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Navigating disruption – both personal and professional

I’m definitely working hard to keep my grip on the rudder of the ship of life. I simply have to keep control and pull off some genius navigation to get myself out of the current dire straits and into some smooth sailing once again. This post is about thinking through that navigation chore. It may come off as a bit of rambling, but it’s the kind of rambling that belongs in a daily work journal, so tough noogies. Stop reading here if you can’t use your imagination to connect loosely arranged dots.

My job is to know when the waters are getting treacherous… anticipate it long before… and plot a course for the optimal success of the journey—both for my employer, and for me personally. This narrative is what’s been missing from the past couple of days… or weeks?

So, I’ve been significantly thrown off my groove. My mother is dying of cancer, and I’m on the roller-coaster ride associated with that. I’ve been estranged from most of my growing-up family for many years, having drawn a line in the sand about “making it” and establishing my own life here in New York City without the giant reset-button of family-affairs being hit… again. It’s a story for another time, but right now, it’s the story of navigating a treacherous ride whose dangers consist of a shifting industry, dying mother, and the need to “be there” for my family and beautiful almost-two-year-old daughter. Oh yeah, and not screwing up at work.

I have always had the desire to have mission and purposes, and have misplaced the focus of my passions terribly over the years. Calorie-for-calorie, I’ve probably put as much energy into my endeavors over the years as any of the dotcom wonderkids. Of course, I’m in my 40’s, so that would be half the energy over twice the time. The key set-back being that half my energies went into the decaying immediate family I was born into, and the other half went into Commodore, a spin-off called Scala, and a series of other jobs that never quite panned out, and became valuable experiences, but not life-long success platforms.

But I’m not one to bellyache and lay blame, as I am quite happy with where I am—especially considering my current employer—an enlightened digital marketing company in New York City, now owned by the Japanese mega-agency, Dentsu—and the family I recently made (as opposed to being born into), consisting of a beautiful and intelligent wife, and an utterly delightful young daughter. I wouldn’t give it up for anything. With such temporary smooth sailing comes time to think. And with time to think, you can optimize the course you’re plotting.

A few years ago… maybe a year before the kid… I made the decision to reposition myself hard-core off of Microsoft technologies and onto Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) technology. I scrambled and focused and dived into the material and learning. I picked up Linux server (not much interest in Linux desktop at the time), distributed version control systems (DVCS) like git and Mercurial, the Python programming language, the vi(m) text editor, and Apache2.

Now the FOSS grab-bag of potential tools and approaches is HUGE and not anything like Microsoft and Apple, where your decisions are easy: use VisualStudio and XCode, respectively. In retrospect, I maybe should have jumped onto the iPhone development bandwagon right away. I was amongst the people in line on day-1. Instead, I went with FOSS, considering myself once-fooled.

In FOSS, you have to wade through thousands of equally viable and alluring choices. I set a bunch of criteria and navigated through those choices. I’ve written plenty on those topics, but in a nutshell, I needed stuff that I both had a real chance of mastering without being a career programmer and computer science guy, but which was also somehow timeless and impervious to the disruptions of industry trends and vendor whims.

And so, several years back before the baby came along, I made hundreds of tiny little course adjustments. I was ironically told at my current job during the interview process that programming was explicitly not part of my job. I smiled and nodded, knowing that in the field of SEO, unless you were a regurgitator of other people’s work, you had to do a little bit of programming. I don’t even think of it as programming. I just think of it as working, as surely as typing emails and making presentations. You’re just using another every-day language that actually happens to be able to do stuff and achieve some efficiencies with automation. Would you not program an Excel formula or Macro because programming is not part of your job? Same thing… just take out Excel.

Fast-forward to today. I am still a director on account-work, and held to similar measures as other account directors. But I’m trying to break free of that, based on the programming work… no, call it inventiveness… that I’ve done with 360iTiger. I’m trying to create an incubator or lab image that will be attractive to my employer, and it definitely involves extreme technical expertise in creative areas that will be in-demand by clients in the coming months and years. This is probably where my future lies more-so than in pure SEO as we know it today.

In adjusting course, there are two opposite forces to keep in balance. The first is that there is in fact too many interesting and worthwhile things in life to try to take on. Taking on too many of them is as bad as taking on none, because it will fill your life with little pangs of disappointment. The opposite force is being able to work super-effectively within a small world. It’s the opposite, because by taking on LESS, you can master a single smaller thing more. Now of course the ideal is taking on LOTS of things and mastering all of them. But that’s just not realistic.

One of the places I took on and am in the early stages but know I will take it to mastery is the text editor vim. It has a potentially unlimited feature-set, is pre-installed on nearly every Linux/Unix system (in some variation) and can be mastered in a similar sense as you may master a violin. There are fixed locations for things, and you can get faster and fancier over time. And it is applicable to almost any information/technology endeavor you can imagine.

So the trick is, how many other things like vim are there? I’ve been shying away from anything having to do with vendor-lock-in and proprietary systems. Yet, iOS development is the siren’s call these days. There so much I could do if I could just develop iPhone apps. This is so contrary to so much of my thinking… but the benefit of being able to create native mobile apps with has the built-in dream of an easy monetization method, is just too great to ignore.

I am an Apple fan-boy, after many long years of painful transformation from being an Amiga computer fan. Apple is a storybook fantasy playing out of idiosyncratic artists having more of the important facts straight than the most credentialed, expert and fortified folks in the industry. I use to hate that sugar-coating UI stuff, but in the case of Apple, the sweetness has seeped all throughout to permeate the product through-and-through. Apple products aren’t higher quality only just on the surface. It now goes deep AND there is a huge, greatly unified user-base ready to spend dollar after dollar on apps… and so, this is the one place where I really feel I must make an exception to my No-Vendor-Cool-aid rule.

Ugh! So, what about that mission-and-purpose again? What about staying relevant in the field of SEO? And being there for my child, aiding in her education and traveling copiously as a part of it? I’m solving a simultaneous equation here, and one of the variables that I never quite got in place is monetization. I’m full of good ideas, but they don’t always equate back to money, except insofar is it makes me a more valuable employee. 360iTiger was firmly in that category.

But it’s time to create a clearer, tighter vision. Tie it to how people are doing things in the real world. Wrap in mobile development. Wrap in real-world sensors and interactivity. Wrap in 3D printing. Tie it inextricably to a method of making money. Feed a hunger that really exists. Don’t follow my own imagination. Follow actual needs that exist in the real world.

Of course, that WAS SEO. And while SEO is not really dead, its undergoing a major shift in which (I firmly believe) social signals of Tweet, Likes and +1 gradually replace the Link Graph and PageRank as the king-maker social signals. It probably would have happened already if Google had bought Twitter or Facebook early on (not that it could have realistically happened). But that puts us in a situation where Google+, circles and +1 data is going to have to reach critical mass, which could take years. Meanwhile, the world is becoming much more interesting, and manipulating Google results gets demoted from first-tier importance to second-tier… and in worse-case scenario, third-tier.

Why? How? Well, 97% of Google’s $40-billion annual revenue comes from AdWords advertising. Of all the 3-billion searches per day, only about 20% of them are searches with consumer intent, for which AdWords is competing for the click. So, only 1-in-5 searches even needs an AdWords ad. Why even start out on Google if you know you’re going to click on a shopping result? Why not just search on Amazon in the first place? And if too many people have that realization, what happens to AdWords revenue? Amazon.com continues to be my favorite dark horse of the search industry. Along with Google and Apple, they are one of the most likely “lifestyle providers” or ecosystem companies in the evolution of the interwebs.

And to hit this rambling post home, I need to plot out a hundred new tiny course adjustments. The final destination may or may not be the field of SEO. But if it’s not, it’s because something bigger and better is coming to take its place, that has something to do with mobile and something to do with the place of the individual in the new digital world. SEO has always been about leveling the playing field. People with greater technical insight, savvy and know-how were more powerful than the largest corporations, where their left foot is tripping over their right, and politics and paralysis keep anything from happening. But they’ve got marketing budgets and the ability to hire agencies.

And so Google is adjusting to that world. The money up for grabs out of all those big companies is much sexier and perhaps larger than aggregating up the long-tail of AdWords tiny company advertisers, which was Google’s roots… roots after natural search, but before the DoubleClick acquisition. And in that world, Google isn’t going to want to give up TOO MUCH to techies who know how to game the system. They are okay with giving up a little bit in areas that wouldn’t be better off monetized with advertising anyway. It’s the 80% of searches that commercially don’t matter. THAT’S where you’ll still be able to dominate in “natural” search.

The main problem is that systems are gradually changing so that you have to either “be somebody” or have a large marketing budget, or be so creative that you can punch your way through the noise with some sort of pop-hit phenomenon. Being technically good at choosing keywords and slicing and dicing pages up in clever new cross-linked ways isn’t enough anymore.

The main thing I have to offer, and probably my best path to “becoming someone” is teaching people how to do things from scratch, tackling the complete technology stack down from the silicon and physics behind why logic gates work in semiconductors, all the way up to choosing the best development tools to keep disruption over the years to a minimum, and achieve a sort of master-craftsman level of excellence with technological tools.