tim_oreilly's picture
Founder and CEO, O'Reilly Media, Inc.; Author, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us

Many years ago, I began my career in technology as a technical writer, landing my first job writing a computer manual on the same day that I saw my first computer. The one skill I had to rely on was one I had honed in my years as a reader, and in my university training in Greek and Latin classics: the ability to follow the breadcrumb trail of words back to their meaning.

Unfamiliar with the technology I was asked to document, I had to recognize landmarks and to connect the dots, to say "these things go together." I would read a specification written by an engineer, over and over, until I could read it like a map, and put the concepts in the right order, even if I didn't fully understand them yet. That understanding would only come when I followed the map to its destination.

Over the years, I honed this skill, and when I launched my publishing business, the skill that I developed as an editor was the skill of seeing patterns. "Something is missing here." "These two things are really the same thing seen from different points of view." "These steps are in the wrong order." "In order for x to make sense, you first have to understand y." Paula Ferguson, one of the editors I hired, once wrote that "all editing is pattern matching." You study a document, and you study what the document is talking about, and you work on the document until the map matches the territory.

In those early years of trying to understand the industry I'd been thrust into, I read voraciously, and it was precisely because I didn't understand everything that I read that I honed my ability to recognize patterns. I learned not as you are taught in school, with a curriculum and a syllabus, but with the explorations of a child, who composites a world-view bit by bit out of the stuff of everyday life.

When you learn in this way, you tell your own story and draw your own map. When my co-worker Dale Dougherty created GNN, the Global Network Navigator, the first commercial web portal, in 1993, he named it after The Navigator, a 19th-century handbook that documented the shifting sandbars of the Mississippi River.

Over the years, my company has been a map-maker in the world of technology, spotting trends, documenting them, and telling stories about where the sandbars lie, the portages that cut miles off the journey, as well as the romance of travel and the glories of the destination. In telling stories to explain what we've learned and encourage others to follow us into the West, we've become not just mapmakers but meme makers. Open Source, Web 2.0, the Maker movement, Government as a Platform are all stories we've had a role in telling.

It used to be the case that there was a canon, a body of knowledge shared by all educated men and women. Now, we need the skills of a scout, the ability to learn, to follow a trail, to make sense out of faint clues, and to recognize the way forward through confused thickets. We need a sense of direction that carries us onward through the wood despite our twists and turns. We need "soft eyes" that take in everything we see, not just what we are looking for.

The information river rushes by. Usenet, email, the world wide web, RSS, twitter: each generation carrying us faster than the one before.

But patterns remain. You can map a river as well as you can map a mountain or a wood. You just need to remember that the sandbars may have moved the next time you come by.