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Inverting the Universe

A bear poking its head out of the bushes

An engineer, a physicist, and a mathematician are travelling through a forest. When they hear that a grizzly bear is roaming about, they challenge themselves to find ways to catch it. The engineer decides to build a cage to trap the bear. The physicist suggests erecting a fence around the forest to contain the beast. The mathematician, rather than attempt to lure the bear into the cage, performs a topological inversion. They enter it and proclaim: ‘I am outside.’

When architect and urban designer William J. Mitchell retells this joke in his essay ‘Beyond the City Limits,’ he uses a delightful turn of phrase to describe the idea of locking the bear out: the mathematician ‘inverts the universe.’

For a couple of years during my seven-year stint at a software consultancy called log, I was part of the team in charge of business development.

Our brief was to assess the company’s expertise, some of it already established in Portugal’s IT circles, and identify potential avenues for growth. We gave our feedback to senior management, who in turn made clear their intention to entice big-name companies with a growing number of buzzword-laden products.

log had plenty ambition, but it also had an identity problem.

We did too much, and wanted to do even more. From custom application development to content management systems and document management, and not least of all the Holy Grail of Bullshit known to the world as ‘Big Data,’ the company wanted to stick its fingers in every pie out there. The reasons were varied. As engineers, we sought to experiment with exciting new technologies. Sales favoured a scattershot approach to finding their cash cow. We also wanted to leverage the stuff we were already known for, like user experience design and web content management using WordPress.

We were certain that attempting to cover so much ground was unrealistic for a company of around twenty people. The spread hindered our ability to stake a claim as experts in a particular stack, and arriving at a clear picture of the company under this scenario became an exercise in frustration.

The business development unit met every week with the same agenda. We had to narrow the company’s focus. Even we had trouble describing what we did in a few words. We looked at the pros and cons of every product, every potential client who might buy them, and half-heartedly elected something to drop. But because we were unable to resolve our internal tensions, the things we wanted kept getting in the way of the things we actually needed.

At the time, log relied heavily on a corporate client whose projects occupied most of the company’s people.

To be in this position was uncomfortable and obviously unwise. Management made a note of the risks, but this awareness failed to materialise into decisive action.

In the span of a few months, a reorganisation at this client led to ousting our allies and installing a successor who would eventually bring their own people to replace us.

With engineers forced out of their projects or reduced to routine maintenance tasks, morale was low.

To compound our problems, a competitor took advantage of worker dissatisfaction and was able to poach a significant number of the company’s top talent. One by one, developers jumped ship. The developer-to-manager ratio became unbalanced, and those engineers who stayed behind out of loyalty were spread thin to ensure delivery of remaining projects.

The company was in a bind.

What does this have to do with inverting the universe, anyway?

I became enamoured with Mitchell’s choice of words mainly because I was reading Stoic philosophers around the same time, and in particular the Meditations of Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Written intermittently between the years 160 and 170 CE, with no other person in mind but himself,1 his is the self-help book to preemptively end all self-help books.

Like other emperors before and after him, Marcus Aurelius faced some who wished him dead or at least removed from power—and that was on his side. Disease and a long war against the Germanic tribes ravaged the empire. His wife Faustina the Younger was hated by historians, who reported on her multiple infidelities—still, Aurelius loved her and later mourned her greatly. And of their thirteen children, only five outlived him, including the paranoid, selfish, and destructive Commodus who would succeed his father as emperor.

It cannot be said Aurelius was a stranger to adversity, yet he bore it with an even temper and a disconcerting sense of gratitude.

The key to his remarkable attitude can be found in Meditations, and includes his own powerful formula for inverting the universe:

Marcus Aurelius reasoned that while obstacles were inevitable, they need not be a source of misery. Rather, obstacles ought to empower anyone to approach the problem creatively, to seek alternative routes to a goal, or at least to chalk it up as a learning opportunity and a test to patience and wisdom.

Far from eliciting paralysis and impotence, setbacks should drive us to further action. In the Stoic’s view, crises are not simply a thing to be tolerated: they are to be transcended, making us all the better for having encountered them.

This brand of ‘positive thinking’ (if you must call it that) does not entail fooling yourself into believing the situation is any different from what it is in reality. You are compelled to approach problems with clear eyes and a clear mind, in the knowledge that self-delusion and self-pity would only worsen your predicament.

Imagine if our mathematician had to spend a night in the forest with that grizzly on the loose. No positive thinking in the world would make the forest any less dark, or the bear any less hungry. Panic would not help either. By getting inside the cage to invert the universe, the mathematician’s ingenuity in the face of mortal danger would allow them to survive without a scratch. They might even manage a good night’s sleep on top of that.

Let’s review the facts.

The company had lost its biggest client. It was down to a handful of developers and designers. Dreams of broadening its product range and client portfolio were in the gutter. log still held on to its credits, and the few people who remained were apprehensive but passionate about seeing some sort of solution through.

One upside of losing people to a competitor meant the company no longer had to pay them to be idle. Their departure made up for the company’s loss in revenue. Even if they had stayed, how motivated would they be? Through a happy combination of unhappy events, the company had been given some room to breathe.

The business development unit disbanded. We were no longer necessary under these circumstances, but that was fine because the unit got what it had been created to do. As the crisis unfolded, the hardest decision was made for us and we were fortunate the answer presented itself so readily.

After taking stock of our history, skills, clients, and constrained ability, the strategy became obvious to us: engineering efforts would be directed in full towards WordPress development.

As if on cue, seasoned engineers should now be gnashing their teeth.

Let’s be realistic. WordPress is, in many ways, terrible. It’s a 13-year-old bundle of convoluted PHP 5.2 code derived from an older, mostly-abandoned hobbyist project. It grew haphazardly to address omissions and feature requests, especially in its early days. The community-driven plugin and theme ecosystem, touted as one of WordPress’s greatest strengths, is vast and for the most part unreliable.

Circumstances demanded pragmatism, however. Excessive purism would only impede our progress.

log was already familiar with WordPress and its third-party extensions, and all the remaining developers happened to know PHP. Those who would not have enjoyed working with WordPress had already left. Being easy to setup, we could quickly deliver prototypes to clients and iterate from there.

At the time, the platform supported a growing chunk of the public web, and had begun to power several high-profile properties. It was well-known, and even well-loved, by its end users. The core team’s commitment to backwards compatibility is second to none, meaning maintenance and upgrades would be far less problematic than those of the competition.

So we vowed to not only do WordPress, but do it well, and innovate whenever we could. We targeted bigger companies, learning to optimise WordPress at scale and for less traditional use cases, and adopted JavaScript extensively years before WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg exhorted developers to embrace the language.

By having a single core technology, engineers knew they wouldn’t have to keep switching gears to tackle radically different challenges. Know-how flowed between projects. Whatever innovation there was, it stemmed from the familiar. Experimentation was encouraged but nevertheless controlled.

Because the remaining team was a fraction of what it had been, it was easier to implement a shift in engineering culture. We instituted peer code reviews and automated delivery, which dramatically decreased the time spent chasing and fixing bugs. It kept clients happy and made sure developers would be empowered to fix their own mistakes and be constantly learning from each other.

Following the examples set by Automattic and many WordPress agencies around the world, log relaxed management and allowed people to work remotely three days a week to boost employee morale.

People also learned to say No. We dropped clients that no longer fed into our vision, and that we no longer had the ability to serve well. We transitioned these projects to their in-house teams, or referred them to trustworthy partners who would take on all the jobs we could not.

Within two years, these changes had more than paid off. log went from having WordPress represent around 15% of the company’s revenue to virtually owning it all as the company delivered not just websites but also complex intranet applications based on WordPress. Clients included the government, national broadcasting companies, telecommunications companies, and a network of dozens of shopping centres across Europe.

We had gone from a company mired in vagueness to recognised experts in all things WordPress, both to clients and prospective hires.

We weren’t perfect, but we were better and happier than we had been in a long time.

Had we resisted this crisis, and not incorporated the changes it brought along into our strategy, log would have floundered.

Three factors were key to helping log bounce back.

First, the ability to see things as they were, and imagine realistic ways to improve them. We could not allow pride and preference to interfere with our perceptions.

Second, the willingness to act on our vision, even if it meant letting go of all the nice things we wanted but would not have helped the situation. In a way, our actions felt a little like stepping inside a cage. It was limiting—but on the other hand there were bears about.

Finally, the ability to not give into despair. Rather, we would ‘invert the universe’ and stand outside our own problems, looking in.

The things that stood in our way became the way. They informed our actions and propelled us onwards and upwards.

I’m no longer at log, but the company remains fully committed to delivering WordPress-based solutions, such was the momentum created. It gained resilience, in that it learned not to depend on a single major client for revenue, nor a few employees to hold all the knowledge or carry out specific tasks.

In all, I’m glad things turned out this way.

With thanks to José Ruivo (co-founder and CEO of log) and Susana Salgado for their support and their feedback on this piece.

  1. Indeed, To Myself was the book’s original title, or the closest thing it had to one. [return]