Energize your chickenshit filter

There’s a survival strategy for outsiders I want to tell you about. I like to call it the chickenshit filter.

The best defense is offensive authenticity1

Let’s say you join a new industry. To infiltrate its network, you need to go in with your filter powered down. Go in hot and you’re going to bounce right off again, making no progress.

Once you’re inside, you need to prove your talent and value to a few nodes in the network. Then a few more after that, still, enmeshing yourself and steadying your grip.

If you’re in a marginalized position but you’re getting your feet under you, now it’s time to begin diverting power to your chickenshit filter.

This is your shield against bad actors.

You power the filter by being authentic about your values and your experiences. Telling your truth will unsettle and antagonize people with a stake in the status quo.

Those nodes in the network will recede from you, closing some immediate paths. This is going to be scary at first, since your survival depends on making connections.

It’s for the best: those nodes are poisoned.

It’s better for you to know that ahead of time, instead of when you’re too close and connected to those nodes to cleanly escape their toxic effects.

In their anxiety to defend the existing order, these poisoned nodes will send tremors reverberating around the network. While this behavior can, and far too often does, have abusive expression, it also draws the attention of other nodes who share your values.

Some will negotiate to open a connection and share their support. Others may be reluctant to act openly, but be more receptive to connecting when a safe opportunity presents itself.

More art than science

Calibrating and energizing your filter is tricky work. The  unexpected harmonics of a particularly contentious truth can bring the rage of thousands of hateful, child-like entities. While the network trade for this may include becoming a sort of internet folk hero, you’d be perfectly in your rights to want to avoid it.

You also have to be delicate about how much power you dump into the filter, and over what timeframe. Closing too many paths too fast can leave you scrambling for your next connection.

On the other hand, being too ginger in powering your filter will deprive you of important information. You want to know a given company is full of toxic fuckers well before you walk into their doors. Echoes from your chickenshit filter will help you map the dark unknowns around you.

It’s not easy and it can be pretty scary.

But I think a world where you never get to be honest about your story is even scarier.


  1. Not necessarily. Your mileage may vary, but I thought that would play well on twitter. 

Reddit gives powerful discussion software to everyone—even hate groups

I got this out in a hurry, reframing some previous thoughts I had about how reddit’s re-engagement mechanics let it succeed.

While I stand behind the analysis of the product’s UX for redditors, I wish I’d given the post a little more time to cook. I think there are issues around the culture of reddit’s community, along with issues around the moderator experience, that don’t neatly resolve with the structural twiddling I’ve described.

Still, it worries the shit out of me that reddit uncritically hands hate groups such powerful community software. So read on for an incomplete discussion about how effective design helps in the recruiting of gross crowds on reddit, and how it’s probably both important and possible to fix that. I’ve re-titled the piece in recognition of this limited scope. For transparency, the original title remains in the URL.

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Ellen Pao is out at reddit.

Her ouster is unsettling, coming on the heels of a campaign of misogyny that makes me queasy.

Smarter minds than mine will give you analysis of the cultural implications to her tenure and exit. But it’s over and that’s unlikely to change.

Meanwhile, a hive of internet activity lives on. 160 million monthly users is a lot of attention. On the internet, attention is power.1

Power overwhelming

Attention is the power to rebuild an orphanage.

Attention is also the power to demand redress of grievances.

Attention sells products, shapes culture and delivers elections. Attention is a currency—the central currency of the internet.

Reddit is an attention fire hydrant.

In human history, from an engagement perspective, no more effective discussion platform has ever been built. Reddit excels at surfacing interesting content and active discussions: Continue reading Reddit gives powerful discussion software to everyone—even hate groups


  1. I’m not terribly well qualified to address the deeper sociological issues of how reddit was built. This discussion is limited, both by intent and in value, to how to address the parts of reddit that have become superfund sites. 

Orlando to Oregon

or: the implausible story of how I earned my career in technology

“Do you think think I could ever really be somebody? Do something important with my life?”

Jessica paused. My friend and mentor, to her eternal credit, considered my question without any outward reaction to its earnestness or vulnerability.

After a beat she said, “yeah. But only if you get out of here.”

Here was Orlando, Florida. A place of toll highways, endless traffic, humidity and strip malls. I nodded. I understood her immediately. Agreed. I’m pretty sure that’s all we said on the subject.

But in my mind, a new program was allocating memory and processing resources to consider how I might escape.

Stuck in the mud

I was in Orlando because I’d followed the marketing of a diploma mill all the way across the country. I’d been told my entire childhood that I had to go to college. I hated the rigidity of school but I couldn’t see my way out of this expectation.

A glossy catalog told stories of film cameras, sound stages, editing bays and beautiful, sunny weather. It also told of a different way to do higher education: hands-on, full of practical experience.

So I signed myself up for the sort of crippling debt only a private college can offer. Two years later, I had a dubious bachelor’s degree and no career prospects. But in the freewheeling days of 2005, retail was always hiring.

Days before I began my job at an Apple Store, the school where I’d studied gave me an offer to work in their marketing department.

With Sallie Mae asking for $1,100 each month, I needed the money.

But I watched my dreams die.

My work wasn’t creative and didn’t engage my passions. Gaps one or two generations wide left me unable to persuade my superiors of how the business could use the crazy power of the internet to further its brand and glitzy propaganda.1

Instead, I wrote reports, built spreadsheets, allocated budgets and optimized landing page copy.

Slowly, all the hopes I had for my future faded. I could make a respectable living. But it didn’t feel like I was living.

Continue reading Orlando to Oregon


  1. Jesus, we could have owned YouTube. It was brand new, ripe for the plucking and no one could have touched us. Could have made that lead source sing

Quora: What careers won’t exist in 30+ years?

I’ve been thinking a lot about automation, capital and social impact, so I couldn’t resist answering:

Meanwhile, anything related to taking orders or taking money will be gone within the decade as well. Cashiering is a holdover from the days of physical money and physical trust. Today, a smartphone or touchscreen kiosk can do all the work of transferring money to a business, along with passing orders to a kitchen or updating an inventory control system.

Computer kiosks don’t demand paid overtime, don’t call in sick and don’t need smoke breaks.

What they don’t want to tell you about tech diversity

International Business Times published an article today promising to explain why Silicon Valley is failing miserably at diversity.

Before we get to the answer, let’s take a look at the experience of Angelica Coleman, an employee at triple-OG Y Combinator startup Dropbox:

Frustratingly, she was frequently mistaken for the other African-American women at Dropbox by her coworkers, and she says peers did little to engage with her and learn about her interests. Around the time of the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, one co-worker told her, “Black people get shot and killed every day — it’s not that big of a deal.”

Let’s pause for moment and take that in.

More about Angelica, who despite this alienation, was a real badass at work:

Coleman taught herself how to code in Python and other programming languages through practice, with help from friends and through the learn-to-code club she started at the cloud-computing company.

Huh. So Angelica taught herself to code and contributed to the org’s culture by starting a club. That sounds pretty great. That’s what leaders like to see, right? Taking the initiative, being a self-starter.

This is the story of a lot of tech’s outsiders, who must go above and beyond the call to prove themselves and move up. Luckily, startups always have more problems than people available to solve them, so anyone willing to reach and take on deeper work should find their contributions welcomed.

After receiving great reviews for her work, Coleman in late 2014 finally tried to jump into a bigger role on Dropbox’s user research and user experience design team, which is when she was told to focus on her administrative role or leave the company.

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Unusual among the stated goals of any growth-oriented organization, Dropbox was indifferent to Angelica’s ambitions and obvious drive.

Why is that?

Let’s see what Dropbox had to say:

Diversity is a critical issue for us at Dropbox … It’s sad for us to hear that a former employee feels otherwise, but we don’t feel that her personal account is an accurate reflection of Dropbox’s work environment and culture

Huh. I’m not sure I understand. Angelica worked at Dropbox and was part of the culture. Whatever happened to her there would, as a matter of fact, reflect at least some element of those things.

Are they saying Angelica is lying? I guess she could be. I don’t know her. But maybe she would risk her entire career and reputation just to say something mean about Dropbox.

But I don’t think so.

On the other hand, I do know Dropbox.

every time the company holds an all hands ‘goals’ meeting, the only people who talk are men. There are no females in leadership. The highest ranking is a team lead on the User Ops team.

I dunno. Angelica is sounding pretty credible.

About that diversity

What they won’t tell you about tech diversity is that the tree is rotten to its very roots. Tech diversity is a problem of who gets money to start businesses.

Sam Altman wears too many polo shirts
Sam Altman, nervous about the vaunted WWDC stage, accidentally dons two polo shirts

Venture capital is an overwhelmingly white and male culture. The stats for companies like Dropbox show how this sourcing problem manifests in workplace diversity:

  • 34 percent female
  • 4 percent Hispanic
  • 1 percent black

You can’t take companies that were founded by a mostly homogenous group and funded by a mostly homogenous group and then bolt diversity onto them late in their lifecycle. That’s not how it works. Only diverse leadership can build a culture, foundation-up, that allows a diverse workforce to feel safe, supported and included.

Venture capital is the culprit—this is a systemic issue.

Remember Y Combinator, the top Silicon Valley incubator and original funders of the epic brodown at Dropbox? They’re attempting to introduce diversity into their funding process. New chief Sam Altman, though, reports that unique among most mature businesses, YC isn’t using any sort of metrics to guide or measure their success on this front.

Why is that?

Incidentally, Altman replaced YC’s founder, Paul Graham. Graham stepped down from running the firm shortly after his tone deaf remarks on gender and diversity issues brought close and unflattering scrutiny.1

So what do we do?

Diverse companies are built by diverse leadership.

Diverse leadership builds companies with the money of diverse benefactors.

But we’re in a bind here. Money is disproportionately allocated to white people. In the United States, median net worth of white households is 13x greater than black households and 10x greater than hispanic households. That means there are more white people in a position to make funding decisions and more white people able to sustain the risk of building an uncertain business.

Meanwhile, only 8.5% of the world’s billionaires are women.

What they won’t tell you about tech diversity is that it’s a perfect reflection of the economic injustices marginalized communities struggle with, and have struggled with, for a very long time.

Fixing tech diversity will take creative and perhaps even radical approaches. There aren’t enough people at the top of the pyramid who value the struggle and initiative of outsiders like Angelica Coleman.

Until that changes, all we can do is speak up in support of all the people who want to be part of building the 21st century.

Especially when they get a raw deal.


 

Update: Fusion republished this story. Incredibly, Dropbox issued another statement—nearly identical to the first. By doubling down on their original position, Dropbox sends a troubling message about their self-awareness around diversity and inclusion at their organization.

Diversity is a critical issue for us at Dropbox. We work hard to ensure that all of our employees feel supported and have opportunities to build careers they love, regardless of their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or anything else that makes them who they are. It’s sad for us to hear that a former employee feels otherwise, but we don’t feel that her personal account is an accurate reflection of Dropbox’s work environment and culture.


  1. Graham is also, apparently, an avid reader of yours truly, and enjoys emailing people who link to or fave discussions critical of his behavior. Reader, you’ve been warned. Hi Paul!