How to Co-op: Salaries & Reviews

Today, I'm a wifi parasite in the uSwitch office. Over lunch, Tom Hall pointed out that nilenso doesn't pay bonuses, instead opting for transparent salaries, chosen on merit to the degree possible. (Read more on our original post: "Huh? A Software Co-operative?") His question is one we get often: How do we decide salaries?

Our first stab at this was a model we'd inherited from other companies we'd worked at: have salary bands which match up to the skill and experience of the current staff, match that to the available cash, and set salaries accordingly. At first, we actually started off with an approach that was even more naive -- rather than salary bands, we had "levels". To improve one's salary beyond the usual bump provided for inflation, it was really a huge leap from "college kid" to "junior" to "intermediate" to "senior". Under this model, we also had no real vision for future "levels" (yagni?); the most senior person on staff was the highest salary we imagined paying.

This system is very obviously broken when graphed this way, but there are a number of other little firms in Bangalore which still operate this way. The inevitable conclusion is the introduction of "Level 2.5" and other confused ideas which make a broken system even worse.

Incrementing on this inherited model, we tried to smooth out the curve and divide up each "level" into ten increments. The old integer levels (now L1.0, L2.0, and so on) represented concrete, documented responsibility changes under the incremental system. The new incremental levels (L2.2, L4.3) were sort of tweened into thirds. A concrete example: L2.0 is a intermediate developer who is capable of driving design decisions (and a pair, if pair programming). L3.0 is an intermediate developer who can mentor, architect individual systems, and drive hiring decisions. L2.1 to 2.3, L2.4 to 2.6, and L2.7 to 2.9 give us three junior-to-senior tiers to play with when describing the growth of a developer from a "solid intermediate pair" to "mentor". With increments, everyone grew 0.2 or 0.3 each year, rather than jumping from L2 to L3 every three years. (In practice, the integer system usually meant redesigning the entire system every year.)

Reviews in 2014

Once we had the incremental model in place, we tried to iterate on our previous experience of "behind closed doors" reviews, as well. The goals were transparency, fairness, and comfort. Big all-hands referendums could be embarrassing -- and had proven inefficient for all sorts of other decisions, which caused us to elect a small "Executive" (two people), similar to an elected Board of Directors in a large corporate co-operative. The Executive drove the review process. We kept track of each review on a whiteboard, so everyone could see what was going on as it happened. Each review included the two people from the Executive, the person being reviewed, that person's "sponsor" (another vestige of another company we'd worked for - namely, ThoughtWorks), and their closest coworkers/team members. The sponsor presented a proposed salary, and the review discussion worked backward from there. The process worked reasonably well, but as we discovered this year, we were a bit too liberal with salary jumps.

Once we'd finished the review cycle, we took a step back and tried to answer the "what does the future look like?" question. Working with "explicit is better than implicit" as a foundational rule, one is forced to visualize a complete salary framework. This implies a couple of things:

1) "complete" inherently means "global"
2) "complete" inherently means "lifelong"

Therefore, our salary bands had to map a curve from the lowest-paid, straight-out-of-college hacker to the most talented and experienced computer scientist money can hire. The former is easy enough to imagine... we've all hired dozens of those folks. But the best of the best, the world over, near the end of her career? I'm not even sure I've met such a person.

The COMPLETE Salary Curve

So, for the sake of argument, let's assume we're hiring Leslie Lamport, assuming he makes a high salary at Microsoft Research. Or perhaps a senior-most computer programmer from Google. A little asking around, Glassdoor, and that infamous "salaries at Google" thread all told us that our ballpark figure of $500,000 USD wasn't too far off. Maybe a little higher or a little lower, but something so far away from nilenso's present reality need not be overly precise. It's just a helpful stake in the ground. For us, a $500,000 salary represents Developer Level 10.0 -- someone who's about to retire and has turned the industry upside down over the course of their career.

There's huge value in imagining the highest salary you will ever pay. We humans don't like to spend a lot of time pondering the end of our productive days. We like to spend time pondering the scary last chapter of our mortality even less. But these things are real. Everything real, everything fact-based, has to be laid bare in a completely transparent organization.

Our first pass was difficult, uncomfortable, and (of course) incorrect.

Fast forward one year to nilenso's 2015 review cycle, and it was apparent our 2014 curve didn't really fit. We'd made a few mistakes: high-end salaries (L4.x and L5.x) were too high, some jumps had been too big, the L1 salary band didn't fit on a smooth curve. (You can see this from the graph: the L1-L2 salary band has a steeper slope than L2-L3 and the inflection at L4-L5 is also obviously incorrect.)  However, being completely honest about the data is only step #1. Step #2 is to be completely honest with _ourselves_: we'd made some mistakes in 2014 and we needed to correct them. We jiggled the L1 salary band a bit, some L2.x salaries didn't jump as much as expected, L4.x and L5.x salaries came way down.

Our second pass was difficult, uncomfortable, and (will likely be) incorrect.

...but it was a little less difficult, a little less uncomfortable, and (hopefully) a little less incorrect. The goal is not perfection. Next year, the benefit of hindsight will expose this year's mistakes and we can once again go through the mild discomfort of correcting them. And, with any luck, our second pass was enough of an improvement on our first that the mistakes will be smaller.

I've jumped ahead of myself a bit, here. The 2015 salary curve starts at about 7.5 lakh rupees ($12,000 USD) for Developer Level 0.0 and curves relatively smoothly up to 317 lakh rupees ($500,000 USD) for our realistic Developer Level 10.0. Everyone at nilenso is presently L1.x - L4.x, so don't get too excited about multi-crore salaries we might lavish you with. But how did we arrive at the curve?

Reviews in 2015: Tim & Deepa to the rescue

Our review process in our first year wasn't too bad. Everyone received meaningful feedback and was given a clear path for growth. However, it felt ad-hoc, everyone's feedback/reviews were delayed (as they are in most companies), and it felt strange to have the Executive drive the conversation -- even the most logical and robotic Executives are still human and will introduce their own bias. In 2015, we improved on this thanks to two distinct efforts from Tim and Deepa, who signed up to organize the 2015 review process. This would normally be a thankless job, consisting mostly of manually coordinating an Excel spreadsheet. But not this year.

First, Tim (being Tim) spent a Saturday automating the review workflow. The nilenso reviews app was born. Since any annual review cycle for any company tends to be little more than swimlanes of todo lists, it was the perfect job for Rails and Heroku. Tim, and anyone else at nilenso, could modify the workflow, relationships, and privacy across the reviews process in a matter of minutes with a quick code change and redeploy. Everyone could glance at to see their feedback and to hassle people who hadn't reviewed their colleagues yet.

The review app lets everyone ask for reviews/feedback from specific people. Reviewers are then tasked with completing a review for everyone who asked them. Each review is a free-form text entry field and a "suggested level" field, if the reviewer is comfortable suggesting the reviewee's growth in the past year. Though we'd initially planned on discussing salaries directly, the Level system addresses skill, contribution, network, and experience rather than what anyone "feels" other employees should make. This has the immeasurable advantage of keeping emotion out of the equation and keeping everyone focused on the facts at hand.

Second, Deepa facilitated the review meetings. After scheduling and planning each meeting with Tim, she played the role of non-participating facilitator to discussions which included the reviewee, everyone who gave them a review in the app, and anyone else who wanted to listen in. Each meeting started with everyone in the room grabbing a laptop (or iPad) and quickly re-reading the reviews in question, to make sure they hadn't missed anything. Then the reviewee would summarize their self-review and the reviews they'd received from their coworkers; we did away with "sponsors" and let the person speak for themselves. At the end of the summary, s/he would explain whether the average Suggested Level (calculated by the app) seemed appropriate. The floor was then open to discuss and debate. By the end of these meetings, everyone knew what everyone else's level would be for the upcoming year.

The meetings cost us a lot of time but everyone agreed it was time well spent. Attempts to limit participation in 2014 hadn't prevented the review meetings from cutting into everyone's work day, and in 2015 there was no question that the open forum felt totally transparent.

A good rule of thumb for corporate transparency: You're probably doing it right when everyone finds the transparency boring.

A small consulting company has a fixed amount of money to spend on annual raises. By working through the entire review process without discussing money, we were free to be completely honest with one another with feedback^ and conversation. Certainly some conversations were harder than others but the overall process was smooth. Once everyone's reviews were complete, Deepa took away a Level Curve (really more of a straight line with dots on it, like above) which she could retrofit our earnings onto. That became the proposed Salary Curve, which we discussed one last time and then finalized.

^ It's worth noting that we expect feedback to be a continuous, daily process. If someone is giving you new constructive criticism for the first time only in the annual review process, they've failed you miserably. Since peer-to-peer reviews take the form of "feedback" the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Though we may muddle terminology, we try not to muddle intent.

Unsolved Problems

Though we have a smooth, meaningful Level/Salary Curve for developers, we are yet to figure out what this will look like for administrators, executives, project managers, designers, accountants, or operations staff. We only have one desiger, executive, and PM on-staff at the moment, so our best approach is to find some middle ground between industry averages and the developer curve. But that's vague. These roles are definitely in beta at nilenso.

A meaningful salary curve for operations staff is even murkier. Though we have 3 people who do operations (security & operations, cleaning, operations & basic accounting) and their salaries are similar, the industry average for these positions is unfairly low in India. We're also less sure what the growth path for each of these folks will be in the coming 2 or 3 years. Mintu will certainly get bored of working security at some point, and we need to make sure the Salary/Level Curve for Operations makes sense in light of that.

Though nilenso has a very liberal paid leaves policy (unlimited sick leave and plenty of vacation), we do not have sabbaticals (unpaid leave) figured out. Sabbaticals present a number of difficulties: Does a senior employee have more access to sabbaticals than a junior employee? Someone senior undoubtedly makes more money and has longer vacations in any company, but most companies don't offer sabbaticals. Is one's salary based on a 12-month working year, or 12 months less any sabbatical months? How can we plan sabbaticals far enough in advance that they're comfortable for both us and our clients? How many sabbaticals can a consulting firm support in one year? At one time?

Nilenso has expenses. An office, non-billable staff, food, travel, books/classes/conferences, and a couple of internet connections. While everyone would love to take a sabbatical whenever they like, it is damaging to a company if the company isn't 100% remote and overhead-free.

Other Approaches

Discussing salaries-in-a-coop always leads to the peripheral topics: performance reviews, bonuses, reinvestment, paycheques, and sabbaticals. I was excited to find that talking with Tom Hall and Hakan Raberg the conversation was almost entirely focused on sabbaticals. Juxt and MavenHive  take a similar approach: you get paid for the hours you work. A company could take this idea to either extreme: either by hiring subcontractors rather than full-blown employees or by laying out basic salaries and adjusting them every month.

Tom hasn't chosen a model yet, and I'm guessing it will evolve with his co-op. His key issue is the ability for employees to take sabbaticals (he describes the need for sabbaticals as a "founding principle"), which for a consultancy implies salaries will swell and shrink with billable hours. At nilenso, we've had varying success with mixing hourly billing rates and monthly retainers. Depending on one's billing model, the process of taking sabbaticals could shift. Once Tom's co-op Gets Huge(tm), it will require operations, admin, and accounting staff. Those folks still need to get paid even if all the developers are off at HillHacks for a month, so I'm excited to see what solution he and his team opt for.


For us, decoupling performance reviews from both feedback and salaries has worked really well. Feedback should be a daily occurrence, not a yearly ceremony. Salary structure should be a consequence of financial planning, not individual evaluation. Because we were discussing "levels", rather than salaries, emotions were (largely) kept at bay and we could discuss facts. We will definitely use Tim's Review App again next year since we found it a great tool for getting things done and for discussions. We recommend you try it too!

We will keep publishing our experiments, failures, and learnings. And we'd love to hear from you at if you have a suggestion!

Huge thanks to Tim and Deepa for making this post happen!

Patient Charts

This is a brief idea I remembered while cleaning up some old files. It initially occurred to me while discussing the status of my eyes with the surgeon after I had a vitrectomy and scleral buckle. Our conversations were terrible. He would stare at the back of my eye with his lenses and probes, ask what I saw, I would give a lengthy description (forgetting a few things) and he would inevitably only write down one or two things I said. It seemed like the old software engineering concept of "shared understanding" wasn't really familiar to ophthalmologists.

I would discuss the process with my Mom on the phone during my recovery from the surgeries. In one of these conversations, she mentioned she always takes notes if she's seeing a doctor with any regularity. She can then present the notes to the doctor, making the information consistent, repeatable, and persistent. Her communication with the doctor effectively begins at her identification of symptoms, and that communication is as good at time of delivery as it was at the time of her recording.

This system made a lot of sense to me. The doctor has a chart describing my condition as the doctor sees it, on a timeline correlating to events such as surgeries. Why didn't I, as a patient, have a similar tool?

For myself and my doctor, I came up with the following (click for a PDF):

Using this, I could precisely describe what I was seeing, when I was seeing it. More importantly, I could visualize things that were difficult or impossible for him to see with external instruments, such as:

This is how I filled out a page of my "patient chart" when I described the blind spot I was seeing after surgery. Since this is a symptom of optic nerve damage, there was no way for the doctor to see this.

Another page looked like this. These were Perfluoron bubbles left in my eye by accident, during the surgery. The doctor could see the largest of these, but only after I repeatedly pointed it out.

When I saw him for the last time, he commented that he should really have a stack of blank "charts" for his other patients. I doubt he ever implemented this... and I wish I'd left him some... but perhaps my Mom's general idea will be of use to someone else.

Emergent-Continuous Design

I've recently returned to Canada for a month to visit family. While here, I've run into some old friends (and friends of friends) whom I haven't been in contact with since moving to Bangalore three years ago. "Oh! You live in India? What's that like?" is one common conversation piece. Or the frequent line of questioning which positions the entire subcontinent as though it were a chic new restaurant: "India? You must like it. Do you like it?"

I do like it. Bangalore is vibrant, growing, and accessible. But those aren't necessary qualities for living abroad; many would be happy with seclusion, calm, and diversity as qualities around which to build a new home. As long as I'm in technology, however, a jostling city life breeds the right rate of change. Change, in Indian cities, is ubiquitous, constantly pushing me to remember humanity's global growth and interdependence.

While home visiting my parents, I'm reminded of this as I look out across their back yard. The back yard is taking shape. It's been taking shape for twenty years. The grass was replaced by xeriscaped gardens of mini-forest. The fence was overhauled. A garage was built which would serve as my Dad's shop as he went through his own transition from educator to carpenter. A giant square hole marks the forthcoming home of a new shed. The yard has forever been under construction, under repair. The yard is a microcosm, a city of two. The shop is another, smaller microcosm for a city of one and the change is faster here: one week it's the construction site of ornate boxes, the next, of kitchen cabinetry. The workbenches and storage of the shop are single-layer, finite recursion, self-replicating organisms when the shop occasionally finds use for modifying itself or improving on its existing structure.

My house, Bangalore, one month ago. While en route to Cooke Town's neighbourhood tree-mapping exercise, Abhinav, Nid, and Noopur were storm-stayed in my apartment while hail and rain tore apart the undocumented trees outside. Sufficiently warmed with tea, honey, and chocolate, the conversation drifted to the layout of my flat, as it was Noopur's first visit. She wasn't offended by much (which is in the neighbourhood of compliments when in the company of designers and architects) save the laundry rack. I have a metal laundry rack I drag into the living room whenever I'm drying clothes, which is almost always, and drag elsewhere when I have guests. She suggested a wooden ceiling rack on pulleys and when Nid complained that such a rack is always visible, Noopur had an observation that, like all meaningful observations, seems obvious in hindsight: It should be always visible, since I'm always doing laundry! A pulley system keeps it out of the way of foot traffic and makes a home for the drying clothes in my tiny one-bedroom apartment. We all agreed that an extra room, even if I had it, wasn't a real solution: design, it would seem, is as much about admitting the truths of our constraints as it is about shaping them and manipulating the world within them.

My parents' house, Saskatchewan, last week. Out the back window, I watch my parents put in their garden, I notice two things. Both are answers to Alexander's question, "how does the space make you feel?" and they're both surprising. The work-in-progress garden shed feels ...productive. It feels like design is happening. As my Dad drags a hose around the yard to water plants, the hose, comparatively, feels like a burden. The design of the hose is over -- and it's a failure. Like the laundry rack, it's not a part of its environment. While in use, it's an eyesore, something to be put away, to be hidden from the view of neighbours and friends. While hidden, these items are the shame of a household: they get their own space, but not much, and that space serves no other purpose but to hide those tools to which we ascribe utility without beauty.

Today. As luck would have it, my ponderings over the hose came just in advance of my parents installing underground sprinklers. Mechanical rain now falls in late evening, automatically, as the evaporative powers of the sun quiesce. One wonders how many technological leaps we are from harnessing the rain of the sky rather than our parabolic artifice. When we do, will we relearn the lessons nature's rhythms have taught us in our crops and dams? A universal desire to reverse our worldwide climate change seems to hint that we might overdo our first go in the driver's seat of Earth's weather system. Thankfully, our first attempts at anything are usually dramatically underpowered against their inspiration. Much of the global balancing act is done for us and humanity's most embarrassing stumbling comes on the heels of progressive haste.

Our work in more plastic media is discovering itself. The absence of physical boundaries (save the limitations of electric current and the speeds of light and thought) give us undeniable freedom to play. Reshaping a metaphorical yard: the shop, the tools in the shop, the garden, and even ourselves... these things can and do happen on a daily basis. A tempting trap is to believe we in the software industry are regularly creating revolutionary works. No matter how quickly or effectively we work as individuals or teams, the measurable output, which one could say is measurable on a scale of global human awareness and, considered in that physical frame, only measurable for a still-fleeting period of time (though that time may span generations, if unlikely), is undeniably chaotic. Controlled chaos loops, floats, or crushes the paper gliders of human thought across an atmosphere of gas perceived as modern time. It is perceived this way, of course, at every point in time. All people of all societies in all eras have witnessed the cliff as though it were impossible to witness anything else, as this threshold can hardly unwind into another truth. Our work on the cliffs, our collective creation, is the emergence of the next technology, the next business model, the next government, the next family, the next garden.

I often ask myself if the waves of emergence -- the climate of generational human endeavour to the storms of our yearly activity -- are so obvious and observable in the absence of our bustling, surely successful businesses built on meaningful technologies are little but the observation of our current wave or updraft and the intelligent prediction of the next obstacle against which it will crash? Surely. But such predictions are unfortunately easy to make in terms of accuracy on only relative scales of time. The trajectory of our intent is clear: we will eliminate poison and disease as we unearth solutions, we will find new systems of thought for peace on every scale, we will feed the world's hungry and stem our cancerous growth. One look no farther than one's own household, but observation at every scale tells the same story: across our cities and across global statistics.

But what inaccurately passes for optimism to the inattentive also does not write a guidebook for the most perceptive witness of our Earth-sized paper glider competition. A rock in the nose of one glider may put it well ahead of the rest, crushing competitors along the way - at least as long as the rock-nosed glider remains in the air. The wiser glider-flyers mutter clich├ęs about the dance, about the interplay between the gliders, about a glider design which will outlast not only their glider but the very memory of their glider and themselves. Every shade of the palette. Every new gadget. Every line of code folded across every abstraction in the domain across every abstraction which transcend domain across every medium of shared knowledge. Our grandchildren will not know GitHub or Oracle any more intimately than we presently experience Compuserve or Geocities. But what becomes of the ideas? As the world pulses closer, I can only guess that increased precision -- the absolute and utterly undivided attention to each crease and fold of my glider -- will dictate how long I might keep it afloat. If we observe the unbroken continuity of the universe in which we live, and dedicate ourselves to act only on the threshold of that continuity, how can we fail?

Morris's "Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." implies further union. The perfect localized mechanical weather system would be one which tunes itself and is utterly undetectable as human creation. The perfect corporation is a model which outlasts its owners and employees, a design so beautiful as to barely materialize into view. The perfect network connects everything, grows, learns, and heals... but does not intrude. I endorse pursuing the inevitable confluence of these notions. Our personal spaces are easy to fill with both. Our work spaces are quickly converging with our personal spaces, and should be equally beautiful and functional. Our public spaces are little more than a network of those two. And our codebases? Well, that's where many of us spend the majority of our time. In the plastic. It only makes sense that we want to see inside what we long for out here.

How To Recycle

If we look around Bangalore, we see a city with enormous potential. Businesses thrive here. Technology, design, food, and music are all finding a cosmopolitan home in 2015 Bangalore. It is not hard to imagine the Bangalore of the future: a thriving metropolis of modernity built in the centre of the southern subcontinent. The city is already growing quickly -- in many ways, outgrowing itself.

One such way is waste management.

The future Bangalore is clean. Electric vehicles, bicycles, and a bustling metro will spell the end of inner-city air pollution. Modern clean-water infrastructure and waste water facilities will end water-borne disease. One can visit the world's most sophisticated cities today to witness these features. However, humanity's attitude toward garbage still limps along, across the globe. As I visit cities and towns in Canada, the approach to garbage is almost ubiquitous: landfills. There is a bit of paper, plastic, and glass recycling here and there... but it's not front-and-centre, and it's often not even certain that the recycling is really happening. Canada is a big country, and it would take millennia at our current population density to recognize our bad habit.

Bangalore is more fortunate. The consequences of poor waste management are immediate, and they frequently make the news. The landfills around Bangalore are poisoning nearby villages, and when those villages revolt garbage piles up in the city, poisoning the very people who produced it. The necessary pressure exists for Bangalore to leapfrog other major cities across Earth and tackle waste with a vision of the Long Now. The steps below are a sort of branching flowchart: each step removes more and more, in order of importance, from the waste in your home and workplace.

Step 0: E-Waste

Never throw electronics or batteries in the garbage. They are extremely poisonous. Thanks to their value, they're also incredibly easy to recycle. Bangalore has many e-waste recycling options.

Step 1: Compost

The clearest distinction between types of waste is compostable (organic) waste vs. Everything Else. Thus far, the BBMP Solid Waste Management doesn't offer compost services. But it's very easy to compost in any size of home. Composting doesn't stink and doesn't attract vermin.

Composting requires very few tools, and they are easily obtained:

Step 1.1 Compost leaves!

Leaf composters are even less work than food waste composters, but they do a huge service to Bangalore neighbourhoods by preventing BBMP employees from burning tree droppings within city limits. Asthma affects a lot of us, and this is a sure way to reduce its effects.

You can buy leaf composters pre-built from organizations like Daily Dump or you can build one yourself using steel or wood for a frame and chickenwire or plastic mesh for a liner. Use a liner with larger holes so the finished compost can fall through the bottom.

Once you have your leaf composter built or purchased, you may even want to consider locking it outside at the street so your entire neighbourhood can use it! Most of the leaves at nilenso are street-side, so we keep our leaf composter outside the gate and speak to the BBMP service people frequently about using it instead of burning leaves.

Step 2: Segregate Dirty/Clean

Recycling in Bangalore is done at a variety of stages. There are BBMP waste segregation facilities all over the city, and even if you can't actively recycle yet, separating soiled waste from clean waste will keep your home and office clean and discourage pests like cockroaches.

The rules for this are simple: Is there food waste that can't be cleaned off? That's soiled waste. If you can clean the waste, do that!

Examples of soiled waste are dirty napkins, greasy pizza boxes, and aluminum foil with burnt food on it. Examples of garbage that can be cleaned: dahi containers, tetrapacks, plastic bottles, aluminum cans. Clean these by washing and rinsing them in your kitchen sink. Throw soiled/dirty waste out regularly, since it attracts bugs. Clean waste, even if not recycled, will never rot or stink since it's nothing but glass/plastic/metal/paper. I often go an entire month without throwing out my clean dry waste.

Step 3: Recycle

Once you have started segregating clean waste from soiled waste, full recycling is just a short jump away! Segregate paper/cardboard, plastic, glass, and metal. Those four categories comprise most non-organic material of anything you might purchase. If your neighbourhood offers recycling services for any of these materials, use them! There is a list of dry waste collection centres available on the BBMP website, even if it's a bit difficult to read.

If your neighbourhood doesn't offer dry waste collection and recycling yet, you can contact the BBMP's Commissioner and Administrator.

Step 4: Reuse!

This step should probably come before Steps 1 through 3, but it's not as frequent, since the items tend to be larger. There are dry waste collection services in Bangalore which will also happily pick up large quantities of dry waste: furniture, tools, appliances, linens and clothing. They will separate reusable items from recyclable items and deal with each appropriately. In particular, Hasirudala is a non-profit which works in conjunction with the BBMP to collect large quantities of dry waste. You can contact them here:

As Bangalore grows and matures, so will its services. Every aspect of this simple process will become smoother and more ubiquitous. Waste will, sooner or later, transform from Bangalore's most visible social problem into a valuable resource. The growth process will of course experience its ups and downs, so don't be discouraged. Persist. Your integrity will become the integrity of your home, your workplace, your neighbourhood, your city.

Have fun!

Why Ayurveda? Because Science!

He squinted through a pair of wrap-around sunglasses, the kind one often expects to see on the crowning end of a wheelchair with wings of lenses spread wide and soaring across a sea of wrinkles -- or drool, if the sea had previously suffered a stroke. Or at home in makeshift bingo halls constructed of a dusty old Lions Club because all the Lions and Lionesses were dead and even the Rotary Club (Rotors?) was a shrivelled relic of a more thoughtful and communal age. It's Bingo and iPhones today. Let the neighbours find their problems to be what finally motivates them to pull themselves out of the mud, right? We already have plenty. These sunglasses ("the glass", as it was described on the first day when Ranju suggested he go out and buy some from a local market and he rode across the city instead to get the pair he'd purchased while in recovery) rested on the nose of an individual no more or less nobel than the other hunters and gatherers of new technology. His phone was dimmed as much as possible, to benefit the eyes behind the glass, and although it still processed billions of tiny pieces of data almost instantly before sending them as though magically across the entire planet, he cursed the momentary "Connecting..." as he waited for entertainment from the other side.

I sure hope you're not spending a lot of money on this garbage. Is all of India like this? I dunno, Steve, I hope you don't have a lot riding on this. The veiled criticism wasn't helping a stomach full of medicated ghee (120 millilitres per day, which is provably enough to loosen anyone's bowels, as that is the expected result of its ingestion. It wasn't clear to him as to the intention and those servicing the treatments did not provide much in the way of explanation.) as it sloshed involuntarily against the walls of its present cavity. Another window, but this one raced data across the city from a neighbourhood adjacent to the home of his old-lady sunglasses. How much money have you drained on this project? Project. The notion that the pursuit was somehow enjoyable or a toy like a go-cart built from spare Maruti 800 parts on alternating weekends and probably there were only a few dozen more weekends to go if we could only get the mini-transmission right since we've given up growing the project as we were wont to do in the early days and our heads were filled with dreams of go-cart teams and races rather than the practical matter at hand of simply getting the pile of scrap metal to travel its first kilometre unassisted. At first, the comparison bubbled through his chest and into his throat in a web of thoughts that escaped their generative home but not his mouth. Impotent shouts of explanation burst through his mind until they calmed themselves at their mental reflection: a team of listeners and onlookers who were no more understanding than they had been before. But perhaps Ayurveda was causing him to go Schizophrenic... so at least that's one nugget to tuck away when unskilfully debating its merits, apropos of no particular desire for a useful outcome or conclusion.

Words escaped, as text, since the week had been speechless anyway. They were neither angry nor explanatory, as the imagination had so flamboyantly predicted. They were sad, and a little self-pitying, which was the last image he wanted to convey but somehow the only one available to the vocabulary resting against the back board of the scrabble shelf. A board was filled with words serving little or no purpose, and further constructions beyond that which mired themselves in meaninglessness to a degree the individual words (words. word. shabd. paaaayyyyd. he was mentally muttering, knowing that even without the disadvantage of an unpracticed tongue the Hindi in his head was no nearer to any socially accepted definition of correct (and there were many, which was often a handy way of forgiving oneself for one's ineptitude) than if the sounds had escaped his throat. Now the board rests in the shade of a tree, though the makeup of the game's present state has not improved. The tree towers above familiar buildings and the other side of the conversation takes on a different tone. Do you really believe Ayurveda will heal your optic nerve? No, of course not. I don't "believe" anything I can manage to avoid by way of the little intelligence I have available. Not anger, but annoyance. His fingers trembled, as a clear passage of dialogue with the intent of conveying a message, again, unconveyable, materializing as a desire to ...cook a fish? wash the dishes? build a bird feeder? Perhaps the very typing which manifests the source of the scrabble board. Or is the typing manifest? One can never remember all the way back to the beginning. It was hard enough to acknowledge the confusion under the tree. No, friend. Listen carefully.

Hope. Belief. Faith. These are the siblings of Bitterness, Anger, and Hatred. In fact, they are identical entities if one can find them manifest. But of course one can never remember where to start or what is manifest anyway. So ignore that. Use your imagination and imagine them as sisters, brothers. They are all the children of Fear and Fear is as much You as it is your only opponent. So this will be difficult.

Were you listening? Let me repeat myself as I have done a thousand times not on the board but in these quivering digits: Hope, Belief, and Faith are the children of Fear. They are the enemy of your intellect. And while I am not offended that you might suggest they live within me, as they certainly do, I will try to convey to what degree... in what ....capacity....

The board has words on diagonals now. Damn the space where the rules are written by the rules themselves and damn that space for escaping the prison of my understanding. I have manifested... all of reality itself? The board? The beginnings? Obviously not. Therein lies megalomania and narcissism and a belief (that word again. words. shabd. shabdden.) that the beginnings and ends exist, much less that they can be perceived. No, friends. Curiosity is perhaps at best a word capable of describing the leap from simple consideration to complex execution. Applied Curiosity is Observation. And though the words are probably illegible on the board at this point, another example gurgles out from under the bridge.

Enjoy your yoga retreat! Project. Retreat. If the former, in its greatest moments and wildest misinterpretations, implies some work is being done, the latter does not. None at all. It implies laziness and escapism and selfishness. An understandable conflation, yoga, and Hinduism, and Ayurveda, and magic, and belief, and hope. Expectation. Such an aged thing is bound to have wisdom and scars. The depth and the breadth are what we are to measure, to the best of our ability, to the best of our ability from our current vantage point. Yoga, as far as he can tell, is not a scar this alien practice. The scars and the wisdom are yet to be sorted! Wheat and chaff, ghee and religion. Chaff and wheat, medicine and prayer. Life-long dedication is something he's never understood, but it is one more set to be sorted as to whether or not his belief that retirement planning is an activity of a generation past. Regardless, waking an hour before the break of dawn can hardly be considered life-long dedication. It can hardly be called dedication at all, except to these ideals which are so difficult to convey. Why are curiosity and observation unconveyable? Is it that they require conveyance? A vehicle not yet built? Telepathy? Perhaps only then! Perhaps in the ending the One True Ending we shall telepathically hear all the words and understand not just their their pronunciations and their meanings and their millennial matriculation but their intentions, for in the end they are a vehicle of intention, and we can dig one layer deeper only to find we are not at The End but we are simply watching a trembling finger and perceiving ourselves to understand the hopes and fears which force it to tremble.

Enjoy your yoga retreat! Okay, I will. It is hard to imagine how ten days spent digesting an overdose of lipids in solitary confinement, with no yoga, mind you, though that's probably for the best as a digestive tract full of fat is likely to expel its contents under the stress of even ordinary physics, could possibly be enjoyed. Maybe therein lies purpose not to satisfy curiosity or to observe anything at all but to educate oneself on the complexities of enjoyment. He leans back. Today's bath was enjoyable. Honesty is key, honesty at all costs. And this particular bit of honesty costs little. Seven days without shampoo left his head a matted, ghee-and-oil-soaked mess to the extent that were this not the final day of enduring such a strange procedure, tomorrow was likely a wakening addressed to his own vomit rather than the Sun or the Sun God or whatever it was he was addressing in the weak hours, the quiet hours, the hours before Earth began to tremble at this particular meridian. Honesty about the concrete is always easy. I woke up early. I didn't do my homework. I hurt your feelings. I hate this food. Fear and the fractals of itself it creates of itself, there's the rub. It is not just frightening for him to think of abandoning ten years of work. It is terrifying. He has lived no other life and neglected even passing interests in the interest of this one pursuit. And while he can wave away the difficulties of others, as is always much easier to wave away the difficulty of others than to wave away one's own, the idea that in eighteen months time he may have to choose to stop reading both horrifies and excites him. To ride this wave of mind is to see a future cooking delicious, healthy meals and teaching yoga or pilates or tai-chi or feng-shui or something else he presently does not know and riding on boats and doing real labour with his hands and feet living a real life using his real body to do real things. And there the wave stops. We ride its crest to a cliff, a waterfall of realization, that none of this is real and has not and may not ever occur. The images remain in the wave as we glance back across the river, but they shift from beautiful cartoon dioramas to disappointed versions of a universe which chose not their path. The shift occurs, ironically, with the second half of the book we hold so dear, in the second half of our instructions, in the second half of the instructions we have given ourselves: truth. Honesty is not truth manifest but our human attempt, manifest. Attempts to be better. Attempts to achieve an unachievable universal ideal. Honesty at the waterfall is human because we are not observing but remembering. I remember the failed surgery. I remember my first glimpse of a blind spot interrupting most of my macular data. I remember the ophthalmologists telling me it was permanent. I remember finding out my left eye is going blind because of the right. These are facts. These are not facts, but memories. Observation gives us facts. Memory gives us a manifestation of ourselves. And conflation of the two gives us confusion. Self-pity, in this case... at least at first. Pity is a child of fear, Anger is a child of Pity, Hope is a child of Anger, Faith is a child of Hope and they will birth one another to no end. It is an incestuous garden.

We are photons and H2O.

Look at this board. Someone has mixed up an academic definition of honesty with a poetic definition of inevitability. Someone has gone back to playing with single-letter tiles. Someone puked on their shelf. I can't not do this. Alright, keep it together, avoid drama. It's not drama, it's intent.

He leaned back. This lean had the character of an awkwardly designed Swedish chair trying to bend forward and backward simultaneously, arse back hips forward lower back inside shoulder blades spread eagle like those damn sunglasses that have nearly fallen in the toilet, an "Indian style" (a choice that surprised Ranju... Ranju? Raju? His name pronounced always sounds like Brinjal but that can't possibly be correct.) toilet chosen originally because it was attached to the largest room but with the unexpected side benefit of making it easier to answer the doctor's questions pertaining to fecal constitution, for perhaps the three-dozenth time, though they have never fallen in completely. Kitty was the only one to ask the direct question, for which he was uncomfortably grateful. The question could be posed so clearly and yet the answer lies in a scrabble board covered in vomit under a tree on a terrace of a painting which never truly touched canvas though it perhaps could and that wouldn't solve anything either. Why are you doing this? I can't not do this. Because curiosity and observation seem so clearly the answer to the faithful of Scientific disciplines like he, The Beginning had to introduce a third (and a fourth, and a fifth, but not yet) to keep the show worth watching. The human capacity to plan is largely what differentiates the creatures from any other. But what is planning if not the imagination? What is the imagination if not fear? And there's the rub.

He leaned forward. He excused himself the tangent, since he'd already come this far and the scrabble board was now tumbling down the waterfall as he realized that he, too, was tumbling and had perhaps ever prior and would ever hence remain tumbling and while falling with the water, which is quite surreal and even more mysterious when devoid of its usual gravitational nature thank you very much relativity, he felt no reason not to indulge the tangent, excuse the tangent, if only for a moment. And so we indulge and excuse. He thinks to his thought process, which is presumably a comedy of visual errors if his memories of the facts were to be believed any time between then and now, which he presumes at this juncture that they were not, and decides that all right no problem I will forgive myself another tangent since we've barely started this one anyway and begins:

IMAGINE! Imagine the future! Too loud, sorry. Imagine 2017. Imagine that the blind spot never gets better. Imagine that the left eye continues to get worse. Imagine the most likely scenario. Imagine it is in my best interest to stop reading, to listen to audio books and save my eyes for truly important things. Imagine I forge a new career, one that does not involve text. Imagine how I might look back on this time period. Should I try Ayurveda? Should I try the 9-month prescription of liver medication the ophthalmologist prescribed with a shrug, stating, "give it a try... it has no side-effects" despite the fact that its list of side-effects is quite easy to google with a Thai-to-English translator (since the drug has only been used to treat nerve damage in Thailand, of course)? Should I try homeopathy? Magic beans? The Power of Positive Thinking? The present option was presented to me and it seemed not wholly unreasonable. It still doesn't, at present. And so I tried it and I am continuing -- continuing to give it an honest try. When I look back from 2017, I hope, I believe, I have faith, that I won't regret trying.

If words serve no purpose but to satisfy their manifest intent, outcomes serve no purpose but to satisfy their manifest curiosity. It is the daily effort of the human being to seek truth, against all odds and its own mental faculties. Humanity drives us to find actions which reveal truth and to reveal truths to ourselves which tell us how to act. This self-referential discovery process may have no end, but to presume we have found The End is almost certainly failure, for skepticism is a tool which can be applied to itself, a knife carving ever sharper, ever finer. The moment we become dismissive of something we do not understand, we have fallen into the same old trap, as we have now made a false god of whatever it is we chose not to reject.

He leaned back. Satisfied with a single writing and a single reading, he submitted his thoughts to an audience he hoped would try their best to understand.

Drugs, meditation, warnings.

I recently returned to work from my second 10-day Vipassana course. After such a course, friends are always curious about the experience. Because Vipassana meditation courses are largely indescribable, the conversation often drifts to one's journey toward Vipassana, and the journey toward meditation in general. For me, this journey has been a mixture of friendships, literature, and drugs. Drugs can be seen as a stepping-stone to my current meditation practice because a few drugs have similar insightful (informational) qualities.

A colleague and I have spoken at length about drugs and meditation in the past few days -- mostly about my reckless drug experiences, since they are easy to describe and that was what he was most interested in. I felt it necessary to clarify what I was saying about my experiences and experiments -- and to colour it all with appropriate caveats. This post began as an email of warning to a group of friends, but halfway through I decided it was better structured as a blog post.

I certainly don't recommend anyone try drugs; as with anything in life, only do what seems safe to you. Carefully judge what you and the people around you are comfortable with. I strongly recommend against experimenting with non-informative drugs, and all drugs fall into this category with enough use. Before I begin, it's worth noting that I have stopped all drug use for this reason, save tea and coffee.

That said, I wanted to solidify my warnings to make sure no one misinterprets what I've said in person about experimenting with informative drugs (hallucinogens) or meditation. My drug experiences and descriptions are limited. I am a very new student of meditation. Take everything I'm saying here with a grain of salt and research your own experiments thoroughly.

I plan to write more about the two most recent meditation courses I've attended once my thoughts on them condense but that's quite another topic.

From safest to least-safe, here's my take:


The "safe" category almost exclusively includes meditation/yoga, and even these comes with caveats. Again, this list is from safest to least-safe.

Zazen at Bodhi Zendo: A few friends accompanied me to Bodhi Zendo (found at Kodai Kanal in Tamil Nadu), and I would never discourage anyone from spending time there. The environment is clean, comfortable, and affordable (300 rupees per day for room, board, and meditation instruction). The people are sweet and gentle, the food is delicious, the Zendo is in a quiet valley, the meditation is light and informative.

Yoga: I've attended various yoga classes. I don't think yoga qualifies as "meditation" at all, but I always feel better afterwards. There's always a risk of physical injury when exercising, but yoga instructors seem generally conscious and proactive about students' safety.

Zazen (generally): Zazen, as taught at Bodhi Zendo, is quite gentle. Zazen meditation elsewhere can have quite strict rules about sitting posture and behaviour in the Zendo, which might make some people uncomfortable. I generally find Zazen practice relaxing but it can also become emotionally intense.

Vipassana: Vipassana (as taught by S.N. Goenka) is almost universally described one way: intense. Really intense. In terms of intensity, Vipassana meditation greatly eclipses any drug experience I have ever had and it can be quite emotionally taxing. I have not found it to be relaxing at all. Be honest when you fill out an application form to attend a 10-day course. If you have clinical depression/anxiety or a history of mental health issues, you will not be allowed to attend. Respect this. You could really hurt yourself.

: Meditation with medication comes with all the risks of medicine and actively changing your body chemistry. I've been seeing an Ayurvedic doctor in Bangalore on a friend's recommendation; I'm pretty sure he will recommend yoga and pranayama at some point (he has for said friend). I'm listing Ayurveda as "least safe" due to the fact that it involves something external (herbal medicine) and the fact that you must place your trust in another person. Conversely, Zazen, Yoga, and Vipassana are all internal and entirely under my control when I try them.


Leaving the realm of exploring ourselves internally, we come to drugs. I'm only listing drugs I have tried and my experiences are quite limited. If you do consider taking drugs, give yourself a lot of lead time to make sure you really want to do it (never take drugs on a whim) and read as much literature as possible so you feel comfortable with what you're getting into. Wikipedia is a good resource for hard facts. Erowid is a good resource for experience reports. Again, I will try to list these drugs in order of ascending danger.

One general caveat: If you do choose to do drugs, do not mix drugs -- especially when trying a drug for the first time. If you are going to experiment with drugs, do so by taking a drug in isolation so you can clearly assess its effects. Mixing two drugs in relatively innocuous doses can cause you serious physical damage. Consider alcohol and Tylenol as an example; mixing any of the drugs listed below will be far worse.

Lysergic acid diethylamide (acid): Being on an acid trip leaves one feeling completely lucid, capable of normal, low-impact activities: reading, speaking, walking, etc. While it did inebriate me, I've found it did not cause me to say anything I didn't mean or do anything dangerous. I've found the experience to be valuable and educational. While taking acid, I have had a strong preference to be "in nature", but I have had no aversion to the city. I have found doing acid with company (sober or otherwise) to be preferable, even if only as a reminder to drink water. Once high, one's attention is turned inward and I haven't engaged in social interactions. Acid eliminates one's appetite, so I've always eaten a full meal beforehand. The effects last 10 to 20 hours.

2C Family (2ci / 2ce): Taking 2ci is very similar to acid. Compared to acid, it was often more difficult to regulate how much I was taking -- particularly if the 2ci purchased comes in a powder which needs to be distributed into capsules myself. It does seem to cause, very consistently, an intense stomach pain as the drug becomes active in the nervous system. This effect occurs about 1 to 2 hours from taking 2ci and once this effect has occurred, there is no appetite so, as with acid, eating in advance has always been important. Again, I've remained lucid and cognisant of my own safety while intoxicated by 2ci. The industrial world (the city) becomes quite uncomfortable, while "nature" -- the woods, the park, or the back yard -- is vastly more enjoyable. Again, it's been useful to have someone around to check on me. The effects last 5 to 10 hours.

MDMA (methylenedioxy-methamphetamine, ecstasy): E is easily the most enjoyable drug I have ever tried. It has remained fully enjoyable every time I have taken it. Mild euphoria and the effect of uninhibited loving feelings are the consistent effects. Experiencing uninhibited loving feelings is informational, but not on a repeated basis; ecstasy quickly degrades into a non-informational drug. Ecstasy consumes serotonin, and I have seen it depress people after its use, though I have never experienced this myself. E is dehydrating. Ecstasy has caused me to behave in ways I regretted, in both sexual and platonic relationships. It has very serious long-term effects (brain lesions / brain damage) but I have never felt addictive effects in its use. Ecstasy in North America is often reported to be mixed with dangerous chemicals; I have only ever taken E independently tested for purity by a friend. The effects last 2 to 5 hours.

Nitrous Oxide: Nitrous is legal, as it is used in commercial whipping cream. For this reason, I've always been paranoid about nitrous, since accidentally purchasing Carbon Dioxide (which come in the same capsules, for the same purpose) would have devastating effects. Though not chemically addictive, because the effects of nitrous are intense but very short-lived, it is psychologically addictive. I have found myself craving the effects of nitrous after the experience has passed. It comes out of the capsule/bulb as a cold gas, which can cause frostbite of the lungs; there are other physical dangers. Taking nitrous requires extensive reading about its physical and addictive dangers. While the experience of nitrous can be informative the first few times, it quickly degrades into a pleasure (non-informative) drug. The effects last about 15 seconds.

Psilocybin mushrooms: The effects are comparable to acid, though I would say my experiences with mushrooms caused me much more mental and physical disability. I have not remained lucid or capable of doing all low-impact tasks. I have said hurtful things while intoxicated on mushrooms and I can see how it might cause a person to engage in physically dangerous activities. Mushrooms do cause variable levels of paranoia. The physical plant is similar in appearance and growing conditions to other mushrooms which are very poisonous and can kill you; I have only ever taken mushrooms grown in a closed environment for this reason. The effects last 5 to 10 hours.

Salvia: Saliva is legal in most countries and has clearly documented effects (see the wikipedia article). I have only experienced the effects from this list. Aside from evoking old memories of childhood, salvia is non-informative and there is little or no "insight" to be gained from its use. One of these effects is to cause such a strong hallucination about one's current physical environment as to completely remove one (mentally) from that environment. While on salvia, it would be very possible to walk into traffic, fall off a cliff, or stab your eye out on a tree branch. I have seen Salvia cause someone to stop breathing momentarily. Salvia is never taken lightly, even by those who are accustomed to it: it has to be taken indoors with all doors locked and away from any stairs or sharp objects. It absolutely must be taken only with the supervision of a sober companion. Because salvia must be smoked, it poses a danger to the lungs. Salvia has no addictive properties whatsoever... largely due to its huge hangover; after smoking salvia, one feels exhausted and depressed for a much longer time than the salvia high lasts. In the following days and weeks, the last thing in the world I can imagine doing is to smoke more salvia. The effects last 10 to 15 minutes.


Marijuana: Marijuana is not chemically addictive but it is very psychologically addictive. At the peak of my Marijuana use it has caused me non-trivial (though temporary) depression. It has caused me a great deal of paranoia, even once the enjoyable effects have dissipated. Marijuana deeply inhibits one's memory and mental faculties; recalling my earliest marijuana use in University, I paid close attention to the damage it was doing to my mental state: I would feel stupid after smoking marijuana for about 3 or 4 days. Because marijuana is primarily smoked (though it's also possible to ingest), it damages the lungs. Marijuana, in my initial trials, was actually informative to me, which was a great part of its appeal. However, it quickly degraded into a non-informative drug I used purely for pleasure. Smoking pot for pleasure lasted for years beyond the point where it provided me any at all, so I consider its psychologically addictive qualities much stronger than they are usually documented. I have said very hurtful things while stoned, though I don't think pot has ever caused me to do anything physically dangerous. Marijuana is more and more acceptable in society as its use increases and I think many people recognize the danger of alcohol and see marijuana as an alternative. Perhaps it is. The effects last 2 to 5 hours (or 3 to 4 days, depending on which effects one is measuring).

Alcohol: The enjoyable effects of alcohol are well known and not worth repeating. Alcohol has a very low LD50 and has caused me to harm myself, directly and indirectly, physically and mentally, on a number of occasions. I have had alcohol poisoning. Alcohol has caused me to harm others, physically and mentally, on a number of occasions. Alcohol greatly inhibits my capacity for self-regulation and moderation, which means drinking alcohol leads to me drinking more alcohol (or it creates the desire to experience other drugs). It also inhibits thought and judgement, leading me to engage in increasingly dangerous behaviour. While drunk, I have behaved in almost every manner conceivable: extremely loving, extremely generous, extremely jealous, extremely paranoid, extremely violent. Alcohol is chemically and psychologically addictive and I have experienced both. Because alcohol is socially acceptable and widely available, it poses even more danger: I stopped drinking after seriously injuring myself (while drunk) at the tail end of two months of very heavy alcohol consumption... even after all that and while I was undergoing surgery for that injury, colleagues and friends lamented the fact that I wasn't drinking with them. Alcohol's ubiquitous nature leaves me to consider it the most dangerous drug I have experienced in depth; society does not consider alcohol a drug. Alcohol has nothing to teach and begins as a non-informational drug. The effects last 1 to 24 hours, depending on the quantity consumed.

Cocaine: I have only tried cocaine on a few occasions. The effects are relatively mild (consider a strong dose of Nyquil), but because they do not last long it poses the same addictive threat Nitrous Oxide poses. Additionally, cocaine is chemically addictive. While I have not been addicted to cocaine, if I had consistent access to cocaine I could imagine how I could have become irreversibly addicted to it. Cocaine has not caused me to behave in dangerous ways: I have not done anything dangerous or said anything out of character while high on cocaine. It lands in this category purely due to its chemical and psychologically addictive properties. There is absolutely nothing to be learned from cocaine -- it's a pure-pleasure, non-informative drug. The effects last about 30 minutes.


Methamphetamine / Crack: I have only tried meth and crack once, each. Both times I have acted violently, become extremely paranoid, and endangered myself and others. They are also extremely addictive. I could not say how long the effects lasted.

Heroine: I have never done heroine (or any other opiate) but I'm adding it to the list because I have seriously considered it and would have taken it had the opportunity ever arose. Thankfully, it did not. In the years following my casual interest in heroine, I have met recovering heroine addicts. In the words of one, "as long as I'm not doing heroine, there is not a second of that goes by where I am not wishing I was doing heroine." That sounds like more than I could handle and I'm extremely grateful I never ran this experiment.


As I mentioned in the beginning, I have completely halted all drug use. Most of my drug use was alcohol, which I have never fully enjoyed, and whatever informational characteristics I learned from and enjoyed in hallucinogens have long-since been eclipsed by Zazen and Vipassana. Both of these activities are not only safe but also provide tangible benefit in my daily life, which is the opposite of the drug experiences I have had.

Despite the initial similarities to informational hallucinogens, meditation also has a quality which is the exact opposite of even the best informational hallucination I have experienced due to drugs: The quality of the meditative experience only compounds and improves; I can't seem to consume or reduce the usefulness of meditation. Conversely, the quality of the drug experience is always diminishing; every experience or experiment I have had with a drug has made the next less enjoyable and less informative.

However you choose to spend your time, do as much research as possible so you feel safe! When you begin experimenting with any new experience, start slowly and carefully, keep trusted friends close at hand, and if all else fails, call your Mom.


Huh? A software cooperative?

I recently wrote about how thankful I am, after a decade in software, to work for an employer which inherently understands my values and the values of all my colleagues. That employer is me. That employer is also all of my colleagues. That employer is nilenso: a software cooperative owned and operated by its employees here in Bangalore.

What is a coop?

According to Wikipedia: "A cooperative ("coop") or co-operative ("co-op") is an autonomous association of persons who voluntarily cooperate for their mutual social, economic, and cultural benefit."

That's a bit vague. This higher-level description of cooperatives includes things like housing cooperatives, social cooperatives (employing the previously unemployable), and consumers' cooperatives (owned by its customers). I won't be discussing cooperatives of this structure, but a housing cooperative is a helpful illustration:

Let's use this cute, orange condo building as a conversation piece. Normally when we think of condominiums we think of the green building: it's entirely owned by a property developer (see the helpful pie chart?). Each condo is sold to an individual and that individual has no ownership or authority over the building as a whole. It's possible for the owner of an individual condo to join the condo board to deal with issues like the noisy neighbour who comes home at 3:00 AM to listen to Taylor Swift remixes. It's not possible for the condo board to prevent that noisy person from purchasing a condo unit in the first place.

The yellow building presents the alternative: each condo owner not only owns their own unit, but also a percentage of the building itself (usually 1/N, where N is the number of condo unit owners). The building is still owned by a corporation. But now, rather than some external entity, the corporation which owns the building is itself owned by the residents of the building. Here, your pink penthouse also gives you a pink slice of the overall pie.

For the purposes of our discussion, the cooperatives we're discussing are profit-seeking corporations  participants of the market economy. Let's use nilenso as a canonical example. Nilenso operates externally as any other business would: an employee in an executive capacity sign contracts with our clients, the company mails out invoices for work we've completed, the company pays rent for office space, the company collects profits. Yadda, yadda.

Internally, however, things are slightly different. Rather than "founders" owning and operating the business however they like, nilenso is owned equally by every employee and operated by an elected Executive. Our salary structure is completely transparent. As are our books. As are all of our business conversations. Large decisions (like hiring a new member -- or firing someone, if it ever came to it) require a two-thirds majority. Since everyone in the company is an owner, everyone also has agency. Want a new keyboard? Need a book? Headphones? Office furniture? Grab the company credit card and execute; there's no one here to babysit you.

To make use of more ridiculous pie charts, ownership in nilenso (and therefore, votes) looks like this:

The usual idea of fun, young businesses run as employee-owned cooperatives probably conjures up images of this guy and his life partner, running their organic, fair-trade, non-GMO coffee roasterie and espresso shop:

That guy looks like a he'd run a solid coffee shop. Or... lumberyard. But he probably won't grow that into a multinational corporation any day soon. Many people don't realize that big coops do exist. Larger cooperatives (like the unimaginatively-named Federated Cooperatives Ltd. of my home country) adjust their structure to handle scale: with thousands of employees, they will have a board in addition to an elected executive. They will have departments and budgets and middle managers. They will look much more like a regular corporation internally than little 12-person nilenso does. But they are still owned and operated by their employees and they are still very much cooperatives. There's nothing about a cooperative which prevents it from being pedestrian.

Why build a cooperative?

Why do we prefer to live in a democracy? We prefer a society in which governance is not military, not centralized, and not dictatorial. We prefer to have the power to fire a government (and government agents) if they aren't acting in the citizens' best interests. Well, a corporation is always governed by someone, and in a cooperative that someone is you. A cooperative is a democracy.

This capitalist democracy is not all that different from the democracy of a nationstate. An executive body is elected and maintains tenure for a predetermined period until the next election is held. Large decisions can be put to a referendum. In both cases, citizens (employees) have agency.

This also lends itself to transparency. A business led by uninformed decisions is a business doomed to fail. If the most important decisions of the business are left to the employees, the employees must have full access to information about its operation: How are salaries structured? Bonuses? What is our P&L? Who is authorizing expenses? Who is responsible for what income? Who is exceeding expectations? How?

From transparency come checks and balances. It's easy to see how an opaque, privately-owned company like Koch Industries could run so far astray of meaningful, productive, progressive business as it has. But even publicly-held companies lack serious checks and balances. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, and General Motors are public financial failures. Public companies are also subject to environmental disaster, contribution to war, human rights abuses, and corruption of politics. Most people don't think of Apple or British Petroleum as inherently flawed or evil. And perhaps they aren't, yet. But when corporate checks and balances are comprised of profit motives alone, it's not impossible to imagine public companies becoming meaningless, unproductive, and retrograde societal scars, like Koch.

Transparency and a self-regulating system won't be perfect, of course. Cooperative oil companies still have refinery explosions and oil spills. An employee-owned company distributes the greed of an individual "founder" to its entire staff, rather than eliminating it. But it would take formidable collective greed for a cooperative to brush off environmental & safety issues, buy politicians, or hire an international contractor known for its human rights abuses. On the other end of the scale, the agency provided to members of a cooperative make "corporate social responsibility" a daily activity, rather than an afterthought. At nilenso, we think collectively about our office waste, how we treat our contractors, and how we interact with our local community.

Perhaps, as a software developer, you don't care about the environment. Maybe you don't care about the company's financials or the sales cycle or improving the local community. Cool. You are perfect for a cooperative. What do you care about? Good coffee? A parking space? A gym membership? Software licenses? Conferences? Coops have you covered. Join, speak up, and change the company into what you want it to be. Remember: a coop is your company, in the most literal sense. Technology companies love to proclaim "this is your company", "we want you to be your own boss", and "we want entrepreneurs". But this is all hand-waving unless it means something legally.


If running a cooperative interests you, I'd like to provide fair warning that starting and running a cooperative is not without its own set of difficulties. At nilenso, it took us months to figure out our executive structure. Prior to that, we held a lot of referendums and decisions were made slowly. Finding a structure that works for you will take time.

A "Cooperative Corporation" is a specific legal entity, and nilenso isn't an internationally recognized Cooperative Corporation. India's Cooperative laws are antiquated, to say the least. Most of the cooperatives in India are either agriculture firms or small banks, and most of the laws are targeted at agri-business. A generic Cooperative Corporation in India requires a minimum of 50 (or 60, depending on which government document you read) employees and cannot own an international subsidiary. That's a big ball of nonstarter for us.

Your country might have similar restrictions  or you might just prefer the flexibility of starting a cooperative under another category of legal entities. Our lawyer recommended we use an LLP (Limited Liability Partnership), so our first partnership agreement looked like this:

This works well enough. The LLP can own international subsidiaries (like our California-based C-Corp), can contain any number of employees-as-partners, and we can write up the partnership agreement to reflect the structure we want for the corporation. With every person who joins or leaves nilenso, we rewrite the partnership agreement to add or remove them.

While everyone in nilenso owns (1/N)% of the company, we strive to make it a meritocracy: we have salary bands and everyone is slotted into a salary band based on her/his skills, experience, and contributions to the company. The partnership agreement doesn't affect anyone's finances, since all remuneration is through the salary structure.

Uncommon is the only other software cooperative in India that I'm aware of. They've taken another, totally valid strategy: They are structured as a Private Limited corporation. Rather than partners, every employee of Uncommon is a director and rather than a static salary structure, every employee takes home a salary corresponding to the work they've delivered that month.

Hiring and firing is one of the most difficult aspects of running any business, but it's even more difficult with a cooperative structured as a partnership. Decide procedures for employee on-boarding and exits before you start  then write them down. It's tempting to believe a team of friends will always be as happy and cohesive as they were on Day One... but it's a delusion. You are running a business and it's going to grow or fail. Either way, be ready.

Last but not least, a coop can't receive venture capital since that would mean the company was no longer owned by its employees. There are ways around this through child companies, joint ventures, and the like. But for someone like me who's not keen on the VC scene anyway, it's not really an issue. For us, this meant having enough cash in the bank to get nilenso off the ground in the first place.

What is nilenso?

Over the past year, the twelve of us have decided what nilenso is: Our primary focus is building increasingly sophisticated software. This past year, we've made wonderful tools of devops automation, distributed computing, machine learning, and multi-variate testing. Our tools and skills will only get more interesting and what defines "interesting" is decided by us! As a group, our office is excited about using this toolset, particularly through open source, to enhance essential services: water, food, housing, healthcare, education, scientific exploration.

But what we're excited about goes beyond software. We've made the nilenso office a space where we want to be: We have a library packed with books and meditation cushions. We have a washing machine. We have a nap room. We get healthy, homemade food catered for lunch in environmentally-friendly tiffins. We are investing in the education of our contract staff (cleaning and security). We have a composter for food waste and we recycle everything else. We have secure bicycle and car parking. We have delicious South Indian coffee. Over the next year, we'll change this so that nilenso is the kind of company we want in 2016.

That all describes what nilenso looks like more than it describes what nilenso actually is. Nilenso started as an experiment. None of us were sure if a software cooperative made sense or if we could make it work. After a year and a half, nilenso has grown from an experiment to an idea we want to share. We encourage you to try it out, criticize it, expand on it, and tear it apart. Resilient software systems are made through flexibility and by facing unforeseen obstacles. Resilient businesses are likely to be made of the same stuff.

What would your technology cooperative look like?