-wise (wide area network connected over land phone lines and basic DSL services). He probably knew SharePoint better than the developers, and was often way ahead of the developers in discovering problems (a big problem that continually plagued the DataSculpting effort), and then often solving them. As is typical of monopolies, Microsoft never paid much attention nor saw the potential to harness Larry’s creativity for mutual benefit. Larry was a Microsoft ISV SharePoint Partner, and became an MVP over time. He contributed at varying times to the blogosphere related to SharePoint and .Net (see the separate post Larry-Google Search, for a smattering of Larry’s prodigious productivity).

Larry had a memory that would not quit. He could remember hundreds of unser names and passwords, among other things. He was hooked on pushing his limits, of forging his productive and creative capacities in the crucible of action, often staying up for days at a time, multi-tasking innumerable applications, pushing his limits, as well as that of his technology and the people around him. He had a tendency to go with the thought of the moment, as most adventurers, explorers, and inventors do. His expectations were high. He valued creativity, productivity, complexity, simplicity, honesty, beauty, and authentic relationships. Larry was a bright flame of creativity, whose light began to dim, flicker, relight in what appeared to be a continual cycle, and then, all too suddenly and prematurely, go out.

Many explanations can be invoked and speculations made. He was not always the easiest person be around. He could be imposing, threatening, even, possibly, terrifying at times. He had his faults, as we humans all do. But his legacy, even as a presence will live on in some capacity in each of us. There is not a day that does not go by, where I don’t do something on my computer that Larry taught me, some little trick that makes work easier or is just fun and/or cool. A big part of my sustainability project is tied directly to the power and potential of information technology that I learned through Larry and his love for it, maybe best expressed by using SharePoint as the technology for a knowledge portal. So, with this, I not only say good bye to Larry, but hello as well each time I encounter part of his on-going legacy and presence.

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