“Liftoff” ; True Life Astounding Stories

"Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX" by Eric Berger
“Liftoff: Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days That Launched SpaceX” by Eric Berger

Elon Musk can be a very polarizing figure. There are legions of fanboys online on various platforms who obsessively follow him and his companies ; Tesla, SpaceX, SolarCity, Boring Company, OpenAI, Neuralink. Then there are the haters, of which there are also legions, who find his brash style arrogant and some claim he is a snake oil salesman. His tweets can, and have, moved markets (stock, crypto etc), more than once.

It is hard to argue with success though, and by all measures, SpaceX is successful. In April of this year SpaceX raise $1.16B of equity funding at a valuation of $74 Billion ! Since its founding in 2002, it has had a series of astonishing accomplishments; the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, several rocket engines, Dragon cargo, crew spacecraft and the Starlink LEO satellite constellation. Along the way it has “democratized space” by dramatically lowering space transportation costs not just for governments and militaries but for a burgeoning commercial sector. We would not have a NewSpace renaissance without SpaceX.

That is why this book by Eric Berger is so important. It chronicles the early days and history of the company and the people who built it. It goes through the trials and tribulations and the many, many obstacles that were overcome and how perilously close they came to going bankrupt and failing. It is also an incredible story, reading more like a novel at times, a page turner, than a non-fiction business book.

Many aspects attracted me to this book and it making my birthday wish list last month. As a kid growing up I was a science fiction and space nerd too, just like the billionaires Musk and Bezos who are now racing to space. I was 9 years old when I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing on our old black and white TV. Through my early teens I used to tinker considerably, taking apart old TV’s and radios and building my own electronics. Becoming an engineer and then eventually starting my own companies was my path and is a huge part of my identity. This story resonated deeply.

It covers Elon’s recruitment of key talent like Hans Koeniggsmann, Tom Mueller, Gwynne Shotwell and many more. The company’s growth and evolution from Hawthorne CA to McGregor, TX and from Vandenburg AFB to Omelek, an island in the Kwajalein Atoll in the middle of the Pacific ocean. Elon had funded SpaceX with half the proceeds from the sale of PayPal (the other half funded Tesla). No half measures, no retirement plan, no safety cushion.

Some key things stood out for me. No one thought SpaceX would succeed in the beginning other than the team themselves. The competition was huge heritage aerospace companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing that were defence contractors with tens of thousands of employees, billions of dollars in revenue and inside political contacts in the US government, NASA and the Pentagon. Every other challenger that had tried to build a low cost rocket prior to SpaceX had gone bankrupt. It reminded me of trying to compete against Big Telco with their huge resources and lobbying capability.

SpaceX brought a new process to the game from Silicon Valley. Agile methodology calls for an iterative approach to design; constant prototyping, testing, analyzing and refining the product or process. It takes a willingness to embrace failure, and especially hard is to be able to embrace failure in public, something that was anathema to the space industry. Living in Waterloo, a high tech town, this approach is quite familiar to me. It is frustrating to watch Big Telco still struggling with digital transformation, the legacy companies fighting against modern methods.

The drama escalated in 2008, when after three unsuccessful attempts to to launch the Falcon 1 rocket to reach orbit, came the “fly or die” moment. It was middle of the global financial crisis, there was no VC or PE money to be had and Tesla, SolarCity and SpaceX were all burning cash and out of funds. Elon Musk was in the middle of his divorce and personally out of funds, he had sunk everything into his ventures. He had budgeted for only three rocket launches and had seen them all fail. “I thought that if we couldn’t get this thing to orbit in three failures, we deserved to die,” Musk said.

Man, can I relate to that.

That is what the haters will never understand. The true skin-in-the-game moments of an entrepreneur like Musk where he risks it all, trusting his own judgement and self-belief.

The scramble to prepare a fourth flight in six weeks, including an incredible C-17 Globemaster ride to get the rocket to Kwaj was pivotal. The pulling together in the face of impossible odds to success was a key takeaway for me. This is what defined SpaceX and continues to define them. It is the root of their company culture, their DNA, and why I would never bet against them. Those early years and how they overcame so many obstacles to successfully launch a private rocket and also a whole new industry is key to understanding SpaceX , its mission and its belief.

At a recent LEO satellite digital forum in April of this year, Gwynne Shotwell was quoted as saying “I just always smile when people make projections about what can and can’t be done with technology,” she said. “I don’t think we have any idea how technology can evolve.”

I highly recommend this book. And I look forward to watching Elon Musk and SpaceX making humanity an interplanetary species and reaching Mars with Starship. I certainly wouldn’t bet against them.


Matthew McConaughey

Each Christmas my ask of family is simple; books. This year was no exception and I was gifted some extraordinary volumes that I am looking forward to devouring. The first one I read over the holidays and just finished was not a telecom book, but I am still going to post a review of it. It was Matthew McConaughey’s “Greenlights”.

This first came to my attention when Matthew appeared on Tim Ferriss’s podcast back in October. I was not really a fan of his, but I really enjoyed the first season of ‘True Detective” when he played Rust Cohle and I realized that I had severely underestimated him. This podcast re-inforced that as it was spell binding to listen to; McConaughey is a natural story-teller so I really wanted to read his book.

The book is more than a biography or memoir . McConaughey has been keeping diaries for the last thirty five of his fifty years. The book has visual elements of notes, sayings, photos and lists from those diaries. As well it is “Notes about successes and failures, joys and sorrows, things that made me marvel. and things that made me laugh out loud. How to have fun. How to hurt people less. How to be a good man. How to have meaning in life. How to be more me.”

Two things stick immediately in my mind from reading the book. First, was his experiences in Australia as an exchange student after graduating high school. The stories were hilarious . Second, was the story of how just before the birth of his first kid he shut down his production company and his music label, j.k levin records. His rationale was that he had five things to tend to daily: family, foundation acting, a production company and a munis label. By shutting down two of them he could focus on the other 3. Better to make A’s in 3 things than B’s in 5. The power of via negativa.

Now I also want to watch some of his movies that I have not seen, especially “Dallas Buyers Club” and his first “Dazed and Confused” (some great stories about how he got cast into this and how the role expanded) which gave birth to the phrase “Alright, alright, alright “

I recommend this book, it is funny, insightful and entertaining. Here is to us all catching more greenlights on our journeys through life.

just keep livin

Signal to Noise

Living in a tech town like Waterloo I find there is a cultural bias towards what is new, what is modern versus things and ideas that may be old, timeless. There is a relentless pressure to keep on top of things, to refresh Twitter and seek out the novel and the exciting. Yet I find there is far more value to what is classic, what is enduring, the things and ideas that have stood the test of time.

This is a topic that has come up in my readings lately and from people such as Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferris, Nassim Nicholas Taleb and others. Old books and old principles always have the answers.

Often the things that are new seem important and vital but they end up proving to be irrelevant . What is the half life of information of something posted yesterday on social media ? That article on Bernie Sanders or Andrew Yang is out of date very quickly. A classic book however such as the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to provide relevant advice to readers hundreds of years from now.

As Ryan Holiday writes in the Daily Stoic;
Of course, one should always avail themselves of the latest research and the newest books. The problem is that for far too many people this comes at the expense of availing themselves of wisdom from the wisest minds who ever lived. “I don’t have time to read books,” says the person who reads dozens of breaking news articles each week. “I don’t have time to read,” they say as they refresh their Twitter feed for the latest inane update. “I don’t have time to read fiction—that’s entertainment,” they say as they watch another panel of arguing talking heads on CNN, as if that’s actually giving them real information they will use.

The modern cellphone addiction leads to not only poor posture and kyphosis but also to a cortisol increase and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). With discipline, and studying the things and ideas that have endured you can strive to get to the bottom of things; finding truth rather than trivia.

This can be applied throughout your life, not just what you watch and read. I am a pragmatic engineer and conservative by nature. I identified in an earlier post that what seems like an exciting new idea, SD-WAN, is really just another swing in the cycle of private versus public networking. My tastes run to the classic and enduring like a good steak dinner or a live symphony performance of Beethoven’s 9th.

So take some time today to examine your life and your habits. Find where you can read and learn from the classics, from the wisdom that has stood the test of time. Try to ignore the siren call of the smartphone and social media; that is just noise. Filter it out and search for the truth, the signal hidden behind the noise.

BlackBerry Town

It has been a while since I have written about what I have been reading. So here is a book review on one that may not be on your radar, but would make a good read if you are interested in tech and telecom and innovation in Canada.

I previously reviewed the story of Research in Motion (RIM) called Losing the Signal, by Globe journalists Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff here . This book is different as it explores the wider Waterloo Region tech community that gave rise to BlackBerry and many other great tech companies. I got my copy at the Communitech Annual General Meeting (AGM) this fall. AurorA has been a member of Communitech, our local high tech association dating back to 1998.

The stories in this book were personal to me as I lived through this history; many of the names, events and people mentioned are very familiar to me. After graduating Engineering at the University of Waterloo in 1983 I had lived and worked in telecom all across Ontario before starting AurorA in international telecommunications and then moving back to Waterloo in 1996. Just when the fun was really starting.

What Chuck Howitt, a retired reporter from the Waterloo Record, describes in this book is that there was a lot going on before the emergence of RIM (BlackBerry) and there is still a lot going on in Waterloo after the fall from grace of the company that invented the modern smartphone. This area has always had an entrepreneurial spirit that was reflected in companies that excelled in many industries ; originally rubber, whiskey, electronics. (BF Goodrich, Uniroyal, Seagrams, Electrohome etc). The K/W region was home to people with a strong work ethic informed by the Mennonite “barn raising” ethos that fostered co-operation. The practical leaders of those industries set about founding a new institution, the University of Waterloo.

The University of Waterloo was different from the ivy covered campuses that historically were prevalent in Upper Canada like Queens and the University of Toronto. Its focus was more practical, technological and pragmatic. UW became a worldwide leader in mathematics, computer technology, engineering and Co-op Education. It also had a very novel Intellectual Property policy, that let entrepreneurs retain ownership of their ideas. All of these traits led to many spinoff companies in the area by graduates and even professors.

Between 1996 and 1998, six local tech firms went public (when that was still the preferred way to raise money, don’t get me started on private equity and unicorns). They were OpenText, MKS, Descartes, ComDev, Dalsa and RIM. All of a sudden, the world took notice of what was happening in Kitchener/Waterloo. Outside of the San Francisco Bay area, this was the place to be in tech.

There are many great stories in the book about the evolution of this tech ecosystem, about Communitech, about the two founders of RIM, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie, and about the meteoric rise of BlackBerry. Some superb local stories about the growth and dealing with the growing pains. The other organizations that the RIM co-founders fostered like CIGI, The Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics and the Institute for Quantum Computing. And of course he describes the fall from grace of Blackberry.

Some people thought the demise of BlackBerry after the competitive threats from Apple, Samsung and Google’s Android would spell the death of Waterloo Region. But this book also describes the resilience of the area, the diversity and depth of the talent and the rise of other generations of tech firms; Kik, Sandvine, Desire2Learn and others like North ,Vidyard, Auvik, Miovision, ClearPath Robotics. Waterloo Region remains the highest density of start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. And it is still the epicentre of tech in Canada.

So if you are interested at all in tech and telecom and innovation, I highly recommend that you pick up and read this book.

How We Can Win

As usual a good part of my summer relaxation was reading. While on vacation in the Spectacular Northwest Territories I indulged in fiction (Neil Gaiman who is a favourite of mine, Jo Nesbo for spare Nordic crime stories and a Young Adult book “Gregor, the Overlander” from my stepson) as during the year I read mainly non-fiction. My family knows that I love books, so I try to make gift giving easy by having “Wanted Reading” lists prominently posted. One book that I got for Christmas and have been itching to read was Anthony Lacavera’s “How We Can Win – And what happens to us and our country if we don’t” which I finally got to read !

This book is a call for action for all Canadians to Dare to Succeed, to apply the same lessons that we learned in Olympic medal success with our Own the Podium program to our business and economic life. He argues that our future prosperity, and being able to afford all the things we value as Canadians, our social safety net, universal health care, our high quality education system are all dependent on us changing our beliefs and then acting on improving our productivity, innovation and competitiveness. Especially our international competitiveness.

I was lucky enough to have met Anthony Lacavera once in the past, back when Globealive had bought Yak, around 2008. He was very smart, friendly and engaging. Plus I have heard him speak at the Canadian Telecom Summit many times when he was running WIND, the scrappy cellphone company that was challenging the Bell/Telus/Rogers mobile oligopoly . As my entire career in telecom has been on the competitive side, cutting my teeth during the Long Distance wars back in the early 1990’s I was really anticipating reading the WIND story and learning more details about what actually happened.

The entire first chapter is devoted to WIND and its various trials and tribulations. Some of the anti-competitive roadblocks that WIND ran into challenging the incumbents sounded very familiar. The oligopoly does not play fair when their protected position is threatened. The Federal government and the regulator allow this. Lacavera presents it all as Exhibit A of why our business culture here in Canada has to change if we are to succeed as a nation. Our telecom sector is coddled, not required to compete against the best in the world, and hence our other businesses, enterprises and citizens overpay for substandard services. And since telecom services are THE key input in an information economy it hampers all other sectors ability to innovate, compete and be productive.

Lacavera then proceeds to highlight in subsequent chapters other factors that are holding back Canadians in winning in the global marketplace. He highlights our attitudes and belief systems , the Canadian mentality to “Go for Bronze” or a participation award rather then aiming to win big, as if wanting to come first was “Un Canadian”. The lack of funding available to high growth startups, from angel investors and from venture capital which is much harder to get in Canada. Highly touted Government R&D and innovation programs are designed to maximize political gains and spread large amounts of money around the country, often ineffectively. There is no true policy for identifying sectors or companies that show true promise of being disrupters that can be scaled to tackle global markets.

We have seen some of these arguments before in various studies and expert panels that the Federal government commissions and then ignores or only partially implements. The book does a good job of integrating many of them such as the Jenkins panel in 2011, Naylor in 2015, Wilson in 2008. The book brings all of these and more into one cohernet call for action, not just for government but for all of us.

One of the most positive and optimistic chapters highlights some of the work being done at the Creative Disruption Lab at the University of Toronto. Here start-up founders could get a “dose of judgement” from seasoned entrepreneurs who had “been there, and done that”. They can share their experience, network connections, and judgement with young founders. Start-ups have to compete hard to get into (and stay in the program), as do MBA students, industry types and anyone else who wants to observe. The chapter has some great examples of start-ups that have benefitted and were able to accelerate their growth providing concrete proof that we can do this here.

My only quibble with the book would be a personal one as I live and work in Kitchener/Waterloo. There are many references made to people and companies from Waterloo. Tom Jenkins(Open Text), Jim Balsillie (RIM, Blackberry), Ted Livingston (Kik), Stephen Lake (Thalmic Labs), Mallory Brodie (Bridgit) were some that come to mind. I understand that Anthony Lacavera has ties to Toronto, but I would have expected to read more about the culture of entrepreneurship and innovation that is happening here in Waterloo where world leading companies have already emerged and where we are home to the second highest density of tech start-ups outside of Silicon Valley. A lot of what he is prescribing is actually happening here.

I quite enjoyed this book and whole heartedly recommend it; both for general business audiences but especially to anyone who is an executive in Canadian telecom.

The Black Swan

For Christmas I received a copy of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s “Skin in the Game”. Before I start it, though, I am reading through his previous works, collectively known as the “Incerto”. I had read “Anti-fragile” and “Fooled by Randomness” in the past and have just completed “The Black Swan”. In another upcoming post I will provide my reviews on them.

Today is a meditation on Black Swans and my life in telecom. People beleived that all swans were white; until they saw a rare black one. For Taleb, the Black Swans are the events that happen in areas where our thinking and mental models fail to realize that they follow fractal probability distributions and not those bell curves that they taught us in high school. His favourite example is the turkey, who is fed for 1000 days straight, and so continues to forecast that this pattern will continue…up until the day before Thanksgiving. His lesson ? Don’t be the turkey !

Fractal distributions are also known as power-law distributions and a popular version is the 80-20 rule. Eighty percent of your revenue will come from twenty percent of your customers and similar effects. We can see such models at work in lots of places; the distribution of incomes (no matter how much the left rails against “inequality”) the box office of movies, best seller books, the rise of the giants of Silicon Valley (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Netflix etc) where network effects and first mover advantage have the giants dominating their respective markets.

So how does one thrive in areas where the “winner take all” phenomena means that the lion’s share goes to a small number of players ? That is what got me thinking about my experience in telecom.

The first lesson, in working in such environments, is that first and foremost you must survive. As we saw in the financial crisis of 2008, companies like Long Term Capital Management thought they were risk averse by using sophisticated algorithms and models designed by academics. In reality they were very exposed to Black Swans that ended up taking them down and almost the entire financial system. Never risk everything, as survival is paramount.

I am proud that AurorA has been in operation for over 24 years. There have been four or five major pivots along the way, but the company has survived and thrived. This is also Nature’s model. Mother Nature has many strategies that have evolved to ensure survival, such as redundancy among our body parts which is not “optimal”. It is why we value the experience and wisdom of our elders; they have seen previous Black Swans and survived and can pass on that knowledge (if we are willing to listen).

The second lesson I took from this is that even though fractal distributions predominately reward a few, they also leave a long fat tail. In a multi-billion dollar industry like telecom, that means that there are plenty of niche opportunities in that fat tail that can be mined. That is precisely how I have operated AurorA , whether entirely consciously or not. AurorA specializes in international applications and specifically in the wholesale market; niches where I can exploit my competitive differentiators like quality and fraud mitigation to swim in a “blue ocean”. Those niches may be small, compared to the overall market, but they are plenty for AurorA to serve.

I am looking forward to reading “Skin in the Game” next and will report back to you with more detailed reviews of it and Taleb’s other books. Until then, keep reading !