Categories
Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Communication in Startups

I read the other day that what separates great teams and relationships is not avoiding disagreements, but rather the quality of bringing up even the smallest disputes for discussion immediately and with an open mind.

It makes so much sense.

Humans are fundamentally opinionated and driven by past experiences. We have also evolved with the genetic machinery to look out for our own personal well-being. We are also resentful. When things don’t go our way or if we are impacted by something, we will often hold a grudge or be generally distracted. This creates long term, and often, permanent fissures.

Startups epitomize the need for great communication and open-mindedness. Especially when the foundation is being laid, everyone is on edge — people don’t know each other so well, there is uncertainty about the product-market fit, and there is just so much going on that essence is often lost in communications, even if you create a framework for daily meetings and catch-ups.

I was recently involved with a startup working in a very interesting and prospective space. The team was not very experienced in that space, but they seemed to have the grit to move through difficulties and find opportunities in tight spaces, so to say. The only issue was that the communication was terrible. I would send an email or a message and it would most often go unanswered. I would bring up this issue, and it would be minimized. We would all promise to be more responsive, but the elephant still comfortably sat in the room, day in and day out.

This was a wonderful lesson in communication — even if you are very smart and capable, communication is what makes or breaks a team. It is easier to find skilled professionals than it is to find professionals that are great at being accountable and communicative. Things have a propensity to boil over.

Especially in small teams and startups, the assumption should always be that the smallest of ideas have the potential for major impact. If a team deprioritizes internal communications, it sends out a negative signal to external partners and investors, too.

So, what do you do if you find yourself in a situation where the team doesn’t communicate well (or at all)? The best plan of action is to bring it up early and often. Humans are also mostly wonderful with good intentions. Most probably, they have different priorities and were of the belief that they were doing their best for the team. However, if the situation doesn’t improve in a reasonable time-frame, your best bet is to just bail out.

As for me, I sent them an email about a prospective investment opportunity, but received no reply! 🙃

Categories
Life and Personal Tech and Culture

E-Newspapers

I was reading an online commentary about newspapers and their business models the other day. Basically, the opinion was that newspapers are slowly letting themselves die by sticking with user-antagonistic business models that prioritize tracking over efficiency, cancellation-friction over customer friendliness and so on.

That is all so true.

This reminded me of being a college student. I wasn’t subscribed to any single newspaper (this was before the Internet was a ‘serious’ thing). Every evening, I would walk over to the kiosk and browse through different newspapers before deciding to buy one. Often, I would end up picking more than one, especially on weekends.

In a lot of countries, the quintessential newspaper kiosk was also a way to bring society together and to discuss events and debate them. Sadly, most of these are on their way out. Even in Amsterdam, which didn’t really have much of a kiosk culture, there are only 2 booksellers I know that sell any non-Dutch periodicals. Newspapers are hard to procure unless you commit to a long-term at-home delivery subscription.

This brings me to my main point — just like we were able to buy newspapers just this once, why can’t we subscribe to electronic versions of the same media outlets for just a day? I can understand that part of this is because of higher transaction costs online where cash just doesn’t work. Even then, I am sure that a lot of customers would not mind a little markup given the flexibility to not have to commit to a yearly subscription.

A few companies have tried to come out with per-article or monthly all-you-can-consume subscriptions to a catalog of newspapers and magazines, but they are hardly profitable. Just like music services, there really is no way to make a profitable business renting out content unless the producers/owners are on board and price it as such, fit for rental consumption.

Now, more than ever in our lifetimes, we need reliable sources of news and current affairs. If you could afford it, do subscribe to a newspaper and keep them alive, and while you’re signing up, make sure to tell your favorite news source to provide a day-subscription. It’s the only way to keep us sane.

Categories
Tech and Culture

Artificial Intelligence in 2020

AI — Artificial Intelligence — is a fascinating term. It’s been part of our lives, in one form or the other, ever since we were born. It’s only in the last decade that the usage of the term has become so ‘daily’. Nary a day goes by where you don’t run into AI impacting one or the other aspects of our lives.

What was previously a thing of a future life is suddenly something that we use and interact with every day. Are our computers suddenly intelligent, more so than they were 20 years ago, or has the term’s definition merely been rebased to their current capabilities in order to influence our behavior?

AI suddenly became a thing of this century a few years ago — as my memory recalls — during a Facebook conference that had a session about how the company was using ‘Artificial Intelligence’ to make the platform safer for its users. It is hard to manually moderate all the content being liked and shared by billions of users (they’re not customers) every hour, and so the company desperately needed a way to automate a huge portion of that grunt, and often, mentally disturbing work. This is where AI suddenly became a thing that exists today, instead of an utopian future.

That is not to say that AI, the term, is merely cunning marketing. I mean, even though your chances of being taken seriously in the money markets are greatly improved if you throw in the term in your communications material, a lot of it has to do with the quantum jump in our computers’ capabilities. Moore’s law is real, after all.

I just came across two articles in this morning’s newspaper — one about YouTube finally reverting to using more humans for content moderation as a result of the automated systems (read algorithms) falsely flagging content that was safe and letting through questionable content. They reached the conclusion that the financial burden of investigating moderation appeals was higher than any cost-savings coming from automating the moderation process.

The second was an opinion piece about how AI has ‘disappointed’ us during the ongoing pandemic. The premise is that the current state of AI works incredibly well if humans intervene early on and help decipher it right from wrong, good from bad, or wanted from unwanted. What we call AI today is largely just an aspect of big data that combines with advances in computing technology to stimulate ‘machine learning’, and like us humans, learning requires an early intervention to prevent learning all the wrong things.

There was another interesting event that went ‘viral’ on Twitter this weekend. Apparently, in order to generate a thumbnail preview of any posted pictures, the website uses an algorithm to center it around a key ingredient. In the case of pictures with people, the idea is to center the thumbnail around a key person so that the thumbnail is more relevant and informative in the post. There was a snag, though. The algorithm always preferred a white person to represent this key person whenever there was another non-white person.

Clearly, the current state of AI is not there, yet, and often leads to results that are actually bad. Some of this AI is also generating our Internet search results and is creating even more division and sowing hatred among people. AI also has potential to change lives of people long-term as was evinced by the algorithmic generation of school-leaving results in the UK a while ago.

But, AI is cool, and just by making it a part of your business plan could make the difference between being able to launch that company or watching the idea of it slowly withering away. Investments are largely buzzword-driven.

So, what are we to do?

As with politics, the clear way to make long term positive impact is to educate others. Part of this involves also keeping up with the evolution of AI yourself. We could help others in understanding that computers aren’t autonomous and will only learn what they’re taught. And like everyone else, these teachers will often make mistakes. Fact check. Seek answers. Clarify.

Computers can be wrong.

Categories
Tech and Culture

Self-Promoting Engineers

I recently signed up for a networking platform called ‘Lunchclub.ai’ that aims to be ‘an AI superconnector that makes introductions for 1:1 video meetings to advance your career’. It is an interesting idea, and so far I’ve met 3 people, one from near Milan, another from Berlin, and one from Stockholm (although he was Russian). It is nice to connect randomly with other entrepreneurs or interesting people for a quick video chat.

On my last meeting with the person from Stockholm, the conversation ended up being quite informal and friendly — we talked about cultural issues with being an expat and how it could be challenging to start with a new idea in those circumstances. Then, the other person pointed out how engineers lack the capability to upsell their work and qualifications. You could look at almost any other profession and clearly notice that selling oneself comes along with it. Except for engineering.

As an engineer, one is expected only to be good at their core competency and to be able to communicate with peers. That they are great at their work shouldn’t be something that needs to be advertised outside of the recruiting process.

It made me think. Some of the best engineers I have had the pleasure to learn from were also quite bad at promoting themselves. It is assumed that great engineers are constantly learning and evolving, and that the more years of experience they accumulate the better they get. Anything else is just unacceptable, and following this career path is barely meeting expectations. On the other hand, the engineers who plan and break away from this mould are often those that transition out from the engineering profession to a career built upon teaching or public speaking.

Good engineers are also almost always suffering from the burden of not being good enough. There is always something to learn, some way to improve, or just some people to look up to. And if you’re a software engineer, there is always another framework or architectural pattern that is in vogue that you haven’t even looked at. You slacker you!

This is quite a dichotomy — on one hand, engineers are expected to be great and to always be learning, while on the other hand, the ones that do learn the art of self-promotion are deemed to not be engaged with the profession full-time. There’s only enough time to either engage with your engineering craft or to tell the world how good you’re at it.

A lot of workplaces now promote public speaking for their engineers, but this is often limited to speaking to other engineers, and is, as such, used primarily as a recruitment tool — check out our infrastructure/team structure/methodology and be a part of something great. While it helps bring talent together, it seldom helps individual contributors in ways other than perhaps opening them up for recruitment by other similar teams.

There is a good balance to be obtained among shameless self-promotion and genuine marketing, but every engineer ought to be unashamed about telling the world how great they are, and also to publicly recognize that there is no shame in being an expert on whatever the pattern or framework of the month happens to be.

Categories
Software Engineering Tech and Culture

Working Remotely

Everyone is WFH – Working From Home these days. Even people that never were in favor of remote work for IT workers are now compelled to set up a special place in their homes for work to carry on uninterrupted. Just the other day, I got an IM from an ex-colleague, who vehemently opposed remote work, sort of lamenting to me as to how the entire world is now forced to work from home.

I started my professional career in the US in the IT consulting business. It wasn’t the ideal start to a career, mostly because when you’re working as a consultant, you don’t have an office — you go where the client goes. This also meant that I had a level of autonomy, especially considering my experience, that was not afforded to even seasoned permanent employees. For one, I could come in and leave the office anytime as long as I was able to commit to the project plan. This was just like being in grad school! It could also explain why I ultimately built a good framework around separating work-life from personal-life.

I still remember working remotely for about a month as I was recuperating from a foot surgery. It was quite a non-issue. My supervisor(s) had no problems with that even back in the day, and I was actually offered to apply for a preferential parking permit to avoid walking long distances whenever I returned.

Then, as I became more experienced, I was able to take on client calls from home or prioritize personal matters around professional work. It was all quite flexible and amazing. This was the business of consulting for IT departments to set up complex systems.

Even when I moved to pure software engineering (building products for end-users) as a consultant, I have memories of being allowed flexibility. Sadly, none of those companies are in business, still. It seemed that back in the day, even tech companies had a pretty good handle on work-life balance. Some of my colleagues even worked remotely on a full-time basis, just as long as they were able to negotiate it at some point. And a lot did. Surely, having geographically spread campuses with a more project-oriented focus helped. Perhaps it was also a cultural thing; who doesn’t remember going on long team lunches back then?!

And then, sometime around the early 10’s things changed. Agile and Scrum, in particular, were already on the rise, but now that companies were newer and budgets leaner, companies started trying to optimize their workplaces, both for usage as well as project management. Agile was the hot new buzzword. Gone were cubicles in exchange for ‘collaborative’ open spaces full of drawing boards, plants, and as little furniture as possible. My first open floor-plan office job was actually in 2010. Some people even shared a desk, if it were too big for one person.

This was also the time when, battered by the Great Recession, companies were trying to bring back a lot of operations that were outsourced until the late 00’s. People just have to be in the same room!

The thing is that none of the benefits of being in the same room supersede the efficiencies obtained by inculcating a more flexible and professional work ethic. A lot of this new-age ‘company is your family’ came about from Silicon Valley competing for talent by offering on-site catered lunches and laundromats and daycares and whatnot. Smaller startups were only able to preach the mantra of collaboration and agility. In all of this, though, the voice of many who wanted to focus mostly on productivity was silenced. Surely, they aren’t team-players and fully committed if they’d want to work from a beach, which is definitely what ‘working remotely’ implied!

In denser cities like Amsterdam and San Francisco, there was more incentive to build fancy office spaces — homes were smaller and didn’t provide enough separation between work and personal space. That, and most people are terrible at time management. The biggest complaint with remote work is that people don’t know when their work-day begins and when it ends. Either they’re working all the time, or can barely figure out a rhythm for working. Some people also miss the social aspect, although I am of the opinion that they mostly have customer-facing roles or have circular dependencies in order to contribute.

For the past 6 years, I have been working remotely. Interestingly, what should be natural for tech-workers is now seen as a privilege. I love it, and even though I wouldn’t call myself unsocial, I like that I get the change to pick between being social or being productive or both! When I started, I was actually in the midst of changing my lifestyle and getting healthier. I used to go on morning and lunch walks. I could take some calls and manage my emails while having a coffee with my newspaper. I could plan my lunch at an odd hour. All things that are relatively impossible in an office environment.

This brings me to a segue about the aforementioned colleague. I had a ton of discussions about his idea of a productive workspace. He wasn’t a full-time contributor, and only wanted to come to the office when he desired. His reason to want an office was also because he missed camaraderie at home. All very selfish reasons. And this has been my experience talking to a lot of opponents of remote work — they only hate it up until they have a personal need. At that point, privilege sets in. The whole teamwork seems to fall apart, both practically and theoretically. Think about it — how is it a team-building exercise if some people in your team would love to have some flexibility for a few days (for personal reasons) but your project planning requires them to be there in person for every working hour. That’s got to be demotivating.

And now that offices have *had* to close down, I feel that the empty promises of more collaborative workspaces are coming to the fore. Apple is releasing more stable updates, companies are still working and building, and people are still working hard. Some so much that they’re now complaining of corona-fatigue. Instead of countless meetings in a conference room, people are now tired of video calls. Things are normal. The only people disadvantaged seem to be those that prioritized proximity to the office to comfort when picking a place to live. Now they’re left with a tiny apartment in a wonderfully central location, but no workspace.

It is clear that working remotely is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Until the virus situation is eased enough to allow executives to regularly work from an office, it is fair to assume that very few people in the non-essential IT workers category would like to subject themselves to viral exposure. That could take a few months, if not years. And none of that would slow down the progress of technology.

So, was I right in embracing and pushing for a remote-friendly autonomous culture at all my previous workplaces? You bet I was.

Categories
Economy Tech and Culture

Small Business Ad-Spend

The world has been going through a tumultuous era. Not only is it ravaged by the Coronavirus, the subsequent financial and social implications have driven people crazy and longing for a change. Various simmering issues have come to a steady boil in what doesn’t seem like ready to subside anytime soon — racial inequality, financial inequity, a reckoning with the colonial past in western democracies, to name a few.

Big changes are underfoot.

As companies face slowing market conditions, compounded by the social upheaval, they’re also having to face pressure from their customers on standing up to divisive voices in the society. Companies are investigating their ad-spend on platforms that provide micro-targeting, but that in these times also tend to place this advertising side-by-side with content that aims to break the social order.

By last count, a lot of big name companies have already pulled their ad-spending from various platforms owned by Facebook and Google. That said, there are very few, if any, other places for them to reach their customers. So much so that Facebook’s CEO even boasted that these advertisers would be back ‘soon enough’ with their money as they realize that there is no other way.

Buried in these news, I found myself fascinated by the revelation that about 70% of Facebook’s ad revenue comes not by way of these Cokes and Unilevers, but from the multitudes of local and small businesses spread throughout the globe. It makes perfect sense in hindsight — if you’re big, you could possible afford spending on TV ads or billboards, but if you have that tiny neighborhood café that derives a lot of seasonal tourist-dependent revenue, your best bet is a Facebook (Instagram) ad campaign.

Perhaps then, the next ad-tech business the world needs is something that helps these small businesses reach their target demographic in a more ESG-friendly manner. A platform that doesn’t mine all the data there is, but provides genuine value. This platform would be made for small business by small business with only one goal — make the world a nicer place.

Now the question — who’s up for this?

Categories
Life and Personal Tech and Culture

I Miss Emails

Every now and then I search my email for an obscure keyword or phrase that was at one time relevant to my interests — ‘AIIM’ when I worked as a records management consultant, or ‘dinner’ to look back at when we planned for such things by email. I even have chains going back 15 years where people are discussing something forwarded by someone and that resulted in a never-ending sequence of Reply-All’s.

In a way, I miss that.

These days, people send quick instant messages through one of the dozens of ‘social media’ apps that nearly everyone is assumed to be a member of. Can’t remember the contact details of that colleague from 10 years ago? Search on LinkedIn. What about that classmate in grad school? Chances are that they’re on Facebook.

On the other hand, it is almost foolhardy to assume that the person you used to email years ago is still using that same email address — their job might have changed, or they could’ve switched to that awesome new email service that has better spam detection, or perhaps they just wanted to build a new identity as ‘cool_ece_95@yahoo.com’ is just not cool anymore. Foolhardy because composing emails takes a bit of effort and time. You don’t want to waste that effort on thoughtfully writing something when you’re not even sure if it would land in the right inbox. Sending a quick, and abrupt, ‘hey’ in an instant message has no baggage.

Some of my earliest emails with family members are full of pictures, address changes, various forwards, and even videos and recipes. Almost all emails are more than a couple sentences long. They have nice salutations. On the contrary, instant messages are spread around various apps — iMessages for some, WhatsApp for others, LinkedIn for a few friends and even family, and so on.

Whereas my emails are easily searchable, finding the right message or the context it was sent in is terribly hard on almost every messaging app. Searching messages is consistently a terrible experience. It’s like the services were designed to be ephemeral and impersonal. Whereas emails are blocks of conversation, messages are just blocks of sentences punctuated by an image or two, or by a totally different context with its own punctuations.

Emails are fun to read; instant messages are just blobs of stuff.

In other words, most of my instant message conversations are a bad example of object oriented programming. The conversations are just a set of base classes, then subclassed, then extended, sometimes composited. What was supposed to be quick and convenient has turned into something unwieldy and, as a result, not worth archiving and preserving.

My old emails, though, are wonderful memories.

Categories
Politics Tech and Culture

A Technology Proposal for Amsterdam’s New 1.5m Society

The city of Amsterdam recently invited (archive) proposals from residents and companies to help it plan the path ahead in the new normal — a 1.5m society. The goal was to invite creative ideas to help businesses deal with the changes while making sure that they stay in business. The odd thing about pitching ideas is that we’re in an unprecedented situation — there’s no collection of best practices or historical lessons that could be tweaked and turned into something applicable for the modern world.

At the same time, while many ideas would possibly revolve around an app for this, or an app for that, a delivery platform, or a new social networking app for business, I am not sure that’s the right way forward. Not after all the inequities proliferated by ‘big-tech’ in the last decade. The last thing anyone wants is one corporation being the gatekeeper of all physical commerce.

So, is the solution to instead trust the Government? I think, fundamentally, smaller government at the city level is a lot more trustworthy than national policy making. We do, after all, depend on the city to read our grievances when it comes to parking spaces or for sanitation of waste collection. Amsterdam is in a unique situation where it has a woman mayor and where a lot of the infrastructure surrounding business activities is already digitalized.

The proposal I submitted is below. I am not uniquely qualified or even have the organizational structure to action on it, but I do believe that something like this is the way forward in the near short term without succumbing to mission creep.

PS: I know there are grammatical errors :o) I typed it up at the last minute this morning.

Categories
Tech and Culture

A More Equitable Apple Business Model

Even Apple is having to face the coronavirus music. Product announcements, like last week’s new iPhone SE launch, are now subdued due to being online-only. It is having to convert WWDC to an online-only event. Device sales are predicted to be considerably lower YoY. Fortunately for them, they’re already investing in subscription based services to tide over customers that don’t want to buy new hardware every few months.

I was reading an FT news article detailing how Apple’s Chinese contract manufacturers were having to downsize, well, by not hiring as fast they usually do. Buried in that article was a slight conversation with one factory worker who mentioned that he might be able to get a whole week off in April this year, as compared to just a day in the past years. He was also not working overtime.

Wow. I mean, we all know how hard these contractors have to work to make sure we get our new iPhones on launch day, but this is the first time that it connected to me with the name of an actual person.

While we’re enjoying our work-from-home regimen and safely self-isolating, it’s easy to forget the human toll caused by our mindless consumerism. And, it’s not just physical products that drive this consumerism; we’re also mindless consumers when it comes to financial products.

Apple enjoys one of the, if not the, highest profit margins on its products. Those margins are shared, albeit unequally, with investors and employees vested in Apple’s stock. Over the past few years, the company has been aggressively buying back its own stock to further elevate the stock price and hence the gains for its investors in the short term. So much so that investors expect the company to consistently overshoot its own earnings guidance.

It doesn’t have to be like this — Apple could easily make the gains more equitable across its value chain. While it has been forced to look into labor practices in the past, and has resorted to steps such as installing anti-suicide nets in factories, it can and should do more. There is no justifiable reason to maintain high profit margins, while innovation stays low and stock buy-backs remaining high, and while factory labor still has to work over-time and not enjoy the same amount of holidays and time-off as any software engineer or executive in the company.

Would it really matter that much if the margins reduced a little? Our devices would still cost the same; perhaps the share price would take a little downward beating, but in the long term, it would balance out and the company might in-fact be forced to actually live up to its values of innovation and user-centricity. Investors tend to forget any short-term bumps. It is also probably not a bad idea to simply stop catering to investors that don’t take a long-term view after all.

We should start expecting a higher degree of leadership from companies like Apple.

Categories
Life and Personal Tech and Culture

Unpopular Opinions

We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. There’s no shortage of news about what’s going well and what isn’t. Even then, every now and then, something pops up on the various news channels that makes you stop and think. One of these things is how Amazon recently fired 2 employees for speaking out against the company — and I have seen one of the Tweets that, apparently, “broke the camel’s back” — it was a proclamation that the employee was making a contribution towards the well-being of the various warehouse employees on Amazon’s roster that, allegedly, aren’t being taken care of and are being forced to work in life-threatening conditions.

This is not something that all of us are unaware of — just this week, France compelled Amazon to only deliver/process orders for essential items as investigations revealed that a lot of warehouse employees were having to break social-distancing rules for the sake of shipping bottles of wine or other luxurious items like Nintendo Switches. In what sounds like verbal retaliation, Amazon has responded with a threat that it would completely stop its operations in France.

This kind of corporate behavior has become so normal and acceptable over the last 2 decades that the unpopular opinion now is to actually take a personal stand over issues that don’t align with personal values. When governments force better citizenship, they’re maligned. When private individuals do as much as voice their opinions outside of work in their private time, they’re found guilty of violating social media rules in the workplace.

While most people don’t go beyond the short-term impact of such punitive action against upholding a person’s identity and values, the long term impact is tremendous. People, evolutionally, have an urge to spread and validate their inherent values. While financial compensation and social acceptance is a way to successful limit these urges, these feelings have a way of boiling over and causing more harm than necessary.

In this hyper-connected world where all of our communications, down to where we are moving and which web pages we’re clicking on is traceable back to us, and is ultimately consequential to our work place and social acceptance, it becomes that much important to separate our humanity from our workplace obligations. To that end, we need to go back to how we expressed our opinions in the early days of the Internet, and where what we said or expressed was countered in a non-personal, reasonable manner.

This was especially true at universities and schools. We all had a webpage or two, where we expressed our thoughts, our plans, and ultimately, journaled our life and experiences. There were no repercussions for questioning politics or expressing an unpopular opinion that went against the University administration. At most, you would be referred to an independent ombudsman (person?) whose goal was to help both the parties.

Contrast that to now — people, especially those with good jobs at multinational organizations, seldom find the time or build a place to express themselves using their true identity. There have been countless instances of those that did so not recovering from the repercussions for a very long time. In fact, the bigger the company, the higher the chances of never being accepted anywhere else, and the greater the risk.

This is not how it’s supposed to be.

The more people avoid free expression, the more they flock to echo chambers that have the ‘other person with nothing to lose’ voicing their opinions that they could only look at for re-affirmation, but have no way to refine or to dilute towards the less radical. The algorithms at work tend to make this echo chamber ever bigger, and the same companies that ‘enable’ this ‘free expression’ build internal mono-cultures that dampen real expression by their own employees.

Those that continue to operate free blogs and voicing free opinion do so under the pretense of having nothing to lose, which is often a result of opting not to work for these companies or to de-prioritize career advancement in the traditional sense. After all, shouldn’t the top executive at Amazon be, in fact, supporting their warehouse workers and thanking the blogger instead of ignoring any punitive action taken against them by the company?

There is glimmer of hope that the world after this latest pandemic would be the world that uses the forced pause to reflect upon the values that make us human. Already, governments are stepping up efforts to better calibrate compensation for the delivery and healthcare workers according to their real contribution to the society. The world could certainly do with more equity and equality.

And more than anything, we need to make space for the unpopular opinion, for more often than not, the opinion is a result of having spent time pondering over things that no one else deemed necessary, or because someone had the courage to go against the grain.