Part II: An Interview with James Everingham, Head of Engineering at Instagram

Part II: An Interview with James Everingham, Head of Engineering at Instagram
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Quantum Management, Wardialing and Finding Your Passion as a Programmer

Part II: Wardialing, Books and Buzzwords

Jameseveringham

Enigma: Earlier this week you provided insights into Quantum Management and its origins. Let’s switch gears and learn about wardialing. Did you invent it?

James: I didn’t invent wardialing, but the term came out of software I created as a rebellious young programmer—I think it was called demon dialing in the 70s - 80s. These were the days of the early hackers. Everything was connected via modem. They would start with a numeric prefix, like 555. So you would start at 000 and then increment by 1, until you got a computer connection. When the movie WarGames came out, I was inspired by it. So, I wrote some software called “wardial,” and the term wardial took off from there, and demon dialer died. That’s why in some hacker circles they credit me with having invented wardialing. That’s a whole separate conversation—it’s pretty crazy, but a story for another time. 

Enigma: Now we’re intrigued. Tell us more.

James: It started because I liked communications software. Also, long distance dialing was expensive. We were a middle-class family, but we weren’t rich. We had three siblings—my sister, my brother and myself. 

One time I ran up a $500 phone bill, which was more than our monthly mortgage bill. My Mom was very upset. I didn’t want to make her any more upset, so I took wardial and found an 800 service called LDX (Long Distance Expert). How it worked was, you’d call an 800 number, enter a 6-digit code, then you’d hear a dial tone and you could enter the number you wanted to call. You can create a war-games dialer to go through these codes until you connect to a valid computer. So, I started sharing these codes. 

One day I called my friend Charlie in Texas. He heard someone say something and said, “hey James, someone’s on your line.” I said no, “someone’s on your line.” Then we hung up. Then both our lines rang and we were connected back to each other. I asked Charlie, “did you call me?” He asked me the same thing. 

Then we got a call again. There was a man on the other line who called himself Mr. Clean. I talked to this guy for 6 months and to this day only know him as Mr. Clean. He worked in the LDX data center and he became fascinated with us—we spoke every night. He taught us all the tones. Over a period of many months he told me enough to provide the data to create and then take over phone lines. 

This led to wardial 4.

Enigma: Very interesting. Let’s shift into your favorites or “best things.” Any good books you’ve read recently?

James: 

  • Radical Candor, by Kim Scott
  • Stretch: Unlock the Power of Less-And Achieve More Than You Ever Imagined, by Scott Sonenshein
  • Critical Chain, by Dr. Eliyahu Goldratt (using the Critical Chain theory of Project Management got me thinking about the way to analyze problems. I was a fan of that.)
  • The Hard Thing About Hard Things, by Ben Horowitz

Enigma: What new technologies are you particularly excited about?

James: I am very buzzword compliant. I think that the current work in AI and machine learning is amazing. We are at a tipping point and I am excited to see what else we do with our giant datasets and clusters of GPUs. I am fascinated by that. 

I am also fascinated with blockchain. I think that’s interesting and I think it will be transformative. Right now the application is cryptocurrency—but I believe there are many more interesting applications beyond that and will be transformative in medicine, for instance.

My personal passion is med tech—specifically the human body as a connected device. I want to get notifications when my blood pressure is up and map it to my calendar.

Enigma: Going back to AI for a moment, folks are in two camps on if the “singularity” is near. What’s your viewpoint?

James: I look at it in two dimensions to this. First, there is a bunch of stuff that people talk about that we are way over optimistic about. These are hundred-year problems. For example, context is very difficult to understand. I’d put general/strong AI in this category. 

In the other dimension, though, people are discounting how fast we change is coming—medical understanding and practice, for example. I think AI will let us build superpowers that go deep in one area, but when you talk about human broad intelligence, I don’t know if we are going to build HER. I think that’s a hundred-year problem. But AI doctors and self-driving cars and trucks—those are coming faster than we even realize. We are building super powers.

Enigma: How should society adapt? 

James: I don’t know, but it is not a new problem—we have seen industry after industry change over hundreds of years and we will deal with it. What is consistent is we are raising the quality of the job. Simple transactional, menial labor is not that satisfying for most people. Doing work that is focused on growth will lead to more happiness. But, it will be hard and painful for us to get there. Self-driving technology, for example, will affect trucking, which is the second largest employer in the country. We are going to find ways for people to become more educated in the long run. 

Enigma: How should we think about the problem of re-training? Not just with the automation of jobs, but also with the boom in “hacker school” type programming and data science boot camps.

James: I think it is a complicated problem…I don’t know. I think first we need to light a fire in the passion of people so they want to learn. When I was really young I wanted to be a bricklayer… I couldn’t imagine what working with a computer was like at all, so I can imagine what it might feel like to be a blue-collar worker today. I can remember what that felt like. 

One approach is to give people the tools—physical computers and perhaps something like counseling or people to talk to—to help them find problems and discover what they are passionate about. It might be like massive scale group career counseling—help people identify their most aspirational dream and then give them the tools with which to achieve it. We talked about this earlier—you cannot give communities rules or guidelines, but you should give them tools. 

The problem with boot camps is that learning programming for the sake of learning programming does not create good results. But if you ignite someone’s passion and provide a computer/programming as a tool to get to their passion, you will get much better results. 

Another problem with boot camps is that people see engineering as a lucrative job at the moment—they are driven by monetary gain. This is unfortunate, but I understand it. It is painful to put a lot of time trying to learn something that you are not passionate about—then you get neither financial reward nor the reward of fulfilling your passion. 

If you go back to our quantum metaphor, this is a form of quantum entanglement or “spooky, action at a distance.” Incentives are a form of entanglement. 

Enigma: Let’s talk for a few minutes about Netscape. What a time to be there—you were building the modern internet, the first browsers. What was that like?

James: I was employee #150. We were a small engineering team. I’d break the Netscape experience into three phases:

  • 1. The Big Bang: We were building a new thing, it was catching fire and it connected with my early communication and BBS experience. We could see the effect immediately. We slept under our desks nearly 24/7, literally. We did this because we loved the work and thought it was so important for the world. It was a unique time because there weren’t many super sexy high-tech companies, so there was an insanely good concentration of talent. For learning, the level of game of the Netscape engineers was off the charts. You can trace roots for all modern Silicon Valley companies back to Netscape.
  • 2. The Great Struggle: Microsoft saw Netscape as a threat to their existence and focused their entire company on us. We had to combat that through creativity and innovation. Ultimately, though, we lost that battle. Not because we were not creative, but because Microsoft had a large distribution footprint that they could leverage against us.
  • 3. The Great Gamble: Giving the source code away, creating Mozilla and changing the competitive field. We enlisted the world to help us. It felt like Star Wars. Microsoft was the evil empire and we were fighting the good fight. Open source was our last hope. That worked, over time. Firefox and Mozilla ended up having a second life—it made a huge difference. 

Netscape was the most exciting time in my career. In fact, I was depressed after Netscape. As software engineers, all of us start out wanting to write something that changes the world. Once you do that, you think “now what?” You’ve discovered this amazing drug called impact, you can never have it again. 

After a while I was able to realize that having impact on one person is just as fulfilling as having mass impact… but it took me a while to get there.

After a while I was able to realize that having impact on one person is just as fulfilling as having mass impact… but it took me a while to get there. 

LiveOps was cool because we brought work back to the U.S., we created work for U.S. Army veterans and mothers. 

Enigma: More great insights, James. 

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Don’t miss part III of this interview, with closing thoughts from James on how to find your passion as a programmer.

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