Speaker interview – Nat Torkington

Nat Torkington lines up in the next of our speaker interviews. There’s some very quotable stuff here!

Webstock: You’ve made the move from the the hotbed of Silicon Valley to, well, let’s just say when Warkworth is the nearest big town you’ll be looking hard to find yourself on Google maps. Why the move?

Nat Torkington: I grew up here, first and foremost, and wanted my kids to have the same kind of upbringing that I had. It’s expensive to buy a house in the country and live close to the beaches, the sea, and farmland. My kids may never be able to afford to do it. So I felt I should give them those experiences while they’re young, before they have to pay for it all themselves. And I missed home πŸ™‚

It’s also wonderful to have distance, literal and emotional, between Silicon Valley and myself. It’s easy, when you live there, to buy into the bubble. From this side of the world, idiocy is easier to see. There are drawbacks, of course – it’s considerably more difficult to evaluate from afar the applicability of a product to the US market.

Webstock: Which four people, living or dead, would you have at your ultimate dinner party?

Nat Torkington: Oscar Wilde, W.H. Auden, Douglas Adams, and my great-great-grandfather. The first three are all writers I admire: witty, insightful, interested in diverse things, and with nanometer-precision language skills. All have travel, exile, and dislocation in their stories: Wilde fell from grace in London society and was exiled to France, Auden rejected England for New York, and even Douglas Adams moved from his famed Islington flat to Los Angeles.

My gggf would have an amazing story to tell. He was a builder in Manchester, and we have stories of him doing handstands on the chimney stacks of factories. He and his wife lost seven young kids to the ills of Industrial Age Victorian England before she died in childbirth, leaving him with only three living sons. He went from Manchester to America, South Africa, and New Zealand, then returned to New Zealand to buy land (walking from Auckland to Leigh then Mangawhai before walking back and saying “I’ll take Leigh”) and then moved his sons out. It’s astonishing to think of the state of mind of someone in that circumstance – the sadness, the vulnerability, the strength, the determination to provide and survive. I’d gladly foresake conversation with the other three just for a dinner with the first Torkington in New Zealand.

Webstock: If programming languages were religions, what religions would Perl, Ruby on Rails and .Net be?

Nat Torkington: Python would obviously be Catholicism: there’s only one way to do it, that’s our way to do it, and if you try to find another then you deserve to burn in hell. Perl is hippy new age 1970s spirituality: a hodgepodge of angels, Tibetan monks, whalesongs, animism, meditation, and underground cities. Even though Perl practitioners sometimes seem crazy to outsiders, they’re still calm and productive. Ruby on Rails is the efficiency religion of the 2000s, as exemplified by Getting Things Done. It looks practical and efficient on the surface, and everyone raves about it, but look too close and you realize it’s the same hippy bullshit as Perl but with great marketing and positioning.

.NET is Scientology: bullshit manufactured to profit from the gullible.

Webstock: Teh Interwebs – what more should New Zealand be doing as a country?

Nat Torkington: This question comes up a lot and for a long time I struggled to find an answer. Now I believe there isn’t one, because this is an invalid question. New Zealand doesn’t act as a country. There’s government policy, there’s business behaviour, there’s education, there’s consumer sentiment. There’s no one answer that works for “New Zealand as a country”.

The open question is whether a Kiwi can build an Internet product that attracts consumers overseas. It appears, at first glance, that you have to be in the market, be in the same environment as your customers, to create a killer product. So the whole Knowledge Wave drama of living in NZ but making a killing overseas could well be a pipedream. It’d certainly explain why, as David Skilling points out, our top 10 exports are the same now as they were in the 80s.

Xero and several other companies are hoping to score well internationally while still keeping their core operations in NZ. I wish them luck – I know they’re learning a lot about the challenges of doing this. I hope fervently they can find a way through for the rest of us.

If it turns out that you have to be embedded in local markets to succeed, that might be an opportunity for the Kiwi exodus. We have the number 8 wire mentality behind us – generalists, ingenious, used to doing more with less – so as our brightest find themselves overseas they may see opportunities. The trick is relating that to those of us back in New Zealand! We can’t compete with China on price for manufacturing. Software might well go that way, too.

I have some thoughts on what might work for us, but I’ll save those for my talk!

Webstock: You’ve attended and organised more conferences than most of us have had hot dinners. What makes for a good conference?

Nat Torkington: The best part of every conference is the hallway track – the people you run into between talks, the people you talk with at lunch, the people you go drinking with after sessions end for the day. A good conference enables and encourages these off-the-grid interactions rather than attempting to channel everything through the formally-planned sessions. A great conference is one that has attracted fascinating, diverse, talkative people as attendees, so everyone you talk to is exciting and enlightening.

Webstock: Which other Webstock speaker are you most looking forward to seeing, and why?

Nat Torkington: Don’t make me choose! I know Kathy, Damian, Tom, Simon, Russell, and Amy already. I’m a big fan of Dan Cederholm’s designs, so I’ll be trying hard to pick up even a skerrick of his talent while he’s here. But I think it’s Tom Coates I’m most looking forward to. When I think back to the presentations on web technology that have blown my mind in the last ten years, Tom’s name crops up again and again. I’m thinking of the BBC Program Information Pages [and PDF presentation], and Using Wikipedia to Give Structure to Flat Lists. If you haven’t read his Native to a Web of Data talk, do so. Similarly, Greater than the Sum of Its Parts is simultaneously mind-expanding and useful.

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