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Richard Morris

Josh Klein: Big in the IT Business

03 April 2012

It is hard to categorize Josh Klein. Author, Technologist, Developer, Entrepreneur, polymath? He has participated in several startups, and is a popular speaker at conferences. He describes himself as an expert in 'taking things apart or putting them together again', reworking existing systems in unorthodox ways.

Josh Klein is perhaps best known as the technologist who rehabilitated crows by inventing a vending machine which taught them how to deposit coins in return for food.

You can’t help but feel that his Crow Machine is such an ingenious device it would have delighted war-time boffins looking for something with which to fool the enemy alongside such things as exploding rats, itching powder and a cream which could frost clear glass.

His experience in animal behaviour has proved useful in tracking human behaviour and invitations to speak at conferences such as TED and the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos have come his way, alongside an offer to work for US Government Intelligence agencies.

Josh is a former principal technologist for the international consulting firm Frog Design, and worked on an endless and diverse list of projects.

His successes are well documented – his cyberpunk novel Roo’d, a story about a teenage boy who has two mechanical legs, a prodigal brother who sets fire to various schools and a mindless corporate drone for a mother, was made available as a download.

The book may not have made the New York Times bestseller list but then with it being downloaded around 12,000 times a month for several months there was no need for it to. And it led to a print-on-demand deal with Amazon.

He also placed the novel (bravely some would say) under Creative Commons, a license that allowed readers to do what they wanted with his work, whether it be editing, revising or adding material.

His other published work includes Hacking Work which he co-authored with Bill Jensen, a book best described as a self-help journal which teaches employees to increase their efficiency and job satisfaction, the Harvard Business Review called it “one of the ten breakthrough ideas of 2010,”

The secret to his ever-widening list of inventions and creativity is that he pays careful attention to the thoughts that come up in the most casual conversations. It is what he calls "that 'what you just said' moment."

This facet of his work is more about understanding the human psyche and believing that even the smallest problem deserves a solution, rather than concentrating on the technology which usually follows hearing about a problem.

Born in Seattle, Josh has subsequently lived in Iceland, Barcelona, and New York. He has practiced and was trained, both formally and informally, in hacking of computer networks and consumer hardware.


RM:
How did you get started with technology?
JK:
When I was 10 or 11 a friend showed me how to download Commander Keen (an early video game) off the net. We played for a few hours and then he deleted it, telling me that now I had to go figure out how to get it myself. I've been hooked ever since.
RM:
Was there an ‘aha’ moment when you decided that hacking was a direction you wanted to concentrate on for your income?
JK:
I kept solving my way out of jobs; creating newer, more interesting problems elsewhere, or making new products or solutions that obviated the need for the positions I'd been hired for. Along the way I was building start-ups, launching fashion shows, and playing with all kinds of new tech, and these all started producing income on their own - at least when they weren't failing in interesting ways. There wasn't an "aha" moment - hacking was always just the only way I knew how to live.
RM:
Did you get to a point in the jobs that you’ve done where you began thinking something along the lines of: ‘Who are you? What do you want out of life?'
JK:
This has happened occasionally, and I run into it more often as I get older. But the answer always reveals itself as my wanting to change the world, to improve it. When I was younger I joked that this was the world-domination clause, but now I think it's just a matter of wanting to make the world a better place.
RM:
What do you enjoy most about what you do? Is it problem solving, being creative, having time to work out solutions?
JK:
All of it! Although I always wish I had more time – instead I just focus on optimizations for efficiency to make the time I have more productive. But that's a whole different book…
RM:
Has it been easy to make money out of it?
JK:
No. "Fail fast, fail often" is a beautiful idea, but it means failing a lot. You get better at doing it quicker and with more utility, but failure still sucks.
RM:
But failure in the US is looked on completely differently than failure in the UK, where if you fail at a business you’re looked at as if you’ve failed at life. Why do you think the approaches are so different? And do you think you could have succeeded at what you do if you had been based in Britain?
JK:
I suspect that if I'd been based in Britain I would have broken more laws – I never did take kindly to being told that something was impossible, and having the process of discovery and innovation socially legislated against sounds like a recipe for some serious rebellion. No idea why these approaches are so different, although I'd hazard a guess that the US' acceptance of solipsism as an accepted lifestyle choice has something to do with it.
RM:
Looking back, what surprised you most in your experience with a startup?
JK:
The odds. I can get behind a 1-in-10 chance of success, but finding out that such a large percentage of failure could come from totally uncontrollable sources – like your investor's favourite actress losing the Emmys the day you review your terms – was shaking. Ultimately, though, this has led to my being more willing and excited about trying new models for startups, such as lean or co-development, because why not?
RM:
Can you remember any hair-raising moments? Have you self-funded all of your businesses or have you had investors? Is getting funding painful and is it much harder than making a successful company?
JK:
When I was young and single getting funding was kind of like getting laid, in that in hindsight it always seemed sort of miraculous that it happened at all. Eventually I got married and started spending a lot of time with VCs and advising companies and it didn't seem quite so impossible and made more sense – in the best cases being funded is a matter of finding a partner who believes in your project just as much as you do, and has the resources you're missing to boot.
RM:
Is you future career contingent on coming up with new ideas, all of the time?
JK:
Apparently! But that's only because I define my career that way - and I wouldn't want it any different!
RM:
Is it exhausting mentally? Or do you find that you can focus and after a time a work-around comes easy?
JK:
Everybody can get burn out if they stay obsessed on one problem without a solution or lateral movement for too long. Fortunately I tend to juggle 8-16 projects at once, so there are always new problems to switch to.
RM:
Have you made a conscious effort to be creative rather than resting on your laurels?
JK:
I think it has a lot to do with how you're built. I don't like watching television or movies because I'm not producing anything - it just feels like a waste of time, and I find that tremendously irritating. I've never felt a need to take a vacation or "rest after dinner" because I've always got fascinating, engaging tasks to enjoy. When you're surrounded by exciting ideas, people, and things it’s easy to be creative.
RM:
Tell me about some of the major turning points in your career.
JK:
When I was still pretty new to computers I was sitting with some really talented hackers at a party - guys in a whole different league from me who had been kind enough to let me hang out and ask questions. I was trying to figure out how SQL injection attacks worked, so one of them sat down on the couch, opened a web browser, and typed a string of numbers into the URL bar. Suddenly we were looking at every credit card number, home address, social security number, etc. for every customer of the third largest U.S. bank at the time. And my response was, "Oh my god, do you know how easy it would be steal all this money?" He looked at me with disgust, closed the browser, and didn't talk to me the rest of the night. Later he explained that a talented hacker could steal lots of money and spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder until he went to jail, or he could solve interesting problems for people and never be bored until the day he died. That made things really clear for me, and I've never looked back.
RM:
Why are our networks and servers not secure? Do you think it is because companies will only design security as good as their customers know what to ask for? Doesn’t the marketplace value security as highly as we’d like it to? Or is it more of a case that building secure systems is very expensive, so we’re likely to be stuck with a patchwork of mediocre security products for a long time to come?
JK:
I think it's more a matter of building secure systems being very hard. In that regard we're likely to see the patchwork you mentioned for a long time to come – but very unevenly distributed.
RM:
What is the key to excellence for a hacker?
JK:
Curiosity. If you can't help but keep trying to solve problems - whether they're impossible or not - I'd say you're halfway there.
RM:
People probably know you best for the vending machine that teaches crows to deposit coins. Take me back to the idea about the crow machine to how the idea got started and how it evolved.
JK:
I'd always thought crows were interesting, but at one point ended up at a cocktail party with a friend of mine who was complaining about crows tearing up his yard. He asked me to help kill them all and I thought that was a terrible idea, so I suggested he figure out a way to get them to do something useful. He told me that was impossible, and I've been working on figuring out solutions ever since. That was more than ten years ago.
RM:
Are you working on it still?
JK:
Yep - right now I'm collaborating with a team in NYC to create a kit people can download or buy so they can make their own. My hope is that by getting lots of enthusiasts working on the most efficient way to train crows we'll see some interesting innovations very quickly. Plus, it's a fun excuse to work with a fascinating species that's almost always around.
RM:
Trafalgar Square in London has a problem with pigeons but no one ever thinks of a non-lethal way of moving the birds on. How would you approach a problem like that?
JK:
Clean up the trash. Seriously, the birds are only there because there is so much to eat, and it's not because Trafalgar Square is covered in fields of grain.
RM:
What was the biggest conceptual hurdle for you as you were building the machine?
JK:
Mechanical engineering - with physical mechanisms there's so much room for error! With code it's binary - it either works or it doesn't - but with, say, a coin slot it might work one day because it's sunny, but the next day humidity causes the coins to stick. It's fascinating.
RM:
Was there any misunderstanding about what you were trying to achieve?
JK:
When I went to develop the machine I had a solid spec that I'd run by a number of experts, so it was pretty straightforward.
RM:
Finally, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about coding. You’re an author as well as a businessman and technologist and obviously write a lot in English are care about that craft. Do you find writing prose and writing code to be similar mental exercises? Do the lessons of writing English for a human reader help you with aspects of code?
JK:
Yes and no. Writing arguments and constructing positional statements has parallels to coding in that you're arranging logical functions to support an outcome. Writing fiction, however, is much more a matter of letting the unexpected to occur via prose, at least for me. I've been told that's different for different authors, though.
RM:
Software is full of painful historical warts is there a way we can avoid that in future? Is there a way we can be smarter? Or is it just the nature of evolutionary design?
JK:
We can certainly be smarter about writing code, and I've seen some truly elegant code from time to time. The trouble is that we're typically not writing code to be beautiful, we're writing it to get the job done as fast as possible, and that creates a tension which often results in "warts". The two solutions I've seen are to restrict what's possible in the code or to give the coders more time, neither of which tends to scale well.
RM:
What brand new features that the world has never seen are you working on now?
JK:
That's secret… for now!
Richard Morris

Author profile:

Richard Morris is a journalist, author and public relations/public affairs consultant. He has written for a number of UK and US newspapers and magazines and has offered strategic advice to numerous tech companies including Digital Island, Sony and several ISPs. He now specialises in social enterprise and is, among other things, a member of the Big Issue Invest advisory board. Big Issue Invest is the leading provider to high-performing social enterprises & has a strong brand name based on its parent company The Big Issue, described by McKinsey & Co as the most well known and trusted social brand in the UK.

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