Tagculture

First and foremost, get the basics right

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In my work, and in an endless stream of conversations, I notice how organizations focus on perfect delivery over getting the basics right. This is a recipe for disaster! Today I’ll make the case for focusing on the basics first, even though this might not seem as rewarding in the short term.

For example, if you build a table with four solid legs, even if it might look crappy it’ll fulfill its primary purpose. It’s a table. It’s table-ness, manifested. However, it you focus on perfect delivery and apply the most beautiful polish to a table without first getting the basics right, you’ll end up with an object that might look beautiful but is too wobbly to use. It’s not a table, but a simulacrum of a table.

This principle holds for all walks of life and organizational output. For something a little less cliché than a table, consider a developer event. Even the most polished developer event with fantastic catering and a great video documentary is bound to fail if there isn’t a powerful API and the documentation to go with it: If the company culture isn’t yet at the point to be open for external developers, no amount of polish at the event will help.

First and foremost, we need to get the basics right.

I could go on listing examples, but the principle is clear: Basics first. Once the basics are in place, the rest can follow, but the opposite is not true.

The issue is, of course, that often the basics don’t offer much chance to increase one’s standing or profile internally or externally, at least not in the short term. It’s essentially plumbing work like all infrastructure: Incredibly important, but not generally lauded.

The same holds true for solid strategy and future-proofing work: In order to successfully future-proof an organization, it’s usually necessary to touch on all parts of the organization. Org charts, business models, culture, strategy, tactics, processes, product, marketing and all the rest needs to be on the table. Like security, you can’t just tack it on after.

Before you can run, you need to learn how to walk. Only once a reliable foundation—the basics!—is in place, you can move on to greatness.

We can move past the outdated cult of the genius founder

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Following the recent news about Uber and its leadership issues, I can’t help but think of the structural issues at play here. Personally I think of Uber as a near-perfect manifestation of what’s wrong with the tech industry, but the underlying issues go way beyond this company.

The outdated cult of the genius founder

In the saga around Uber founder being ousted by investors as CEO, there’s been lots of talk about changing the company’s culture, about making changes, about reigning in bad behavior. First of all, if this happens after being slapped on the wrist it doesn’t come from a place of credibility: Uber’s behavior in all of their scandals has been pretty clearly just window-dressing. When there was enough public pressure, course-correct just enough. Never has there been any credible sign of truly wanting to change. These are just my 2 cents, and I’m obviously not an Uber fan.

This whole culture, as has been documented very well in lots of places, is an expression of the founder’s personality and mode of operation. A culture doesn’t just exist, and change when you tell it to: Culture is the accumulation of decisions, reinforced by success.

In Silicon Valley, the myth of the genius founder is strong. And how couldn’t it be. It’s such a strong narrative! But like all narratives, it’s a fiction.

This wouldn’t be dangerous if there weren’t such a broad range of VCs who went for this myth of the genius founder, and for the alpha male bravado that comes with it. (And make no mistake, this cannot be discussed without talking about gender.)

Whenever I think about Uber and its culture the thing that strikes me most is how outdated Uber seems. Despite the technology, the angle of disruption and innovation and what have you, it feels like a company more like 1980s movie Wall Street rather than a 21st century enterprise.

This reminded me a lot of former ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s explanations of how the requirements for becoming an astronaut have changed since the 1950s, which turned into this little Twitter rant (some typos removed):

In his (excellent!) book Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield explains how requirements for astronauts have changed over time.
In the early days of space exploration, it was all about technical skills and bravery: You would have to be ok being strapped onto a rocket. In modern space exploration, it’s all about good leadership and being a team player, having broad skillsets, and handle stress well.
When I see Uber news, the company feels so outdated it makes me realize: Maybe the startup & tech scene moves in the same direction. Rather than the brilliant, visionary—but potentially ruthless—genius preferred in the past, we’re moving into a new world:
Imagine a tech & startup world of great, level-headed team players and leaders with broad interdisciplinary skills and diverse teams.

Turns out, this might be huge also under inclusion and diversity aspects.

The Atlantic’s brilliant and painful article Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women? refers to a study published 2015 in Science and how the cult of the “genius founder” is highly problematic, especially—but not only—regarding diversity (highlights mine):

The researchers found that telling participants that their company valued merit-based decisions only increased the likelihood of their giving higher bonuses to the men.
Such bias may be particularly rife in Silicon Valley because of another of its foundational beliefs: that success in tech depends almost entirely on innate genius. Nobody thinks that of lawyers or accountants or even brain surgeons; while some people clearly have more aptitude than others, it’s accepted that law school is where you learn law and that preparing for and passing the CPA exam is how you become a certified accountant. Surgeons are trained, not born. In contrast, a 2015 study published in Science confirmed that computer science and certain other fields, including physics, math, and philosophy, fetishize “brilliance,” cultivating the idea that potential is inborn. The report concluded that these fields tend to be problematic for women, owing to a stubborn assumption that genius is a male trait.
“The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female PhDs,” the study found, pointing out that the same pattern held for African Americans. Because both groups still tend to be “stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent,” the study concluded, “the extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor of women’s and African Americans’ representation.”

Just imagine that: What if VCs and consumers alike gave their support not to alpha male-led “genius founder” personalities, and carte blanche to break things first and ask forgiveness later? What if instead they guided them to build more sustainable businesses and cultures?

To be fair, some VCs and other investors do. Most notably, or at least most “purely”, Bryce RobertsIndie VC, which is fantastic.

What about non-tech skills?

There’s another angle to this that’s relevant if only somewhat related: A broader intake of talent.

Traditionally, there’s a bit of a two class society in tech: Technical skills and non-technical skills, the former being at the core, the other playing support roles.

There are of course founders from other backgrounds, and increasingly some non-tech disciplines like design are starting to have a seat at the table. But it’s nowhere near diverse enough.

So let’s talk about how we value skills.

Recently Berlin announced that to fight a shortage of teachers, primary school teachers are soon going to make €5.100 a month. For a city with traditionally very low wages (for a big European city), that’s a solid salary. For comparison, it’s roughly in the ballpark, but actually above, what developers earn in Berlin. Gasp! That’s right, teachers could earn more than software developers. First I thought whaaaat, how can that be, but then it actually made some sense to me given the societal contribution of teachers. But I digress!

As someone working in tech but not in the tech skills section of tech, I believe there’s lots to be gained by getting to a better mix of disciplines and skills in tech.

My training was in the methods of social sciences and humanities: I hold two masters degrees; one in communications science with a minor in political science, and one in media practice. While people in tech have looked at me funny more than once in my career, I’ve always found this broad background, methodology training, and big picture perspective extremely helpful in my line of work. For example, this is what allows me to do research and distill the insights into writing (and of course strategy advisory).

When I think about a model for a successful, sustainable, desirable 21st century company, I imagine a team of humble experts with broad skillsets and diverse backgrounds, both in terms of origin and professional training.

That, and only that, allows a company to develop the flexibility, resilience, and broad perspective—to ability to ask the right questions!—to thrive in an environment shaped by uncertainty, ambiguity, and rapid change.

Are we the last generation who experienced privacy as a default?

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Attack of the VR headsets! Admittedly, this photo has little to do with the topic of this blog post. But I liked it, so there you go.

The internet, it seems, has turned against us. Once a utopian vision of free and plentiful information and knowledge for all to read. Of human connection. Instead, it has turned into a beast that reads us. Instead of human connection, all too often we are force-connected to things.

This began in the purely digital realm. It’s long since started to expand into the physical world, through all types of connected products and services who track us—notionally—for our own good. Our convenience. Our personalized service. On a bad day I’m tempted to say we’ve all allowed to be turned into things as part of the the internet of things.

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I was born in 1980. Just on the line that marks the outer limit of millenial. Am I part of that demographic? I can’t tell. It doesn’t matter. What matters is this:

Those of us born around that time might be the last generation that grew up who experienced privacy as a default.

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When I grew up there was no reason to expect surveillance. Instead there was plenty of personal space: Near-total privacy, except for neighbors looking out of their windows. Also, the other side of that coin, near total boredom—certainly disconnection.

(Edit: This reflects growing up in the West, specifically in Germany, in the early 1980s—it’s not a shared universal experience, as Peter Rukavina rightfully points out in the comments. Thanks Peter!)

All of this within reason: It was a small town, the time was pre-internet, or at least pre-internet access for us. Nothing momentous had happened in that small town in decades if not centuries. There it was possible to have a reasonably good childhood: Healthy and reasonably wealthy, certainly by global standards. What in hindsight feels like endless summers. Nostalgia past, of course. It could be quite boring. Most of my friends lived a few towns away. The local library was tiny. The movie theater was a general-purpose event location that showed two movies per week, on Monday evenings. First one for children, than one for teenagers and adults. The old man who ticketed us also made popcorn, sometimes. I’m sure he also ran the projector.

Access to new information was slow, dripping. A magazine here and there. A copied VHS or audio tape. A CD purchased during next week’s trip to the city, if there was time to browse the shelves. The internet was becoming a thing, I kept reading about it. But until 1997, access was impossible for me. Somehow we didn’t get the dialup to work just right.

What worked was dialing into two local BBS systems. You could chat with one other person on one, with three in the other. FIDO net made it possible to have some discussions online, albeit ever so slowly.

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When I grew up there was no expectation of surveillance. Ads weren’t targeted. They weren’t even online, but on TV and newspapers. They were there for you to read, every so often. Both were boring. But neither TVs nor newspapers tried to read you back.

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A few years ago I visited Milford Sound. It’s a fjord on the southern end of New Zealand. It’s spectacular. It’s gorgeous. It rains almost year round.

If I remember a little info display at Milford Sound correctly, the man who first started settling there was a true loner. He didn’t mind living there by himself for decades. Nor, it seems, when the woman who was to become his wife joined. It’s not entirely clear how he liked that visitors started showing up.

Today it’s a grade A tourist destination, if not exactly for mass tourism. It looks and feels like the end of the world. In some ways, it is.

As we sought shelter from the pouring rain in the boat terminal’s cafeteria, our phones had no signal. Even there, though, you could connect to the internet.


Connectivity in Milford Sound comes at a steep price

Internet access in Milford Sound is expensive enough that it might just suffice to stay offline for a bit. It worked for us. But even there, though they might be disconnected, the temps who work there during tourist season probably don’t get real privacy. On a work & travel visa, you’re likely to live in a dorm situation.

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The internet has started to track every move we make online. I’m not even talking about governance or criminal surveillance. Called ad tech, online advertisements that track your every move notice more about you than you about them. These are commercial trackers. On speed. They aren’t restricted to one website, either. If you’ve ever searched for a product online you’ll have noticed that it keeps following you around. Even the best ad blockers don’t guarantee protection.

Some companies have been called out because they use cookies that track your behavior that can’t be deleted. That’s right, they track you even if you explicitly try to delete them. Have you given your consent? Legally, probably—it’s certainly hidden somewhere in your mobile ISP’s terms of service. But really, of course you haven’t agreed. Nobody in their right mind would.

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Today we’re on the brink of taking this to the the next level with connected devices. It started with smartphones. Depending on your mobile ISP, your phone might report back your location and they might sell your movement data to paying clients right now. Anonymized? Probably, a little. But these protections never really work.

Let’s not but let’s be very deliberate about our next steps. The internet has brought tremendous good first, and then opened the door to tracking and surveillance abuse. IoT might go straight for the jugular without the benefits – if we make it so. If we allow to let that happen.

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The internet, it seems, has turned against us. But maybe it’s not too late just yet. Maybe we can turn the internet around, especially the internet of things. And make it work for all of us again. The key is to reign in tracking and surveillance. Let’s start with ad tech.

How to get started on your IoT strategy

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So you finally want to put that Internet of Things (IoT) strategy that you’ve been talking about for years into place in your company. Excellent! The first step to an IoT strategy is to acknowledge the kind of framework to allow for innovation in IoT, and to create the necessary conditions for success.

Over on Designswarm, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino provides some highly relevant pointers to get started:

  1. Think about legacy
  2. Know your history and your landscape
  3. Help users get literate
  4. Be patient

Given I come in less from a product design & development background and rather from a business/product/innovation strategy angle, I’d add some additional aspects:

Think long-term and big picture

It’s important to understand that innovation isn’t a goal but a journey. The most interesting—and potentially most groundbreaking and lucrative—things might very well be those that happen as a side effect. They’re unexpected, projects that bubble up as the mindset and mental focus of product teams, researchers, and management starts to shift. Give it the necessary space, budget, and time to breath unfold. It’ll be worth it.

Top-down support to empower bottom-up innovation

The single biggest point of failure in trying to transform a company towards more innovation—or innovative thinking and practices— is the right mix of top-down and bottom-up. The key is to empower small teams to experiment and learn by giving them strong support from the very top. This, and only this, can ensure that these teams have the resources as well as the mandate to invest into experiments, learning, and exploration. It also is the only way to allow for them to fail: Where there are experiments, there is failure. This needs to be ok.

Change culture to allow for experimentation

Especially in larger companies there is a culture of deliver against very strict KPIs of some sort or another. Yet, often this leads to sub-optimum outcomes. Everybody has seen (or even worked at) an organization where there was a strong culture of looking busy and productive rather than being productive. A lot of the experimentation and learning that lead to great innovation in IoT, and that in fact lead to innovative thinking, practices and culture, doesn’t necessarily look particularly productive. You might see people reading from all kinds of sources, having chats, tinker with wood blocks or Lego, or write bots that generate poems, or whatever: This is a necessary part of the journey. Not from every action there’s an easy-to-spot line to draw to that final new product. Only if the culture allows for this without anyone giving these teams a hard time about this can they deliver.

Also, openness fosters innovation. Encourage researchers and tinkerers to publicly share their research journey, their experiments, their thinking. This allows for an easier exchange with external folks and will make it easier for other in-house teams to be aware what’s going on across the company. The upside will almost invariably outweigh potential downsides.

Allow for external input

A lot of times, internal teams will be guided strongly by the in-house thinking. Nothing wrong with that! However, it can help to get in external input, inspiration, help. Conferences and meetups allow in-house team members to swap ideas with others. Inviting collaborators in—through workshops, talks, long-term collaborations—brings in fresh perspectives.

These rules of thumb can help you get started. When you’re ready to move to the next level and start identifying opportunities around IoT, feel free to ping me. Good luck!

A crossover between Technomad and 3CK?

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Third Culture Kids (3CK for short) are people who grow up between several cultures – home in none or all of them. Kids who grow up between several countries, whose parents move around the globe – children of diplomats or military families, of emigrants and expats, of parents from two different countries or cultures.

A recent discussion about the notion of 3CK got me thinking. Because almost everything about my life spells 3CK – except, well, my heritage.

See, I grew up in Germany, with German parents, didn’t move at all until I was 18. Had it ended there, there wouldn’t be much to report. But then I started to move about and my life changed quite a bit. I moved within Germany a couple of times, spent some time in the US, studied in Australia. Started traveling more and made more friends in other countries and time zones. Married an American who grew up between the US and Germany (mostly in Germany actually), which means our relationship is half German, half English. In my work it’s mostly English and some German. My job has me travel a lot and work with people around the globe.

 

My travel and work history probably has something to do with it.

 

In other words, my life pretty much feels like a Third Culture Kid, confused time zones and languages and pop cultural references and all. And I’m not alone in this, I think a sizeable part of my peer group feels the same.

 

One of the widgets on my dashboard I use daily.

 

Unlike many of my friends, I don’t identify with the label of 3CK. A true Third Culture Kid wouldn’t recognize me as a fellow 3CK, yet to The Local People I probably often seem to be a weird global nomad of sort, a Technomad as Sean Bonner refers to this kind of lifestyle.

So I’m wondering: What’s the equivalent of 3CK for people who don’t formally match the criteria? Is it Technomad? Something else, and if so, what? How does this group self-identify, and how large is it? Maybe there are so many of us that it isn’t even worth pointing out?

Mentally I refer to the whole bunch as The Tribe, particularly if their global nomad life is also powered by jobs in technology and run through the web. Close to Technomads, but not quite. A subset, maybe?

Curious to find out what other labels there are, what identifiers, social signifiers, etc. Any pointers welcome!

Collaborate on a trust-only basis, or why it’s a good idea to go against traditional business wisdom

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Kozyndan: Rainbow Narwhal Spirit Animal

I wrote a little thing on the role of trust-based collaborations (as opposed to setting up formal organizations and getting the lawyers involved at or even before the start) over on Medium.

In startup land, as in most traditional business contexts where intellectual property counts as an asset, we’re usually told to guard our ideas, our prototypes, our processes. Here’s a rallying cry to go the opposite direction: To share ideas, to openly collaborate before getting the lawyers involved. To iterate not just on a product, but on the the very nature of our business relationships, our collaborations, our organizations.

Full text here.

Cyborgs

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CYBORG FOUNDATION | Rafel Duran Torrent from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

 

The video above isn’t particularly new (some four months old I think at the time I’m posting it), but I find it both well made and really relevant. The stuff Neil Harbisson has been working on – both on the interface side of things and the societal/political angle the Cyborg Foundation tackles – are at the tip of the iceberg we’re just starting to learn more about: human-machine interfaces.

What we’ve seen so far is baby steps. When Neil says in the video that Prince Charles “sounds good” it can give us a hint at the kind of re-thinking and re-evaluating we’ll have to do, as a society, over the next ten, twenty, fifty years. As we see technological progress, like less invasive brainwave-based interfaces or more powerful artificial eyes and limbs, the cultural norms will have to adapt and shift considerably.

There’s a lot of brilliant thinking going on in this field and it’s super interesting to follow. For some primers, I recommend following Amber Case and Nathan Jurgenson, to name just two.