Rebekah Wilson obtained a degree in Composition at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand in 1996. Working as an independent composer, electronic musician, installation artist and filmmaker Rebekah Wilson has performed and lectured in many venues and festivals. Earlier this century she held the position of Artistic Co-Director at STEIM (Studio for Electronic and Instrumental Music), where she curated and participated in international festivals, workshops and education programs for live electronic and instrumental music, installations and film. Since 2004 she is the co-founder and director of technology for an international software development company, Source-Elements, delivering high-fidelity real-time audio delivery over IP. She is currently living between Barcelona and New Zealand and has taken up surfing.
13th October 2008, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
I have known Rebekah since 2001. We were both attending a Summer University program on performing arts in Amsterdam and decided to go the Hacker festival in Enschede together. Wau Holland had just passed away and we spent a lot of time with the Chaos Computer people as well as in Patrice 's Slacker saloon. Since then we became good friends. When she lived in Amsterdam she would come to my house and play the piano while I was cooking on Monday nights. Her nickname in my household was the 'female Rachmaninov'. I have witnessed how she started to use her skills in living online into a business that nearly completely operates in online spaces, which is why she can travel the world while doing business all the time. When she is now visiting on one of her trips and she starts to work in my living room, it is a strange experience. While being there, she is completely not there anymore. But the moment she is stops working and goes offline we get to enjoy her company and her wonderful food. During the interview we focused on the way she runs her business, on how witnessing and not witnessing each other generates trust or breaks it down. Because it was the first interview, the format had not yet been set up. Also, being a digital native, Rebekah does not want to be seen on the Internet. Therefore this interview can only be read. The original filmed material of the interview is with Caroline Nevejan.
Source Elements is company based in the USA, which is collaborating with a company elsewhere and clients all over the globe. Therefore they mostly work online. Rebekah Wilson is co-founder and Director of Technology of Source-elements.
When starting a company it is important to establish each other's risk profiles. In Wilson's case all participants had the same risk profile, both were new to start-up culture, which gives a recognizable dynamic. You grow together. When starting one has to know one's partners for which reason the founders have to meet in real life to assess each other's integrity and benevolence.
With the programmers it is important to check their capability. Because the company writes and sells computer software, it is ok to communicate on the computer. If it were making something else, Wilson would feel the need to be there more hands on. Trust with programmers is already inherent in the medium; one does not have to be in the same place.
Being the Director of Technology the role of Wilson in the collaboration is to bridge between different discourses and interests. Therefore they developed formats of communication that have a steady rhythm in real time. It organizes response time and feedback between partners, with the programmers and with the clients as well.
Wilson finds that the orchestration of communication with different colleagues and business partners is different in many aspects: in tone of voice, in response time, in how to take minutes, in how to behave when in trouble and it is different in deciding when to meet in real life. All these things have to be appropriate to the relation and this effort is easily under estimated.
With her co-founders and business partners she makes sure to meet in real life to sustain the relationship with them. Every 2 year she tries to spend a few months in the head office. At that time the big decisions about people and future projects and plans are made. She feels one has to be in one room at such moments. When big trouble happens, all stakeholders have to meet in real life as well.
With the programmers Wilson insists on being decent in online communication, polite and personal, yet distant, use diplomacy and sometimes hang out and make jokes on chat or video conf or phone. They use chat and phone to discuss issues, while they use email to arrest minutes of other online sessions. In this collaboration, in which Rebekah is in charge, hard specifications are crucial. Partners may want something done in 3 months, the programmers think they will need 9 months, and it gets done in 6 months. While doing the work it is crucial how fast you get back to people.
Wilson has a distinct behavior of timing in her collaboration with the programmers: confirm when you receive a batch of code, immediately download it and start testing immediately. All the time Wilson stays in touch, test the whole day and at the end of the day she files the bug reports. They will respond the next day whether they can fix it, what they do not understand and they keep doing that cycle till we have fixed the bugs.
Clients need feedback within the same day. There is an email system to confirm the receiving of emails, and reminds the company to answer. A support system is in place over three continents to know what is happening and alarm if necessary. For clients the people of the company are part of the system.
With Wilson's business partners, they more or less know what they are about to do. Because they know each other for a long time, not many things are time critical. They understand each other and pick up the slack as soon as it is possible. It is important though to not forget to share the moments of success, booth with business partners as well as with the programmers.
Understanding of the open source ethic that most programmers want to uphold is crucial as technical director. Programmers will make use of the community of programming and use appropriate licenses. "It is ownership of work, but not of ethic; to me, we own the code, but not the intellectual concepts." In the collaboration with the programmers working with the open source community, Wilson grants a shared ethic with the programmers through which a long-time sustainable relationship can evolve
Wilson consciously creates her identity online. It is important that clients feel they can trust her professionally and the feedback is that the support they offer is highly appreciated. They may talk regularly on the phone, but they are not sharing personal information. "One can use the fact that we are not in the same place to manifest an identity as someone who is not real. For example, I never allow video camera. When working remotely participants may project qualities on the other. I have had one man say, and this is where it goes to far, "you have a beautiful voice, you must be very beautiful". I take effort not to engage in these conversations but to maintain a professional stance. It is not going on to the point where I take advantage of this by using maybe stereotypical female things; I keep my professional voice etc. The not being witnessed visually is a strategy, to keep it more clinical".
To Wilson her life online, including her professional life, is like another world in which she lives as well. It is distinct from her life offline though. "I do not like to talk about my work in social situations for example, because it is part of another reality, I do not know where to start, really not know where to start because there is no ground point, it is such a distributed thing. I could explain it to another engineer but than I could just talk technically, but I cannot talk about it in other terms. (...) It is very hard to share except with the people who are also in that imaginary world like other engineers; then it becomes real. (...) I have not created this; this is who I am. I have been like that as a child when I was playing the piano, my mother can tell you. It is not something I have become; I have made my work of something I like to have, to be able to disappear from where I am. Of course there is conflict, when I have to be available, that can be hard and the imaginary world can become too real. Than I take a walk, call a friend, watch a movie, and usually leave the office."
CN: As you know I am exploring trust in online collaboration and the way people witness each other and are capable of taking responsibility for each other. But first, to understand you better, how did you start your company and found the people to do it with?
RW: We had met in person, the business partners, and established relations of trust. It took a few months also with other partners. With serious partners you have to share expectations, acknowledge difference etc. The programmers we found through a lot of research, several groups, and telephone calls, referrals. We spent lots of time on the phone. It was a matter of luck really to have been able to find them. We all had the same risk profile.
CN: How do you discuss it?
RW: Through email and fixed meetings during week. We chat, because we need to have it documented and then we email it to each other. And that becomes the plan for the week. They hear my questions and I answer their questions and then we talk as long as we have, email it to each other and then will write a summary of that discussion. That gives us the opportunity to understand each other well. We did not do that in the beginning, and therefore we had communication problem the first couple of years. And the scheduled sessions solved this. We have no more communication problems now. The communication problems we had was that the work was different than we meant. I do not want to micro-manage; any capable person should do the work in the way they want. What I do is that I give them a module, a diagram, architecture, it needs to do this in the future and that and has to interact with that and I trust their technical ability to do that.
CN: The rhythm of the two meetings and how you behave had a clear format. What is the difference?
RW: I could not answer to my other business partners. Why certain dates were not met, I could not answer these questions. Partners and programmers all have specific communication needs. I need to bridge them. My role is that I translate these and I did not before. I translate what the one group wants to the other group. I never have them talk to each other; partner's needs can be very demanding. I take on the demands and responsibilities. I witness and take responsibility for two groups and bridge.
CN: How do you know what happens with the partners?
RW: I know them very well; we know each other as human beings. I speak with one partner almost every day on the phone about almost anything. I can even hear it whether he had pizza for lunch.
CN: You read his voice, and you cannot do that by email?
RW: No way. We do chat. We have established. We are very good friends, like brother and sister, can get angry with each other. He will say I want this and I will say that is not possible, too much work, what is the point, it will take a year, etc and then he will say, 'no you really have to listen to me' and then maybe I say, 'ok I can do it' and then we establish what we want. We do this by phone and by chat, never by email. Email is for when we have agreed what to do; we use it to confirm what we decided. Chat is like talking. When we realize we need a discussion, we will make a call. We know that point with each other, when there is conflict or we technically do not understand each other. Bridge the language and the emotional conflict.
CN: Never videoconference?
RW: Yes we do, especially since we integrate it into our product, mostly use it to show. To show the screen and sometimes we hang out and make fun and jokes. Technology facilitates very different ways of communication; we establish our friendship when we play.
CN: What can you not do with your partners?
RW: I feel I need to go every two years to Chicago to cement I am a human being and not just a worker. I take the effort a much as I can. When I am there we tend to make the big decisions, what product we want to work on, human resources issues, when we hire people, I do that. Sales persons they can do, technical people I do. I made one mistake, I did not have enough time with him, and I did not spend enough time thinking about the consequences of having him work with him.
CN: Have you met everyone you've worked with?
RW: No, but I've met the key participants. The few times we have major issues, we meet with all of us, and then I would be on the phone conference. This is critical. Without these meetings things could have spiraled out of control.
CN: How do you know how the programmers are?
RW: By the quality of their work. When people are not well, you get more bugs. Many facets are important though: To have hard specification: Partners want 3 months, programmers think 9 months and I get it done in 6 months.
I need to use much diplomacy, also using programming language. It is important how quickly you get back to people. When they send me a beta version, I have to look at it that day when it is still fresh in their mind and send back and forth in the next days. I cannot leave it for 1 or 2 weeks And timing is critical: you confirm you receive it, immediately download it, now and say I start testing. All the time I stay in touch, test the whole day, at the end of the day file the bug reports, they will respond the next day whether they can fix it, what they do not understand and we keep doing that cycle till we have fixed the bugs. We are pretty friendly and will say small things: like Hello Jack, Hello Rebekah and not immediately go straight into technical stuff. Always say thank you at the end and have a nice evening. I know there have been times when I have upset him; I was late to meetings, not so sociable, my work was far away, and I was wasting his time. Once or twice is Ok, more is not. It was affecting our relationship. When I realized, I even discussed this with his manager, saying I have been missing meetings with Jack, I want you to know that I will not be wasting his time anymore and of course I also said this to Jack but his manager would also know now.
CN: Are the programmers human beings or only workers to you? You do not need to meet them?
RW: Oh no, they are completely human beings. I would like to see them, but it is not as necessary as with the partners. If we would be doing hardware it would be more critical, but since we are doing software, I already speak the language and it is already digital.
CN: You do not need the trust as with the partners?
RW: It is different. The trust is already inherent in the medium. Because it is digital the medium, the computer, because we write computer software, it is ok to communicate on the computer. If we were making something else I would feel the need to be there more hands on.
CN: You also will find easily new programmers and not easy new partners?
RW: If the programmers would not be ok, I would talk to the managers. If that does not help, indeed I would hire new programmers. The need for witnessing of the partners is different with people who just have to perform a task. They only have to do their task well? Their lives are not as important for the completion of that task. I do believe, am not sure about it, I had some comments, they like to work with me because I am very personable and understanding and I have enough of understanding of what they are doing and I do distract them. I do not know whether this is having the female quality, means I treat them very humanly, always open to when they cannot meet the target if they have a valid reason. It is ok with me.
CN: How is the response time organized?
RW: It is different between clients, partners and programmers. Clients I have to respond to within the same day. We have an email system to confirm receiving of emails, and remind us to answer. There is a support system is over three continents. We have a good system in place to know what is happening and alarm us if necessary. For clients we, the people, are part of the system. With partners, they more or less know what I am about to do. We know each other for a long time, not many things are time critical. We understand each other; pick up the slack as soon as I can. Programmers, as discussed before, sometimes I do not feel like it, but force myself to do it, important to do it today and not tomorrow.
CN: How is the culture of the company?
RW: It goes of and on, up and down. Sometimes there is lot of communication, sometimes not. Sometimes we get in touch with all of us. I go to Chicago to enforce that, to ask about their family and so on.
CN: What problems have you faced when things went wrong?
RW: Some clients have been problematic. I had to deal with it. Partners are always very understanding. Ultimately, if things go wrong it is because I have not been communicative. That's been my big lesson in all of this.
CN: So it is all about the same risk profile, the courtesy lines, response time, partners know each other and do the trust thing, and programmers with you the performance thing in making the software?
RW: Another important thing is for example when we won a client, to share the moments of success. I will always let the programmers know that this and that client successfully used our work.
CN: So this is a larger ethic and culture of how you collaborate. They also trust you more because you share. It is apparently not about ownership?
RW: It is ownership of work, but not of ethic; to me, we own the code, but not the intellectual concepts.
CN: Is this different in other companies?
RW: Probably, they would take complete ownership. But I do not believe that is a very healthy relationship, that is not long-time sustainable, workers will get bored and start quitting.
CN: You have images of each other and you recognize hacker ethics in each other?
RW: Yes, of course
CN: I look for new kinds of responsibilities that are developing? How this becomes part of identities of people?
RW: Both my relations with my clients, I have created a certain way of interacting they feel they can trust me. Without that, they have any claim on me professionally and that we are not exchanging personal information. Maybe we talk on the phone once or twice a week; with some people I have become friends, over a period of years.
CN: How does it affect your identity that you always work with people with whom you are not in the same place? And how does it change your being in that place?
RW: I use the fact that we are not in the same place to manifest my identity as someone who is not real. For example, I never allow video camera. When working remotely participants may project qualities on the other. I have had one man say, and this is where it goes to far, "you have a beautiful voice, you must be very beautiful". I take effort not to engage in these conversations but to maintain a professional stance.
CN: In what sense?
RW: Of using maybe stereotypical female things, I keep my professional voice etc. The not being witnessed visually is a strategy, to keep it more clinical.
CN: And the voice is very clear and personal. What does it do to you?
RW: A few thousand people out there, who have an idea about me, most of them say, that our support is really fantastic. It means I have another life outside of the one I have. And I do not like to talk about my work in social situations for example, because it is part of another reality. I do not know where to start, really not know where to start, because there is no ground point, it is such a distributed thing. I could explain it to another engineer but than I could just talk technically, but I cannot talk about it in other terms.
CN: Your work is your imagination and than you also have another imagination?
RW: Work does pay the bills. The consequence of it taking place is that it is very hard to share, except with the people who are also in that imaginary world like other engineers. Then it becomes real.
CN: What does it do to where you physically are?
RW: It does not really matter where I am.
CN: When I see you work in my house, you really disappear.
RW: When friends ask me something, indeed I am not there. I have not created this; this is who I am. I have been like that as a child when I was playing the piano, my mother can tell you. It is not something I have become; I have made my work of something I like to have; to be able to disappear from where I am.
CN: Is there conflict in that?
RW: Of course, when I have to be available, that can be hard. And the imaginary world can become too real. Than I take a walk, call a friend, watch a movie, and usually leave the house.