j.j. toothman

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Category: Work

The AT&T dropped iPhone calls problem. Definitely an SF thing.

I’m sure that no one will be surprised by this, but my opinion of AT&T iPhone service has changed dramatically since I left San Francisco. My iPhone is even more of a workhorse than it was before.  And it’s performing like a champ. I’m doing numerous 60-90 minute conference calls on my iPhone on a daily basis.  Once I did an hour long conference call while on the Acela from New Haven to New York.  During these calls, I’m putting my iPhone through its paces by surfing the Web, accessing info on the Evernote App, or other things sucking up the data stream.  And my call’s aren’t dropping.

Yes, this has resulted in heavy voice usage and the amount of minutes I’m using is skyrocketing.  This month, I would have been the victim of heavy extra charges on my bill if not for AT&T sending me a text message alerting me that I’m way over and I should change my data plan to compensate.  Thanks for taking care of me, AT&T!  I was especially pleased to find out that I could retroactively change my plan back to my last billing date.  Overage charges be gone!

It will be interesting to see how things change when I’m in metro Boston full time. 

Daring to be great at NASA

For almost a year, my LinkedIn profile has been headlined with the phrase “Looking for a dare to be great situation.”  And while that was partially me drawing more career inspiration from the wisdom of Lloyd Dobler, who doesn’t want greatness as part of their job?

Now, you can interpret greatness in a variety of ways. And over the years I have.  Some jobs have had great technical challenges.1   Or great people.2 And then there are those jobs that daring to be great is truly part of the cultural fabric and organizational mantra.  NASA is that kind of place.

And after two and a half years away, that’s one of the major reasons I’ve decided to return to NASA and work at Ames Research Center in Mountain View.3

It’s certainly not the only reason.  But it’s a big one.  When I was working with Ticketfly, I enjoyed working in a place that was thinking big.4  There are few places that think bigger than NASA.  What could be more daring than putting human beings into space?  This organization has sent people to the Moon.  And now NASA is pointing to Mars. 5

What I’ll be doing at NASA Ames

Well, my title is “Web Strategist.”  And my work will build upon what I did from 2001 to 2007.  I was involved in migrating some of our web solutions to open source.  And even launched Ames’ first official public blog using WordPress.  I actually helped define the requirements for the server that ended up hosting the content for the NASA iPhone app.  But what’s up first for me now is to come up with a strategic roadmap for the web at NASA Ames.  I’ll be taking a look a the overall web landscape at Ames and NASA.  Everything from the guts of the infrastructure(its actually fairly solid and bulletproof) to collaborations tools (big problems here – there aren’t great ones) to the user experiences (again good ones are few and far between).

So no, I’m not in astronaut training.  I doubt they’ll let go on one of the last few shuttle missions. 6  And I’m not designing rocket launch software or involved with aerodynamics testing.  But everyone involved with NASA has a part to play.  And all those parts feed into the various NASA missions.  My part is helping the NASA community utilize everything the web has to offer it.  As well as help the NASA community enrich the web so that it can offer back something back for others. 

Why it’s the right time for me to come back

OK. So I actually started two weeks ago.  It’s taken me a little bit to get my feet wet and truly feel like I’m back.  Onboarding new employees isn’t exactly this place’s strength.  I’m actually surprised that I wasn’t asked to pick a lock with a safety pin in order to start using my nasa.gov email address.  

I left in 2007 after 6 years of working in (mostly against) government bureaucracy.  At the time, I was feeling a bit jaded about NASA and needing a change of scenery.  Furthermore, I was finding it difficult to work on the progressive types of web projects I was interested in.  The web was exploding with new tools and APIs and I really wanted to tinker with them.  Working for 18 months at Stanford and the past year with startups allowed me that opportunity.  In the meantime, NASA – and particularly Ames Research Center – has evolved in many positive ways.  Some new leadership in the technical areas has emerged and those leaders had as much to do with my return as any.  The Nebula cloud computing initiative is one representation of the new forward type of thinking that has emerged in the NASA tech landscape.

The Obama administration is changing that landscape as well.  Come to think of it, it was about a year ago that I actually had a phone conversation with a White House official about working in the new media team of the executive branch.7  There’s clearly an evolved environment to try new things and break the status quo.  To be honest, that wasn’t always there before.  Things like OpenGov are refreshing to see. 8

Here’s a picture of my new “second home”.


  1. Still haven’t found the job that allows me to sit on the drink and drink vodka tonics all afternoon.  That would be pretty great, right? 

  2. OK, hopefully they all do.  One thing I’ve learned over the years is that the work environments without great people working in them are destined to crash-and-burn miserably 

  3. Full disclosure: I’m not a government civil servant.  I’m a federal government contractor working for Dell government services. 

  4. In Ticketfly’s case, they wanted to take a big bite out of Ticketmaster. 

  5. Yes, there’s a ton of controversy going on right now with the human spaceflight program.  Obama doesn’t want to go back to the Moon.  And plenty of people are pissed off about that. 

  6. Skyrocketing to the top of my bucket list: take my children to Florida to see a shuttle launch this summer. 

  7. At the time, Jude was 8 months old.  Honestly, a move to D.C. was the last thing on my mind. 

  8. NASA’s OpenGov plan is at http://www.nasa.gov/open/ 

OK blog, I’ve got some things to say

Hello blog.  Happy to see you’re still here. No, I haven’t forgotten about you.  Though if you thought that I had abandoned you for something like my posterous account, I could see that would be running through your database tables and php scripts.  Don’t worry.  I’m only using that for that for quick publishing photos and videos taken on my iPhone.

But I’m sure you’re wondering why no updates for since last Fall.  Let me bring you up to speed.

I spent the last half of 2009 working with a dot-com startup in San Francisco called Ticketfly. I told you about them before.  Working there was wonderful in so many ways.  I met a lot of great people and made some new friends.  I got to work with a lot of web technologies and social APIs that are right in my sweetspot of interests.  And it was about live music.  And you know how much I like that.

In so many ways, Ticketfly was a perfect match for me.  But in other ways, not so much.  As I write this I’m tuned into a live video stream of the Twitter Chirp Conference.  I’ve already heard a couple of the speakers talk about how working on a startup completely takes over your life.  I definitely found that to be the case in the last half of 2009.  Even though I was having a great time, other parts of my life were being impacted.  I have to admit that I was not completely self-aware of how little quality time I was spending with Mason and Jude.  The people at Ticketfly were great and super understanding of the demands of two children.  But that doesn’t change the fact that there were a million things to do there every single day.  Many of which simply couldn’t wait until a more convenient time.  And yes there were plenty of days when I left the Ticketfly offices in San Francisco around 4 to head down the coast to Half Moon Bay and pick up the boys from daycare.  And yes, I would get them home and spend dinner time with them.  But it didn’t take long for me to look at them and start thinking “OK, when are you two going to be ready for bed so I can open up the laptop and so work until 10 or 11 pm?” That’s no way to look at  your children.

Sure, Keturah is around to share the load, but she’s working with her own start up.  So it was a double whammy as the requirements on our time were constantly smashing into each other.  The Obama administration recently held the Workplace Flexibility Forum in which they talked about the “juggler family.”  Here’s an excerpt from The President’s remarks:

Today, two-thirds of American families with kids are headed by two working parents or a single working parent, and the result is the rise of what one expert I know refers to as “the juggler family.”  For these families, every day is a high wire act.  Everything is scheduled right down to the minute.  There’s no room for error.  If the car breaks down, or somebody gets sick, or there’s a problem at school, that begins a cascading domino effect that leaves everybody scrambling.

That’s our family.  Described with frightening perfection.  Except in addition to things like car break downs throwing us off course, Keturah and I were dealing with late afternoon meetings that started late and ran until well past 5 pm.  Or last minute phone calls.  And even worse, business calls to our cell phones while we were trying to enjoy a family dinner or read a bedtime story to our kids.

To say that our lifestyle was unsustainable is an understatement.  And something had to give.  So in January, when Ticketfly indicated that, due to budgetary constraints, they were going to be unable to continue to retain my consulting services, my initial reactions were of sadness and disappointment because of the fun work that it was and because of the good people that I was working alongside.  Good people who had become my friends.

In fact, it was so disappointing that I didn’t even say goodbye to them.  Nothing personal.  In fact, it was a pretty rude and immature move on my part.  But it was just something that I didn’t really want to do.  So I avoided it by slowly and quietly drifting away.

Sorry ‘Flyers.   You’re a great group of people and I have no doubt that you’ll help Ticketfly achieve greatness.  I wish you all nothing but the best.  Proud to call you all my friends.

And eventually, my disappointment washed away into relief and a true understanding of what I was really disappointed about in the first place: the recurring conflict of my personal and professional ambitions with the realities of being in a juggler family that includes two toddlers.   Living that existence is extremely difficult.  The challenges are extremely physical and emotional and they took a tool on me last year.  In addition to creeping close to exhaustion at times, healthy nutrition became a term completely lost on me, and exercise…does stretching on the couch count?

Ultimately the relief I felt was because a decision that I didn’t want to have to make was made for.  I had often said to Keturah in 2009 “I’m not so sure we can both be involved in startups AND raise these two kids AND keep our sanity. “

Now I know it sounds like I’m complaining, but I’m not.  Yes, I did go to Vermont last Fall to visit some friends. And the last night pig roast was something only a bunch of idiotic college friends would do.  And in that same trip I went to Fenway for a playoff game with my parents.  And we had a wonderful family Tahoe trip a couple of months ago that included Mason’s first time on skis.

Yeah, there have been some good times.   But I want more of those.  So I’ve been making changes recently.  I’ve been regrouping the last couple of months.  I did dabble in a few freelance projects, but none were really what I was looking for long term.  Mostly I’ve been relaxing, spending time with my family, reading books (another thing that went in the waste bin last year), trying to eat better, and get myself on some exercise programs.  As you can tell from the lack of posting here and on Twitter and Facebook, I went into hibernation a bit.   I’ve talked with a few startups, but wasn’t looking to dive into the questionable work/life balances that came with those types of opportunities.  Being in a “juggler family” isn’t something I want to do long-term and I’m ready to tackle that from another angle.  This post is long enough.  I’ll write more on what’s next for me in my next post.

My Top 5 Dream Jobs – May 2009 Edition

After a recent watching of High Fidelity, I decided to put myself through a little exercise.  In the film/book, Rob Gordon creates a list of his top 5 dream jobs. I decided I would do the same. 

High Fidelity

So here’s my top 5 dream jobs list. Like a top 5 albums of all time listing, this list would probably change on a monthly basis. But right now, here’s my best shot. In no particular order…

Own a record store. Not a Virgin, but a place that sold vinyl. Something like Village Records in Mill Valley. Which is where DJ Shadow would go to find fresh sounds for his music and which sadly closed a year ago. Extended ideas around this include having a expansive space to have a coworking facility (complete with self serve coffee bar) during the day and a performance space at night.

Be the new media director for Wilco (or another band that I love). Actually, the ideal position would be with Phish. But someone already has that role and is doing a kick ass job at it (if what happened at the Hampton reunion shows in any indication). In addition to handling Wilco’s online strategy and execution (web, social media, etc), figure out ways to integrate new media into their performances. This dream job is heavily influenced by an earlier dream job on this list: be the visual designer for concert backdrops…incorporating abstract video, animation, etc.

Social media stratgist for an entertainment company. Ideally Marvel or DC Comics. I once wrote a multipage outline of how comic book characters should have have online profiles integrated into their marketing outreach and ultimately, the storylines. Social media integration could take the story into a real time dimension, capturing what takes place between issues or episodes. Sort of what happened with the Mad Men characters on Twitter. Example: Bruce Wayne and Batman on Twitter. They would never be tweeting on the same time, right? Do you think they would be following each other’s tweets? In short, there is an entertainment thing that can take place in social media. The Fake Steve Jobs blog did it. Twitter.com/darthvader also doing it well.

Photographer (Street, urban, dark landscape, or concert) – If there was money to made in traveling the world shooting photos while also towing my family with me. I would do it. Even if that means I have I’m shooting traditional photos for postcard companies. Ideal job is Rolling Stone staff photographer based in Europe – specializing in capturing what happens when up and coming American bands make their first trek to Europe. Imagine being there when Kurt Cobain brings Nirvana to Paris for the first time and seeing him react to the Louvre.

Multimedia Artist – Can someone just pay to hang out in a loft somewhere, working on digital art installations, like what I did in grad school – http://solidether.com/luminance

Honorable mention bonus…

Recently bumped from this list since the last time I did such an exercise (in 2001, in the months following the dot com implosion) – Helicopter Pilot. Not your ordinary traffic reporting copter pilot, but the guy who takes the extreme skiers to mountain peaks and tops of glaciers to drop them off. In the summer of 2001, I actually tried this. I logged about 2 hours of flight training before realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to deal with the motion sickness. If it wasn’t for that it would still be on the list.

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