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Keep The Cloud Weird

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The cloud is growing up fast with big money and even bigger influence. So how (and why) should we keep it weird?

Austin’s iconic slogan has grown up and matured in the last twenty years, much like the hyper-local craft economy it was penned to promote in the 1990’s.  Now in use by all kinds of places (I’m looking a you Portland, OR!), it has come to represent the premium that our broader culture - and especially millennials - place on authenticity, creativity, and community.

I recently visited Austin for KubeCon + CloudNativeCon 2017, where the event’s slogan was in fact “Keep Cloud Native Weird.”  While the tagline didn’t get much attention at the conference beyond a natural association with Austin’s hip food and music scene, it got me thinking about why we should actually try to keep cloud weird - especially as it grows into one of the most influential parts of our world / economy.

Jason Keeping it Weird

Weird Is About Creativity

In college, a friend handed me a copy of Richard Florida’s book "The Rise of the Creative Class.” It resonated, probably because I was a music major at a very technical school - one where my peers in Computer Science had job offers as freshmen, while my colleagues in the arts charted a much less secure path.  

Florida’s book put weight not on trade, profession, or training but on creativity itself as a powerful currency. This was a game I could play at, and a bullish take on the value of the creative “class” skills helped to inspire my own journey into entrepreneurship.

So how do you encourage creativity and all of the messy, potentially transformative things that come from it?  And how do you encourage it in the cloud, which is a complex, fast-moving juggernaut with a trillion dollars at stake?  After all, it is always alluring to limit creativity when things get really big and valuable, with an emphasis on stability and being “boring”.   

My suggestion is to emphasize curiosity.  As things grow, calcification can set in.  So, encourage your cloud engineers and CTO’s to read a book each week, talk to a philosopher on occasion, learn a musical instrument on the weekends, or take up ballroom dancing.  If you’re a SaaS company, learn how undersea cables work, or take a field trip to watch a SpaceX rocket launch.  

Einstein and his Violin
Albert Einstein famously credited his violin playing with helping him to work out new theories.

In short: keep it weird by doing weird, creative, interesting new things. Today it is Kubernetes, x86 based centralized clouds, and GitHub.  Tomorrow - who knows?  

Weird is About Authenticity

Last year I was searching for a way to provide a window into our company’s culture as our user base expanded - attempting to both extend the intimacy we had enjoyed as a small startup, and to help keep a pulse on the “why we do” vs “what we do.”  My brother (our CEO) had a brilliant idea: share our random channel.

Those of you with Slack channels probably have a random channel.  At times it can get cluttered with mundane conversation about work (which we really try to avoid!) but usually it is a lovely hodgepodge collection or links about parenting, robots, Leroy Jenkins political statements, and pictures from the real lives of our team members.

But random isn’t random at all - it’s often at the core of things. While we couldn’t share it literally, we started posting highlights in our newsletter each month…and people love it.

Random Channel Wins Even on Christmas

So how does this apply to the cloud?  Well, the cloud has been on a ten year journey of abstraction - from VM’s to Lambda and serverless.  Even the word “cloud” puts a soft, fuzzy, amorphous layer of gauze around the whole thing.  But innovation is messy, with rough edges often transforming from pesky irregularities to notable advantages. 

A mentor of mine once said “Don’t try to be unique - it’s too easy to copy! Instead, focus on being special.”  That’s why Austin probably doesn’t care too much if Portland borrows its tagline - because done right Portland will always be Portland, and Austin will be Austin.   

As we reach new frontiers in our collective cloud journey, I would encourage us to keep it weird by resisting the “this is the best” or “this is the way” kingmaker syndrome. We should be sure to explore the rough edges and the underbelly with sincerity.  

Maybe at the next KubeCon, we should have a keynote about why OpenStack isn’t as bad as you once thought, or how to build a globally available application with some unknown tech stack.  That would certainly keep Cloud Native “weird” right?  

And, more importantly, it would refocus us on the authentic sense of “what if we thought about this differently” that you could argue started the cloud native movement at the beginning. 

Weird is About Access

The week before KubeCon there was a quasi-tense exchange on Twitter about “cloud privilege”.  Let’s just say that it is easy to keep things weird when the rent is cheap.  How do you do it when the rent starts to price out the locals and the artists?  

Cloud Privilege Strikes Again!

In New York, we can look at what’s happened to the Lower East Side and DUMBO for clues to what happens when the rents go up (hint: a lot more Starbucks locations, and very few dive bars — less street musicians and more Lululemons). Nothing really wrong about that, but keeping space for the oddball, not-yet-proven ideas is important.

At Packet, we think about access a bit differently.  Basically, if you think paying for VM’s is hard, try innovating on new silicon or looking to test out latency sensitive architectures at scale.  More clearly: the gap between the “haves” vs the “have nots” isn’t about access to generic hardware, but the ability to innovate on hardware at anywhere close to the level of the “Super 7”.  It’s an incredibly exclusive gated community, home to hyperscale businesses that just happen to have global public clouds on the side.

While we’ve tried to do our part this past year by donating the CNCF Communiy Infrastructure Lab and supporting efforts like NYC Mesh, we think both Packet (and the larger community) can do better at expanding the surface area for cloud innovation beyond software deployed on abstracted, far-away “clouds” whose bite is softened by $100k startup credits.

We also think the results will be surprising and powerful.  Just imagine if we could encourage a fraction of the benefits / energy of open source software to other parts of the stack?  Pretty cool.

Weird is About Encouraging Some Crazy

Masayoshi Son, the founder of SoftBank and one of the most divergent thinkers in business today, is said to have asked WeWork’s co-founder Adam Neumann who wins in a fight: the smart guy or the crazy guy?  Neumann recounts: "I say, 'Crazy guy,' and he looks at me and says, 'You are correct, but you and Miguel are not crazy enough.' "

In a similar vein, at Packet we have a loving moniker we give to our favorite customers, partners, friends and even competitors: we proceed their name with “crazy.”  Crazy Karl is a great example - every interaction with Karl leaves you challenged, thinking / re-thinking, and with the juices flowing.  I think this is because Karl and his brethren are smart, experienced people who have come to different conclusions than we have.  

As an athlete, if you want to improve you’re constantly pushing beyond the comfort zone - quite literally breaking your muscles so that they can rebuild.  If we want to keep the cloud weird, we should be sure to invite a good dose of crazy to the party and listen to what is being said - you never know where it will stretch you to go!     

Wrap Up: Why is Weird So Powerful

When we think about weird in a modern, millennial sense (as opposed to a Weird Al Yankovich throwback sense!), there is an enormous feeling of belonging. 

As accents disappear due to television / Netflix and our culture goes global, it can be hard to carve out the intimate connections that help to give meaning and mission to life. Weird is a sort of compass that we can use to help us find community in our far-flung, digitally-enhanced world. 

Embracing weird as an ideal is a window into the things that make us more interesting as human beings: creativity, individuality, intimacy, and yes a bit of “crazy.” It’s also an incredibly strong exercise to help us to reshape our environment and meet the challenges of tomorrow — to imagine what could be. No wonder it is such a powerful tool for innovation.

So, as we enter a new era of the cloud, which is likely to be enormously different from the one we are in now - let’s keep it weird y'all. 

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