Hi, I'm Brian Alkerton. I worked at a pretty cool startup called Shopify for a few years. I write here about purpose, politics, culture, and anything else that catches my eye.

Why I Quit, And What's Next - Posted September 06, 2015

So, tomorrow's the one-month anniversary of me quitting my job at Shopify. It was as amicable as these things can go.

To answer the one question I've heard more than any other since making my decision, why did I leave an amazing company with great perks? To be clear, Shopify is a great company, easily the best I've worked for. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the catered lunches, snacks, and camaraderie. But without diving into exact numbers, here's why:

Not the most elegant graph, but I'll try to explain. Joining Shopify in 2011 was a greater risk than joining (or continuing at) Shopify today, so people joining in those days got significantly more stock options, which in my case wound up being worth more than all the salary and bonuses I earned in my entire time at Shopify combined. Post-IPO and with my 2011 options fully vested, the total return on my time became a function of my salary and the day's stock price. I ran the model a few different ways, and whether my salary doubled, halved, or even disappeared didn't really have a huge impact on the total gains. With that in mind, I had to ask myself: what kind of marginal return on my time and energy am I getting by staying at Shopify, and what am I actually doing this for? What's the endgame? Once I realized my reason for being wasn't to work at Shopify forever (as much as I've enjoyed it) and that I'd be financially okay if I left (as nice as the benefits were), the job started to become a grind, and it became really hard to motivate myself. At that point I knew I needed to either shake things up or leave, and when it became clear the former wasn't likely, leaving was the right call.

So: from years of hard work and a lot of luck, I can feed myself and keep paying the bills without needing to work for a while. Not forever, but a while. And given this time, I should probably work on whatever I was put on this earth to do, that one overarching purpose, that thing I can do that no one else can, that thing which will make the world a slightly better place and which simply won't happen unless I step up and do it. What is that thing?

I don't know. I couldn't name it with any certainty if you put a gun to my head. But I read this James Altucher piece recently and through some synthesis of his thoughts and my own, I've drifted towards the following as a central idea that drives a lot of my day-to-day actions:

It's almost impossible for me to become the best stand-up comic in the world. The odds of me being the best programmer, the best politician, the best salesperson... all extremely long. I sure as hell will never be the world's foremost economist, and I'm okay with that. But I can absolutely point to times where some knowledge of economics has made me far better as a salesperson, where knowing how to tell a joke has helped me disarm people who disagree with me on politics, where understanding programming basics has helped me understand bigger systems, even if I couldn't write them from scratch.

It's a bit frustrating to say this, because I always believed (and I kinda still do) that someone who says they're a Promoter/DJ/Model/Actor/Web Designer/Social Media Guru/DJ/Writer is almost certainly full of shit and unlikely to offer much value to anyone. They're a failed DJ (you can tell, they mentioned it twice) and they're just flailing to find anything they enjoy that someone will pay them to do. Because if it's just a slash, if all these distinct interests fail to inform and build upon one another, then you're just spreading yourself thin and limiting the upside because in any given domain there's going to be people doing what you do, only better. A full-time DJ will kick your ass if you spend 80% of your time not DJing.

So as I go on through life, what am I doing? I'm telling jokes, I'm keeping up on politics, and I'm noodling around with the latest technology, but none of these things are in any way siloed. That's my intersection, and it's one I can aspire to be the best in the world at. My sales background is how I apply that intersection to the world, and my econ background is how I measure the effectiveness of that application.

I'm someone who can crack jokes backed up by hard data, who knows how to win people over to my way of thinking, and who has the applied skills to not only fit that persuasion into larger business or political objectives, but accurately measure its effectiveness. I'm someone you almost certainly want on your team, and I really didn't mean for this to turn into a "Hire me!" post. But here we are. Could I sit on my ass for a while? Sure, but that's nowhere near as much fun. There are things on the horizon I'm thinking about, none of which I'm anywhere near ready to announce, but I'm keeping my options open and trying new things that complement my existing skill-set.

Along those lines, I attended PAX last weekend, and if you haven't seen the latest VR stuff from Valve or Oculus, you're missing out on the future. The controller interaction and visual fidelity are getting to a point where it's starting to cross the uncanny valley. It was always virtual, but the state of the art no longer feels that way. It just feels right. And knowing that makes you think about potential applications and how big this is going to become in 3-5 years once the cost comes down enough for it to go mass market, which is likely inevitable... knowing that will absolutely impact on decisions I make about my career in the future.

I'm also more politically involved than I've ever been, canvassing a couple times a day with one of the local Liberal candidates in the lead up to the next election. As someone who's observed from the sidelines, following it closely through the media for most of my life, I can tell you that getting elected really isn't anything at all like it's often portrayed. It's much more local and personal, and all the national storylines people try to craft to get more play in the media... don't really hold a candle to making meaningful connections with the constituents you want to represent you.

Suffice to say, I'm keeping busy, I'm happy, life is good. 

Tomorrowland - Posted May 24, 2015

"Where the great would not be constrained by the small!" - Andrew Ryan

I'm not the first to draw parallels between Andrew Ryan, villain of the video game Bioshock, and Walt Disney. The resemblance was intentional, but I don't think it's ever been so clear to me as it was after I saw Tomorrowland this weekend. Spoilers ahead.

It seems awesome at first glance. An alternate dimension where the creative and brilliant among us can go and not be restrained by the system, where anything we imagine can be built! Sure, the world we leave behind might go to hell, but Tomorrowland? Tomorrowland is going to continue being amazing!

And it is amazing. There's a long take when one of the characters first sees Tomorrowland that made my jaw hit the floor. It's beautiful, exciting, fun, a place I'd love to visit. Who wouldn't? There's jetpacks and crazy hover-swimming pools! It's never explained, however, why all these amazing advancements couldn't be brought back to the world we know. Is that sloppy storytelling, or a future-world inhabited entirely by people who feel they have no obligation to give back to the society that got them to where they are? A Planet of the Eduardo Saverins, if you will.

One of Tomorrowland's discoveries is a machine that can predict the future, which it turns out is pretty bleak for us on Earth. In their profound benevolence, Tomorrowland broadcasts our horrible future back to us in the hope of scaring us straight, only to find that we take to it and embrace a future that guarantees our destruction, but which at least asks nothing of us. This is where the film starts taking shots at all the dystopian fiction out there at the moment, and I agree with the central idea that we need to focus on hope and finding solutions to our problems, but the solution proposed by Tomorrowland is for all the smart and creative people to bail out and run away to another dimension. Poverty, bureaucracy, and all the other boring challenges of the Unexotic Underclass are to be ignored in favour of hovercars and rocketships. That's not a solution, it's a setup for dystopia on earth, the one thing the movie rails hardest against. I remember joking as I walked out that Tomorrowland was a prequel for Mad Max, because if all the brilliant, creative, and talented people got Raptured (whether religiously or otherwise), they'd be fine but the world would be in trouble. 

To see a movie with such massive ambition and technical mastery on display fail at making an important point because of well-intended but half-baked ideas... well, it's a disappointment. I can usually forgive plot holes, but thematic holes this big can't be overlooked.

Noise - Posted November 18, 2014

People ask me why I don't write more often, particularly about movies. I love movies, and I love writing about them, but there's hundreds of movie critics out there and once a movie's already come out, it's very unlikely that my voice is going to add anything to the conversation, that I'm going to say anything that hasn't been said before or provide some particularly valuable insight. Of course, this doesn't apply to situations where I'm seeing something early, but I don't see as many advance screenings as I used to. If that changes, you'll see more reviews, you can be sure of it.

I try to hold off saying much unless I feel like no one else is saying the things on my mind, and to be realistic, with so many platforms and opportunities for people to publicly speak their minds these days, I'm not too proud to admit that I don't have that many original thoughts. I'm not someone people look to for guidance on how to feel about things, so it's not like I feel a real sense of obligation to get my stuff out there.

With that said, I'm confused by the idea that recent allegations of sexual assault, followed by the victims opting not to file a formal complaint, makes things difficult for Justin Trudeau. When confronted with the allegations, he suspended the accused MPs pending the result of an investigation. While the investigation is unlikely to find much without the participation of the victims, there's no reason it can't still take place. Someone who's been kidnapped or assaulted be a huge help to investigations into the criminals responsible for doing bad things to them, but that doesn't mean an investigation can't take place without their help. And for all we know, there's enough evidence out there against these two MPs that an investigation will make it clear they did some pretty awful things.

But there's no reason that an investigation can't still be carried out with as much diligence as possible under the circumstances, and I hope that it is, because leaving these MPs hanging in the wind looks terrible on Trudeau, as would reinstating them without doing anything to look into their conduct. The only way out of the predicament he created when he suspended these MPs is to commit all necessary resources to an investigation that is in no way obstructed or made less thorough by the actions of Liberals. If they're in the clear after that, you can let them back in with a clean conscience.

I haven't really see anyone saying this, so I thought I should.

Pretty Much Everything You Need To Know About Uber In Ottawa - Posted October 02, 2014

Uber is now in Ottawa... which is for the most part a good thing. There's a number of things they do way better than the current taxi system:

  • They're reviewed, and they're accountable to the outcome of those reviews. I once was ejected from a cab from having the temerity to ask my driver not to text while driving at full speed down Slater St. one evening. I was told he was disciplined, and Bylaw charged him, but he fought it in court and won since there was no conclusive evidence that he was texting while driving. Which really makes you wonder about the in-car cameras the taxi companies keep pointing to as the reason why they're better than other options.
  • You know who your driver is. I don't mean their life story, just that I get their name, picture, make of car and license plate when they confirm the pickup. I've called a cab in the past, been told to wait 15-20 minutes, then seen a vacant cab drive by 5 minutes later. Should I have flagged that one? I'd feel terrible if someone drove out of their way to get me only to have me already gone in another car. You can book a cab with an app and see it on GPS, but what if my cab sees a fare on their way to pick me up and takes them, meaning they're now going in a complete other direction? Where's the accountability to show up on time? It's too much ambiguity, and it sucks for both cabbies and passengers.
  • You can actually get a ride. Some people hate surge pricing, and I completely understand that complaint. But when it's 2:15am, -30 degrees, and every cab is full (or worse, turning down fares that aren't going far enough), I really don't mind paying a multiple if it means I get a ride ASAP. What if there's another transit strike in the middle of winter?
  • Being able to pay with a credit card without the driver giving you hell, where said payment happens securely behind the scenes without the risk of your data being stolen, and you get a receipt emailed to you... is pretty nice.

All of these are things the existing taxi companies could implement pretty easily, but they haven't. It would cost money, and without any competition since all the dispatch goes through one company, there's no alternative to lose business to, so there's really no incentive to improve. 

It doesn't hurt that Uber's significantly cheaper, too. So I'm glad to see them coming to Ottawa. But to hear some of the rhetoric about whether or not they should be operating here you'd think they were liberating Holland or... well, occupying Holland. So let's take a look at some of the complaints:

  • Safety: Uber claims their background checks are more robust than Ottawa cabs, and that their insurance coverage is significantly higher. This really needs to be verified by the city as a precondition to them operating, not least because there's more than a few examples of those background checks not actually being that thorough, and their insurance leaving drivers high and dry. However, there's no reason to believe an Uber driver is any more likely to hurt a passenger than a current Ottawa cab driver. I think it's possible to hold drivers to a higher standard than they're currently held to, and when you look at the stories about some of the horrible things drivers (both cab and Uber) have done to passengers, it's clear that we should make that a priority. But the evidence is clear that this is an issue faced both by rideshare drivers and conventional cabbies.
  • Uber will slash driver pay in a heartbeat if it means undercutting their competition. However they don't (or at least shouldn't) operate in a vacuum. If a driver can make more renting a taxi plate and charging the city-regulated fares, they should be able to do so. If other rideshare companies like Lyft or Sidecar come to Ottawa, competition for drivers would be fierce, and the likely winner would be whoever offers the best balance of caring for drivers and providing value to passengers. 
  • Uber drivers aren't licensed, so they don't have to prove they know their way around the city. GPS built into the app means they don't have to. In fact, since smartphones pull live traffic data, they can consistently dodge slowdowns better than a cab driver who doesn't have that knowledge and is just driving the most direct route.
  • Uber works great if you have a credit card and a smartphone with a data plan, but without those things in your possession, it may as well not exist. And I get it - those restrictions dramatically reduce overhead and make it easy for the business to scale. But there's significant obstacles to accessing Uber for a lot of people. They don't, for example, offer accessible cars for people with disabilities (though they've said they'd like to in the future). So when I see things in my feed like "Blueline can burn" or "I can’t wait to see Blue Line destroyed" I'm not sure if you're serious in thinking that Uber can completely replace cabs, but if that is your sincerely held belief you're a sociopath.

We've got a new service, the pluses are undeniable, the negatives are largely overstated, and yet Uber finds itself the potential target of fines, while candidates for the upcoming municipal election are being told things like "You get my vote if you let Uber stay in Ottawa, restriction free." which is frankly, kinda scary. We should require background checks for people who want to drive the public around. We should ensure that they have adequate insurance in the event that something goes wrong.

What option does the city have but to enforce the current bylaws? We have a company that was told they could operate in the city only if they met certain conditions. Those conditions tilt the playing field so far in the favour of incumbents that it's more of a playing wall, and are completely ridiculous, but rather than find a compromise, Uber's plan is to just ignore the rules. If you let that slide, you open the door to other companies ignoring regulations they don't like, including ones that are a lot more vital than our current taxi regs. I may make an incredibly good Thai Chicken, but all the customer demand in the world shouldn't exempt me from a health inspection. City council should extend a provisional license for Uber to operate while the process of reforming taxi regulations is carried out, but in the absence of that they really have no choice but to enforce the laws on the books.

The most fascinating aspect of this, at least to me, is the certainty bylaw officers have that they'll be able to successfully sting Uber drivers at any kind of scale. It's one thing to call a gypsy cab from a pay phone and bust them when they pick you up (and is bylaw even doing that? Because while it's much less in your face, it's a way bigger safety risk to the general public than Uber drivers are). To request an Uber, you're sending them information on your smartphone, your phone number, your credit card, your name/address, and probably a bunch of other data points (certainly if you sign up using Facebook). There's an easily accessible directory of everyone who works for the city online that would probably be pretty easy to cross-reference. If your hail results in a driver getting fined, everything associated with your account is getting instabanned - are they going to have the resources to generate enough new identities/accounts to make it worthwhile and still handle all the other work they have to do on a day-to-day basis?

In any case, the municipal election that was supposed to be a cakewalk for Jim Watson, and let's face it, is still going to be a cakewalk for him, just got quite a bit more interesting.

Los Angeles - Posted September 27, 2014

Los Angeles is physically impressive. It’s impressive that a place so big and sprawling and interconnected exists, amidst some truly beautiful scenery. There are freeway interchanges that are pieces of art in the way they conduct traffic.

Traffic which, yeah, sucks. But compared to Toronto, at least it moves, however slowly.

I haven’t encountered a single incident where anyone was less than polite and pleasant with me. I’d rather not think about how much of that is due to being a straight white male who isn’t poor. “I’d rather not think about that” seems to be a pretty common state of mind out here.

In a lot of ways this city is broken. That’s not terribly unique among cities. What is unique is that no one I met, at any point gives a shit about fixing it.

That’s not entirely accurate. I did meet one guy who was genuinely passionate about civic issues, but the level of apathy here is amazing, not just compared to the Rob Ford circus, but even compared to the David Miller years in Toronto, or any Ottawa mayor.

No one cares about anything other than the stuff they’re here to do. My impression of people who live here is that they regard this city as an obstacle to obtaining whatever it is they’re looking for: fame, beauty, money, or most likely, all three. And you can get all three here in a way that isn’t quite possible in any other city I’ve seen.

Getting famous, or at least looking like you’re famous… one of the best jokes I heard this week was that the cost of living in Los Angeles isn’t that bad, but the cost of pretending is nuts, and I get that. I’ve never seen so many nice cars, and I wonder where the money to pay for them all comes from.

There’s an absolutely absurd amount of money flowing around this place. I’ve never seen so many billboards for TV shows that no one’s going to watch. And yet, every single person on every single of those shows is getting paid - the writers, directors, producers, lighting people, the people selling the billboard space and putting up the billboards and it’s just… who’s watching this shit? I don’t even have time to keep up with the small tier of elite television shows: Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men. Who has time for this stuff, who’s getting anything out of it that could possibly justify the massive expense that goes into it?

I don’t get it, but everyone seems to be chasing it, even if they can’t explain why it exists, so everyone’s superficially nice because you’d never want to lose a gig because someone thought you were a dick that one time you were a dick.

Maybe the new thing is going to be hyper-targeted content or crowdfunding. I don’t know, but it feels like the existing way of doing things is going to come crashing down, which isn’t a huge revelation, but being here makes you realize just how big that shakeup’s going to be, and just how many people are going to be affected. 

I don’t hate this city. I find it fascinating and, at least for me, generally pretty comfortable, which is not to say it’s comfortable for everyone - it’s pretty clearly not comfortable for a ton of people who don’t have the resources to relocate. I could live here… but I’d never want that to come across as an endorsement, because it’s kind of a shitty place.

But god damn, it’s beautiful. The inner peace you can obtain just by walking down the beach for 20 minutes is incredible. 

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