Posted on Aug 16, 2011

(Thanks to @magnuson for the original tweet)


This is actually something I think about fairly often. When I give talks, I often mention where I came from, not only to illustrate that anyone can actively contribute to space exploration and scientific discovery, but also in hopes of finding other stories like mine. Stories about being overwhelmingly infatuated by communities of makers and changing your life/location to simply be surrounded by it. As a result, my life and the forces that drive me have radically changed over the course of 5 years, and more often than not, I seem to cross milestones the months of July/August.

I thought I’d briefly share where I was in each of the last 5 years in the months of July/August, in hopes of reading yours as well:

5 years ago, it was August 2006, I was working at a creative interactive agency in Kansas City, VML, that had been my dream job since the time I was 14. Despite being aware of just how late to the game I was when it came to blogging, I started my first blog, Shake Well Before Use, about the hybrids of art, advertising, sex + technology.

4 years ago in August, I took what I still consider to be the biggest leap of faith in my life – I left my job of 8 years and moved to San Francisco without another job lined up. The first “gig” I got was working at a new startup called Pownce, where I met Leah Culver, Kevin Rose, and Daniel Burka for the first time (all of whom greatly inspired me with just how much a tiny team could build). There were many reasons I chose SF, but a large influence had been meeting so many amazing people at SXSW 2007 who *made* all the things I usually just blogged about.

3 years ago in July/August, I was watching a documentary called When We Left Earth. I found it so inspiring that I took a shot in the dark and emailed NASA about wanting to work for them. Serendipitously, a job description had been crafted that very day that eerily read like my resume. I got the job. It changed my life forever.

2 years ago in July, I attended Sci Foo, an unconference of ~200 world renowned scientists, after receiving a highly coveted invite from the O’Reilly team. As an un-scientist I was a bit terrified, to be honest. But I survived and it drove me to speak out more publicly.

1 year ago in July, I rounded up 15 of the awesome friends and acquaintances I had made over the previous 4 years and we collectively started planning Science Hack Day San Francisco. Though the event didn’t take place in July/August, looking back, I think putting it together is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Science Hack Day is just awesome.

Today, I’m writing while on “half-vacation”. Half-vacation because in July/August of this year, I learned that the first grant proposal I had written had been awarded. Like working for NASA, I don’t think I had envisioned writing a grant proposal in my life. So, very happily, I’m now burning the midnight oil in Berlin, Paris and now Málaga, alongside the most lovely and awesome person (he came along ~2 years ago, but not in July/August). And yeah, it freaks me out to think where I was 5 years ago.


  1. Alex Saint Croix
    August 18, 2011

    If we started keeping monthly recap logs and fed them into a “Now, where was I?” service, it would automatically update each month. Perhaps for the first year it would show where you were 5,4,3,2, and 1 month ago, then start in 2 month intervals, and grow from there.

    I liked this article quite a lot!

  2. Nathan Bergey
    August 18, 2011

    Thanks for sharing, it’s amazing how things can change isn’t it? 5 years ago I can’t even remember. It was like another life. Even just 2 years ago my life was quite different.

    5 years ago I was just moving to Portland, Oregon. I had no idea what to do, I didn’t even know anything about Portland, I was just looking for a change. By 4 years ago I had a ‘proper’ job (boring business consulting/IT stuff), everyone around me was in it for the long haul, it was what you were ‘supposed’ to do. There was a salary and benefits and the morning drive to work. I was saving up money for…a house maybe? Not sure, but that’s what everyone else was doing.

    3 years ago nothing had changed. Science was a hobby, and I had little time to devote to it.

    2 years ago I was getting antsy, but basically things were exactly the same as they had been. And that’s what really freaks me out. Just two years ago I had not:

    – had a girlfriend
    – meet an astronaut
    – seen a rocket launch
    – meet anyone at NASA
    – worked as my own boss
    – knew anything about gaseous hydrogen umbilical carrier plates
    – derived the rocket equation from base principles
    – knew anything about radios or antennas
    – built anything electronic on my own
    – hung out at a coffee shop in the cool part of town on a weekday
    – sold my car and biked everywhere.

    I could probably think of more. But *all* of that changed in the last two years. Most of it in the last year.

    A little more than one year ago things started to change. I had become fed up at my normal job and quit to build rockets instead. I took the money I had saved up and decided to just live on it. A friend talked me into going to SXSW and that’s where I met you and lots of other extremely cool space people like Cariann Higginbotham (spacevidcast) and Dave Masten (Masten Aerospace). It solidified my resolve to do amazing things just like those people (if I could).

    1 year ago almost exactly I was chosen for the STS-133 NASATweetup, which again changed everything. Over the last year I got introduced to soooo many people at NASA and so many amazing people in the twittersphere that *do* things. I met men who had *walked on the moon*. I talked to engineers who work on the space shuttle (or who did anyway). I went to science hack day and got the idea for the ISS/asteroid lamp that has garnered national attention (at least for an hour or two) and turned it into a wildly successful kickstarter project.

    Today I’m working on an improved version of the lamp that can be mass manufactured and a website with code and API’s for it. I’m leaving in a couple of weeks to see yet another major rocket launch (NASA’s GRAIL probe on a Delta II heavy rocket). I hope to continue to be inspired and to create more, and more.

    So yes, I’m freaked out too! But that might be a good thing. Thanks for taking the time to remind me of how lucky I’ve been and how much I’ve grown in the last few years. Here’s to the next 5!



  3. Amber Case
    August 22, 2011

    This is a great post, Ariel. Thanks for your history as well, Nathan!

    I think back about 4 years very often.

    5 years ago it was 2006 I filed my first patent on a billing system for alternative energy vehicles. I was an undergraduate Sophmore was working on a startup called GreenIt! with a few friends of mine. We were attending a liberal arts college in Portland with absolutely no support for entrepreneurs, so we convinced the president of the school to fund our company in exchange for a small equity stake so that we could get off the ground. Later that year I presented with my co-founder at the DOW Jones Emerging Ventures forum as part of Young Inventors International. It was where I learned what an angel was. I met Vinod Khosla and others, and there were Nobel Laureates in the room. It was the first time I had ever seen a startup pitch, but there they were – dozens of companies who would become massive or decimated in the coming years. My team and I were 19. The next youngest entrants at the conference were 27 and in grad school at MIT. My co-founder and I were terrified, but he was an exceptional networker. I picked up literally all of my social and networking skills from him as I watched him talk equally as easily to the doormen as to the billionaires. His background in theatre did him very well.

    4 years ago it was 2007 and I was living in the International Dorm on campus. I wasn’t on campus often as I scheduled my classes T W Th so that I could go out and explore different social groups and types of people in Portland. I was stubborn and couldn’t read anthropology books without applying the methods to real life. I compulsively wrote, didn’t talk much in class and took a overload of classes so that I could graduate from college in 3 years instead of 4 with degrees in Sociology and Anthropology. I wanted to write my thesis early as well so that I could spend the last semester of college looking for work. I had a lot of weird ideas about cell phones and when I tried them on others they were not taken very well. I hoped that one I might find at least one person who might accept my thoughts on technology and humanity, but for now I would keep them quiet.

    3 years ago it was 2008 and I wrote my thesis on cell phones and their technosocial sites of engagement after following 400 students, businesspeople, travelers, pedestrians and conference-goers, as well as surveys on Facebook. Directly after, my co-founder and I went to Europe in the dead of winter. It was my first time really leaving the country. We travelled for a 10-11 days and hit Amsterdam, Spain, France, Germany and Czech Republic. We took public transportation and large backpacks, took the train and even RyanAir (never do this). I got food poisoning and had terrible jetlag and loved every day. I made it a goal that one day traveling would be normal for me, and that my low social class would not prevent me from experience life outside of a single country. When I got back from Europe I set myself up on a mission to get a job. I would be graduating in one of the worst economies ever, yet my graduating class expected to be handed jobs upon academic completion. I looked for some way to apply my degree to the real world and found search engine optimization and internet marketing. Before my first SEO conference I had a bike accident and had to show up at the conference with my face all scraped up. I also had no time to create the “perfect” business card so I jokingly printed out cards with the phrase “Cyborg Anthropologist” on them in Traveling Typewriter. The title was a hit, and I suddenly had out-marketed a room full of marketers with my scratched up and memorable face and ridiculous business card. I left with an armful of business cards, job leads and new friends. It was also the day that I found out about how Twitter could be used as a very helpful network. Rand Fishkin, CEO of Seomoz demoed it to me and I got in a debate about it with another conference attendee. After the first 50-odd connections I received on Twitter, I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

    A few weeks later I applied and received a part-time marketing position at a local startup. I planned out a year of living in every quadrant in Portland. I wanted to find out which one I wanted to live in, and I didn’t just want to settle into the city without exploring it. I also wanted a part-time job so I could spend the rest of the time going to meetups. During middle school and high school I was like the protagonist of Rushmore. I ran and organized and attended clubs every day of the week, both during lunch and after school. Clubs have a way of attracting people who are interested in a subject, and I wasn’t interested in people who were not interested in something. I just had to find that something.

    All of my belongings after graduation fit into the backseat of a car. I went in search of the most efficient and cheap places to live. My life was a bachelor’s. I had no idea how to cook and I slept on a tiny foam mat on the floor with an old blanket. I had no furniture and barely any income. I wanted to see how little I could live on and got expenses down to $300 a month for part of that year. $200 in rent, $50 in food and $50 in other expenses. After I discovered CubeSpace, Beer and Blog, Legion of Tech Happy Hour, and every other software/blogging/media-oriented group possible, I didn’t have trouble getting to know a ton of people quickly. One of the best was Bram Pitoyo, a type enthusiast and extremely positive person from Indonesia. He and I had a friendly blogging and social media competition that spanned a year. We ran CyborgCamp Portland together, an event I founded by accident over Twitter. We watched Vidoop rise and fall and import a lot of great people to the tech community along the way. Tech was still a bad word to Portland and there was not really any hope for startups or jobs.

    I knew two things – I liked startups and conferences and I wanted to travel. I set myself up with a 5 year plan. I would speak until I got the bad speeches out of my system, slowly building my way up to making speeches that people would actually tolerate. And then I would write a book. It seemed like a ridiculously impossible goal, but any ridiculous goal spread out over a long period of time is possible.

    2 years ago it was 2009 and I had spoken at Gnomedex, Inverge, MIT and others. I had accomplished another goal of working at Advertising agency Wieden+Kennedy. I had enough to keep financially afloat. At the end of the year I met Aaron Parecki whom I would later start Geoloqi with.

    1 year ago it was 2010 and I broke my ankle after a wonderful time at SXSW. It made me settle down and really think about what I wanted to do with my life. I took my very first full-time job at Vertigo Software where I really learned a lot about UX Design. Later that year I was invited to speak at TED and was featured in Fast Company as an influential person in tech. I started Geoloqi with Aaron and quit my job at Vertigo Software. We won a series of hackathons, allowing us to fund the company.

    This year is 2011. Geoloqi secured users and funding. I was invited to speak around the world, and each month is a different country to speak at. I began getting paid to speak, making my life possible. I’m working on A Dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology due out in October. Once the book is finished by 5 year speaking/writing journey will be complete. Then I will begin another impossible goal. I feel like a 5-year-old in a room of elders. Some elders look down on me and give me advice, but I’m still new to all of this. The Portland Tech community has grown exponentially. Successful startups and talent are increasing. There is funding for companies now and it is a little shell-shocking. I had prepared my life for a recession, and now that there is a boom it is a different place. I look forward to the next five years and what they bring. A lot can happen in a short amount of time. I had never spoken in front of a crowd or known so many people 5 years ago. Today it is part of everyday life.

  4. 5 years ago | Peter Bihr
    August 22, 2011

    […] don’t take the time to reflect often. Taking the hint from Ariel Waldman, I’d like to do just that. Reflect for a minute – on where I was five years ago, and […]