Teaching the Teachers

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

It’s been interesting seeing people’s reactions to my announcement that I’m giving Appsterdam to the App Makers. Most people are happy to see me take a break, excited to see what I come up with next, but a little worried how the organization will fare without me. I appreciate the concern, but let me assure you, it’s misplaced.

First, because it’s not really about me stepping down as much as it is me setting an example that I hope leads this community organization into being run and led by the community, and not a set group of people. There is no permanent leadership class in Appsterdam—just people taking their turn, ready to serve.

Second, because I’m not really going anywhere. I’m just changing my focus to longer-term goals. I did the doing for a while, then I did the teaching. Now I’m ready to teach the teachers. The success of a generation is not judged by its children, but by its grandchildren, so I’m giving the reins over to a new generation while I’m still around to guide them.

There are more, less obvious changes in the works as well. I’m cutting my speaking schedule way back, to about a quarter of what it is now. Instead, I’m going to be dedicating a lot more time to the Appsterdam Speaker Bureau, meeting demand for my stage presence with an army of even better speakers.

Like I said before, we’re all about results. When the work done by the volunteers of the Appsterdam Foundation pays off, the ecosystem they have built inspires new creativity. Where before the dreams of the community were met with calls of “not possible,” at Appsterdam gatherings they found support, inspiration, and likeminded individuals, to build their own engines of change.

I’ve already told you about the Appsterdam embassies, local implementations of our open source movement, starting in Delft, then spreading to Warsaw, Milan, and now a number of other cities. It won’t be long now before every city with App Makers has their own version of Appsterdam.

I’ve already told you about Apps for the Planet, the on-going hacktivist collective founded by Casper Koomen whose events are not just about the joy of getting together to work on projects, but in focusing those efforts to make the world a better place. I was most impressed when they teamed up with Pachube to teach people how to program the Arduino by having them build air quality monitors.

Now it is my very great pleasure to introduce you to Appril, a month-long festival of App Making born right here in Appsterdam and driven by the amazing Jacqueline de Gruyter and her team of volunteers. When I look at all they’ve built, and how many people they’re brought together, in just a few short months—and I think about a very determined Jacqueline at many an Appsterdam event, overcoming setbacks and making things happen—it fills my eyes with tears, and my heart with pride.

If you’re looking for a chance to change the world, to become a teacher, to join people like Casper Koomen and Jacqueline de Gruyter in the pantheon of future heroes of Appsterdam, now is the time. Whether you’re bringing your knowledge to Europe, or bringing your experiences in Europe to the world there’s never been a better time, or a better place, to take up the mantle of knowledge.

We’ve called for pilgrims. We’ve called for students. Now we’re calling for teachers. We want Appsterdam to be a bright shining beacon in dark times ahead, but we can’t do it alone. We’re trying to solve the world’s problems, one app at a time, and we could sure use your help.

Hall of Heroes

By Mike / On / In Appsterdam

In my head are many imaginary rooms, dreamed up for some unrealized future home or headquarters. Among them is the Hall of Heroes, where hangs large woodcut portraits almost exactly like the author portraits that used to hang in Barnes and Noble. I used to imagine sitting in the cafe at Barnes and Noble and writing a great novel, inspired by those portraits.

When they took those portraits down from my local store, the Stephen King portrait found its way onto my wall, where it hung for many years. When I started making software, I would look at that portrait and imagine the portraits I would hang to inspire me in my future career.

Steve Jobs, obviously, and Steve Wozniak. Linus Torvalds, and Bill Gates as well, as you can’t understand one without all. Alan Turing. MLK and Malcolm X. Che. Elizabeth Blackwell. Musashi Miyamoto. Alison Jolly, who began the study of lemurs, and John Cleese, who taught us all so much about nurturing a sense of humor. Both people, notably, who have recently had new species of lemur named after them.

And Tim Berners-Lee. It felt like a significant decision adding him, not for inventing the World Wide Web that underlies so much of what we’ve done since, but for giving it away. In his book, Weaving the Web, he argues that computer scientists have a moral responsibility as well as a technical responsibility. To me, that felt like a charge, and declaring him a hero felt like a statement of how I wanted to be.

Which brings me to Appsterdam. Appsterdam was conceived a year ago, at NSConference 2011. Taking stock of where we are now, looking back at all the dots connected across what seems at once like all the time in the world and no time at all, has been a heady and emotional experience.

It’s clear we’ve passed a certain threshold, that we’re at the point when things start accelerating, when things start growing faster and faster. When I think about what I’d like Appsterdam to be a year from now, I want to see it outgrow its founder.

I was recently introduced to a concept I like a lot: post-heroic leadership. It’s what every company has to achieve in order to retain everything good about its creator, without becoming mired in what was bad about them. It’s what Apple is going through right now. It’s what I want for Appsterdam.

I’ve given a year of my life back to the community. It’s been an amazing year, a successful year, but also an exhausting year. I’m ready for a break, and more than that, I’m ready to let go. It’s time for the movement to level up. It’s time to pass on the reins.

On April 13, Judy and I will be flying to Taipei, Taiwan, to visit her family there, and to celebrate our engagement. We’re going to take a month to disconnect, to quiet the mind, to eat fresh food and drink a lot of water, maybe see a doctor. Hike up a mountain to a temple or a tea plantation, where you can have the best cuppa conceivable. See the future on sale at the street markets there. Relax, recharge, repair.

While we’re away, Paul Darcey will be interim CEO. Paul moved here from Australia to be part of Appsterdam. I’ve been impressed by his travels, and with the broad, round view they have given him. He has a calmness and maturity that is such a complement to my own fiery passion. He has exactly the kind of “steady as she goes” leadership I feel the organization needs now.

If all goes well during my month abroad—and I have no reason to believe otherwise—we’ll make the change permanent, and I will further seek to leave the board of Appsterdam, leaving me with no official ties to the organization. I will continue to carry the honorary titles of Mayor and Founder, and evangelize the city and the community we’ve built here.

I will also continue to advise the now independent leadership of Appsterdam, unbounded by the political necessities of actually running the thing. I’ll be experiencing things from the customer side of the counter, and offering my feedback from a position of experience, rather than of power.

I hope this will also serve as an example to all those inspired by Appsterdam, and as a thorn in the side of any who would attempt to hijack our work by questioning the goals of our organization or the intent of its founder. It is only by selfless action that we disprove those who do not believe in the existence of selfless action.

My hope is that, in good time, we will be able to transition the organization into something that is truly owned and operated by the community of App Makers it serves. I would love to see the leadership positions in the foundation opened up to elections. Democracy is scary and messy, but it’s also the best way we have to give something to the people—for our community to manifest itself through our organization.

As for me, I am in the process of starting a new company, of assembling a new team. I plan to take advantage of the new ecosystem by founding my next startup right here in Amsterdam. As I mentioned before, I plan on making the world’s best educational games for kids.


By Mike / On / In Personal

The rain started in Amsterdam early, early this morning. The city seems to shake and groan as water pours down from above in sheets. This is not happy rain. This is not the kind of warm rain you take a romantic and fatalistic walk through. It’s the kind of rain you must simply accept, washing over your entire life, whose only promise is that this too must pass.

Nobody can claim to be surprised by this weather, after enjoying so many days of glorious sunshine. Over the weekend every street cafe was open, every boat was on the canal. We all knew, all told each other, that the sun wouldn’t last, that the rain would come. We told ourselves that, steeled ourselves against the coming winter.

There are places that deny the weather, where it rains all the time, but nobody ever carries an umbrella. In this place, people are always aware of the weather, always aware that though the sun may shine, rain is always just over the horizon. Nobody considers this morbid, a dour pessimism that sours the smell of sunlight.

Rather, it is the memory of rain that drives us to soak up the sun every opportunity we get, the knowledge of it that drives us to try to stay dry. If we let the rain surprise us each time, or if we live in constant denial of it, we will never understand the weather, the atmosphere, or our place within it. We will simply be wet, and dry, and wet again.

If we prepare, if we are ever cognizant of the impermanence inherent in nature, we can be ready for the rain when it comes. You can keep your clothes warm and your hair in order. What it seems like you can never avoid, which perhaps we should learn to savor as being part of this planet, is the feeling of raindrops running down your face.

On the Resignation of Steve Jobs

By Mike / On / In Personal

I knew the day would come when Steve Jobs would retire, and I could have predicted that I would blog about it, but I didn’t expect to cry. The feeling of tears welling up in my eyes took me by surprise. It wasn’t the shock of the announcement, or the soonness of it, but the implication of it.

It would be one thing if Steve got up on stage, said, “We’re richer than Europe. I think I’ve proved my point,” dropped the mic, and walked into the sunset. Instead Steve said, “I have always said if there ever came a day when I could no longer meet my duties and expectations as Apple’s CEO, I would be the first to let you know. Unfortunately, that day has come.”

I’m crying because I never got to meet Steve Jobs, never got to shake his hand, never got to suffer his direct criticism. I’m crying because I’m afraid I never will.

My personal relationship with Steve Jobs, like most people’s personal relationships with Steve Jobs, means all the world to me, and nothing at all to Steve Jobs. When I needed a ticket to the first WWDC to ever sell out, I was told to appeal to the man himself. I didn’t even know you could email Steve. It just didn’t even occur to me that was something one could do.

My first email to Steve was lengthy, giving a full accounting of myself, my career, my history with Apple, and the value of having me, my company, and our little music game, at the conference. It took most of the day for me to write it. The response: “Sorry, we are truly sold out.” Terse poetry, worth not getting the ticket just to own that little piece of classic Steve.

That wasn’t the only time I wrote to Steve Jobs. Years ago I had a premonition that he was sick again, and wrote him a letter about it. I never sent that letter. I thought he would find it intrusive and creepy, especially if it was true. And it was true, sadly.

When I outgrew Wil Shipley as my mentor, I made Steve my mentor. I didn’t actually propose this to him. That would be absurd. I just started studying him, reverse engineering his techniques, learning to perform his tricks, on stage and off.

When I went to work for Apple, I went to work for Steve. To be inside Infinite Loop is to have the rare privilege of hearing Steve Jobs speak off the cuff. I would see him around, but I never approached him. He is always extremely busy. And extremely skinny.

Legend has it that when Apple sends retail employees to Infinite Loop for training, they warn them not to look at Steve. I guess there was a serious problem with people getting caught in him like deer in headlights. They were probably blocking the sidewalk. He hates that.

I never talked to Steve at Apple. Not once. I would talk about Steve. I was appalled at how little people at Apple knew about him for all the time they spent worrying about what he was thinking. “He’s not an unknowable entity,” I would say, exasperated. “There are books you can read about him.”

After my shift at the sausage factory, I would go home to continue coding in my Silicon Valley garage, get ferociously stoned, and email Steve.

Mike Lee and Steven Wozniak, standing in line at Valley Fair for the iPad launch.Woz signed my iPhone

I emailed him before camping out at Valley Fair for the iPad launch (sixth in the door, behind Steve Wozniak). I was so excited about it, and I wanted him to know how excited I was. I told him about going to the Star Trek Experience and how all the tablets ever envisioned for Star Trek look like crap compared to the iPad.

I emailed him to tell him that I had to choose between being in the same room as Steve Jobs or a naked woman, and chose the woman, because I thought that’s what he would do. I wanted to let him know that bmf@apple.com was a pirate. I hoped that would make him smile.
Mike Lee's Apple Badge
I emailed Steve for the last time before leaving Apple and Silicon Valley behind to ask a question: when I was a kid and I thought of the future, it wasn’t as good as my life is now, so what am I meant to think of now when I think of the future?

Like the other late night missives, Steve never responded, which made me realize the answer was obvious: the future is ours to invent.

Thanks, Steve.