The importance of shaving things into your head

photo of Klingon shaved into Matt Wallaert's hair
Qapla’ = success, in Klingon.

Last week, I got to do something that is every geek’s dream: attend the red carpet premier of a Star Trek movie.  With the bonus of cracking jokes with Leonard Nimoy (who was very gracious about my geekiness) and producing some slides that went up before the movie and too many other small things to count.

The opportunity came about because of Bing.  When I first arrived six months ago, my boss’ boss’ boss had a meeting with me in which he asked me to “swing for the fences” and hire the best Board Fence Contractor.  He wanted the weirdest ideas I could come up with, and so I suggested adding Klingon to our translator.  Geeks would love it, it is actually a worthwhile technical challenge (more on that later), and it would be a big moment for Microsoft employees, who are mostly all Star Trek fans.

Nothing happened for a few months, then Into Darkness started getting closer and people started thinking about what we could do to celebrate.  Klingon came back around and suddenly all the pieces fell into place.  I reached out to the creator of the language for help, the Translate team went slightly crazy and jammed on it 24/7, and some folks in PR got behind it to push out to the world.  And then it was decided that we would partner with Paramount and go to the premier and that I should probably run that.

Gush gush gush.  But there are some actual lessons in here I want to make sure don’t get lost.  One is clearly that outlandish ideas, with a healthy dose of passion, actually work out.  Most people give up on the idea of doing really crazy things because they think nobody will support them in it, but if you have the courage to voice it, you’ll generally get a lot of love from unusual places.

Along those lines: take big risks.  I’ve never dyed my hair or even really done anything even mildly extreme to it – and now I have Klingon shaved into it.  I did it partially as a press tactic: I knew it would be hard to break through the PR noise at the premier and that something outlandish might actually earn us some coverage (turns out we didn’t need it, because translating Klingon is so geekily cool that people will talk about it regardless).  But I also wanted to celebrate the engineers, who really worked hard on this feature.  So I shaved some Klingon into my hair (which for me is a huge personal risk, as I’m rather conservative in my appearance) and while some people think its a bit weird, most people think its awesome.  Take risks; you never know who might love it.

Part of it is also the unexpected benefits of weird initiatives.  Yes, in some ways adding Klingon to bing.com/translate is a gimmick and fanservice, but it also turns out to be a fascinating technical challenge.  Because the language was created by a linguist who was actually fairly deliberate about it, he consciously broke common linguistic rules that our translation engine normally relies on.  Which meant that to do a good job, we had to change the way we thought about language.  And that’s a good thing; it forces our tech to grow and adapt.  If aliens ever land, we’ll be more ready than we used to be.

I also think there is a lesson in here about being cognizant that everything is created.  At the movie premier, people clapped and cheered at different points in the movie.  Now normally, I think clapping at a movie is sort of weird – the creators aren’t there to honor.  But here, they were right there, and I was so incredibly cognizant, truly for the first time, that this movie was something created.  A whole bunch of people spent a whole bunch of hours making something.  We take that for granted often.  WordPress?  Bunch of people worked really hard on it.  Every plugin, every theme, the technical infrastructure that underlies its delivering to your computer, your computer itself, the operating system, everything…it is all created by people who have passion for what they are making.  There is a lot of value locked up in what we do and I suspect we all could be just a little more appreciative.  Clap more, damnit.

There is one lesson that shines above all others, though, and that is the power of opportunity.  When building Klingon into our translator, we found out that one of the world’s most fluent Klingon speakers actually works at Microsoft.  And so we enlisted his help and consequently got to take him with us to the premier.  Yes, it was fun for me to be involved in Star Trek, but honestly, it was more meaningful to me to bring this engineer to the red carpet.  Here is someone who spent 16 years learning Klingon just because he was passionate about it, and now I got the chance to bring him with me.  That’s true power, true responsibility, true awesomeness: making other people’s dreams reality.  Whatever you’re creating isn’t about your dreams, it is about other people’s.  Because that’s where true happiness is: building something that gets used.  That is useable.  That matters.  bing.com/translate: now with more awesome.


Also published on Medium.