Bookmark Beat: EP 14

Layoffs, links and a lot of new subscribers 👋🏼

Hey y'all. Long time no see! There's been a lot going on in my life… from a huge quarter of new releases at Stemma to buying my first house with my wonderful partner, I haven't had a lot of time recently to sit back and reflect on the community I've built (that's y'all) 🙏🏼

It's been so nice to read your messages responding to my thoughts! And, if you're new here, know that I'm super receptive to feedback. Is there something that I shared that changed how you thought about something? Or maybe you disagree with an opinion or two. Either way, I'd love to know!

Today, I'll be sharing my thoughts on the recent waves of layoffs and (to lighten the mood a bit) a huge list of links telling the stories of well-designed products.

It looks like I've gotten a lot of new subscribers since the last beat 👋🏼 Welcome! If you haven't already, I'd recommend checking out the archive.

Not a subscriber yet? You can get this newsletter sent straight to your inbox by subscribing on Substack 📬

Now let's kick off the beat…

An intro: I love ski maps

This week, I stumbled upon the website of the artist, James Nieheus. Despite tumbling down mountains for most of my life (I snowboarded on and off from middle school through college), I never thought to look at who drew the beautiful maps that showed me the mountain's trails. Well, now I know! Apparently, Nieheus is the trail map maker.

Now that I'm older and I've switched to skiing (and have had much more enjoyable trips to the mountains since), I have learned to respect the amount of time and effort that goes into mapping out every single path and forest on the slopes.

This last season, I went to Winter Park a half a dozen times and I can't wait to buy a framed version of Niehues' work to remember all the beautiful moments up on the hill.


Let's talk about layoffs

It's been a rough few months for the tech sector. At one point, I was at a restaurant here in Denver and overheard the table next to us talking about their experiences with layoffs. Not only had the person at the table lost her job, but all three of her roommates had been laid off from three large tech companies. Needless to say, if you work in tech, you or someone you know has lost their job.

And that's not cool.

It's no big secret that a significant portion of the companies laying off employees have enough money in the bank to pay them. For many, this was not simply an economic decision.

Last year, Stanford news interviewed Business Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer who summed it up nicely:

Could there be a tech recession? Yes. Was there a bubble in valuations? Absolutely. Did Meta overhire? Probably. But is that why they are laying people off? Of course not. Meta has plenty of money. These companies are all making money. They are doing it because other companies are doing it.

With the upswing in unionization efforts across the tech industry (see NYTimes and ZeniMax as some of the bigger examples) and employee pushback to “back to the office” policies, it seems big companies are trying to send a clear message to their employees - we have the power.

All this comes at a time when the large tech incumbents are having a bit of an identity crisis. Despite growing like crazy, their products are getting worse, the metaverse is hemorrhaging money, and Google is losing the AI arms race to Microsoft.

When I talk to my friends at these companies, or to those who have recently been laid off from them, they're shocked. They signed up for corporate life - complete with unsatisfying projects and quarterly performance reviews - because they assumed that “big tech” === “job security”.

As someone who has worked for startups for most of their career, I've never felt that. I've always had the impression that there's no such thing as “job security” and that companies have no obligation to keep you around. In my opinion, the bigger the company, the more likely you are to be a number on a spreadsheet–just one recommendation from McKinsey away from being on the proverbial chopping block.

In the past, I've talked about convincing leadership to invest in DE&I initiatives by “turning people problems into balance sheet problems”. I think this works… most of the time. The problem is, companies are not incentivized to translate the other way. When the balance sheets have a negative effect on people (by sorting them into “redundancies”, for instance) these companies fail to recognize the possible outcomes of this behavior (like stress, suicide and all without significantly improving company performance).

To those of you reading this that have been laid off recently. I'm truly sorry. Nothing I could write can solve the fundamental problem that caused this. The problem is that company boards are not measured on their ability to build good products are treat their employees well; they're measured on their ability to make the line go up.

But sometimes, good products can happen

Sometimes it's because a team was left in their corner to listen to their users and build what they need. Other times, a corporate leader bucked the trend of group-think and pushed for a vision that others could rally around.

Either way, I've collected a few stories that inspired me over the last few months:

  • Something Pretty Right is a gorgeously designed and written article by Ryan Lucas from Retool. It covers the history and legacy of Visual Basic in a format that makes you feel like you're back in the early 90s.
  • His software sang the words of God. Then it went silent. by Input (from Inverse) is the “so wild it's hard to believe” story of Thomas Buchler, the late creator of beloved Torah program TropeTrainer.
  • How the Xbox got its good looks is another oral history turned article from the depths of Microsoft lore. Arun does a great job pulling together the unlikely story of how the Xbox concept iterated into something that is actually… good looking!
  • Goodbye Atom. Hello Zed. is an interview from the Changelog podcast about Zed - a text editor from GitHub and Pivotal Labs alumni, Nathan Sobo. The story behind the editor is a fascinating one - full of stops and starts - and is worth a listen.
  • Spatial Interfaces is a blog post from 2019 that tracks the history of digital design as we tried to map the physical world into 2-dimensions. I loved the metaphors and examples used in this post to illustrate a fundamental gap in our ability to represent reality using modern tools.
  • The technology behind GitHub’s new code search went mostly over my head, to be honest. But I'm including it in this roundup as an example of how the technical implementation of a tool can have such a huge impact on the way we experience. For those who don't understand the nitty gritty of trigram data structures and regular expressions, I'd still recommend skimming over it (and maybe giggling a bit at the incredible amount of detail in the footnotes).

Coda: Make space (and maybe some music)

A few months ago, I stumbled upon Aurora - an interactive calming landscape. You can interact with the ever-changing world outside your virtual train window by drawing auroras or commanding fireworks to explode. The world is also configurable in both sights and sounds.

I've found myself opening it up to relax a bit between tasks - including multiple times while writing this newsletter! It also features a beautiful soundtrack that reminded me of another link I'll just slip in here at the end…

The BBC Symphony Orchestra recently released a huge virtual instrument pack called Discover, which features ridiculously high-quality samples of the aforementioned orchestra. They even have step-by-step guides on how to set up any audio program (including free ones that you may already have on your computer) to play with it! If you're looking to try your hand at making music - especially of the classical variety - this is a great place to start.

Thanks for reading! I'll catch ya next beat 🥁😎🥁