Secret Nerds

The future is a problem of scale. And we're going to need more nerds.

An excerpt from an old blog I wrote on the 1983 NES game Nintendo Baseball:

The players didn’t have names and neither did the teams. But you could get nine innings in…27 outs. And you could get hits and strike outs and doubles and home runs. So you could do the math of baseball. 

My brother came up with the idea of creating a line up and naming the players and keeping tic sheet stats. I thought this was normal, and this explains a lot about me. What we realized, over time, was that if we played enough games, all the players statistics evened out. The batting averages were the same. The pitchers earned run averages were the same. The only differences were whether or not they were playing on his time or mine.

What an 8 and a 13 year old didn’t get of course was that all the characteristics of the players were coded identical. And all the variables were rules based. There was no machine learning that adapted to the input. So the only variable was the human. And this was no fun. So we did the only logical thing. We assigned characteristics to each player. Some had to swing at every pitch. Or always with two strikes. Or never on the first pitch. Some pitchers threw only fastballs. Or only curveballs. Over time it got sophisticated. 

We learned that slow pitchers were better than fast ones. And batters that had to swing at everything did worse. Slow pitches could be controlled more easily by the human. And batters that could rely on human judgement to swing did better. And so you can infer that humans added effectiveness to the system. This was the key learning. Circa 1983, we were still better at baseball than an 8 bit video game console.

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Paul Graham posted a blog on Fierce Nerds yesterday. The gist is that pre-conceptions about the intensity, or lack thereof, in some nerds are not accurate. And that there are fierce nerds and they have inherited the world…or at least the burden of progress. There’s more to it of course. I encourage you to read it. There’s a half turn I’d like to take on it to talk a bit about the channels in which we find ourselves in life and how limiting they can be.

I had an engagement via Facebook with a high school classmate of mine who took exception to me referring to myself as a nerd. I’ll reference the very real excerpt on how my brother and I used to spend our time and let you judge for yourself. This old classmate was, in his terms, a real nerd. He was unpopular and girls didn’t like him and he played no sports. I was revising my childhood experience and he knew better.

By the book definition, the evidence is pretty strong. I was, and still am, socially self-conscious and awkward. (goofy as per my wife). I try to hide it but it’s exhausting. I can’t small talk. If anyone tries I turn into Larry David. I‘m deeply interested in obscure and eclectic information and topics. And I’m an outlier in observing patterns in data to the extent that I have made a good living doing it. If left to my own devices I’ll disappear into an excel file and never come back. I build tables for fun. Sometimes I get to co-host a sci-fi talk in Clubhouse on Sunday nights and it’s my favorite part of the week. If I could have dinner with one person it’s probably Tyler Cowen (I’m serious).

All of this has always been true. What has also been true is that I grew early into an athletic body. And I have a competitive streak. And so the natural rewards systems of American youth culture is that I played sports. And I needed to as the child of a single parent I had limited resources for college funds. And it worked because those sports got me into Annapolis. And then I went off to war. All while harboring a deep dark secret. I was a secret nerd.

Now I spend much of my time trying to convince the world that I am a nerd. Because, as Paul points out, nerds are going to save the world.

I have three sons now. Two of them aren’t neurotypical in that they have or have had a formal diagnosis of impairment because their brains don’t process information the way most people’s brains do. They likely inherited a bunch of it from me as mine also does not. They’re just more extreme. The reason they have the diagnosis is because it enables us to bend the current industrial education manifold into something that might yield a more effective outcome for them. I’d call it a 40% solution. One of the things I’d love to spend more time on for my sons and others like them is the next 60%.

In case you’re wondering, we did a great job of finding out what it’s not the last 14 months of pandemic.

The point is that my two impacted sons aren’t going to Stanford (or like). And so they aren’t on track to wander into the places in the tech universe to allow them to contribute to the hard problems of our collective future. But I’m not sure we know enough about either of them at this point in their lives to say they couldn’t help. Their journey could be just one of many potentially heterodox pathways into a world that currently has a few narrow pathways.

under resourced world relative to demand + limited pathways = a problem to solve

There is no shortage of hard problems. The hard problems take nerdiness. And our standard definition of nerds is too narrow. Moreover, it’s not just nerdiness that the hard problems take. And to see the world through a lens where there are nerds and non-nerds with obvious distinctions between the two is limiting. Unless by nerds we really mean software engineers. If that’s the case then we’re trying fit all the future problem solvers of our generation through a pretty narrow doorway. And we’re going to need a few more Lambda Schools.

Here’s a fun story that I think highlights an illustrative problem.

In 2007, the Naval Special Warfare Community began to realize that the future of how we fought was going to be highly dependent on organic collection and operationalization of data and information. I had the opportunity to lead the operations function for the group tasked with building that capability. What’s crazy though is I actually had to get out of the Navy and then get recalled as an active reservist because there weren’t any actual types of active duty officers that they could wedge into the new capability. Like the rest of the world Navy and especially SOCOM buckets its people. And if they need something new, sometimes the buckets don’t fit.

This was something new. The SEALs weren’t nerdy enough. And the nerds weren’t SEAL enough. And so they got me. What happened next is most of my point.

Once we got the group up and running and created the formal infrastructure, the nerd SEALs came out of the woodwork. And they were every bit as nerdy as your nerdiest nerd. And now they run a thriving tech enabled, irregular warfare and reconnaissance capability. They’re super nerds. What happened next to me was pretty telling though.

I left that life and I jumped on with a tech firm that let me on in the non-nerdiest role they could stomach for someone with a “irregular” background. After being king of the nerds in my last life, I wasn’t nerdy enough for Silicon Valley because I didn’t come from the standard nerd path. They realized in time that I was, in fact, nerdy enough to have more nerdy roles and things have gone quite well for me and the firm.

It gets better though.

My new nerd friends wanted to know how SEALs worked. And they wanted to be more like them. Because they realized that there’s value to the brand of “non-nerd” leadership in leading large dynamic organizations full of humans. And they all read books like Extreme Ownership by my friend and ex-teammate Leif Babin. Which means my life has come full circle.

Babin, by the way, is kind of a nerd too. He’s got a freakish memory and he picked up the technical aspects of what I was developing faster than any leader I worked with. He’s also one of the most decorated combat veterans of our later American wars. So…the lines of nerds v non-nerds blurs in application. And so maybe we should figure out a way to draw from more sources into the tech world if we aim to solve the world’s problems through tech.

What I’m getting at here is pretty basic. Narrow pathways into the domains that are most important to solving tomorrow’s problems yield fewer effective outcomes. They assume things about the decisions people make or the access that people have to things when they’re 12 years old. And from there we don’t really know anything at all about what they contribute because they wander off the narrow path.

Broad pathways are better. Places like Lambda School, which lets people in the door to software engineering without having to have been good at how the modern education system teaches algebra in the 8th grade. Oddly, the DOD is a great place that teaches people an abundance of technical skills that then get completely ignored by major tech firms. And they bring with them top tier scaled management experiences.

The world needs more nerds. The good news is that the world has more nerds than we think it does. We just can’t let the definition stay too narrow. Or the pathways too obscure. It won’t scale. And the future is a problem of scale.