The emperors of Silicon Valley have no plan

Silicon Valley exalts technical knowledge to the exclusion of nearly all other disciplines. This narrow view has real consequences as community-based businesses mature:

…there is a feeling among many of the moderators of reddit that the admins do not respect the work that is put in by the thousands of unpaid volunteers who maintain the communities of the 9,656 active subreddits, which they feel is expressed by, among other things, the lack of communication between them and the admins, and their disregard of the thousands of mods who keep reddit’s communities going.

While Reddit is in the news for its subcultures of misogyny, racism and rampant harassment, along with a community in rebellion, theirs is just another chapter in a very thick book of industry missteps. Let’s review some highlights. Continue reading The emperors of Silicon Valley have no plan

Everything working against tech diversity in two headlines

Clinkle Raises Celebrity-Filled $25M Round As It Gears Up To Eliminate The Physical Wallet

 

First, let’s talk about Clinkle.

Clinkle was founded by computer science student Lucas Duplan to build a contactless mobile payment system.

Duplan had no meaningful experience running companies, nor any substantial domain experience in payments. He was, after all, 21. But Duplan had one thing going for him: the Stanford-centered croneyism of Silicon Valley venture capital.

Lucas is excited to have duped his investors.
Lucas is excited to have duped his investors.

Continue reading Everything working against tech diversity in two headlines

Algorithms can’t create diversity

Wired is running the hype train for a new startup called Doxa. Here’s the headline:

ALGORITHMS CAN HELP STARTUPS PUSH DIVERSITY FROM DAY ONE

The article goes on to describe an OkCupid-esque recruiting mechanism that promises to diversify tech. There’s just one problem:

That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

Sustainable diversity is about more than shoving underrepresented people into the existing startup order

When you come from an underrepresented background, you may have different needs at work from your peers. In the case of women, they need specific policy and cultural protection from sexual harassment and predation—the challenges they face are not the same as their male counterparts. Folks who are first-generation knowledge workers may have different compensation priorities from their peers with more affluent upbringing. Transgender workers may have very specific healthcare needs that must be addressed by the benefits offered by their employers.

Workplace accommodation is nothing new. Silicon Valley abounds with workplace accommodation—for its dominant groups.

Continue reading Algorithms can’t create diversity

Art and optimism

I grew up in the 24th century.

In the 24th century, no one on earth went hungry. Poverty had been eradicated. With that came the end of racial prejudice, economic coercion, gender inequality and superstitious persecution.

In the 24th century, humans had made it.

This time period wasn’t free of complication. With all this freedom, civilization grasped to learn more—to learn everything.

This journey revealed that despite all the progress, injustice was still possible. That our very definition of life would be constantly challenged by the creative breadth of the universe.

Even the most marginalized found protection in the 24th century. Legal tradition was robust and literacy of civic duty was universally understood. Even the military was overwhelmingly trustworthy.

Computers were everywhere. Education was free and comprehensive. Mental health care had no stigma. Medicine was a basic cooperative commitment.

I loved the 24th century.

Well, I loved Star Trek. It was a hell of a piece of propaganda.

Here is one hour of space magic. You think this is cool? All we have to do to have it is get our shit together. We’re allowed to ask for that, you know.

If this hits your imagination while it’s still squishy and hungry, if it manages to get its hooks in? Dozens of hours of conditioning?

That shaped my brain. And thank god it did.

Continue reading Art and optimism

Kano: computer literacy in a box

Survival in the 21st century requires digital literacy.

Not everyone needs to be a coder but everyone needs to understand how code works. They must understand how a computer will relentlessly execute a program for as long as it has the electricity to do it.

This truth now defines commerce and culture. It has meaningful implications for our civil liberties. The computers have taken over.

If computers are magic, if their workings are mysterious, you have no means of understanding this future. You have no recourse when a computer fails you. You have no means of investigating injustice perpetrated by algorithms.

But if you understand the rudiments of what makes computers run, what their capacities and limitations are, you have a chance of making sense of an increasingly complex world. Widespread comprehension is essential to social and economic equity.

As technology is bent toward use by government, that understanding is also essential to making informed decisions, as citizens, about how that technology should be used.

Which all sounds fine.

But how do you move the needle on computer literacy in a way that scales?

Kano is an interesting example.

Continue reading Kano: computer literacy in a box

Everything I wish I’d known at 17 about creating value

I’ve spent over a decade puzzling out how to create value in a 21st century economy. I can explain in two words:

Novelty and Automation

Those are the umbrellas. This is what the future rewards.

Novelty explains itself. The brain wants novelty like your tongue wants salt. New stories, new styles, new ways of combining things we already understand in ways we wouldn’t predict.

New material for the great pattern-matching engine we use to stumble through the world. This drive matters. It’s real.

Automation is the trick of doing an infinite repetition of the same work for the cost of designing and testing some computer code1. If you can plug your automation into a stream of work that generates money, you can probably scheme up a way to keep some for yourself.

Automation is at the core of generations of Silicon Valley venture investment. The money keeps chasing because the top of this mountain is still far in the future.

Continue reading Everything I wish I’d known at 17 about creating value


  1. Optionally, for our overachievers: robots also qualify 

Startup equity benefits your boss, not you

So a startup wants to hire you.

They’re probably offering you two major pieces of compensation beyond the typical benefits and mundane startup perks:

Cash money, which is useful for many things.

Equity in the company, which is useful for nothing right now, but could turn into something later.

What they’re not telling you is that the equity isn’t for you.

It’s for them. Continue reading Startup equity benefits your boss, not you

Y Combinator and the negative externalities of Hacker News

Hacker News is a crown jewel of Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s premiere startup accelerator.

Hacker News benefits YC in a few ways:

  • It’s an account system for applying for funding
  • As a news aggregator, it lets Y Combinator get in front of tons of potential founders during each funding cycle to solicit applications
  • It’s a captive audience before which Y Combinator’s portfolio companies may post jobs and attract talent

Hacker News activity also provides context for funding decisions:

The first thing I notice when I look at an application is the username it was submitted under. If it’s one I recognize for making thoughtful comments on Hacker News, I give the application extra attention.

So you’ve got a tool that handles logistics, juices deal flow, and captures talent. How’s Y Combinator doing with all that?

Their portfolio is valued in excess of $30 billion.

Hacker News has been central to that rise: it launched in 2007, bearing witness to every startup launched in the portfolio since. As Y Combinator’s star has risen, user engagement has matched.

It’s hard to imagine one without the other. Hacker News is YC, for the vast majority of people who will interact with YC.

There’s just one problem. Continue reading Y Combinator and the negative externalities of Hacker News

Why we fight for tech diversity: the stakes are only everything

“We’re gonna change the world.”

This bit of cheerleading is so overused in startup circles that it’s lost any meaning. It feels like every team, whether they’re selling hotel bookings or the next big social product, has deluded themselves into saying it aloud.

But there’s a reason it keeps being repeated.

Give me an internet and I shall move the earth

The internet is a communications medium that spans the entire planet. Billions of people use it. Because of this, the internet has dramatic influence on culture and commerce.

The rise of the internet has brought entire industries—think newspapers—to the brink of destruction. It has destroyed once-mighty businesses—think Blockbuster.

The destruction is a function of changing how information reaches people. Newspapers were once the most efficient and cost-effective means to sync people’s brains with current events.

Today, the hours necessary to print and distribute a paper lag behind the seconds necessary to receive and review a few tweets. The costs of printing are astronomical compared to moving a few bits around.

Another example: Amazon’s destruction of retail.

The retail game used to serve two purposes: purchase decisions and purchase fulfillment. You entered a store a to learn about something and if you felt good about it, you bought it.

Amazon provides, for some classes of product, a superior solution for making purchasing decisions. Thoughtful product descriptions and user reviews usually trump whatever employees can give you in the average store.

Because Amazon can address your purchasing decision in your home, it doesn’t have to build millions of retail outlets to serve a worldwide audience. While they lag behind retail in fulfillment speed, their efficiencies in not maintaining stores often allow them to make up for it in their pricing.

The internet is a powerful cudgel. Just ask Borders or Blockbuster.

Automatons

Communication is only part of why this all works, though.

We had worldwide communication for a few decades. What’s different now?

We’ve also got software.

You can now build an automaton that will happily serve five customers or five million. Traditional businesses had to hire more and more people to keep pace with their success. Not so in the 21st century.

Consider the Netflix example.

They’ve built a system that heals itself when damaged. Entire chunks of Netflix infrastructure can go offline. Automation will identify the fault and compensate by re-routing to backup systems, without having to summon any human actors.

So you can reach anyone in the world. And, within certain problem domains, you can scale more cheaply than any other business in history.

If the internet is a cudgel, software enchants it with magical powers.

Everybody wants to rule the world

But why the fight for a diverse technical workforce?

You can now reach billions of people.

You can now scale a business to serve, well, all of them. If you’re clever.

What this means is that an unprecedented stack of power exists in the world.

But so far, that power is controlled by a very narrow subset of the human condition.

Google, Facebook and Twitter. Three titans of the internet. Billions of dollars, billions of users. Global impact.

Dominated almost entirely by white men.

Sometimes, when a startup says it’s going to change the world, it ends up being right. I don’t know about you, but if someone’s going to change the world, I’d like them to understand a little about my place in it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are white guys. But when only one caste has access to power and global impact, this means that the solutions built might not consider the needs of people who come from other backgrounds.

When only one group can access this prosperity, entire generations in other groups see an ever-widening gap in their income potential and social mobility.

There’s a lot of work left to perfect the human experiment. We’re only going to succeed with lots of help.

But, so far, the class of work with the largest potential for impact is the most exclusive and least diverse.

That’s a goddamn waste of potential.

And it’s why we fight.

Interaction designer, iOS developer, educator. Unreasonable person. San Francisco—for now.