Sam Zimmerman: Kitchens, Psychic TV, & Data Ethics
30 min 54 sec
Published on July 24, 2020
He first learned how to manage difficult projects with dependencies and deadlines over a decade ago as a cook in a hectic restaurant. And around the same time, he discovered a knack for bringing different personalities together to make experimental music as a member of a band performing across the U.S. Hear how Sam went from the kitchen to executing digital transformation roadmaps for UN Agencies like UNICEF at the agency that managed digital for the disruptive Obama campaign of ‘08, Blue State.
As a senior leader of Blue State's Partnerships team, Sam initiates collaboration with clients seeking innovative solutions for websites and other digital products. During his tenure at Blue State, he has worked with governments (the City of New York, the State of California, the Government of Mexico), NGOs (UNICEF, OHCHR), and nonprofits (Sierra Club, Idealist.org, The Nation) to modernize their web presence to better connect to their constituents.
With over 15 years of sales experience in digital services and having hosted exclusive Agency Leaders Dinners for CEOs globally, Piyush has taken his penchant for engaging digital change-makers online with “Humans Behind Digital Experiences (DX),” an Axelerant Podcast. His goal is to host an uncommon conversation that goes deeper than the platforms big organizations run on today, to a level that’s more personal—more human.
Hi, Sam. Welcome to the podcast!
Hello, Piyush! I'm happy to be here.
Do you want to introduce yourself?
Sure. My name is Sam Zimmerman. I am the SVP of Platform Partnerships at Blue State. Blue State is a digital agency that focuses primarily on helping progressive organizations, such as nonprofits and NGOs, to help make the world a better place. So we have been in business since the mid-2000s. And originally, our founders worked in the political world, and are very well known for having run the digital campaigns for Barack Obama in 2008. In 2012, my personal time at Blue State started in 2013. And since then, I've worked with a wide range of clients, from UNICEF to Sierra Club, to Teach for America and many more.
It's really awesome, you know, the projects you deliver at Blue State—those impactful projects—whether on the political ecosystem or nonprofits or the country on the whole. So, yeah, we'd love to listen and hear a bit about your story. Your journey.
Sure. And I will. I'll take a little bit of time to do that, because I've actually been doing this work since the mid 1990s. And so I have a few stages of the story to tell, but hopefully it will be an interesting story. So originally, I was a cook. So starting in high school up until my mid 20s. My main job was cooking in restaurants. And also after college, I was in a band. So I lived in San Diego, and I was in a band that spent most of the year touring around the country. And it was a very, you know, sort of intense time of life. Doing something I was very passionate about and underpaid—or not being paid anything significant. To do this was really a labor of love. But you know, touring around the country and making these performances… we had a lot of very passionate fans that would come to see us. So there are two things that I think are important about these: the start point for me that pertained to working in software… right from my experience with the band. This band had eight people in it. And all of these people were strong personalities—with totally different agendas with what they were trying to accomplish in life. And so in order to get anything done, you in this group, you had to learn what made each person tick… and what buttons not to push and what buttons to push. So to get things working, to get everyone rehearsing and participating and not fighting with each other… you had to sort of adopt a psychology perspective. And I was very good at that and sort of learned how to get people working together and was involved in a lot of the management of this group when I was in it. And so the other part of my experience working in restaurants, when I was working in the kitchen: orders would come up on the wheel, and you'd pull down the order, and you'd see all the dishes that we need to be made. And each dish would have a different amount of time that it would take to make it. And you'll have different stages to make it. But the goal was to get everything done at the same time. So when you would put it up—and it was all equally hot. And then you can get it to the table and it would be the experience that the guests were looking for. And so from that experience, you know, breaking down a complicated set of tasks from the order, and then associating each task with a timeline. And then bringing, you know, making sure that all the timelines came together at the right moment. That was sort of my introduction to project management. You know: personally doing the work. A lot of the preparation in the kitchen that happens ahead of time. So you know, the chopping of the vegetables and so forth, or making soups, and all of these things would happen ahead of the actual ordering but some of the things happen on the spot. And so that perspective of how to break down complex workflows, and, you know, and get them together into a final deliverable really came from working in restaurants and then managing a team came from working in this band. So all of that is to say that when I arrived in New York in 1994, and had no background in the software world and needed to get a job: I had these raw skills that were useful to the industry. And the first job I got was because I had literally no experience working in computers in any kind. The first job I got was at a newsletter. And this newsletter was a print newsletter. That reviewed CD ROMs—and that was my first job in the field. Right? So if you can sort of take a moment to think about that idea like a print newsletter reviewing a type of digital product that doesn't exist anymore. You know, this was my first introduction to the field. I only worked there for a few months. And then I got a job actually working at a CD ROM company in New York at the time, there was what was called "Silicon Alley," which was a number of digital publishers focusing on CD ROMs. And I met one of these publishers. And she gave me a job. And I was very excited about this for several months until I realized I was working in a sweatshop and was working 70 hours a week making education Games for Kids—which was really fun. But you know then I realized that I had been sort of entrapped by a devious woman who would hire people that had no sense of perspective, but had a lot of talent, and then would work them really hard until they burned out. And then they would quit. But she would have always already hired their replacement. And so she had this strategy where she never gave anyone a raise. And she, you know, she just had a high turnover. But all of the people were very talented because she was astute in interviewing. That was sort of my bootcamp learning, actually applying project management, to making software projects, and you know, sort of rolling up my sleeves and figuring it out. And that lasted for a year. And then, in 1996, I moved into the internet and I started making eCommerce sites from scratch for the company that was one of the first eCommerce companies Snickel Ways and we made our own software do every single thing that a store would need to do. And the stores that we were making were for Fruit of the Loom, and they were just selling blank shirts out of warehouses that service the industry that does silk screening and embroidery. So very complex industrial strength, you know, websites that do things that still need to be done today. But no one knew how to do this work and we had to figure it out from scratch. And that's sort of where I started.
Wow, that's so interesting. Now is there any philosophy or is there anything along those lines that you would like to share with our listeners when it comes to success or purpose in work or life?
Yeah, so as I mentioned, when my first work experiences was for this devious employer who really exploited her staff without them knowing, originally, and then they would sort of you know… the scales would fall from their eyes after a while. And I've moved from there into working at a series of website agencies during the initial .com boom. And in these shops they would start with their founders who would have an initial project that'd do really well. And that would give them their first infusion of money. And then they would hire some people, and they would have a couple of rounds of doing work with that initial team. And then they would try to scale up from there. So they'd hire another round of people, and maybe those people would, you know, be harder to onboard, maybe they weren't as talented because the competition was, you know, for talented people was more—and these companies would often fail because they couldn't grow or they would try to grow too fast. And then all of the people would leave as the ship was sinking, and they would go to another agency that was slurping up the talented people from the failing agencies. So that so you know, you saw this sort of series of agencies mushrooming, collapsing others Agencies mushrooming even larger and this is where agencies like Razorfish, and organic and agency calm and so forth is sort of early wave, how they got to be large enough that they had the silly idea that you could go public as a digital agency. And they were part of the collapse of the .com because it's a non scalable professional services business shouldn't be going public. And so I knew a lot of people that were really harmed by this experience because they thought because they were working at an agency that was going to go public that their stock options were going to allow them for financial security and in fact, when everything collapsed, a lot of those people ended up owing money on the highest and the issue price of their stock, which have collapsed to pennies, and they also had to pay taxes on the capital gains. So some people who thought they were going to get rich ended up having to pay thousands and thousands of dollars to issuing bank and the government, you know, because of this experience and so, what I took away from this like rapid ascent and then the collapse was that you have to be very fair to people... and not to feed into greed and not develop unrealistic expectations and, you know, try to be honest—and not exploit people. And, you know, be fair in your business dealings. Because, you know, what seems to be on the, on the ascension now, you know, it may collapse around the corner. And if you don't have really solid, honest, truthful relationships with people and you know, the goodwill that you've built up over time, you won't survive those calamities, and I think you know, what we're going through this year, is an example of that. This is a challenging time that is going to be damaged the business of a lot of our peers. And if you don't have a network of people that you've built up relationships with, you know, that are solid. It's much harder to, you know, move on to the next thing.
Great, great philosophy—great insight in terms of what to keep in mind while chasing your Northstar. Now, let's talk a bit about yourself, Sam, you know, besides being the great Project Manager, Product Owner, you know, leader of these large digital projects, outside of your professional life professional work, is there something you like doing when you have time?
Well, I mentioned that, that I was in a band, you know, early in my career. When I left that band, I moved to New York and started doing work in software and all along I really was only working on trying to get back into being in a band. And so, so as I was producing websites in the early .com era, I also had a recording studio and was working on creative projects. And through that, eventually, I threw in the towel because I wasn't going to, you know, be the next Brian Eno o David Bowie or whatever I was chasing after, but I also through that experience I met a musician that was a big influence of mine who had a band called Psychic TV that I was a fan of when I was a kid. And you know, had I've all of the Psychic TV records and was very obsessive about them for a long time. So I've met the founder of that band. His name is Genesis P-Orridge. And I had started doing some work with video. And Gen, when he met me said: "Oh, you know how to do video? Oh, I need some video." And so I got invited to join that band that I had been a fan of and as the video artist, and so for 18 years until up until last year that has been my main creative outlet is, is making video projections for the concerts for this band.
Okay, and that Psychic TV you mentioned, yes. Anything else from a professional growth perspective that you'd like to share?
When I started doing this work, no one knew how to do it, you know, like, the profession existed and things like bridge building, and you know, like sort of physical projects. But, you know, the process for long software projects hadn't really been professionalized. And so everyone was just figuring it out on the fly and making lots and lots of mistakes. And so my own, you know, sort of skills and abilities sort of came from a series of terrible calamities and experiences I didn't want to have again. And so I would build up, you know, an awareness of I shouldn't do that, that last time I went down that road, it worked out really poorly. Now with, you know, a couple of generations past the, there's more awareness around what best practices are, and techniques and skills and it's really, you know, developed into a fully documented professional field that you can study in, you know, you can get undergraduate coursework in it, you can take professional development in this and, you know, there's, there's, you know, lots of, you know, academies that are of, you know, that offer these kinds of courses around the clock, you can do a long bootcamp that you can take after hours, you can study for a semester. Now the people that I work with have this kind of background where they have training and they don't have to sort of learn it by Hard Knocks. And that's really interesting. And it helps me, you know, sort of learn from the people that I manage, who now have much more training than I would ever have, you know, acquired in my own career. So I do think that that is a valuable thing, too. To do things like take, you know, certifications, and Scrum, agile, and so forth so that you're confident in the basics. And then the other important thing is to really keep an eye out for trends. It's really a habit of a lot of companies to focus inward and on the things which they know how to do well, and when they hire new people, they get them enculturated in their, you know, their practices and the staff stops looking outward at what's happening around them in the industry, and some new things might come up, which really accelerate the success of some competitors or you know, or whole new categories of products. And if you're gonna spend all of your time really looking inward at what's happening in your own company and how you do your own work, to the exclusion of the exterior world, then then you can easily fall behind.
Sounds great, keep improving, keep evolving one step at a time. Right, let's fast forward to 2021. Sam, what do you see of this ecosystem or the world of digital experiences evolving to?
So I think we're in a really fascinating moment. You know, often I think when, when people ask this kind of question, it's you know, about how will technology improve and solve problems? You know what new opportunities will happen and you know what things which are small and and just incubating now will blow up. And I actually want to answer it from a different perspective, which is what things that we do right now are going to be looked at critically by the population and potentially reduced in importance and influence. I think that the experience of the pandemic has created sort of a reset moment where people are forced to confront what's actually important, and things that you may have spent hours of your day doing before you were forced to stay at home all the time. Now, maybe you don't think those things are so important, right? So in simple cases, you know, oh, I can actually work from home effectively in a lot of professions. And so maybe it wasn't interesting. For me to run around and take meetings all over town, right, so, so you get a chance to reflect on you know, sort of reboot and reflect on how you would like to construct your life. And I think that's spilling out into you know that now that that ball has started rolling, it's moving into other areas and people are looking at the influence of systems that they've come to adopt very deeply and ask themselves is this really a good thing and so I think even what we're seeing, you know, in this month with the advertiser action against Facebook is an example of that, in a day on Facebook has knitted itself into the lives of 2 billion people on the planet and created a superstructure that has never existed in you know, in humanity before. And it's not actually a good thing—and a lot of ways it's disruptive to the stability of government and it's disruptive to the economic stability of the press. And as a result, it's allowed totalitarianism and other bad influences to take root and thrive. And people are recognizing that and the lack of accountability of that company, you know, is being called into question. And even if individuals are unable to shake it as a habit in their life because of the network effect of, you know, connecting to their family and friends, they can still be critical of it in a way that, you know, people haven't been willing to look at before. And so I think that really is the trend I look forward to in the next year is, you know, trying to define what's important and maybe shake the stability of some, some of these brands that have captured too much power and are, you know, have disrupted and monopolized to the detriment of, you know, people at people's lives in some ways, and I would say, Facebook, Amazon, and Google are, you know, sort of the prime suspects here and that they... a serious look needs to be taken there, you know, if their undo size that forces everyone to bend around them is really a good thing and how it may be brought into check.
So maybe finding norms is what needs to be thought about at this time. Personal question. Are you on Facebook by any chance? And have you thought about, you know, reducing your engagement there or closing accounts? You know, I asked this because, you know, lately, I've really come across a lot of people who've been switching off their Facebook.
I am. I mean, you know, it's a, it's one of the only networks I engage in. I don't use Twitter. I don't use any Instagram, I have, you know, sort of a legacy of content which is in Facebook, that sort of low to give up. But at the same time, I do everything possible to subvert its influence over me. So, for example, I don't have it installed on my phone. I use it in a browser that I don't use for anything else. So it can't see my wider history. I don't click on any links in Facebook, so it can't see what I linked out to and develop an interest profile on me. So you know, I try to keep it... I try to keep it at bay, but I'm not a leaver.
Right. Okay. And you know, the way you explained, what's happening right now—and what people need to be conscious of on a personal, individual level. Any suggestions or any advice for agencies to adopt, you know, especially given the current situation? Anything that you'd like to share?
Yeah. So I know that you know, both of our agencies work in Drupal. And I've attended Drupalon several times. And a couple of years ago, though, one of the keynotes at DrupalCon was by Zeynep Tufekci, you know, the media critic that focuses on protest movements around the world and the role of technology. And I found it very fascinating. Her address to the keynote address to the gathering at DrupalCon. Because her critique is that you know, the dominant players in the internet since the internet 2.0 ascended, like Facebook, have built their business models around surveillance. And so they built systems to gather data about you as an individual and look at you everywhere that they can. Surreptitiously. You know, so that as you go about your business on the internet, using their platforms, you're not aware of, you know, the volume of data that you're leaving behind and how they're using it to analyze you. And then, you know, they built that into their business model for how they sell your access to you to their advertisers. And so, what she asked everyone in the room is: why did people choose to do this? You know, this doesn't seem to be a good idea for most people that use the platform. It's not in their interest for this business model to exist. So, you know, why is this the only thing that we can think of to do? You know, if Facebook really only gathers about $20 of profit per year per user, couldn't they simply just ask for that $20 of the users and sort of throw this whole surveillance aside, so what she asked at the gathering there is: everyone in this room is very smart, you know, is, is building the internet in some way. So can you personally commit to not building this kind of system? In your work? You know, are you willing to take steps to move in a different direction and not just continue to exacerbate this model simply because the people who are in the lead right now want work to be done in that way. And so I found that direct request, you know, both inspiring and challenging because you then really have to look at, you know, what kind of work are you willing to take on. To say no to some potential opportunities.
Okay. Are there any books, any favorite books or authors that you'd like to recommend? You know, these could be the ones that make have had a huge impact on the way you work or lives.
Well, sure, I'll start with Zeynep Tufekci - Twitter and Tear Gas. Which is the book that she's written most recently, at the time that she addressed DrupalCon. That's a good place to start to sort of start to learn this perspective. There's a book that I read a few years ago that I found thought-provoking. It's not a very well written book, but it's by Jaron Lanier. It's called Who Owns the Future. And you may remember Jaron as one of the early virtual reality proponents. So he's the fellow the dreadlocks and was always on TV talking about VR. So this book is about platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram where the content is created by the users and so the value of the company is is really due to the effort, the labor, contributed by the users to make it interesting to other people. And, and so far the people who create the value and these platforms don't get the benefit of you know, of the of the value they've created and that the future must have a system for compensating the people who create the value for free currently. And so I think that is a really fascinating idea to explore. And then I also like to read books by Evgeny Morozov he is a, a an author. He's sort of a curmudgeon who's written a book called The Net Delusion and another one called To Save Everything, Click Here. For people sort of raised in the Silicon Valley worldview to think that technology will solve problems, you know, political problems in particular, when in fact, sort of the naive embrace of technology often ends up empowering totalitarian rulers. And so, you know, so we think of like the Arab Spring as a Twitter rebellion. But, you know, in the aftermath, those states actually could come out stronger because of the deep digital penetration that the populace has embraced. And the state actually has more ability to exploit that than the individuals do, for example. And then To Save Everything, Click Her... the main thesis is that the impression that you accomplish something through low commitment digital asks, like signing a survey or posting an outrage post on Facebook linking to you know, some article that you think expresses your political view well, that the fact that you get a sensation that you've accomplished something, by taking those small frictionless actions then prevents you from actually doing something substantive to cause the changes that you would like to see in the world. So it drains your energy makes you feel like you've done something, when in fact you all you've done is left the status quo in place. So, you know, again, you know, a critic who I think is useful to follow—to take a frank look at the, you know, the systems that we have built and that you know, many of us. You and I included, you know, gain our livelihood from.
Wow. And we'll throw links to those books shared by Sam. Wonderful, awesome books and authors. Sam, post-pandemic when the world is back to normal. Would you like to travel or do anything exciting? Something you've been waiting for?
Well, I had hoped that we would have a session accepted to DrupalCon in Barcelona in December... and that that will actually happen because I do like to go to Barcelona. It's one of my favorite cities in the world. So we'll see if that comes about.
I would love that. I've been to Barcelona, and it was a wonderful conference. Absolutely. Great wish. But all the best for that, you know, hope it happens. And Sam, look, this was amazing. Great conversation. Thank you for your time and for sharing your story.
Thanks for having me, Piyush.