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Monday, September 23, 2013

Human Action Is More Than an Idea

I've been watching this documentary about Napster called Downloaded. I am reminded of the most important thing in making a great idea work: work.

It is not enough to just come up with a good idea, even a brilliant idea—even the best idea in the history of the world. You have to do something with that idea. 

I know a little something about failing step two.

In 1995, just about a year or so before the Napster wizards started creating their system, I had an idea as a captain at the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command (U.S. Army Human Resources). I was called to active duty for a few months to build a database application to keep track of all the reserve components soldiers going to and from the Bosnia theater of operations. You may be thinking the same thing I was at the time: “Aren't we already keeping track of that?” Well, technically, we were, but in a very inefficient manner. I was not called in because I had any stellar reputation as a database builder; I was called in because I was the one person in the command who had demonstrated during his Reserve duty that he knew something about building a database and knew something about Army human resources. 

One day, while shooting the breeze in the smoking room (those existed then) with other folks who dealt with various data systems in the building, I heard about a disruptive loss of data elsewhere. I hit upon the idea that most of the data that people needed to use right away—the kind of stuff that was “lost”—was sitting on people's hard drives around the world, from when they retrieved information for their various reports and other projects. If you could keep track of the queries made of the working databases, along with the destination where the data went, you could grab that data and it would be accessible in case of an outage. 

I diagrammed out the idea with pen and paper and asked a few folks about it. One was Frank, a government civilian, and he immediately saw the potential for a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). The idea was to designate a set of servers, separate from the ones that contained the data people were using, to record this precise information; it was already being generated. Recently queried data could repopulate the database from the last person who asked for it. Everything else was probably on a backup someplace, but that was less likely to be needed right away.

We wrangled with having the database distributed versus centralized, and I was thinking distributed, but I could not fully explain how I would accomplish that.

And that is as far as my idea went with me. I got very busy with the project I was being paid for, and with other things, and my idea went on a back burner that I never relit.

When Napster came along, I really did not pay any attention. Actually, the only real knowledge I have about it is from the documentary I mentioned earlier. In the opening minutes, I immediately saw that they actually did something with their idea, which turned out to operate a lot like my distributed data backup would have operated.

If I had only done something with my idea—almost anything, really—it could have become something remarkable. The only reason why it went nowhere is that I did not do anything with it. I have no one to blame but myself. I was living in Reston, Virginia, and working in Arlington, Virginia, surrounded by people who were creating great things in computing and information systems. The kings of communication at the time (AOL, MCI, WorldCom, etc.) were within hiking distance. The institutions were not important; it was the people who worked and lived around me, who would have probably helped if they only knew. I had a host of advantages that the Napster crew did not have, and I took none of them.

Am I envious, upset, or jealous at the Napster team? Not in the slightest. I am happy for their success, and sad for the rough road they have had to trudge. Also, they had no contact with me. None of them “stole” the idea, no chance of that. And I am willing to bet that thousands of other people had the same idea and did with it the same thing as I did: nothing.

It just goes to show you, if you have an idea, do something with it. You can't help yourself or others by sitting on your notepad.

  • Steve Esposito is a former defense contractor and 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army National Guard and Reserve (Aviation). A reformed Chicago School aficionado, he now embraces the “hard core” Austrian School. He currently lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his second wife. He can be reached through Twitter @AustrianAnarchy and via email at [email protected].