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September 11, 2013 » 7:09 pm

Connecting Past and Present

Doug Engelbart’s passing earlier this summer has me reflecting a lot on our friendship, the work we did together, the influence he had on my life and my career, and also larger issues around connecting past and present. Talking with my former HyperScope teammates reminded me of how much fun we had together. I’m proud of what we did, but I’m even prouder of how we did it.

We worked in two ways that were particularly innovative. First, we were an open project. Anyone could participate in any of our meetings, including the face-to-face ones. We even provided food.

Several people (but not Doug) were nervous when I first proposed doing this. They were concerned about people disrupting the process. I wasn’t worried about disruption, because we had a strong core team, and I knew how to facilitate an open process. In particular, “open” does not mean everyone is equal. As I explained to everyone who joined us, I invited everyone to speak up, but we had a task we needed to complete, and I reserved the right to direct the conversation and kick people out if they didn’t respect the ground rules.

I had to assert that right a few times, but otherwise, the openness overwhelming improved the project. We had a number of people make really valuable contributions, and Craig Latta in particular came out of nowhere to become an important part of our core team.

Second, I proactively invited members of Doug’s original lab to join us. I wanted the team to learn everything we could from the people who had done it before us, and I also wanted these folks to understand how much we valued them. The whole team agreed that this was one of the best parts of the experience. Not only did we learn a ton, but we felt like an extended family.

I’m constantly amazed how rarely this occurs. People don’t think to reach out to their forebears, and they miss out on a huge learning opportunity. The HyperScope project was an unusual situation (although Silicon Valley is rife with these opportunities, given how compressed the history of our industry is), but these opportunities also apply to projects where people have recently left.

I think that most of the time, it simply doesn’t occur to people. Sometimes, there are tricky politics and emotions involved. Often, it’s because we don’t value the hard-earned knowledge that we can learn from those who came before us. This is why so many companies often lay people off without taking into account the loss of institutional knowledge.

Regardless of the reasons, I think it’s unfortunate that connecting the old with the new is such a rarity, and I’d love to see this shift.

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