RIP, Satoru Iwata

Yesterday, Satoru Iwata passed away. For those unfamiliar with his work, he was the president and CEO of Nintendo. But he was so much more than that; unlike countless other businessmen and executives, he earned his success the old fashioned way: starting from the bottom and working his way up. He studied programming in the 1970s, when video games were still in their infancy. He began as an unpaid intern for Commodore, then became a freelancer for HAL Laboratory while in college. After graduating, he worked full time and rose up its ranks in the early 90s. He had a hand in founding Creatures Inc., the folks responsible for bringing Pokemon to the world. He didn’t wasn’t just some guy in suit, either. He took over programming for Earthbound and saved it from developmental oblivion. He programmed the original Pokemon Red/Blue battle mechanics into Pokemon Stadium without any reference documents, using just the Game Boy’s source code instead…in one week. He famously compressed the all of the original game into the Gold/Silver cartridge, just to surprise and reward players for beating the regular quest. When Super Smash Bros. Melee was facing a delayed release date due to programming issues, he – already Nintendo’s General Manager of Corporate Planning – went downstairs and personally debugged the game hands-on, all in less than a month.

Yeah, he was that good.

He was in a unique position of growing alongside his industry; unlike many of his peers, his insight into game design came from the effort of making games the old fashioned way, with a focus on the fun experience while dealing with the hardware limitations. He understood that focusing so much on flashier graphics and processing power wasn’t necessarily the answer, and that appealing to people beyond hardcore gamers was incredibly important. Nintendo is often derided for appealing to kids instead of adults, but he was proud of it; he argued that children have an instinctual understanding of whether a game was good or not. He refused to let the company stagnate, constantly pushing them to try new things. He was initially mocked for bringing forth the DS and Wii – both consoles had unorthodox designs and admittedly terrible launch lineups – but was eventually vindicated via record-breaking sales numbers and some of the finest games in the last decade.

What was more inspiring is what Iwata did when the company wasn’t succeeding. Nintendo fell into a slump when it released the Wii U, mainly due to its high prices, strange design, and lacking lineup. The company was losing money, and he was being roasted by both gamers and corporate shareholders alike. Instead of stepping down, he voluntarily cut his salary in half to make up for it! That was the second time he did it, too; when the 3DS’s sales went poorly, he took the same action. When corporate demanded why he hadn’t fired employees for the sake of profit, he absolutely refused to do so, saying that it wouldn’t work well long-term, and that it’d wreck the company’s morale. If you look around online, you’ll find countless stories of people meeting Iwata and saying what a passionate, candid, and kind guy he was in person. When Ocarina of Time was released, he even went out and bought a copy on the way home from work. His hilarious “Direct To You” presentations and sense of humor have become the stuff of Internet memetic legend. The hundreds of thousands of tributes pouring in – even from Sony and Microsoft, Nintendo’s business rivals – shows just how loved and respected Iwata was.

I wish I had a personal story about meeting him. I wish I could say that we crossed paths at a convention, or that we shared an elevator, or that I pitched an idea and worked for him. But I can’t, and now I never will. Instead, all I have are the games he made, and the memories of how he helped shape my childhood. Yes, I caught all 151 of the original Pokemon, played almost every Kirby game, and spent countless hours fighting in Smash Bros. My gaming library is full of titles made with him as the Executive Producer; I wouldn’t be the same person without Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and other Nintendo franchises influencing me. While I don’t play nearly as much as I used to, gaming is still very much a part of me. It reminds me of something Iwata once said:

“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”

Thank you for everything, Mr. Iwata. We understand.

Dreamforce 2014

Hey, folks. If you’re in the tech industry, you’ve probably heard of the annual Dreamforce expo. For that week, San Francisco’s Financial District is flooded with business owners and enthusiasts seeking the latest advancements in technology. I’m neither of those; when the expo happened last year, I noticed everyone wearing little blue lanyards and merely wanted to get one for myself. I followed the trail back to the Moscone Center, politely asked about the event, and managed to get inside despite knowing absolutely nothing going in. It was an eye-opening experience. I got a look at some of the more technical aspects of businesses, and managed to make myself look like I actually belonged there.

This year, I signed up well in advance. The regular passes for the keynote speeches cost over a thousand dollars, but anyone could sign up for a free pass to the showroom floor. I couldn’t go on Monday due to weekly errands and scheduling. Nor could I go on Tuesday, as that was reserved for paying attendees. I finally made it on Wednesday, though getting the pass was a bit of a hassle. According to the sign-in schedule, attendees had to go all the way to the Hilton near Union Square. It was hardly a problem – I regularly hike around the city – but it was more time consuming than expected. I later learned that I could’ve gone straight to the desks at the Moscone Center. It’s okay, I got to see the inside of a famous hotel and had a little extra morning exercise. Checking in was no trouble at all; Salesforce made it as easy as typing in an email address and showing proper ID. The people running those desks were…tired. I’ve had my tours in the trenches of retail services, so I know how that goes all too well. Dealing with thousands of people will drag anyone down quickly. Still, a smile and a little courtesy would’ve been nice. The gentleman who gave me the lanyard didn’t even bother including the extra slip of paper that had event information. When I asked for one of the fancy Dreamforce backpacks I saw everyone carrying, I was coldly informed they were for paying attendees only.

Well then. My trusty North Face pack is better anyway.

As I made my way back down to Moscone, I was struck by how crowded the streets were. I mean, that part of San Francisco is always crowded. But this? It was like every square inch of sidewalk was covered with bodies, so much that actually staying on the sidewalk wasn’t always an option.  I’m always surprised by how many people are willing to jaywalk through oncoming traffic just to get a few extra seconds ahead. Never mind the self-endangerment and all potential the accidents. A little common sense goes a long way. A lot of credit should be given to the folks handling the mess of pedestrian and vehicle traffic on those 4th Street intersections. At Moscone Center proper, security was even more on the ball. Take more than a few steps onsite without a pass, and they’d be on you in a heartbeat. I saw at least two or three people being escorted out of the green concert area, as well as a confused pedestrian getting into an argument with an officer. Considering the high-profile guests at these events – including Hillary Clinton as a speaker – it wasn’t surprising. Come to think of it, I wonder what their procedure was for dealing with contraband; everyone was wearing backpacks carrying who-knows-what, so something being snuck in would’ve been a possibility. I happened to be hauling my three-foot umbrella, but only one attendee called me out on its resemblance to a sword.

Shortly after getting inside the building, I found a table serving free salad containers and lemon-flavored soft drinks. I was struck as how they were just handing these out. If you’ve ever been to the Financial District, you’d know its homeless population is huge. Poverty is one of San Francisco’s most prominent issues. It’s almost bizarre to see the two opposite ends of the wealth spectrum shoved into such close proximity. I recently saw a man wearing nothing but a blanket standing amongst a small crowd of businessmen. Most corners, subway entrances, and major storefronts have at least one person with a sign and cup. The security detail must have swept through the surrounding blocks and kicked all the beggars out of the area. Yet at the event, you could get a nice lunch for free, so long as you showed up with a pass. As I guiltily ate my lettuce and beef strips, I decided to give my next free meal in the city to a homeless person. I actually did so the other day, but that’s another story entirely.

After crossing the concert area – someone onstage was belting out Michael Jackson covers – I ducked into Moscone West.The booths hadn’t changed much since last year. Seemingly endless rows of desks and tables, each boasting a different business brand, piles of cheap pamphlets, free swag, and representatives practically shouting their sales pitches over the roar of the crowd and music. If you’ve read about my shyness and introversion, you’d know that this crazy, chaotic setting is the exact opposite of what I enjoy. For a couple of seconds, I actually considered bailing. After some deep breaths, I slowly, methodically checked out each booth for anything interesting. Most of the representatives were far too busy to notice me at first, so I took the opportunity to read pamphlets and nab free goodies while waiting. When they finally got to me, I put on my most confident, yes-I-really-do-belong-here attitude and let them do the talking. The entire time, I felt like an imposter sneaking into a high-security fortress. I’m not a techie by any means, but I’ve got more than enough experience with operations and procedures to understand what was being sold. Most involved client communication and data management, though there were some interesting things being done with robotics and gyroscopes. I politely nodded along with their sales pitches, asked a few questions, and gave them my contact info. Rinse and repeat a few dozen times, and I toured the whole building in one day.

Some high (and low)-lights include:

-Tracking down Vidyard. Every time I tweeted something about the expo, these guys would immediately message me back. So, I made a point of actually finding them:

-The Coca Cola booth had special bottles made for the convention, but they weren’t for sale:

-The new Tesla car model on display. I couldn’t get a good picture due to the huge crowd around it, but the interior is sleek, and the dashboard interface looked amazing.

-Free books. Just like last year, attendees could get their hands on Salesforce’s manuals for the programming and development of their products. It took over half an hour to get through the line, but getting this kind of information is valuable. Who knows, maybe I’ll start developing an app…

The Oculus Rift. Yes, they had a demo of the virtual reality system ready for use. It was…unimpressive. Wearing those huge, clunky goggles was uncomfortable, especially since I had to take off my glasses to use it. It was supposed to simulate the interior of a car, but the textures were far from realistic, and the touch-based interactivity was inconsistent at best. Opening the virtual car door involved not a smooth, natural motion, but lots awkward flailing. Hopefully the next build will be better.

-T-shirts. One section of the second floor was devoted to a series of t-shirt printing stations. People could sign in, choose what color and design they wanted, have the artist press the design by hand, and send it through a drying machine. I think I impressed the gentleman handling my shirt; rather than making him do all the work, I handled the pressing myself. I ended up choosing a purple shirt, which was the least of three evils. It was either that or a garish light blue or bright orange. I’ll get a picture posted on here once I’ve ironed out the wrinkles.

-The lei. The third floor had a distinct Hawaiian theme to it. Not sure why it was chosen, but it worked decently. Lots of bright colors, a photo stand with fake waves, and decorated surfboards. They were also offering a chance to win a free trip to Hawaii. I went to Maui earlier this year, so of course I couldn’t turn it down. Entering the contest involved using Salesforce’s new info displays to run a mock Hawaiian-themed business. It was ridiculously easy to figure out (seriously, how hard is it to read a bar graph or pie chart?), and I finished the challenge in seconds. What caught my eye, however, were the leis decorating the stand. I put on my sweetest and most polite face and asked a representative for one, and was turned down…so I waited until another rep passed by and asked again.

Let me tell you, wearing a Hawaiian lei on BART is one heck of a conversation starter. Most guys wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like that, but I worked it with style. I strode confidently out of Dreamforce 2014 with a beautiful wreath of flowers around my neck, several new potential business contacts, a backpack full of books…and a killer backache from hauling around so much stuff. But it was worth it. Here’s hoping next year will be even better.

If I Had A Billion Dollars…

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about winning. Specifically, what you’d do if you won one billion dollars, tax-free. I like that the prompt included that little bit on the end, because that makes things far less complicated in terms of structuring a portfolio. Nobody likes paying taxes, and doing it for a billion dollars would probably physically hurt. So, what do you do with that kind of money? A lot of people would spring for some kind of mansion, cars, an island, etc. Sorry to be boring, but I don’t think I’d go that route. Not immediately, anyway. Having that much cash suddenly dropped on me would certainly solve some of my short-term problems, but it’d potentially cause a ton more without a good amount of foresight and planning.

There’s a pervasive belief that being rich means you can retire. Maybe you’ll get a big coin vault and go swimming in it like Scrooge McDuck. Or maybe you'll fight crime. Spending the rest of your life in the lap of luxury sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? And while it’s technically possible to do with a tax-free billion, it would be inherently limiting. The amount of money in your account isn’t as important as how you spend it to maintain your standard of living. Basically, stuff adds up. Read up on Warren Buffett sometime; the dude’s lived in the same house since 1956. His lack of extravagance is something I’d like to emulate. For example: I don’t have a car, so I walk and take public transit. Sure, that makes me a scrub in most people’s eyes. But I’m saving thousands annually on insurance premiums and maintenance. The same goes with the phone; I’ve been using the same ratty old flip phone for the better part of a decade. Its data plan is almost non-existent. It doesn’t have a camera, a music player, or even the Internet. But it can make or take calls, and that’s all I need.

General rule of thumb/common sense: If you want to make a profit, earn more than what you spend.

However, that doesn’t mean I could or want do more. Money is one (and certainly not the only) means by which we get resources and opportunities. I may not need a smart phone, but it’d make managing a business and building relationships much easier. So, if I want more opportunities, I’d have to make more money. I’d get the immediate problems out of the way, like getting the house paid off and health insurance coverage handled. After calculating my standard of living and doubling it in case of unforeseen expenses, the rest would be left for investments. Since this money is tax free, I won’t have to put all of it immediately into my IRA, though a portion of it certainly would. Some of it would go towards at least a few interest bearing accounts or fixed-rate CDs, even though the percentages these days are pathetically low.

Did I mention I was in banking for 12 years?

The investments wouldn’t be just in terms of accounts, either. Technically, everything you own is an investment. They just have varying degrees of necessity and returns. I may be a huge geek, but I know a week’s worth of groceries is always better investment than a TARDIS replica. If you’re in the photography business, you don’t just get the best camera money can buy; you get one that doesn’t break your bank and still suits your needs. If you’re a diplomat en route to Beijing, it’s probably a good idea to invest in learning Mandarin. Everything you pick up along the way are just pieces of the foundation of your financial career.

Mine would likely include investments in real estate development, particularly in China. Renewable energy, psychology, educational, food, transportation, and health care technology developments would also be essential. Communications, preferably with a focus online streaming and messaging, would also be a priority. Privacy, too. The stock market is also plausible, but it’s way riskier. I still have chilling flashbacks of working at a bank when the recession hit. I’d rather have a good, steady burn instead relying on just finicky economic confidence. Once I have a solid return, I’d donate to charities, particularly those involved with world hunger, depression, and education. Maybe start a college.

…And build a personal library. Deep down, I’m still a bookworm.