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Rage Against the Machine August 22, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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No, not them.  Rather, it is the question of our getting frustrated with our devices.  I might have an appointment that my device fails to remind me of (likely a setting we forgot, or something that was inadvertently turned off), and I snap at the device, rather than chastising myself for forgetting it.  Or I get poor information from my electronic assistant because it misinterprets the question.

And because our devices increasingly talking to us, we might feel an additional urge to talk back.  Or yell back if we don’t like the answers.

There are two schools of thought on this.  One is that acting out frustration against an inanimate object is an acceptable release valve and lessens our aggression against human recipients (a variation of this is the whole displacement syndrome in psychology), making it easier for us to deal with others.

The second is that acting aggressively toward an electronic assistant that speaks can actually make us more aggressive with actual people, because we become used to yelling at the device.

MIT researcher Sherry Turkle tends toward the latter result.  She says that “Yelling at our machines could lead to a “coarsening of how people treat each other.”

I’m not sure what the right answer here is; perhaps a bit of both, depending upon other personal variables and circumstances.

But I do know that yelling at an inanimate object, even if it does have a voice, will accomplish nothing productive.  Unlike the old saw where “Trying to teach a pig to fly won’t succeed, and it annoys the pig,” yelling at your electronic assistant won’t even annoy it.

Don’t do it, folks.

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Google Blew It August 12, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture, Uncategorized.
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I don’t think that statement surprises anyone.  Google had the opportunity to make a definitive statement about the technology industry, competence, inclusion, ability, and teamwork, and instead blew it as only a big, bureaucratic company could.  Here is why I think so.

First, Google enabled and apparently supported a culture in which views colored by politics are freely promoted.  That was simply stupid.  No one wins at the politics game (and mostly everyone loses).  We believe what we believe.  If we are thoughtful human beings with a growth mindset, our beliefs are likely to change, but over a period of years, not overnight.

Second, Google let the debate be framed as a liberal versus conservative one.  It is most emphatically not.  I hate those labels.  I am sure I have significant elements of each in my psyche, along with perhaps a touch of libertarianism.  To throw about such labels is insulting and ludicrous, and Google as a company and a culture enabled it.

Okay, then what is it, you may ask.  It is about mutual respect, across jobs, roles, product lines, and level of responsibility.  It is working with the person, regardless of gender, race, age, orientation, or whatever.  You don’t know their circumstances, you may not even know what they have been assigned to do.  Your goal is to achieve a robust and fruitful working relationship.  If you can’t, at least some of that may well be on you.

The fact that you work together at Google gives you more in common with each other than almost anyone else in the world.  There are so many shared values there that have nothing to do with political beliefs, reflexive or well-considered.  Share those common goals; all else can be discussed and bridged.  It’s only where you work, after all.

You may think poorly of a colleague.  God knows I have in the past, whether it be for perceived competence, poor work habits, skimpy hours, or seeming uninspired output (to be fair, over the years a few of my colleagues may have thought something similar about me).  They are there for a reason.  Someone thought they had business value.  Let’s expend a little more effort trying to find it.  Please.

So what would I have done, if I were Sundar Pichai?  Um, first, how about removing politics from the situation?  Get politics out of office discussions in general, and out of this topic in particular.  All too often, doctrinaire people (on both sides of the aisle) simply assume that everyone thinks their ideas are inevitably right.  Try listening more and assuming less.  If you can’t, Sundar, it is time to move aside and let an adult take over.

Second, Google needs everyone to understand what it stands for.  And I hope it does not stand for liberal or conservative.  I hope it wants everyone to grow, professionally, emotionally, and in their mindsets.  We can have an honest exchange of ideas without everyone going ballistic.

Get a grip, folks!  There is not a war on, despite Google’s ham-handed attempts to make it one.  We have more in common than we are different, and let’s work on that for a while.

I can’t fix Google’s monumental screw-up.  But I really hope I can move the dial ever so slightly toward respect and rational discourse.

The Incorrect Assumptions Surrounding Diversity in Tech August 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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There was a time in my life when I believed that the tech industry was a strict meritocracy, that the best would out.  At this stage of my life, I now realize that is a pipe dream.

Can we define the best software engineers?  We can perhaps define good ones, and perhaps also define poor ones, in a general sense.  “I know it when I see it,” said former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, speaking of pornography.  Which may not be that different from speaking of code.

The problem is that those are very subjective and biased measures.  The person who writes fast code may not write the best code.  The person who write the best code may be slow as molasses.  Which is better?  There are certainly people who write the best code fast, but are they writing code that will make the company and product successful?

There are a thousand tech startups born every year.  They think they have a great idea, but all ideas are flawed.  A few are flawed technically, but most are flawed in terms of understanding the need or the market.  Those ideas have blind spots that others outside of that creative process can also certainly readily recognize.

The ultimate question for companies is what do you want to be when you grow up.  Companies build applications that reflect its market focus.  But they also build applications that reflect its teams.  When we build products, we do so for people like us.

In tech companies, we are building a product.  I have built products before.  Software engineers make hundreds of tactical decisions on how to implement product every day.  Product managers make dozens of strategic decisions on what products to build, what it runs on, and what features to include.

I have made those decisions.  I am painfully aware that every single decision I make has an accompanying bias.  I dislike that, because I know that decisions I have made can foil the larger goals of being successful and profitable.

I want a diverse team participating in those decisions.  Because I don’t trust that my own biases will let me make decisions that will build the best product, for widest customer base.  I mean gender, race, economic status, orientation, age, everything I can include.  Many tech companies use the term “cultural fit” to eliminate any diversity from their teams.  Diverse teams may have more tension, because you have different experiences and think differently, but you end up making better decisions in the end.  I’m pretty sure that’s demonstrable in practice.

You may believe that you know everything, and are the best at any endeavor you pursue.  Let me let you in on something: you are not.  We would all be amazed at what everyone around us can contribute.  If we just let them.

The Internet is After Me August 4, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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The Internet is after me.  It’s trying to grab my attention, for a few seconds, so I can dote on cute little kittens scurrying across my dinner, in exchange for my unconscious watching an ad for Tidy Bowl for half a minute.

Hey, I’m old.  Did I tell you that?  I must have forgotten.  Kittens are the only thing I recognize on the Internet, but boy, are they cute.  I have cats, and they sure are cute, but the ones on the Internet are so highly trained in the art and science of cuteness that I simply can’t stop looking at them.  But there is a problem.

I walk down the street, looking at my kittens on a screen that my eyes can barely discern, and I see random ads popping up on the screen.  In fact, the ads are covering up the kittens!  I stop abruptly, causing a little boy to crash right into my backside, and look around me.

Yes!  There is the Hamburger Haven, right across the street.  I look back down and my screen, and yes, the kittens were chasing hamburgers!  And when a kitten caught one, it polished it off with a lick of its lips and a smirk on its face.  What a cute kitten!

It made me hungry just watching.  I looked up again at the Hamburger Haven, then started crossing the street.  I didn’t get far before I got clipped by a car.  I spun around and fell, but was still focused on getting to that hamburger.  Double meat, double cheese, bacon, oh yes bacon, lettuce, and ketchup.  A tomato would not be overkill, would it?

I wasn’t hurt, more startled, but the car screeched to a stop, and a young guy got out.  He was looking at his phone as he rushed to my side, but I don’t think he was calling 9-1-1.  No, he showed me the screen, and said, “Let’s go get a hamburger.”  Damn.

So we had a hamburger.  And super fries.  And a drink.  But as I licked my lips, I realized an essential truth.

They not only know who I am, they know where I am.  And they want to sell me hamburgers.  Maybe panty hose, though I hope not.  But kittens?  Oh yes, show me more kittens.