Don’t hide your Holovaty under a basket

Matt Waite’s blog post headline really caught my attention: Stop trying to find the next Adrian Holovaty.

Sorry, I almost never rant on this blog, but I can’t take it anymore: Stop trying to find the next Adrian Holovaty. You won’t find him, like you won’t find the next Michael Jordan or the next Wayne Gretsky. He is one in a million.

I don’t really know Adrian. I’ve never met him. We’ve exchanged friendly e-mails a couple of times, and that’s about it. I know his work. His work is impressive. If I met him, maybe I’d put him in league with Jordan or Gretsky. Right now , I don’t. I put Page and Brin in that league, but not Adrian.

Having said that, hope I don’t offend him with this post.

Adrian’s work stands out more for the opportunities he’s had more than the fact it is really anything truly innovative. Mashups, for example, where nothing new when he launched (NOTE: Adrian corrects the record in the comments — wasn’t the first map mashup, but it was very early in the game). The project caught the eye of newspaper people because it was new to them, but it wasn’t new to people familiar with the Google Map API (NOTE: Adrian corrects the record in the comments: The Google API didn’t exist when he created The work Adrian did in Lawrence is truly remarkable by newspaper standards, but it stands on the shoulders of a lot of other developers from outside the industry.

Again, I hope I’m not offending Adrian, but my guess is, he would largely agree. Most programmers I’ve known over the years are quick to acknowledge their predecessors. To me, that’s part and parcel of the open source community.

There is a real poetry in what Adrian does and it takes a truly creative mind to see the potential of various parts, various technologies and bring them together in a different environment in a way that is unique and useful, but I also think there are a lot of people in our business who can, given the opportunity, do the same. Really good reporters do that every day.

Those of us who have followed Rob Curley’s steller career know that one of his bits of magic is to find really good, energetic, passionate people and then turn them loose. That is why Curley and Holovaty stand apart from the newspaper crowd. It’s not that their ideas are so much better than the ideas of a 100 other smart people in the newspaper business — it’s because they’ve been given the freedom to pursue those ideas, and given the freedom, they haven’t dropped the ball.

Contrary to Waite, I believe newspaper publishers can find the next Holovaty. In fact, I bet every newspaper of 50K circ or better probably has a potential Holovaty already on staff, and those people have been on newspaper staffs for 10+ years. But because most publishers are risk averse, tight-fisted and clueless about innovation (or have been), the best and the brightest haven’t been given a real opportunity — in fact, I bet there are dozens of potential Holovaty-like programmers out there who don’t even know themselves what they are capable of, because they’ve never been given the opportunity to learn and explore.

If publishers want the next Holovaty, they need to tap the right person on the shoulder, then say, “here’s a computer, come back in six months and show me a prototype of something fabulous.” The nature of creativity being what it is, there would probably be more misses than hits, but some publishers would truly strike it rich.

Again, I’m not trying to slight Holovaty and his accomplishments. But I think publishers need to realize that the secret sauce of Lawrence and its spinoffs isn’t one or two individuals, but it goes hand-in-hand with a culture of innovation.

The flip side is that thanks to Holovaty, Curley, among others — there is already a pretty clear road map of what needs to be done, and there is plenty of work to do just getting up to speed. That work can be done by any number of capable programmers. The trick is to hire them, pay them, tell them what to do, and then get busy.

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5 thoughts on “Don’t hide your Holovaty under a basket

  1. I probably didn’t articulate this well enough on my own site, but here’s why I said what I said: Newspapers need people who can use Django, not create Django out of whole cloth. What separates Adrian Holovaty from other developers is Django, the framework he’s one of the main creators of, not You can teach someone how to create data driven websites. The combination of skill and creativity that it takes to build something brilliant and complex like Django isn’t taught, and doesn’t come along every day. So, reasonably, what should a editor who needs to be innovating right now be looking for? Someone who can use tools to create something interesting and compelling? Or the very rare person who can not only create the compelling application, but build the very tools that create the application? I wrote what I wrote because I get the feeling that because editors can’t find someone like Adrian, they can throw their hands up and go back to shoveling more print content online. And, obviously, I disagree with that notion.

  2. So, I think we’re saying the same thing.

    There’s no reason to hire a “create a new Django creator guy” because Django (as well as Zope) already exist.

    I see what you’re saying, but I’m not sure publishers think about it that deeply. “I can’t hire another Adrian to create another, so I might as well not try” is probably more like it.

  3. […] Howard Owens: Don’t hide your Holovaty under a basket The reason Holovaty and Curley stand out is “not that their ideas are so much better than the ideas of a 100 other smart people in the newspaper business — it’s because they’ve been given the freedom to pursue those ideas” (tags: online journalism data mashups innovation newspapers) […]

  4. I agree with most of your post, but, in my defense, I will point out that it’s flatly incorrect to say “wasn’t new to people familiar with the Google Map API.” Actually, I created before the Google Maps API *existed.*

    It involved reverse-engineering how the Google map JavaScript worked, and although wasn’t *the* first Google Maps mashup — that honor belongs to HousingMaps, which was launched just before my site, while I was already working on mine — it was still one of *the* first mashups, period. And Google employees have told me directly that, along with HousingMaps, was their main inspiration for releasing the official Google Maps API in the first place.

    So I must ask that you give me some more credit here, Howard. I agree with you that newspaper people are very easily impressed by technology, but the Google Maps hacking is something I’m really proud of, moreso for its contribution to the Web development world than to journalism.

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