Nick Berry has had an notable career in the technology industry. After receiving a Master’s in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, he launched a software company with friends that eventually sold to Microsoft (after earning an award from none other than the Queen of England herself).
He worked for Microsoft after the sale for 14 years, 10 of which were spent in the company’s gaming division. He went on to work as GM of Analytics for GameHouse at Real Networks, and eventually landed in his current role as a Data Scientist at Facebook.
Berry is passionate about gaming, technology, and online privacy. Here’s a TEDx talk he gave about cybersecurity:
Meet our Geek of the Week, and continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
What do you do, and why do you do it? “In addition to my day job as a Data Scientist, I have a site builder role here at Facebook where I’m helping to build and grow the office. This is a combination internal/external ambassadorship role to help recruit, and retain talented people, as well as evangelize the product, and help our company grow as part of the Seattle community.
In my spare time I’m total geek, and I’m an active blogger about math, science, programming and general geekery. My site is “One of the top 25 data mining blogs on the internet.” Through my blog I’ve been asked to make TV/radio appearances for people like the BBC, and NPR and my articles seem to regularly make the home page of Hacker News.
I’m passionate about online games (which is some of the work I do at Facebook), and also online privacy (I hold a CIPP qualification from the International Association of Privacy Professionals). In 2013, I gave a TEDx talk about Passwords and the Internet.
What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? “For Facebook, the goal is pretty simple: ‘Make the World a more open and connected place.’ It’s no secret; life is more enjoyable when you share it, and your experiences, with others. It’s what drives our business. It’s all about “shipping love.” Using Facebook is sort of like quid pro quo. You put things into it, and you get things out of it. If we do our jobs correctly you get more out of Facebook (connection, enjoyment, news, status, sharing, experience …) than you put in, and this virtuous cycle grows the service for everyone. As Zuck famously said, ‘We make money to build services, we don’t build services to make money.’ This was so refreshing having come from Microsoft in the 90’s where the first item at almost every meeting was ‘how do we monetize this?'”
Things we do at Facebook are all about adding social value and making the site more useful to people. Don’t get me wrong, Facebook generates revenue and profit, but the problem is attacked from the opposite end. In meetings here, you’ll hear phrases like ‘How does this add social value?’ and ‘How does this make the site more useful?’ It’s like the movie, ‘If you build it they will come.’ If we make the site useful, and turn it into a utility, people will use it, and if sufficient people use it, monetization will follow.”
Where do you find your inspiration? “It’s all around, but especially the internet. As I get older I’m realizing that time is certainly my most precious resource. I’m not short of ideas, I’m not lacking inspiration. I’m lacking time. Even for my blog, which is something I do for fun, it’s not lack of inspiration that limits me, it’s the hours in the day. I try to publish once a week, and most weeks I make it. When I miss, it’s not because I could not think of something to write, it’s just that I had no time. (At any point, I have a rolling backlog of two or three dozen articles I want to write.)”
What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? “WiFi (and a ubiquitous internet connection). Whether I’m lying in bed, sitting on the couch, on a plane, at my desk, or out at the park, I love having an “internet dial tone” (without having to plug into something).”
What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? “At Facebook everything is open plan. Nobody gets an office. If you visit a typical Facebook office it looks like a sea of desks as far as you can see; each holding the biggest monitor(s) money can buy, almost like a factory farm.
It’s not designed this way to be mean or Dickensian. Research has shown that removing walls helps our engineers communicate better and helps us “Move Fast”. Working side-by-side with your colleagues helps the overall team get to goals more efficiently. If you were sequestered in your own office, whilst your individual flow might be a little faster, you might lose collimation with the team around you. When I first arrived at Facebook, after more than a dozen years at Microsoft with my own office, the open plan nature freaked me out a little; I was unsure how I would adapt. Now it doesn’t bother me. (The only thing I miss about not have a personal office is that there is no place to hang my kids’ artwork).
To compensate for the open plan working environment we have lots of little meeting rooms (all equipped with Video Conference equipment), and plenty of common areas with couches, tables, ping-pong, pin ball machines, and even a ball pit.
By design, our office space has an industrial theme, to reflect the internal meme that “the journey is only 1% finished”. Some walls are still unfinished open studs, and much of our cabling is exposed for all to see. We are encouraged to decorate office space ourselves (we call it Space Hacking), and we paint geeky things on the walls and floors (we also have local talented artists come by and commission murals from them).”
Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) “Three things: Google Calendar, Dropbox, and Facebook. On any of my devices I drag and drop meetings, notes, files, code, documents, work in progress, and it just synchronizes in the cloud with all the other machines. It’s sufficient advanced technology that it is indistinguishable from magic, and it just works.
Facebook is a great productivity tool (we use it extensively internally to communicate and leverage Facebook group functionality heavily). Facebook is also my ‘virtual-water cooler’ and keeps me socially connected with friends, family and colleagues all over the globe.”
Mac, Windows or Linux? “I’m tri-lingual. I have a Windows laptop, an iPad tablet, and an Android phone. If I’m coding, or content creating, it’s the Windows laptop hands down. My tablet is used for playing games, and browsing. My phone is used when it’s not convenient to pull either of the other two devices out (but I do find a phone a little to fiddly to do anything other than the two-three word reply).”
Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? “I grew up in the UK, should you should really be asking me which Doctor I preferred (or possibly the crew member of Red Dwarf). However, my favorite show in this Genre was Blake’s 7 (And the answer would be ‘Avon’)”
Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? “It’s got to be a Time Machine (which I’m guessing would have to function as a teleporter anyway. After all, if I moved forward 100 years in time, the time machine would need to also teleport me to where the planet is going to be at that time I get there). And, if I moved far enough into the future, I could go forward to the time period when invisibility cloaks are sold in Costco. A time machine is like ‘wishing for more wishes.’ ”
If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … “Give them a receipt? Seriously, I don’t think that is really the correct question to ask. Money doesn’t generate ideas. If someone said to you ‘Here’s a million dollars, think of an idea,’ I’m not sure you’d come up with any better ideas than if they said ‘Here’s a hundred dollars, think of an idea.’
I guess if I had to answer the question, I’d ask for a guest slot on the TV show Shark Tank. That way I could invest the money selectively in people/projects that already had thought of a good idea and were simply cash resource limited.”
I once waited in line for … “Everything at Disneyland with my kids!”
Your role models: “Growing up, I consumed everything written by Martin Gardner. Martin started off writing for Scientific American, but went on to publish dozens of books about mathematics, magic, and general geeky stuff. His writings made me the way I am today. My blog is an homage to his writing. My favorite quote about Martin Gardner is, ‘He turned thousands of children into mathematicians, and thousands of mathematicians into children.’
I know it sounds sycophantic, but Mark Zuckerberg inspires me. Every Friday he hosts an open mic and, as a company, we get to ask him questions about his thoughts and the business. Most questions are ad-hoc and unscripted yet he always manages to give very deep and mature answers that seem at odds with the short period of time he’s had to think of a response.
Oh, that Elon Musk guy. He’s pretty awesome too.”
Greatest Game in History “For me, it was Elite on the BBC Micro.”
Best Gadget Ever: “I carry around a Swiss Army penknife everyday (when I’m not flying). I’ve been doing this since I was 13 years old (I’m on my third now, so they’ve lasted over 10 years each). I’ve lost track of the number of times one of the attached tools has saved the day.”
First Computer: “My first computer was a TRS-80 (4k level 1), after a short stint with a Sharp MZ-80K, I graduated to a BBC Micro, on which I learned 6502 assembly language to make video games. After the BBC Micro, it’s pretty much been PC’s ever since.”
Current Phone: “I have a Samsung Galaxy S5. It’s my third Android phone.”
Favorite App: “Other than Facebook? Everyone who knows me will tell you that I have to answer Visual Basic 6. (Tied for second place are SQL Server and Excel).”
Favorite Cause: “I’m getting pretty passionate at the moment about making sure we educate our kids for the world they will be working in. Universities and colleges are now doing a good job of offering relevant courses so that graduates are well equipped with the skills needed to get jobs in our industry. The challenge we face is priming the pump to make sure we have good students, with passion, feeding into these university courses. This involves exciting kids in High Schools (and earlier if possible) about the disciplines of Science, Technology and Mathematics.”
Most important technology of 2015 “There are a few, but I think they are stealth and it will take a few years to appreciate the fruits of their labors. Looking back in a couple of years I hope we’ll see the immense value that technologies like: 3D printing, DIY boards like Raspberry Pi/Arduino, and incredibly cheap cloud computing options have provided. These tools are the Petri dishes for the engineers of our future. The people who are playing with these technologies today will be next decades’ entrepreneurs. It’s investing in the future.”
Most important technology of 2017: “Hmmm, that’s a tough one, and it’s close enough into the future that, if I get it wildly wrong, I’ll be ridiculed for the rest of eternity online! I think the most important technology in the next few years is going to be improvements in battery technology: Smaller batteries, higher-charge density, but most importantly: rapid recharge ability. Electric cars are on the cusp of giving internal combustion engines their Kodak moment, but what’s holding them back is the glacial time it takes to recharge them. Once battery technology improves to reduce recharge time to the same order of magnitude as a gasoline pit stop, there will be no stopping them. And it’s not just cars: Imagine putting your phone or laptop down on the desk and, in ten seconds, getting sufficient boost for another twelve hours of activity.”
Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: “Be passionate about what you do. If you do things with passion, you radiate waves. Eventually these waves spread out, hit things, and get reflected back to you amplified. There is a cliché that ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.’ IMHO, that’s wrong too, it should more accurately be ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who knows you.’ You want to get a reputation as the go-to person; the subject matter expert. You want to be the person that people immediately think of when looking for advice on something in your discipline. Passion and enthusiasm are catalyst to this when combined with talent.
LinkedIn: Nick Berry