Thursday, June 25, 2020

I don’t know that there’s ever a good time to retire from one’s dream job, and even if there is, it’s probably not in the middle of a global pandemic that upends your company’s business model almost more than any other—even space flight can resume easier than our in-person meetings, so don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t as hard as rocket science.

But, to quote one of my favorite proverbs of unknown origin, “tide nor time tarrieth no man” and to quote a favorite song of known origin—my mother’s favorite songwriter, in fact—“To everything, there is a season.” And the season for me to step down from my role as director is the summer of 2020.

The first TTI/Vanguard meeting I attended was in the summer of 2013, in Vienna, Austria. Robin, with her usual thoroughness and probably in hopes of making a good impression on the new guy, sent an airport limo for me. My first official function was an advisory board meeting. (For many of the board, this was the conference highlight, not surprising, if you can imagine the dynamic between Len, Eric, John Perry, Gordon, Maria, Doug, Nicholas, and all the rest.) Even as the discussion progressed, I got into a heated backchannel email exchange with Alan Kay over the relative merits of Aristotle versus Isaac Newton. (I don’t mean to brag, but you want to be holding the Aristotle ticket on that ride.)

That was my first impression of a TTI/Vanguard conference and vice versa.

Actually not. My first impression was a gauntlet of interview meetings, before I was hired, almost all by phone, with most of the board members. The hardest and the easiest was with Len. “Len, as it happens, we have two things in common,” I said, in almost the first moment of the call. “First, we met at a telecommunications meeting at Columbia a few years and a bunch of people, including you and me, took the subway downtown together afterward. I don’t expect you to remember.”

“I remember the event,” he said, warily.

“The second is that we went to the same high school.” That broke the ice—alumni status at the Bronx High School of Science is, for nerds, a bit like serving in the same platoon—and Len has been a warm and generous friend and colleague for these seven years.

So much has changed—the international meetings, the number of meetings, meeting in person at all—and yet so much has not. Certainly not those crazy special TTI/Vanguard moments. Here’s just a few that stand out for me:

  • Jeri Ellsworth, in torn jeans and a t-shirt telling us her personal journey from high school dropout to NASCAR driver to augmented-reality headset inventor.
  • A dinner at the Henry Ford Museum, drinks in hand, climbing aboard a 19c railroad engine, walking through a Buckminster Fuller Buckydome, and sitting in the seat Rosa Parks sat in.
  • Hearing about Ethereum from the founder, a week before he released its first cryptocurrency.
  • Carver Mead rewriting the general theory of relativity for us, in San Diego Harbor, on a dinner barge that was parked next to a Russian submarine.
  • An on-stage debate between Eric and John Perry, on security versus privacy, moderated by a CNN anchorman.
  • A private meeting with George Church; and private tours of Tesla, the Internet Archive, Kroger’s store of the Future, and the British Museum.
  • Geoffrey West’s theories of metabolism and scale, from protozoa to people to corporations and cities.
  • Facebook’s early investor denouncing Facebook, and Netflix’s first HR director on why she had to fire herself.

Just last year, we had one of those magical TTI moments: a conversation with Eric Haseltine and Charles Gandy, the man who figured out how the Soviets had hacked the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the 1970s by—you can’t make this stuff up—basically putting keyloggers on IBM Selectric typwriters. And then we all had dinner with him.

And I think maybe we’ll look back to realize we had a TTI moment just last week with Michele Ruiz and Dan Gould on bias and big data in this bittersweet moment of hate and hope in our society.

I’m here to tell you that you are part of technology’s best-kept secret. Gordon Bell was one of the people recommending me for this job—I wrote the first magazine feature story on his MyLifeBits project, spending two days in San Francisco with him and Jim Gray—but he never mentioned TTI/Vanguard in the twenty years I had known him. David Reed recommended me for this job; I spoke to David two or three times a year for a decade; he was my best source when I had the telecom beat at IEEE Spectrum—and he never mentioned TTI/Vanguard. Bob Lucky recommended me for this job—I edited his bimonthly column for years and years at Spectrum, and he never mentioned TTI/Vanguard.

All through the 2000s I would tell people that the best conference I ever went to in my life was the 1997 ACM 50th Anniversary of Computing conference in San Jose. It was only when I went to that Vienna, Austria, meeting, sixteen years later, that I realized ACM’s was nothing more than a larger-than-life TTI/Vanguard meeting—same exact format, a sort of greatest-hits lineup of TTI/Vanguard speakers, with the British television commentator James Burke in the Tony Shaw role.

Even today, as TTI sets aside that format, even as it has a new and completely energized and up-to-the-task advisory board, even as tests new ways to meet, it remains committed to its core mission of cluing its members in to the next three to five years, and even five to ten years, of the most important developments in technology that will change your business, your society, and even your personal lives.

To quote Pete Seeger again, there’s “a time to gain, a time to lose; a time to rend, a time to sew.”

I’m excited for what’s next for me. NYU has given me the freedom to design and teach a second course that combines in a new way my two passions of technology journalism and creative writing. And it looks like I’ll be reviving my podcast at Spectrum.

And I’ll be an active member of this new, vibrant editorial advisory board, helping Lisa and Robin and Claudia and Nancy and Bryan and Joy and my work-wife-of-the-past-six-years Kelly, to create more TTI moments like the Ruiz–Gould one. Because to quote the song one more time, there’s “a time for love, a time for hate … a time for peace … I swear it's not too late.”

Thank you all for seven magical years.

Steven Cherry

Author: Steven Cherry

Director of TTI/Vanguard, “a unique forum for senior-level executives that links strategic technology planning to business success. In private conferences that are part classroom, part think-tank, and part laboratory, its members—corporate and government leaders, entrepreneurs, researchers, and academics—explore emerging and potentially disruptive technologies.”

Twenty years experience as a technology journalist and editor, at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), and the Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). Founded the award-winning podcast series, Techwise Conversations covering tech news, tech careers and education, and the engineering lifestyle. Teaches an intensive writing class as an adjunct instructor at NYU. Previously taught essay writing and creative writing at The College of New Rochelle.

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