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It is Time to Say that Uber Has No Clothes December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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A few years ago, I remember hearing a lot about the sharing economy.  Specifically, you need to go somewhere, someone happens to be heading in that direction, Uber will match you up.  While we still hear Uber and sharing economy used in the same sentence, it is nonsensical.  You summon a driver, period.  Whatever happened to the sharing economy?  Oh, I know, it is not profitable.  Of course, neither is Uber.

Credit not me, but Alison Griswold of Quartz for getting it right.  And also credit the European Union for finally calling out the company.  If its users say, “I have summoned an Uber,” then yes, it must by definition be a transportation company.

I do credit Uber for shaking up and transforming the taxi industry, which really needed it.  It clearly met an unserved need.  The technology is generally good and needed, even if Uber’s intrusiveness into our private lives was grossly inappropriate.

But the way forward is not Uber.  I have railed against its antagonistic company culture, but this cuts right to the business model.  Uber will die, despite (or perhaps because of) its $68 billion valuation, which is highly questionable if it ever reaches the open market.

The company itself won’t see another ten years, and that is becoming increasingly clear.  I hope something good comes out of it, but for its successors.


Could There Have Been a World Where Social Media Behaved Responsibly? December 21, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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That is an enormous question that I cannot possibly answer.  Perhaps I can at least appropriately frame the problem.  Through the likes of Facebook (especially), Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn, we have enabled hate speech, grossly inappropriate comments, and in general stupidity.

So here is the question that I would like to pose to Mark Zuckerberg.  What is the value to human society of being able to connect with thousands of people that you don’t know, hundreds of people that you met once or twice in high school and college, dozens of people that you worked with in dozens of jobs, and your three most recent significant others?  Very little, I will say, and the downside is significantly greater.

I’m sure that Zuckerberg can wax poetic on connectivity, community, and interaction, and how he is bringing together the planet, but it’s all at the abstract level.  I’m pretty sure that he can’t point to more than a handful of incidents, if that, where Facebook has resulted in a win for collaboration.  It simply doesn’t exist, in real life.

And, despite my detractors in this (yes, I am talking about you, <name redacted>), it is not clear that any of this has added to our experience.  It has changed our experience, certainly, but beyond that, I call bullshit.  Some of you say that we connect with people that we are friends or colleagues with, and there is some minor convenience there, although emphatically not on Facebook, but in general, I cannot believe that we are getting the value for what we are paying.

Paying not in money, but in aggravation.  Perhaps harassment.  And certainly in time, at getting rid of those that for whatever reason, we no longer want to bother with.

Revisiting Company Culture December 17, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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It’s amusing that Silicon Valley continues to beat the drum of culture, and cultural fit, even as it becomes increasingly demonstrable that culture causes more problems than it cures.  Yet if anything, the pounding of the culture drum gets steadily louder.

I’m sorry, I call bullshit.  I have been around the block once or twice (or more), and my experience with culture is that it is a lame excuse for people to say they only want to work with people like themselves.  I understand the attraction of doing so, but there is no good business reason for that.  In fact, it likely harms the business.  Case in point, Uber, who may well be fatally flawed by its culture.

Most companies try to sell to a fairly wide swath of people.  To effectively build products for a diverse customer base, you need diverse inputs, which means from people with different ideas and points of view.  Age, gender, race, education, and ethnic background all play into getting a broad picture of the customer base.  Many companies I have worked for build products that they themselves want to use.  Excuse me, that is not a company, that is a club.

I once worked for a company that abruptly fired everyone who didn’t go to an office daily, because the CEO claimed that it was vitally important for everyone to be soaked in its unique culture.  That “unique” culture was toxic, with blame, cutthroat tactics, and nonaccountability.

So I think it is time to give us a break from the screaming of culture.  Most company leaders speaking of their culture have no idea what they are talking about, yet we nod and smile at their sagacity.  Culture can matter, but not the kind of culture these jokers are talking about.

Let’s Have a Frank Discussion About Complexity December 7, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Algorithms, Machine Learning, Strategy, Uncategorized.
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And let’s start with the human memory.  “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information” is one of the most highly cited papers in psychology.  The title is rhetorical, of course; there is nothing magical about the number seven.  But the paper and associated psychological studies explicitly define the ability of the human mind to process increasingly complex information.

The short answer is that the human mind is a wonderful mechanism for some types of processing.  We can very rapidly process a large amount of sensory inputs, and draw some very quick but not terribly accurate conclusions (Kahneman’s Type 1 thinking), we can’t handle an overwhelming amount of quantitative data and expect to make any sense out of it.

In discussing machine learning systems, I often say that we as humans have too much data to reliably process ourselves.  So we set (mostly artificial) boundaries that let us ignore a large amount of data, so that we can pay attention when the data clearly signify a change in the status quo.

The point is that I don’t think there is a way for humans to deal directly with a lot of complexity.  And if we employ systems to evaluate that complexity and present it in human-understandable concepts, we are necessarily losing information in the process.

This, I think, is a corollary of Joel Spolsky’s Law of Leaky Abstractions, which says that anytime you abstract away from what is really happening with hardware and software, you lose information.  In many cases, that information is fairly trivial, but in some cases, it is critically valuable.  If we miss it, it can cause a serious problem.

While Joel was describing abstraction in a technical sense, I think that his law applies beyond that.  Any time that you add layers in order to better understand a scenario, you out of necessity lose information.  We look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average as a measure of the stock market, for example, rather than minutely examine every stock traded on the New York Stock Exchange.

That’s not a bad thing.  Abstraction makes it possible for us to better comprehend the world around us.

But it also means that we are losing information.  Most times, that’s not a disaster.  Sometimes it can lead us to disastrously bad decisions.

So what is the answer?  Well, abstract, but doubt.  And verify.

O Canada, What Have You Become? November 2, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.

I have just spent several hours attempting to enter Canada, specifically Toronto, and to use my phone while in Canada.  I can only wonder just when Canada became a third-world country.  Because my experience today is by far the worst of the two dozen or so countries I have visited in the last 10 years.

First and foremost was clearing Immigration, a process that took well over two hours.  I am not exaggerating when I say there were about two thousand people in the various lines at Immigration.  I counted three (count ‘em) people attempting vainly to direct that traffic into the appropriate lines and answer any questions about which line they were supposed to be in and what they were supposed to do.  I had no idea if I was in the right line until I finally managed to emerge at the other end, unscathed.

Then there was actually a line to enter the baggage claim area.  I did not have baggage to claim, but had to, um, participate in that line, because there was no way to bypass it.

Then there was the 200-yard long taxi line.  I’ve experienced those before, in Las Vegas, except that here in Toronto they let the gypsy cabbies troll the line and aggressively (and I mean aggressively) recruit the gullible to join them on a ride to wherever.  I have not seen gypsy cabbies at an airport since the Dominican Republic, back in 1986.

My phone worked at the airport, but not downtown.  I couldn’t even call my provider to find out why.

So I repeat: when did Canada become a third world country?  Because my first four hours in this country were akin to entering such a destination.  I wanted to turn around and go back.  Fortunately, my stay is on the order of 48 hours, and I really have no desire to come back again.

Interlude For, Of All Things, Corn on the Cob October 19, 2017

Posted by Peter Varhol in Uncategorized.
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I grew up, well, not quite on a farm, but definitely not in suburbia.  We had large gardens (and cows, chickens, and even a pig), of which I partook of little, to my adult regret.  But I devoured corn on the cob, and still do to this day, now in New England.

I have tried broiled and grilled, and my preference is grilled, although you need a grill of course.

But as we move into a world of genetically modified crops, I am okay with that.  Really.  I dislike the non-GMO labels on my food.  I think they are pandering to those who don’t know that our crops have always been modified.  But I have a request.

As I shuck them, I cannot get rid of the hair.  If there is anything that you can do to get rid of the “hair” on the corn on the cob, I would appreciate it.

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.