I stumbled across an article this evening on Twitter entitled, “Google Adopts the Language of Steve Jobs for New HQ” by Bryan Chaffin. Chaffin quotes a Vanity Fair piece about Google’s new Googleplex. One specific goal of the new building is to spur casual encounters, “to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”
That sentiment sounded familiar to Chaffin. It’s precisely what Steve Jobs set out to do at the Pixar campus in Emeryville. From Walter Isaacson’s biography:
Jobs “had the Pixar building designed to promote encounters and unplanned collaborations.”
He did so by designing the building around a huge atrium that included all of the bathrooms (two large facilities for each sex), all of the mailboxes, the company’s caf�, and the stairwell to get to any other part of the building. Even the screening theaters empty into this atrium, guaranteeing unplanned meetings.
“There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat,” Mr. Jobs said. “That’s crazy. Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions. You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow,’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas.”
He added, “If a building doesn’t encourage [encounters and unplanned collaborations], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”
I went to a workshop bright and early Saturday morning called “Supporting Data Science” that embodied this general thought, except at the level of the university, with its many scales of sacred silos. The meeting drew a varied group of academics, staff, and (a few) students from across the University who came together to discuss challenges and opportunities in working with “big” data (which, in the end, was decided to be any data bigger than you’re accustomed to working with. A little cheeky… and wholly true).
The group of folks who gave ‘lightning talks’ were impressive and included Josh Bloom, Charles Marshall, Henry Brady, Fernando Perez, Ion Stoica, Bin Yu, Cathryn Carson, Dave Dineen and Cyrus Afrasiab, Lee Fleming, and Marti Hearst. The whole thing was moderated and kept moving and interesting by Saul Perlmutter (yup!) and David Culler.
Brady’s comments, in retrospect, honed in on the same essential idea that Jobs shared with Isaacson. Brady discussed how, prior to the advent of personal computers, students and researchers would meet at mainframes, waiting in line to get access to the machine. During those long waits, they’d converse — true and fruitful cross-disciplinary conversation that spurred creativity and built strong bonds between researchers. He lamented the silo’d nature of the academy these days and, perhaps rightly, saw the cross-cutting nature of big data and the challenges associated with managing and interpreting it as a prime area to spur this kind of collaborative exploration moving forward.