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Tech Products That Should Never Have Been Conceived January 11, 2018

Posted by Peter Varhol in Technology and Culture.
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I say that with some trepidation, for a number of reasons.  First, for the last 30 years I’ve made my living off of tech in some capacity or other.  Second, I’m all in favor of progress in technology.  It makes those of us who work in it wealthier, and it has the potential to significantly benefit society.

It’s the direction of progress that sometimes concerns me.  There are a number of things that can be invented, but probably should not be.  One is the Gita, from Boston-based Vespa subsidiary Piaggio Fast Forward.  Gita is a mobile item carrier that follows people carrying up to 44 pounds.  It simply rolls along behind you,

A close second is the auto-following suitcase.  A young WSJ writer covering CES (paywall) writes about her experiences with these, and likens having to pull your own carry-on through an airport as hiking the Oregon Trail.  Um.  She points out that it’s practical, in that you can have an iced latte in each hand, and not worry about losing your bag.  Right.

What’s even worse is the Modobag, a ridable piece of luggage.  And the images on the website show young people using it.  I am imagining playing bumper cars, so to speak, in a crowded airport concourse.

I recognize that there is a niche though possibly legitimate use for products like these.  Elderly or infirm might find them useful, although that represents a pretty small percentage of the traveling public.  And despite an occasional marketing word to the contrary, these products are clearly focused on an entirely different demographic.

And I recognize that at least a few of the articles are intended to be partly tongue-in-cheek.  But that’s no excuse to not conclude that these particular emperors have no clothes.

But we have reached an era where tech companies don’t particularly care about benefitting society.  They think they can make their fortunes on young people who think they are hip by spending thousands of dollars on the latest gadgets.

Gita was announced a year ago, and doesn’t even seem to be in beta yet, so perhaps it will never see daylight.  Good.  And most airlines have said that they will not embark motorized bags in which the battery cannot be removed.  As these bags will take up more space and weight than a conventional bag, I see this as only a half measure, but it is causing some rethinking among companies making them.

Folks, forget the stupid iced latte.  Stuff like this serves no purpose whatsoever except to make you look silly.

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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.