It is time to stop rewarding failure

Silicon Valley (the notion) has become very much like rest of corporate America — it has embraced the philosophy of failing upwards. I have seen many executives get bumped up the ranks, get fancier titles and bigger paychecks, even though they were disastrous at their job. Many have left destruction and dismay in their wake. And yet, there they are getting bumped up — again and again. I was reminded of this disease this morning when I read about Microsoft cutting 18,000 jobs of which 12,500 odd will be at the Nokia division. Microsoft’s board might have eased out Steve Ballmer, but man, why aren’t they thinking about Stephen Elop.

When I met him in his prior gig at Microsoft, Elop seemed to be a nice enough guy, not quite a visionary, but good enough for what was then essentially a monopoly.  The very fact that a middling executive could be brought on for a turnaround of Nokia, and compete with the iPhone/Android onslaught with absolutely zero turnaround experience was one of those decisions that has confounded me and I continue to blame the Nokia board for shooting itself in the head. On his watch, Nokia essentially eviscerated. Android might have been a better decision, but he went with Windows Mobile. The stock tanked, market share shrank and like proverbial Lord Mountbatten he was part of the last days of the Nokia Raj.

And Nokia, the once haloed and peerless brand when it came to phones was sold to Microsoft for relative pittance. Elop heads up Microsoft’s Devices Group. Think of it this way — since Elop took over as Nokia CEO, the company has  cut over 50,000 jobs (if you include today’s announcement.) That is just mind boggling. That bumbling strategy which was the hallmark of Elop’s Nokia tenure still continues — in other words, Microsoft doesn’t really have a Nokia strategy. From Elop’s memo today: “In the near term, we plan to drive Windows Phone volume by targeting the more affordable smartphone segments, which are the fastest growing segments of the market, with Lumia.” That is precisely what Nokia guys used to say — we have the low end and we can grow our share. How did that work out?

Even on that end, Microsoft is going to be embroiled involved in an expensive marketing ground war with Google’s Android One efforts in places like India. Does Microsoft want to go into battle with Google and  Amazon with Elop? I wouldn’t. But then I don’t run Microsoft either. That said, I don’t think Nokia rank-and-file should be the only ones who  get the pink slip.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to pick on Elop — though he is the latest  and most visible in a string of high-profile executives who defy gravity despite being duds. Silicon Valley needs to look at baseball or football and see how professional sports teams treat their executives and star players. If you fail — you are shown the door. Just like the players. Bobby Valentine was unceremoniously dropped by Boston Red Sox. San Diego Padres fired their general manager. The message is — big dollars means big results. What’s wrong with that — especially in this age of mega-paychecks for executives?

Update: Charles Fitzgerald who worked at Microsoft and doesn’t suffer fools has a brilliant ex-insider take on Elop:

His resume is that of a short-tenured opportunist who has left little mark on his employers except of course Nokia where he presided over the company’s collapse and ultimate exit from the mobile handset business.

Passage of Time

Faceless

Mark Twain once said, “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” So why is that one is occasionally reminded that years, are mile-markers of life, that puts you in a reflective state of mind.

Past few days have been a reminder of the time spent on the journey of life. It all started with a coffee earlier this month with a wiser, more mellower Justin Kan, who was a constant presence at our NewTeeVee Pier Screenings, live streaming his less-than fabulous life as part of Justin.tv. The nine years have passed since we first met — these days he advises other startups and works for YCombinator — and since then, starring in the movie of us is an everyday thing.

Another young friend, Peter Rojas who co-founded Engadget & GDGT came to visit me in San Francisco. The shaggy haired, thin as whip kid who sat next to me at Red Herring, extolling gadgets and the rise of the remix culture at the turn of the new century, showed off photos and videos of his kids, and talked about writing a book. It was as if someone pressed the rewind button on life.

Already looking over the shoulder repeatedly, today, in particular I stopped and reminded of the summers gone by — as boys of summer took the field of dreams in Minneapolis today. And it was all because of one person, I have never met and perhaps never will — Derek Jeter.

Jeter, the New York Yankees’ captain has been a constant fixture of every summer for most of my American life. An immigrant’s struggle is often lonely and sometimes at night, I would watch Yankees and became a fan of Jeter, though I felt kinship for Bernie Williams. Derek’s right attitude is what has made him special and perhaps that is why I admired him, often wondering to myself if he was the right role model for a good entrepreneur. Nike has created a website to accompany its Re2pect ad-campaign that fetes Jeter and that captures his life so well. How many of us will have a career that is full of admiration from even those who disliked his tribe?

This is his last season of playing baseball. Today is the last time he played in an All Star Game. It feels a full stop in the middle of an unfinished sentence. And today, I feel that my youth is faded a little, hidden perhaps in the lengthening shadows that come with the fourth inning.

While the sense of time will linger, the feeling of wistfulness will past quickly. Why? because as Henry Ford once said: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”

I was reminded of Ford’s good counsel today, when I clicked my way through the fabulous 40 over 40 in tech list put together by TechCrunch. It started out as a lark. Back in January, mostly as a response to the ever-increasing number of 30-under-30 in tech lists, I asked for nominations for the 40 over 40 list. The responses came pouring in. Somewhere, someone thought it was a good idea and put together a list of amazing people — many of them have become friends over the years.

“There is no shortage of over-forties taking big and small risks, changing the world and inspiring many,” writes Frank Barbieri, who co-created the list. And just look at the list of responses to my original tweet in January. For me, those folks and the those on the TC list are a reminder that, a lot more is left to be done, many more miles to travel. Or to paraphrase Whitney Hess, “my heart tells me I’m an old pro, my mind tells me I’m a little boy!”

Twain, it seems is always right!

Beats, iWatch & Apple’s fashion forward future

It has been weeks since Apple announced its decision to buy Beats for $3.2 billion. And while I have maintained that it is about the music discovery service, others believe that headphones are part of the reason why Apple ponied up so much money. That didn’t make sense to me, considering that Apple is a hardware company and could easily turn up the volume on its headphone business. However, when I recently read Khoi Vinh’s post about the “go to market strategies” of the two companies, it all started to come together.

Vinh points out that it is hard to create variability at scale — that is why even iPod and iPhone come in only a handful of colors. In comparison, Beats’ middle name is variability. It offers 60 different types of headphones. In Vinh’s mind, the Beats catalog is akin to the Nixon watches catalog. What does he mean by that? Like Nixon, Beats’ “primary selection criteria are looks and style” whereas in Apple’s case, you pick your model before picking your style, he argues.

Apple is a company that makes tech which becomes fashionable. Beats makes fashion that is powered by technology. Today’s smart watches are essentially technology that hopes to become fashionable, but the current generation are aesthetically challenged to say the least. Arguably, Apple is highly aware of this, and is therefore thinking how it becomes the company that makes watches aka fashion powered by technology. And it is not just watches — but other consumables. 

Robert Brunner, chief design officer of Beats (and formerly of Apple) recently suggested that fashion is a tribe you belong to or you aspire to belong to. Beats he argued was a tribe people want to associate with. Apple is doing its best to make sure that, as it starts to make more products outside of the traditional computing sphere — iWatches, for example — it successfully crosses over to becoming a fashion company too.

This certainly explains why Apple has been hiring fashion people from the fashion and watch business. Maybe, in the near future people will give Apple CEO Tim Cook some credit for thinking different. I have my reservations about the company and the lack of its Internet DNA — but have every confidence in Cook.

Eyephone, not iPhone, dummy!

Iphon

FaceTime aka video/selfie calls imagined in the 1920s. Today doesn’t look as crazy as it seemed to a century ago. The iPhone of today can do many of the things this “eyephone” was predicted to do. I wonder if we as a society have the ability to astutely predict what might come in 50 years, forget a 100 years. I am not so sure.

It is all about the good stuff

Betaworks’ John Borthwick in a must read essay on the state of the media writes:

It seems like we have two opposing trends going on simultaneously. On one end of the curve rabid sharing is driving an attention cycle of seconds but on the other end people are reading and watching more. The social web has flattened web sites and made the home page irrelevant to many sites — simultaneously the shift to the phone/tablet and the mobile app internet is unbundling the web that we knew. The combination of these two trends is changing media and how we use and experience it. Its a complex world we are creating. And beneath this somewhat toxic mix of speed sharing and skimming there is an undercurrent of longer form media use.

You can call it long form! You can call it features! You can call it whateverthehellyouwanttocallit! The fact is story telling and great writing always finds an audience. The length of an article, a video or a song has nothing to do with the quality and how it makes you feel about it. It has and will always be about the good stuff. It was true before the Internet. It was true before the mobile revolution and it will be true till we humans continue to retain passion for stories.

Got cash? Here is some awesome stuff to buy

How about a Boon Island lighthouse for $12,000 or a 76-foot lighthouse in Maine for $30,000? And if you are feeling really flush, how about a whole village in Italy for about $340,000? If you end up buying these, invite friends to help refurbish them. When all that is done, how about inviting me over for a cup of tea? via + via

With Big Data Comes Big Responsibility

“You should presume that someday, we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can,” Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in a conversation with Khosla Ventures founder Vinod Khosla.  To someone as smart as Brin, that comment is as normal as sipping on his super-green juice, but to someone who is not from this landmass we call Silicon Valley or part of the tech-set, that comment is about the futility of their future.

And more often than not, the reality of Silicon Valley giants, who are really the gatekeepers of the future, is increasingly in conflict with the reality of the real world!  What heightens that conflict — the opaque and often tone-deaf responses from companies big and small!

Silicon Valley (both the idea and the landmass) means that we always try to live in the future. We imagine what the future looks like and then we try and build it. Sometimes that future delights us and we embrace it whole heartedly, like with iPhones and Android-based smartphones. And  sometimes, that future seems so dystopian that society is scared and unnerved by the unknown.

That Uncanny Feeling

Facebook’s emotional experiments are an example of that future. Sara Watson, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, in an essay about data and advertising brought up the 1970s concept of the Uncanny Valley aka “the unsettling feeling some technology gives us.” Watson continues in her essay: “Technologies that are simultaneously familiar and alien evoke a sense of dread. In the same way, when our data doesn’t match our understanding of ourselves, the uncanny emerges.”  

That uncanny feeling is what we are confronted with Facebook’s emotional manipulation through algorithms. It is not necessarily because of the experiment, but what the experiment portends. It is the future where machines manipulate our wants and our desires and preempt our needs and emotions. We are scared because we will lose the illusion that we are making decisions that run our life. There is no coming back once we cross the threshold.

Facebook’s emotion-driven-engagement experiments are tiny glimpse of  what really awaits us: a data-driven and alogrithmic future, where machines make decisions on our behalf, nudging us into making decisions. As I pointed out in my recent FastCompany magazine column, the new machine age is already underway, unseen by us. “It is not really just a human world,” said Sean Gourley, cofounder and CTO of Quid who points out that our connected world is producing so much data that it is beyond human cognitive abilities and machines are going to be part of making sense of it all. So the real question is what will we do and what should we — the technology industry and we the people do? From my perspective, we need to start with the raw material of this algorithmic future: data. Whether it is a billions of photos that carry a payload of emotions, relationships and location data, or status updates announcing the arrival of a new one or those searches for discount Prada shoes or a look-up about a medical condition — there is someone somewhere vacuuming our data droppings and turning them into fodder for their money machine.

For sale, our data

Forbes tells us that even seemingly benign apps like Google-owned Waze, Moovit or Strava are selling our activity and behavior data to someone somewhere. Sure they aren’t selling any specific person’s information, but who is to say that they won’t do it in the future or will use the data collected differently. I am actually amazed that cities are willing to trade data such as photos from traffic cameras that impacts its citizenry to a privately-owned company (in this case, Google) without as much as a debate. I am sure, a new parking lot gets more attention from the legislators.

Further down in the story, a Waze spokesperson remarked that the company can tell what speeds you drove from a “point a” to a “point b.” What if they sell that data to an insurance company, that then uses that information to raise insurance premiums.

Did you know at the time of signing up for Strava, that lovable cycling and running activity tracker is sharing real time user data and selling that to municipalities for 80 cents a year. In what universe does it make sense for the company to do that without asking, and have a company spokesperson blatantly admit to a Forbes reporter that, the default is opt-in — a malaise popularized by Facebook. Because not doing so means, actually explaining to people what they intend to do with that all that personal information.

And to be honest that is the crux of the problem — we, the citizens don’t really know what these data-hoarding companies — big and small are really going to do with all the data they have about us in their databases. How does a big company like Google use the data that resides in various different databases — Nest, DropCam, Waze, Android, Google Maps, Google Mail and Google Search — in tandem?

A few weeks ago when reading The New York Times interview with Google co-founder and CEO Larry Page, I kept hoping that the interviewer would really dig deeper into Google’s stance on privacy, data gathering and what they plan to do with all the information they are gathering about us. What and why of Google’s grand vision for the data it collects is an important issue and it would be nice to know what Google intends to really do with it.

The reality is that with all this information that is out there about me, then we should have a talk about things such as our rights as a citizen over that data. I am not saying let’s all go back to the villages and caves, but instead why not have a conversation (that is not hysterical but also not dismissive) about these issues around data, expectations of privacy and transparency.

When Facebook released its Home app, I was unsettled by it mostly because it took away any notion of privacy. That post just might have been about Google or Amazon or Apple as well. Data from GPS Sensors is enough to quickly deduce your home location, work location, sleep and patterns. Add data from Waze app or Google maps, and Google can figure out what route you take. The data from accelerometers and gyro meters, a company can deduce some physical ailments. New sensor processors can add even more human-like abilities to our phones.

Look, I am actually delighted about the possibilities of what can happen with all that data and sensors. I can’t wait for future of better medicine to arrive. I also can’t wait for Google Cars to become common place. What I don’t care about is that all these changes are happening with nary a thought about its impact on our society. If we as an industry are change agents and can want to talk about age of abundance in 50 years, we can’t ignore that next 50 years might mean a tear in our social fabric.

It is important for us to talk about the societal impact of what Google is doing or what Facebook can do with all the data. If it can influence emotions (for increased engagements), can it compromise the political process? What more, today Facebook has built a facial recognition system that trumps that of FBI — think about that for a minute.

Can we trust these Medici of modern times to regulate themselves and do the right thing? How long before the pressure of Wall Street and its incessant quarterly demands makes Facebook or Google go to thinkable places? These are issues of our times — something I had initially discussed in my posts about data darwinism and its impact on society.

Automation Ahead

Automation of our society is going to cause displacement, no different than mechanization of our society in the past. There were no protections then, but hopefully a century later we should be smarter about dealing with pending change. People look at Uber and the issues around it as specific to a single company. It is not true — drones, driverless cars, dynamic pricing of vital services, privatization of vital civic services are all part of the change driven by automation, and computer driven efficiencies. Just as computers made corporations efficient — euphemism for employed fewer people and made more money — our society is getting more “efficient,” thanks to the machines.

“There is an increasing realization of the pain brought about by all these changes, especially the number of industries being disrupted and the many jobs that have been lost and will never come back. We hope that, as in the past, new industries will give rise to exciting new jobs,” writes Irving Wladawsky-Berger, a veteran technologist who worked for IBM“But, no one knows for sure. It’s important that we collaborate across disciplines, – technology, business, social sciences, humanities, – to better understand and anticipate where the journey might take us.”

And that is exactly the problem — no one really wants to take that humanistic approach. The hybridization of man and machine has begun in earnest. Google, Facebook and Amazon know that and are quite far ahead than rest of the world. Take Facebook, for instance knowing how to manipulate our emotions based on information they surface for us? How about Amazon’s future ability to predict our commercial needs.

What about those new voice processing chips inside the smartphones that will constantly listen to what is happening to the world around us and help create magical experience for you. What about the sensor data collected from other sensors on the phones. What are the rules around the privacy of that information? Who is making those rules?

John Foreman, a data scientist at MailChimp, in an eloquent essay, pointed out that “humans are bad at discerning the value of their data” and that the “personal data just appears out of nowhere, exhaust out of life’s tailpipe” and thus we are willing to trade it for something that seems less valuable. Foreman’s argument points out the futility — we are trading our freedoms in the data age for some minor gains.

In March 2013, in his keynote at Gigaom’s Structure Data conference Quid’s Gourley estimated that it costs $1.20 a year for Facebook to generate over $6 per year in revenues. We are willing to trade our data for less than what it costs to get a cup of coffee at Starbucks. “Our past data betrays our future actions, and rather than put us in a police state, corporations have realized that if they say just the right thing, we’ll put the chains on ourselves,” Foreman writes. “In the hands of machine learning models, we become nothing more than a ball of probabilistic mechanisms to be manipulated with carefully designed inputs that lead to anticipated output.” 

MORAL IMPERATIVE

While many of the technologies will indeed make it easier for us to live in the future, but what about the side effects and the impacts of these technologies on our society, it’s fabric and the economy at large. It is rather irresponsible that we are not pushing back by asking tougher questions from companies that are likely to dominate our future, because if we don’t, we will fail to have a proper public discourse, and will deserve the bleak future we fear the most.

The sad part is that the legislators and the judiciary bodies of our nations are woefully under equipped to deal with the monumental change that as a society are experiencing. In a way, I feel, Silicon Valley and the companies that control the future need to step back and become self accountable, and develop a moral imperative. My good friend and a Stanford D.School professor Reilly Brennan points out that it is all about consumer trust. The concept of Waze working with municipal groups in theory should be a good thing, but we are all highly skeptical and suspicious of the motives of data collectors.

Like I said, a lack of clarity around data-intentions is to blame. And the only way I see to overcome that challenge is if companies themselves come up with a clear, coherent and transparent approach to data. Instead of an arcane Terms of Service, we need plain and simple Terms of Trust. To paraphrase Peter “Spiderman” Parker’s Uncle Ben — with big data, comes big responsibility. The question is will the gatekeepers of the future rise to the challenge?

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