Danielle and Kevin started jobs

This week both Danielle and I started new jobs. I’ll be managing an engineering team for Quizlet’s new office in Denver. I hadn’t heard of them until being recruited, and was blown away to hear they’d passed 50 million MAU and are used in a huge percentage of schools. We’ll try to share more details on Danielle’s new job next week, which is with a different company.

Taking a 7 month sabbatical has been eye opening. Sometime, I need to write more about it. It’s crazy to think I had worked 20+ years never taking anything longer than a 2 week break. Now that more people are working white collar jobs that don’t wear out their bodies, I hope it will become common to delay retirement, but mix in sabbaticals like this. It really is life changing. One of my favorite parts has been building out Buried Reads. I’ve got it honed to a few hours each week, and will continue to publish weekly notwithstanding the new job.

From the Operators

I caught up with Aline Lerner of Interviewing.io last week, and as per usual we got into a great conversation about recruiting. I asked her what single one of her data-driven posts she think would be most interesting to Buried Reeaders. She said What do the best interviewers have in common is a post founders regularly tell her has been helpful. If you haven’t read it already, check it out.

I knew that Buffer and Baremetrics were regularly sharing the revenue and profit actuals, but it turns out there are way more startups doing this. Postmake put together a list in Open Startups.

Daniel Gross of Pioneer put together a list of Markets To Build In that are new on his radar. I learned a ton from the post. For example I didn’t know Travis Kalanick is starting up a new company called CloudKitchens, probably from what he learned building UberEats.

From the Investors

Jerry Neumann of Neu Venture Capital follows up on a previous strategy post this week with Managing Technological Innovation: Industry Analysis. I’ve tried to read Michael Porter’s famous strategy book, and got bored to tears. Jerry’s slides give you a way easier entré into strategy theory.

Ryan Caldbeck of CircleUp tweeted this week about CEO comp. There are some juicy parts in here on secondary sales where founders take money off the table before exit.

In The Seed Slump Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures summarizes an earlier Mark Suster post, but ends up getting to a more provocative question: is it time for VC to go through change given everything upmarket and down market has changed so dramatically.

Bethany Crystal of USV asks Who anoints you with decision-making power? She links to a fascinating book Lives of Promise: What Becomes of High School Valedictorians. Maybe that’s the sweet thrill of confirmation bias that I’m feeling given that I was a terrible student through most of grade school, and ultimately dropped out of college.

When Employees Spread Their Wings

This week I’ve been thinking about the important connection you can build with employees.

Just recently, our longtime friend René Barranco opened his first business Element Bar in Panama. I first started working René at Microsoft in 2003. When I started growing the team at Mattermark in 2015, he was one of the first people I wanted to hire. We worked together there for several years, and he was universally loved by everyone at our company as an amazing engineer and a boundless source of optimism, fun and laughs–even a counsel in tough times. I hope in some small way we gave him the itch to start his own business, and it’s amazing to see it up and running this week. If you’re ever in Panama, he makes amazing cocktails!

Another longtime employee just hit the employment authorization stage of their visa process and is now in the final step to get their green card. This would make the 3rd green card that we were able to get for employees at Mattermark. The first two both had families, and it meant they didn’t have to completely upend their lives. It was life changing, and I can’t wait to see what they create in their adventures.

Whether or not your company survives, the relationships you build with employees can be a long lasting treasure you get to hold onto.

From the Operators

Sahil Lavingia of Gumroad shares his humbling journey from 19-year-old wunderkind founder to profitable and independent in Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company

In a GIF laden post Frank Denbow tells his story of building his company, applying to YC, only to be rejected and discover what really gave him happiness. We’ve helped a bunch of people with YC interviews over the years, and while some make it, there’s always the possibility of that tough rejection email. Frank made it through to the next step, and we love his story.

Sarah A. Downey of Accomplice acknowledges that most VC are generalist, and she is looking to profile people who have deep domain expertise in Everyday Exceptional: seeking people who are awesome at something specific

From the Operators

Fred Wilson of Union Square Ventures has an interesting take on Raising A SAFE Or Convertible Note In Between Rounds. Fred talks about how this is a potential long term problem. Danielle and I talked about this, and she pointed out that VCs are using this as a stealth tactic to come in as a “white knight” and lock in companies.

OpenView Venture Partners reminds us why the NPS methodology has been widely discredited in Can’t We Do Better Than NPS?.

This week Ryan Hoover of Weekend Fund chronicles The Rise of “No Code”. I’ve believed for a long time that learning to be a web developer is way too complex relative to the days of Visual Basic dominating line of business applications, and the market is ripe for someone to retake this market. Disclosure: we’re proud investors in Retool.

Chip Hazard of X Factor Ventures takes a pulse on Female founders: Digging into the 2018 investment numbers. Danielle is a partner at X Factor, and actively fields pitches from female founded companies. If you’re working on one, reach out to her by replying to this email.

Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund goes back to the moment early chemists figured out how to make bronze from copper and tin, both are relatively soft but suddently together they’re like magic. In my research for Buried Read’s , I keep coming across founders who needed a Steve Wozniak like personality to make it all come together. When you get cofounder alchemy right, it’s magic.

One last note, we are active on Twitter under @BuriedReads. We share posts beyond what we share here. Like Tomasz Tunguz’s post about Top 10 Learnings from the Redpoint Free Trial Survey.

When Computers Stopped Being Human

The beginning of the Information Age started inauspiciously during 1812 in England. Charles Babbage had drifted off into daydreams, having become tired of the tedious logarithms he was calculating. In the next moment, he would have the idea that would launch the Information Age. This is his story.

Sitting at his desk, he began to wonder: what could happen if you used a machine to do math instead of humans. The spark of insight would send him on a lifelong journey that led to the first mechanical computers 100 years before electronic computers. Moreover, his work would be picked up by later pioneers still within the nineteenth century who would for the first time combine a computing device with the newly-discovered Boolean logic—a momentous event that would lay the foundation of modern computing.

This is the sequel to part one that precedes Babbage, in the age when Computer was a job title held by humans.

Automatons and Almanacs Inspire Babbage

Computation wasn’t just useful for ship captains, artillerymen and bankers. Charles Babbage born in 1791 would find himself caught up in calculating everything from postal rates, to life expectancy, and even conducting an accounting of glass windows breaking. The insight to apply machines to computation may have spawned early in Babbage’s life. As a 10 year old, he was exposed to the burgeoning automaton industry. Babbage was struck by the mechanical automaton toys exhibited by John Joseph Merlin, at the time a famous curator of automatons. The memory left a mark on Babbage so much so that he bought one at auction later as an adult. Babbage also knew of the Jacquard loom, an instrument that would stir the imagination of not just him, but also later pioneers like John Von Neumann.

One evening circa 1812, Babbage found himself lost in thought while looking at a table of logarithms (exactly the kind of tables used to construct The Nautical Almanac from part 1). A colleague walked in and snapped him out of his daze by asking, “Well, Babbage, what are you dreaming about?” Babbage recalls in his autobiography pointing to the logarithms and replying, “I am thinking that all these tables might be calculated by machinery.”

This singular moment is arguably the beginning of the Information Age. Babbage, perhaps sensing this, wrote to a colleague in 1822:

“I will yet venture to predict, that a time will arrive, when the accumulating labour which arises from the arithmetical application of mathematical formulae, acting as a constantly retarding force, shall ultimately impede the useful progress of the science, unless this or some equivalent method is devised for relieving it from the overwhelming incumbrance of numerical detail.”

By this point, Babbage was well aware of the work De Prony had done earlier in France, and the great cost De Prony endured with his 100 human computers.

So what motivated Babbage and, more importantly, his supporters in the government? On the surface, one would think it was pure cost of computing. Isn’t it why we automate things, to save time and money? That might be just a part of the answer though. In many cases there was even a higher, hidden cost: the cost of an error. Think about it: a minor mistake in calculating latitude might be imperceivable on paper, but deadly in treacherous waters during a storm. Removing the “human element” from the loop cuts this gordian knot.

The First Mechanical Computer

Still in 1822, Babbage would make Difference Engine 0, a sort of “minimum viable product” that could calculate two orders of differences (e.g. x2 + x + 41). Author David Alan Grier writes, “Babbage started with a geared adding mechanism, originally developed by Blaise Pascal in 1643, improved the design, and cascaded the devices so that the results of one addition would be fed to the next.”

In 1823, Babbage secured funding for a larger mechanical computer intended to operate on 20 digit numbers and 6th order differential equations. Ada Lovelace, a colleague of Babbage and arguably the first software engineer recalled, “We both went to see the thinking machine last Monday. It raised several numbers to the 2nd and 3rd powers, and extracted the root of a Quadratic equation.” Lovelace had so many important realizations about early software design that we’ll cover her in a forthcoming edition of Buried Reads Engineering dedicated to her contributions.

Babbage would never successfully build a full scale working Difference Engine 1, and so his grant from the government went unfulfilled. He blamed the failure on the mechanist, and it leaves us wondering how history would be different if he had an eighteenth century hardware savant like Steve Wozniak as a collaborator.

Coming Back to the Problem

Still dreaming of a successful, generalized machine for computation, he designed the Difference Engine 2 by 1849. It was intended to operate on up to 31 digit numbers and 7th order equations. Babbage was beginning to think about an approach beyond just solving differential equations. In his book “The Information”, James Gleick credits Lovelace as being the superior spokesperson above Babbage for the emerging field of computer science:

The science of operations […] is a science of itself and has its own abstract truth and value; just as logic has its own peculiar truth and value, independently of the subjects to which we may apply its reasonings and processes.

Babbage would write, “It is the science of calculation—which becomes continually more necessary at each step of our progress, and which must ultimately govern the whole of the application of science to the arts of life.”

How It Worked

The engine worked by hand cranking on one side, while eight cylinders called registers about the height of a human turned against smaller gears to conduct addition. The first 7 registers were for the seven degrees you could solve, and the 8th storing the result. When viewed from the back you can see rotating hooks that look like spinning DNA helixes govern the carrying of digits across columns. The final step used a printer stereotype to print out the result, avoiding any errors from transcription.

Babbage’s work on the Difference Engine was never fully built in his lifetime. In the late 1980s his designs were resurrected and built. You can see a working Difference Engine 2 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. There is also an excellent video demonstrating its use, as a 5th order polynomial is solved in about 4 crank revolutions by its operator.

Babbage’s Legacy

During Babbage’s life the Difference Engine took physical form in a few prototypes, but was trapped mostly as a set of designs on paper. To hear it from historians like Jame Gleick, “Babbage’s engine was forgotten. It vanished from the lineage of invention.” From their accounting, we are left to believe that Babbage’s ideas would be ignored for 100 years until well into the dawn of electronic computers. Respected mathematician and computer scientist Richard Hamming teaches a similar line of thought, “The machine was never completed. It died. It was pretty well lost until we built quite a few machines and found out they were anticipated fifty, almost a hundred years, before.”

In fact, there was no “Dark Ages of computing” after Babbage’s death. His work was almost immediately picked up by George and Edvard Scheut, who inspired by Babbage, created a working difference engine in 1843. In yet another example of mechanical computers blossoming after Babbage, Charles Xavier Thomas de Colmar’s Arithmometer, which was popular and manufactured from 1851 up to 1915.

William Jevons, an English economist and logician, would fawn over Babbage in 1869, “It was reserved for the profound genius of Mr. Babbage to make the greatest advance in mechanical calculation, by embodying in a machine the principles of the calculus of differences.” Jevons proceeded to create a logic piano, combining for the first time Boolean logic with mechanical computing, a crucial leap. Jevon’s work in turn would in turn be discovered and carried on by Allan Maquand and Charles Pierce when they built the first electronic computer around 1890.

Babbage’s work would also guide twentieth century computing pioneers. He influenced computer designer Howard Aiken in the late 1930s; Aiken crucially was an influence on Von Neumann and his computing architecture, which is largely still the design by which computers are built today. We also know that Babbage’s work came up in conversation at Bletchley Park where the Colossus computer—the machine which broke the Gernman Enigma Machine—was built during World War II.

Far from a tragic failure, Babbage, along with Ada Lovelace, are heroic figures in the history of computing and software.

What’s Next

At the same time mechanical computer hardware was taking off, another transformation was underway. The invention of the telegraph was connecting the continental United States and an effort was afoot to link Europe and the U.S. with an ambitious undersea cable. A worldwide telegraphy network would get built before the close of the nineteenth century. Enter your email below to get this story when it’s published.

Credits and More Reading

As was the case in our last issue, James Gleick’s The Information was an invaluable resource. Steven Johnson is a fantastic source for understanding How We Got to Now and also the twists and turns it in How Play Made the Modern World.

Special thanks for Jason Rowley for editing this issue. Besides regularly writing for Crunchbase News, he also writes a newsletter the Rowley Report sampling great reads he comes across. Max Grigorev also helped with both research and writing of this issue.

When Hard Work Pays Off

This is Kevin here. Last week a short but impactful chapter in my life came full circle when HelloSign was acquired by Dropbox. I joined the company in December 2011, and working with the company’s CEO, Joseph Walla, showed me the power of focus and saying no to distractions. I blogged my reflections in When Hard Work Pays Off.

From the Operators

Patrick Collison of Stripe appeared on EconTalk, my favorite podcast, to discuss Innovation and Scientific Progress. Collison is concerned we‘re spending more than ever on science research, but getting diminishing returns. Much like Peter Thiel‘s The End of the Future, it reminds me that innovation in the largest industries (e.g. transportation, healthcare, and energy) has slowed to nearly zero. While I’m tempted to blame it on politics, I was reminded of the arguments in The DIM Hypothesis by Leonard Peikoff, which goes further down the philosophical stack from politics into epistemology.

Chad Dickerson of Reboot (and former Etsy CEO) shares The Magic of the Personal Check-In: Red, Yellow, Green. Danielle and I have been using this in team meetings ever since attending a Reboot founder bootcamp, and find it helps people bring their whole self to work.

The first time I read Blueprints for a SaaS Sales Organization, after nearly 3 years at Mattermark, I thought to myself, “Why couldn’t I have found this on day 1?” Staying human in an age of automated sales came across my radar this week, and it gave me the same feeling. If you read the Blueprints book, make sure to check out the fantastic charts and visuals.

Sarah A. Downey of Accomplice has resumed her excellent blog series Startup Trek, drawing a startup takeaway from each The Next Generation episode. We re-watched the controversial episode “Angel One” and scratched our heads trying to figure out a good startup allegory, but Sarah did much better than we could comparing Riker’s efforts to assimilate with the all female oligarchy to a story of showing up to a startup interview in a Brooks Brother’s suit, only to find everyone in hoodies.

Andy Sparks of Holloway announced Good Work, a Newsletter by Holloway this week. If you like Buried Reads, Andy has a very similar style, but is covering the challenges of modern work.

Imagine finding product market fit after your whole team has gone without salary for over a year. And just when it seems things are clicking, the government mandates your cost of goods sold must go up by 3x. Tim Westergren of Pandora sits down with GGV Capital in Real Talk Episode #19 to tell his harrowing story.

From the Investors

This week Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital appeared on Harry Stebbing’s Twenty Minute VC. Kopelman learned that partner meetings don’t have to be about getting your deal approved, rather “It’s finding truth, what’s knowable, and what risks are we taking.”

What’s it like inside a VC firm? How things work at Kima Ventures provides an inside look. For another look in VC operations, Eze Vidra of Remagine Ventures compiled the The European VC Tech Stack 2019. If you have other tools you use to source deals, keep track of prospects, find comps, or otherwise rock out your job let us know. We would love to share your “Buried Tools”.

Jason Kwon and Aaron Harris of Y Combinator announced A Standard and Clean Series A Term Sheet. Apparently, we haven’t seen any particularly crazy terms in our startup lives as this seems pretty basic. But if you’re looking to simplify, use this one. Also — why not just draft the term sheet you want and send it to the VC?

Boris Wertz of Version One Ventures rolls out his fund’s newest thesis Building Strong Local Communities. What I really love about Version One is the amazing guides they publish, and Understanding Social Platforms is no exception.

Lisa Suennen of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips has a great post this week with tips on moderating a panel. I’ve sat through enough boring panels to appreciate the tips Lisa has here, and this is a must read for anyone who resolved to more public speaking in the New Year.

Matthew Cynamon is joining Union Square Ventures working as their new Network Program Manager. He’s helping to unlock the value of their extended partner and alumni network to the portfolio. I love that he listed the books he’s using to ramp up in his post Nice to Meet You.

When Hard Work Pays Off

This is Kevin here. Last week a short, but impactful chapter in my life came full circle.

By November 2011, I was at a low point in life. My mom had passed away two years before. Danielle and I had moved to San Francisco, and I had made hardly any friends. I missed my friends from being in Seattle for 30 years. With the move, I had started a consultancy which eventually became a startup. By the end of 2011 it was clear that too wasn’t working. I had burned through my life savings. I swallowed my pride, shut down my failed startup, and started looking for a job.

I joined a company called HelloFax. They had the two cofounders and two other engineers. The five of us worked out of a studio apartment in the Lower Haight. Right away, it was a refreshing change from working on a stalled startup: we were making revenue, and our customers loved us. More over, it was a breath of fresh air to be working with a team again. When we weren’t busy coding, we were joking around.

I remember being struck by the CEO Joseph Walla. I would bounce ideas off of him about crazy things we could be doing. “Joseph why aren’t we doing advertising; we could be growing so much faster! Or why don’t we invest in something to make the signatures look better.” He was unflappable though, and couldn’t be deterred from his vision. I watched as he took early UI designs that were too complex and spent hours honing them down to something elegant.

He wanted to keep all his employees unimpeded, and so it wasn’t uncommon for him to take out the garbage in the morning (he was too frugal to hire a janitor).

When Danielle pitched me on cofounding Referly together six months later, my greatest reservation was that I’d have to give up working with the HelloFax team. I did decide to leave, and my last commit to the code base was helping to rebrand them to HelloSign.

I kept in touch with Joseph over the years, and was always impressed with his unwavering focus and commitment to his company. I wasn’t surprised to see this week that he announced HelloSign has been acquired by Dropbox. It made me so happy to wake up to the news and see that all their hard work had paid off. Congratulations Joseph and the HelloSign team!

Buried Reads for January 26th

Since launching Buried Reads in September, we’ve created a new newsletter for software engineers. Instead of linking to blog posts, Kevin decided to do his own original research and writing. The first edition is out: How Computing Came About. We went deep into history, back to the days when “Computer” was a job title held by humans. Early reviewers, even non-technical ones, told us they loved learning history they didn’t know about. We’re building an audience for more content like this, and hope you will subscribe and share with anyone you know who would enjoy this history.

From the Operators

2018 was the year of people resolving to use their phones less, stay away from Twitter, delete Facebook and perform various forms of “digital detox”. There’s clearly something to this, but I also believe this trend is swinging the pendulum too far the other way. Replace the word “phone” with “my connection to all human knowledge” and then try to talk about how pernicious it is with a straight face. Given this, I was elated to hear Sachin Monga formerly from Facebook offer some valuable perspective on wielding these new attention gravity devices in Screens & Time.

Ben Gilbert & David Rosenthal of Pioneer Square Labs kicked off Season 4 of their amazing podcast Acquired. This episode tells how ESPN got off the ground. It brought me back to the days before the Internet when cable was a welcome relief from the three major network channels.

Ting Ni and Hendrik Pretorius of ImmiPartner go in depth on transforming immigration HR from a nuisance to a strategic advantage. 70% of foreign candidates view a company’s green card policy as a major consideration when joining. At Mattermark, we took pride in working to secure green cards, and are so proud of being able to help families stay in the U.S. indefinitely.

Bob Crimmins of Startup Haven started a series on why founders should play poker. In Poker is “Wax On, Wax Off” for Startup Founders, he reminded us of a great quip from Peter Thiel: when everyone around you is taking shortcuts, you should dig deep and research from first principles. When everyone around you is moving slowly, you should find the shortcuts that cut through the noise. A classic lesson from the poker table that works in business too.

From the Investors

David Sacks of Craft Ventures posted a tweet this week soliciting off-the-shelf Series A docs. After seeing legal bills in excess of $100,000 to do a fairly standard Series A, we’d love to see the startup community optimize.

Tomasz Tunguz of Redpoint Ventures has a great distillation of Eugene Wei’s Novel Mental Models for Technology. Danielle had been reading The Theory of the Leisure Class this summer, and it took us back to how signaling shapes humans culture.

Sammy Abdullah of Blossom Street Ventures offers a seldom spoken truth: strategic investors can hurt you. Too few people talk about the strings that can come with this ”easier” money.

As a hiring manager, references checks scare Kevin. He was influenced by the advice that if a reference isn’t a screaming “Yes!” for a candidate, then it’s damning. On this basis, he almost turned away what ended up being his greatest engineering hire ever. He’s looking for ways to make reference checks work, and thinks the ideas from Bowery Capital in The 7 Do’s and Don’t of Sales Reference Checks are a good start.

Leo Polovets of Susa Ventures tweets a reminder that trust underlies our society and economy. We wish more economists and psychologists studied the inner mechanics of trust. The closest Kevin has found recently is Gottman’s The Science of Trust.

For founding teams that didn’t give away board seats to investors in early rounds, it is tempting to forgo board meetings. Jason Lemkin of SaaStr argues holding board meetings is a great way to secure investor commitment for follow on or at least a bridge in 5 Reasons to Actually Have Board Meetings.

Brigitte Hackler of High Alpha answers the perennial question from founders How Much Should You Burn. She’s doesn’t provide a single answer, but rather a framework using risk and distance from needing to raise again to help you come to your own answer. Later stage founders should think about the Rule of 40, which Dave Kellog wrote an awesome update on this week.

How Computing Came About, part 1

This week, I am kicking off by sharing a story I didn’t learn about until I had worked in the software industry for 20 years: how computing came about. Many of us know the story of Bill Gates and Paul Allen creating Microsoft or Steve Jobs licensing Xerox Parc’s technology to bring GUI to the masses. Too few of us know about their distant forerunners: Nevil Maskelyne, Charles Babbage, Claude Shannon, Alan Turing, or John von Neumann.

The Original Computers

Before electronic computers, Computer was a job title held by humans.

There is a rich history of humans as computers dating back to at least Mesopotamia in 3000 BC. Donald Knuth, who is famous for The Art of Computer Programming, chronicles the story in his research paper Ancient Babylonian Algorithms. We know the Babylonians were working with algorithms, because they wrote them down on tablets. Knuth writes, “they represented each formula by a step-by-step list of rules for its evaluation. In effect, they worked with a ‘machine language’ representation of formulas instead of a symbolic language. The calculations described in Babylonian tablets are not merely the solutions to specific individual problems: they actually are general procedures for solving a whole class of problems.”

The Babylonians gave example numbers in their calculations, a lineage we can give thanks to anytime we use a REPL. The Babylonians did not explore all possible avenues; Knuth found no usage of control flow or iteration. It would take time for algorithms and computation to develop more fully.

Organizing Human Computers

Computing would have to become more crucial and more expensive before humans would be motivated enough to outsource computation as a job. The seeds were planted centuries ago.

Dating back to 1497, sailors were calculating their latitude from the North Star, but calculating longitude required delicate timekeeping devices that would be damaged on a ship rocking at sea. The British government enacted The Longitude Act of 1714, encouraging entrepreneurs and scientists to devise a means for calculating longitude.

Nevil Maskelyne, an astronomer and also an appointee to England’s Board of Longitude, wrote the volume pictured here: The British Mariner’s Guide. It laid out how you could calculate longitude by lunar distance. The problem then became knowing where the moon was on any given day. Thanks to Kepler and Newton this was largely a matter of math.

Tabulating the Heavens tells the story: “The Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris, was to be published annually giving data relating to a particular year. It contained tables of lunar distances tabulated for every three hours of every day. It also contained other astronomical data of use to both the navigator and the astronomer.”

Maskelyne organized a network of at least 35 human computers each working from their homes on their own timetable throughout England. Computing started as a literal cottage industry. Maskelyne did not send all the equations that underpinned the almanac to each computer, but rather sent them a list of steps to extract data from several tables. A typical calculation would involve 12 table lookups and about 14 arithmetic operations on eight digit numbers. Each month’s table involved up to 1,365 cells to be calculated.

The almanac was used by several famous explorers, including Captain Cook during his voyage to New Zealand in 1768 and again in 1772.

The work of Isaac Newton, Nevil Maskelyne and Halley (not discussed here, but also a pioneering computer) was not without its critics. The famous book Gulliver’s Travels is actually a critical satire of the perceived arrogance of these computers.

The French Angle

The story of distributing computation across humans doesn’t stop with Maskelyne’s almanac. He would encounter and influence another crucial computing pioneer. That story picks up on the other side of the English Channel, in revolutionary France. In 1791, the new regime wanted to shed all memory of “old” way of doing things, and the Académie des Sciences decided to create a new system of weights and measures. The new units were all based on the metric principle: they would be related through a measure of ten: 10 centimeters in a decimeter, 10 decimeters in a meter and so on. One of the units that needed addressing was angle measurement. Under the new system, a right angle would no longer have 90 degrees. Instead, it would be split into exactly a hundred of new units, called grades.

If the new angle units were to be successful, someone had to publish trigonometric tables in book form. The Académie des Sciences wanted the work done and the job fell on the shoulders of Gaspard de Prony, the director of the Bureau of Land Management.

De Prony quickly realized that a single person wouldn’t even come close to completing the work before the deadline. Fortunately, he had met Maskelyne and was aware of his work.

Moreover, as was common among his social circle at the time, de Prony was a big fan of Adam Smith and his “On Wealth of Nations”. De Prony bragged he “could manufacture logarithms as easily as one manufactures pins”: a nod to Adam Smith’s division of labor theory.

The computation was organized in 3 levels:

The first level consisted of 5-6 high-ranking mathematicians, including such paragons as Adrien-Marie Legendre (of the Legendre polynomial and Legendre transform fame) and Lazare-Nicolas-Marguerite Carnot. This group had nothing to do with the actual computations, their job was to oversee the process and to choose the analytical approximation formulas. The resulting equations only contained additions, subtractions and multiplications. That meant that even people with rudimentary arithmetic skills could master them.

The second level had 6-8 lesser mathematicians, whom de Prony called “planners”. Planners had two jobs. First, they used the formulas, devised by the high-ranking mathematicians, to create worksheets. The sheets had exact instructions for a simple computation on one side, and a table of input values on the other, followed by the blanks to be computed and filled in. The second job, called “differencing”, involved looking at the differences between the adjacent values of any given function. As all trigonometric functions are continuous, subsequent values in the table should be close to each other. This allowed planners to check the result of a computation, without redoing it.

The third group, the actual computers, up to 90 in their number, were the ones filling the worksheets prepared for them by the planners. As the computations were trivial, anyone with a basic knowledge of arithmetic and decent mechanical skills could be a computer. In fact, most de Prony’s computers were… out-of-work hairdressers! As the result of the revolution, the demand on powder wigs had collapsed, and many well educated coiffeurs were looking for something new to do.

There is an interesting parallel here: the de Prony’s planners were basically translating mathematical equations into the instructions for “computers”. In a way, this represents the work of a modern programmer. One coder-friend jokingly remarked, ‘my job is translating research papers into computer code.’ Not unlike a planner of 1792 indeed.

Du Prony was still operating the computing enterprise until 1801. By then, saddled by high inflation, the revolutionary government did not have the funds to publish the tables. However, the work would catch the eye of Charles Babbage, most likely when he visited Paris in 1819, but also because De Prony had reached out to several English physicians who Babbage was connected to.

Read issue 2, which picks up where we left off: the story of Charles Babbage and how computation went from a job for humans to a job for mechanical computers. As time goes forward human computers fade by volume, but the intertwined nature of humans and computing lives on to this day. For example, every time you fill out a CAPTCHA you are a human computer providing gold data back to electronic computers.

If you loved the first issue of the Buried Reads Engineering Newsletter, enter your email to get future issues:

Credits and More Reading

My friend Max Grigorev was instrumental in encouraging me to work on engineering topics, and helped with the writing of this issue.

Our research was greatly aided by Jame Gleick’s The Information. If you want to learn more about the history of computation and information theory, I cannot think of a better place to start. When Computers Were Human was also heavily cited for this issue. We only covered a fraction of human computer history. This book is an incredible read if you want to explore deeper.

Special thanks to Jimmy Soni, author of A Mind at Play: How Claude Shannon Invented the Information Age, for encouraging my choice of format and pacing. I am also grateful to Maran Nelson, Fawaz Al-Matrouk, and several others for providing early feedback on drafts. Any mistakes or omissions are my fault, not theirs.

Also if you love it, please let your friends know. In later weeks, I’ll be working on original research outside the history of computation (problem solving, debugging, static analysis, and more). If you have suggestions write us at editor@buriedreads.com.

It’s Turtles All The Way Down

We have a great post this week from the founder of Thumbtack, who shares lessons on over a decade building the company. Most “lessons” posts serve up platitudes, but Jonathan’s post has a number a unique ideas. My favorite: he’s built multiple companies along the way 1) the startup hunting for basic product-market-fit 2) the startup hunting for business-model-market-fit 3) the startup hyperscaling 4) the startup building out a leadership team. There’s a new challenge just when you feel you’ve got the hang of it.

From the Operators

Jonathan Swanson of Thumbtack recounts Thumbtack’s wild ride in Zero to $1B: 8 Lessons Scaling a Startup.

Anand Iyer of Trusted shares An important Marketplace Metric: Search to Fill. Don’t be deterred by the Uber example at the beginning, this pieces goes deep on the math you need to corner your marketplace.

Andy Sparks of Holloway and his team at Holloway have put together the The Holloway Guide to Raising Venture Capital. It’s the definitive guide to raising.

From the Investors

Bijan Sabet of Spark Capital memorializes the passing of Mary Oliver. If you haven’t read her, Bijan found a good poem to start with.

This week Twitter was all upset about Ryan Hoover’s search for the Weekend Fund Chief of Staff, but Jason Calacanis sets them straight with a primer on carry in A carry comp kerfuffle in Micro VC land.

500 Startups recently published their 2018 wrap up, and we were surprised to see how many unicorns they’ve funded over the years. Add these startups to your index of unicorns: Credit Karma, Talkdesk, Twilio, Grab, Sendgrid, Canva, Intercom, Bukalapak, Gitlab, Revolution Precrafted

Hunter Walk of Homebrew says “Podcast Discovery” Is A Problem But It’s Not A Company. I’m a bit sad, because I want a collaborative filtering solution for podcasts, and Breaker isn’t quite there.

Gené Teare of Crunchbase reports that 2018 Sets All-Time High For Investment Dollars Into Female-Founded Startups. It’s so refreshing to see this happening.

What if being 10x better requires just a slight tweak?

We’re loving the How I Built This podcast, hosted by NPR’s Guy Raz. In this week’s episode, Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler tell the story of starting SoulCycle. Raz asked pointedly, “why even bother starting Soul Cycle when practically every gym already had a cycling class for members at no additional cost.” This reminded me of the quip “if you’re entering a market with existing competitors, you have to be 10x better.”

It’s sound advice, and the founders of SoulCycle knew they could offer a 10x experience with just a few important changes. As Danielle can attest, from the moment you step into the studio the receptionist has been trained to make you feel welcome and accepted. When class ends and you’re dripping with sweat, the lights are low, candles are lit, and the instructors prompt you to celebrate how powerful your body is without comparing yourself to others. In short, you’ve had more than a ride — you’ve had an experience that to some even seems cult-like.

Sometime 10x better doesn’t mean 10x more work. Remember that just a few small tweaks in your work, or life, could make all the difference.

From the Operators

Andy Dunn of Bonobos recounts conversations with the late Blake Nordstrom, who passed away last week, in The Last Time I Saw Blake Nordstrom. Growing up in Seattle, I’ve heard so many stories about the Nordstrom family’s dedication to customer service, and you feel it when you’re a customer there. To hear it from Andy, the founder’s great grandson still had the touch, and will be dearly missed. Rest in peace Mr. Nordstrom.

Over the past month Nathan Barry of ConvertKit went through a difficult time, facing something not talked about nearly enough: his wife’s miscarriage. His surprising discovery that sometimes Gratitude is a distraction resonated with us, and his vulnerability in sharing this story is deeply appreciated.

First Round Capital compiled the best advice from First Round Review in 2018 in The 30 Best Pieces of Advice for Entrepreneurs in 2018. They’ve also conveniently linked back to previous years if you want to binge on the best nuggets from this top notch VC publication.

From the Investors

Jason Calacanis is back to blogging regularly and suggests The Ultimate Outsider’s Hack is to Read All The Biographies. This reminds us of the approach author Robert Greene takes to summarizing knowledge around human excellence in his great book Mastery.

David Teten of HOF Capital has the best non-obvious advice I’ve seen in a long time. Writing down your responses to VC’s doing diligence goes further in closing a deal than you might imagine. Find out why in Face-to-Face Meetings Are Important, but Thoughtful Written Collateral is Mandatory for Closing the Deal.

Jeffrey Carter of West Loop Ventures dives into another under-reported topic of fundraising, discussing investor’s : Information Rights

Carlos Eduardo Espinal of Seedcamp has a simple but awesome spreadsheet for Managing Your Fundraising Pipeline. Savvy founders can also fill this sheet with qualified VCs using the Investors tab of Mattermark.

Ali Hamed of CoVenture draws the distinction between Capital Efficient Vs. Equity Efficient. Either he’s dead on that financing growth needs more options or maybe founders should get more creative with their distribution approaches.

A warm congratulations to Dorothy Ren for joining NextView Ventures on the investment team. If you’re a founder re-designing the everyday economy (home, transportation, food, work & money, health, apparel, and entertainment) hit her up with a pitch (her email is in the post).

Playing chess without seeing the board

This week two of our favorite videos comes from hours of great conversation last week with our former cofounder and great friend Andy Sparks. The first ponders how our typical approaches to strategy might be like playing chess without being able to see the chess board. And we also have a great video from one of the most experienced COO’s in startups, Keith Rabois.

We hope all of you are off to a great start in 2019!

From the Operators

Simon Wardley of Leading Edge Forum asks what would it like to be playing chess without being able to see the chess board or know the rules. It turns out this mode of blind thinking is where most business advice comes from. Situation Normal, Everything Must Change is humorous talk worth seeing.

Thompson Aderinkomi of Nice Healthcare tells the story of being fired as a CEO only to watch his company be shuttered months later. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s now recreating the company from scratch without venture scale funding. Read the full story at Indie and Me.

From the Investors

Keith Rabois of Khosla Ventures did a great talk called How to Operate several years ago. Enough people have recommended it that I finally checked it out, and boy is it a good one. We’re breaking our own rule that all content must be fresh, because Keith’s advice is so useful.

Dave Kellogg of Host Analytics shares A Simple Trick To Get Your CEO Closer to Your Team. Middle managers in companies with 50-200 employees can benefit from this tactic.

Shannon Liston of Techstars explains How To Shutter Your Startup: Best Practices for Corporate Dissolution. This is the tip of the iceberg, and we wish there was more written about this given how many founders we’ve seen wait to plan this until there are only 30-60 days of cash left.

Morgan Housel of Collaborative Fund wonders if our Wild Expectations for leadership are too high. She mentions a fascinating bit of history about Harry Truman taking over from Roosevelt I didn’t know about.

From the Authors

Jonathan Rosenberg of Five9 announced on Twitter his new book Trillion Dollar Coach, a collection of insights from Bill Campbell who coached Steve Jobs, Larry page, and probably dozens of other successful entrepreneurs.

Eliot Peper announced on Twitter his new novel Breach. His two preceding books Bandwidth and Borderless have been completely on point with our political situation and the challenges technology has introduced.