What’s different about Computer Science

Among the most vexing issues on the topic of lack of women in tech is why is it different from other fields that have gone from being male dominated to gender balanced. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that virtually all doctors and lawyers were men. This disturbing chart in this story on NPR makes the point quite dramatically.chart women percentage

Starting in the early ‘70’s, simultaneous with the rise of the feminist movement, women began making steady gains entering the professional and scientific fields. Over the course of the 30 years between 1970 and 2000 women went from about 10 percent to nearly 50 percent of the class at US Medical and Law schools.   Even physical science graduate programs made strong gains. Computer science was on a similar trajectory then turned sharply down. Why?

As I dug into the numbers it gets even more discouraging. Not only are there fewer women computer science majors on a percentage basis, during a time when the field has experienced dramatic growth, the absolute number has been cut in half.

The downturn started in 1984 which happens to correlate with the introduction of personal computers. The hypothesis posed is that the early personal computers were marketed to men and parents of boys. An example of this is this early Apple ad.   Potentially these marketing strategies fostered a societal view that computers were for boys.

This was reinforced throughout popular culture. While we saw women doctors and lawyers on TV and in the movies, the movies that show programmers have nearly all male protagonists – everything from Revenge of the Nerds and War Games to Firewall and The Social Network.

It’s easy to follow the trajectory forward.  Boys have more access to computers and programming experience growing up.  Girls arrive at college with less experience then their male peers because they haven’t been programming on their own and are therefore at a disadvantage in the introductory C.S. classes. Even if they understand the theory the lack of hours of experience will be hard to quickly overcome. It is natural for students, their peers, families and professors to mistake this lack of experience with lack of aptitude. This was the finding of Jane Margolis, one of the foremost experts on disparities by race and gender in computer science, in her research at Carnegie Mellon.

Some colleges such as Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon are proactively dealing with this issue. They are making real progress – at Carnegie Mellon women in the class of 2014 comprise 40% of their CS majors. These programs at Harvey Mudd and Carnegie Mellon can and should be replicated. Making CS part of a core required high school curriculum could level the playing field. While discouraging for computer science, the chart above shows that change is possible.  Like any major sociological change, though, there are not quick fixes. As parents, technology marketers and educators we need to step up.

Aligning Incentives

One of the most important things you can do to optimize the chance of getting a positive or successful outcome is to align incentives at the beginning. We think of this often at a micro level when designing compensation such as commission plans or bonus plans but it is true at a macro level in general organizational design and even for marketing and business strategy. The aligned incentives need to be inherent and structural to the strategy and organization. When you get it right it’s like biking downhill – everything takes less effort. When incentives are not aligned there is a resultant continual management overhead dealing with the consequences.

My experience managing both advertising-based businesses such as Yahoo Mail as well as subscription businesses such as SugarSync and Catch taught me that aligned incentives between company and customer make it so much easier to manage day-to-day implementation against strategy. At Yahoo mail we were constantly trying to balance competing interests – we needed a large enough volume of advertising impressions and impression formats that were aggressive enough to yield clicks but not too many or to obstructive so as to detract from the user experience beyond the point where it would reduce usage. There was no science behind this balance leading to endless organizational thrash and, arguably, poor decisions and eventual loss of market share.

A freemium business model approach such as the one SugarSync took while I was CEO from 2009-2013 had the opposite dynamic. The more our customers used the product, the more data they would store, the more likely they were to run out of storage and upgrade from free to paid or to a higher paid plan. The marketing tactic in this situation was simple – improve usability and/or add features such that people will want to use it more. Unlike the ad supported example, usability and revenue are tightly aligned. Day-to-day decisions were therefore more straightforward and easier to delegate. Other freemium businesses have experienced this same phenomenon, certainly it was true for Catch.com and for Evernote as explained here by Phil Liblin’s.

If you find yourself as a constant arbiter of small decisions and prioritization questions ask yourself where incentives or goals might be misaligned.

Just as organizations can be misaligned I believe that same misalignment can apply to the inherent design of products. We have seen it frequently in particular in apps that focus on anonymous communication. I read an interesting article about the army of labor being employed to fight bullying and other harmful behaviors on the various anonymous apps (Secret, Whisper etc).  They simply can’t keep up with the volume of the problematic behaviors that are rife in these apps. While of course there are many well-intentioned posts, anonymous apps are a draw to those who want to harm. Almost any application will suffer from abuse and the app provider will need to come up with some method, usually a combination of automated and manual intervention, to manage it. But the situation described by Gigaom shows, in my view, that the incentives built into the app actually encourage abuse. It is, as the underwriters say, a form of adverse selection. Sick people are quicker to buy health insurance and the bullies are quicker to join apps and troll on sites that allow them to abuse with impunity.

Recent examples have only served to heighten my concern about the harm caused by anonymous apps and anonymous commenting by trolls. People who are obviously vulnerable and suffering such as Zelda Williams just after the death of her father are attacked. In fact any public figure is likely to suffer at the hand of internet trolls. But you don’t even need to be famous to be a victim of trolls. We are witnessing a dramatic chilling effect – misogynistic trolls have silenced many serious articulate female voices.

Does anonymity encourage bad behavior? Psychologists and sociologists have long observed that we restrain ourselves from self-interested bad behavior based on two systems – our internal conscience or “superego” as designated by Freud as well as societal pressure and feedback. Our relationships, commitments, values, norms, and beliefs and desire to participate fully in society encourage us to meet societal behavioral norms. Take away the societal element through anonymity and we’re left with only our individual consciences. For most people our conscience and empathy is enough to keep us following the “golden rule” but the internet is so vast that a small percentage of the population can make things miserable for many people.

Yes, there are some excellent reasons to allow anonymity (as described by the EFF here  and further discussed here by Fred Wilson). But the harm from anonymity enabled trolling and messaging is a very real, even deadly problem.

I suppose that any technology that can be used for good can be used for harm.  Twitter is a great example of this. There has been harm, as in the Zelda Williams example, but also very important and positive social benefits have occurred where the cloak of anonymity has protected the vulnerable. But we must not stand behind the shield of the legitimate benefits of anonymity when there are some technologies and settings that seem to be at worst, designed for harm or, at best, designed in such a way that the ratio of harm to good is negatively balanced.

It does not have to be this way.  I find it amazing that smart application design and community standards can make seemingly scary things like selling valuable goods over the internet or renting your guest room to strangers surprisingly secure while poor design can make you the “go to” app for cyberbullies. If your app requires an army of labor in the Philippines to police user behavior its time to question what are you really trying to do. It comes down to aligning incentives.

 

 

Thoughts on Privacy

Privacy has always been an important topic but has taken on increased attention in the last year. But first – what do we mean by privacy?  I think a good definition is that privacy is the ability to be free from being observed or bothered and to determine whether, if, and how information isto be revealed.  Privacy is a broad concept and ranges from the physical to information about us to our thoughts and ideas and can be related to both individuals and groups or organizations.

Our society sees privacy not just as a desirable state but as a basic human right.  The right to privacy, while actually not explicitly stated, is thought to be clearly implied in the Bill of Rights and later constitutional amendments via their protection of beliefs (1st), home (3rd), person (4th), information (5th) and basic liberties (14th).  Similar protections exist in other free countries.

Psychological research has shown what is intuitively obvious – privacy is a basic human need, perhaps not at the level of our physical or security needs but a strong need nonetheless. It is natural to want and to protect a private space.  We lower the blinds on our windows and seek out places in nature to be alone.  Young children have very little privacy, they gain more as they mature.  Privacy affirms our dignity and makes us feel respected.  The founders of our nation recognized this need and protected it. They also recognized the risk and tendency of government to overreach and drew a protective line.

The importance of this need and subsequent right to privacy leads to the tremendous anxiety we feel when this right is violated.  Learning that our online account is hacked is the modern day equivalent of the enemy tribe invading our territory or a robber entering our home.  It is not surprising that emotions run high when this happens as many women shared in this SheByShe survey.

Despite its importance, we willingly and frequently make compromises around privacy.  At a personal level, sharing private thoughts and feelings leads to intimacy – intimacy cannot be achieved without relinquishing some privacy – and our intimate relationships are precious.  We compromise privacy to enable others such as doctors to help us.  More commonly, we compromise privacy for convenience.  There are innumerable benefits we reap when we use modern technologies to manage our lives.  But we make those compromises based on the promises of the companies whose products we are using. And they are our compromises to specifically make.

When we give up some of our privacy to loved ones, professionals or organizations we are trusting them with something precious. When our government crosses the privacy line or the promises of a company we relied on were not kept, it is our human nature to react viscerally. We go beyond the intellectual and feel it in our gut.  It is a violation.  There is even more sensitivity to this topic in places where those violations were systematic in the past.  The Orwellian state so well depicted in “The Life of Others” actually happened.  It is no wonder that Europe has led the US in advocating for privacy protections.

Modern internet businesses have tremendous responsibility.  The most sensitive of information can be in our online accounts and too often those responsibilities have been breached.  To make matters worse, those breaches have often not been accompanied by adequate acknowledgement of or remorse for the breach. I am amazed by the lackadaisical and casual attitude from Facebook on their most recent “research” project.

Not surprisingly, I am in favor of stronger privacy protections from our government.  At the moment it seems as if we have the “fox watching the chicken coop” and both political parties are guilty (something about absolute power corrupting absolutely).  Stronger oversight and privacy advocacy is needed.  Stricter rules for company privacy and consequences for violations are important as well. If they care about this topic, consumers need to vote with their feet and patronize companies that better respect and value privacy.

In the case of services dominated by large near-monopolies such as Google and Facebook, however, that vote becomes impractical. The tremendous economies of scale in search have meant that solutions offering enhanced privacy such as DuckDuckGo are less robust and the tremendous network effects in social networking have made it incredibly difficult to create a real alternative to Facebook.

When facing difficult problems I often think of this phrase by John Sloan Dickey, which I first heard at Dartmouth.   “The world’s troubles are your troubles … and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.”  Humans created this problem so I’m optimistic that “better humans” can solve it. Technology is part of the problem but can also be the solution.

Brilliant humans have invented the many forms of modern cryptography and encryption and the public key architecture that makes it usable at scale.  There is still a tremendous gap, however. These secure encryption solution are not easy enough to use – there are simply too many usability hurdles.  For instance, TrueCrypt and its alternatives can be used in combination with public cloud solutions such as SugarSync and DropBox to ensure data privacy but this is not usable or practical for most people. Secure email solutions and private browsing options such as Tor also lack ease of use.

I’ve written previously to Beware of False Dichotomies.  I’m convinced that security v. usability is ultimately a false dichotomy and the person or company who proves this will enjoy tremendous business opportunity.  You should not need to be a hacker to be able to have confidence that your browsing or communication will remain private.  We can fix the privacy problems we face.

Georgetown MSFS Graduation Speech Video

The video from my speech was posted on the Georgetown site here.  My part starts at about 20 minutes in.

Speech at Georgetown Masters in Foreign Service Commencement

I was honored to be invited to speak at the graduation for the Georgetown MSFS, georgetownthe program where I received my degree in 1986.  The text of my speech is below.  This photo was from the dinner with other speakers and dignitaries before the ceremony.  Pictured is the other speaker Ambassador Lakhdar Brahimi UN and Arab League Special Representative for Syria, MSFS Dean Anthony Arend, Secretary of State  Madeline Albright and me behind her.  I’ll post the video when available.

May 16, 2014, Washington, DC

Congratulations fellow MSFS graduates. I am honored to be here to share this special day with you, your families, friends and teachers.  The fact that you are here today speaks to your hard work, dedication and significant accomplishments.

The study of international affairs has never been more important. In a world where thousands of nuclear weapons exist and terrorist states are trying to acquire them, where suicide bombers kill without warning and thousands die each day from poverty caused simply by the way the international system operates, we need to understand international relations.  Put simply, international relations is about war and peace, conflict and cooperation, wealth and poverty – these are literally life and death matters.  We need to understand the issues and behavior patterns between the actors in the world, be they individuals, societies, states, and corporations so that we can lead and influence them for good.

International affairs has never been more important to business – the world in which I have operated for the last 25 years.

I was bitten by the international bug during a foreign exchange program in high school.  I loved learning languages and studied international relations, economics, Spanish and French. I followed a non-traditional path after Georgetown.  I enrolled believing that I would become a diplomat and was fortunate to study under one of the most impressive ones at our school – Secretary Albright.  However, an internship at A.I.D. writing memos that would literally be “through” layers of bureaucracy before getting to the “to” person convinced me that I didn’t have the patience nor personality for government work.  I made a course correction (in Silicon Valley we call them pivots) to focus on international business.

As I graduated Georgetown the typical international business recruiters, natural resource firms or commercial banks, were growing relatively slowly.  The companies whose exports were and still are growing the fastest were technology and life sciences.   According to the Brookings institute, the US industries with the most patents, export the most.  This makes perfect sense of course – we are competitive in intellectual capital and innovation – not manual labor.  That observation (and marriage to a Californian enrolling in UC Berkeley law school) led me to Silicon Valley.

My first job was at Informix, a young growing database company.  After 4 years in marketing I seized my first big international opportunity – Latin American sales.  I had no sales experience but knew the product, knew the region and spoke Spanish (unlike my boss).  I spent many months in Mexico and the Andean region setting up our distribution channels and then moved (with my 2 children and nanny) to Brazil to open our first office.  I was only 27 and not the typical demographic to go open a new subsidiary but I was in fact ready.  Prepared by my MSFS experience with unique international skills of analysis, language and ability to connect across cultures.  It was a whirlwind but successful 6 challenging months of learning Portuguese, hiring staff and selling lots of software to companies as varied as Sao Paolo banks and the largest iron ore miner in the world.

I made my way to Netscape at the dawn of the internet where I managed international marketing and development for the browser.  Highlights included striking a deal with IBM where we jointly translated the browser to 23 languages – a critical development in making the internet accessible in new markets.  When we open sourced the browser we also open sourced the localization toolkit allowing anyone to translate the browser to their native tongue, an important step for preservation of such cultures as Maori and Welsh and other indigenous languages.  This was diplomacy albeit in a nontraditional venue.

While leading the Mail team at Yahoo we aggressively expanded into Asia and Europe.  Just as many of you will work for foreign companies, I then went to work at the leading Israeli security firm, Check Point, heading up several US functions and bridging the sometimes wide cultural gap with headquarters in Israel.  As CEO of SugarSync, a cloud company, we leveraged international partnerships in Korea, Japan, Italy and France early on to grow our business, which was half international in our second year of revenue.  In fact, in 2011 there were more people working on the SugarSync product in Korea than in California.

In summary I found that the tech world is a great place to exercise and develop your international skills in a growing, challenging and constantly changing field.

And it is a worthwhile place.  Technology has tremendous impact, clearly supporting the Georgetown mission of “pursuing justice and the common good” and “creating and communicating knowledge.”  Internet connectivity plus inexpensive devices plus a Khan academy or MOOC gives a child in Central Africa many of the tools previously found exclusively in the first world.  Sure it’s not the Cathedral school down the street, but the gap is dramatically narrowed.  It has always been said that access to information is critical for democracy and free society.  Technology facilitates the sharing of information and as such has supported transitions to democracy.  By accelerating mass communication, YouTube and Instagram are like the printing press of half a millennium ago – altering the structure of society.  Technology can be a tool for increasing the voice of women, one of my other favorite subjects.

It’s commonly thought that, like travel, technology is a force for homogenization between cultures.   That may be true but short of a dystopian homogeneous world we still need to bridge differences and technology brings us into cross cultural and political contact more frequently and more deeply.  I see this happening even in the diplomatic corps.  In the pre telegraph and telephone stage diplomats had more independence – that waned as those technologies allowed decisions to be made back in the home country.  But I believe the trend has reversed towards a larger role in-country.  I see local staff in embassies with twitter feeds and engaging in social media as part of their people to people efforts.  The State Department TechWomen program, in which I have mentored two Jordanian women technologists, is another on-the-ground example.  It is not just about working in technology but using it.

As productivity gains from technology can be had dramatically cheaper, it can be a force for reducing poverty. Technologies such as the cloud and mobile devices democratize access to capabilities previously only available to big companies in rich countries.  Technology is so ubiquitous that there are more mobile phones then toilets in the world!  We see technology democratizing many fields – agriculture, business, healthcare, media – the list goes on.

But it’s not so easy and technology companies need people like you, with international sensitivity.  A case in point is Yahoo – failure to recognize all the implications of its actions, handing over email to the Chinese government, led to a dissident being jailed, Google’s European privacy disasters, Ebay selling Nazi souvenirs.  The dilemma of engagement in order to influence versus withdraw or sanction to try to force change happens for technology companies such as Google withdrawing from China similarly to countries such as the US today with Russia.   The exact same technologies that protect companies from hacking are used by governments for surveillance on their citizens.   The iron curtain has been replaced with an electronic curtain. We have seen this dramatically in regimes resisting Arab Spring.  And speaking of Arab spring, technology was a critical amplifier, not causing the change but surely accelerating it where news is breaking first on Twitter.  Our intelligence agencies need to be social media experts.

Companies have significant international businesses earlier in their evolution.  It is not only the Google’s and Yahoo’s of the world facing international issues.  In 2010 SugarSync, like Facebook, Dropbox, Twitter and others was blocked by the great Chinese Firewall.  Some of the most dramatically successful companies – WhatsApp, Skype, & ICQ were primarily international in their customer base from day one.  The model of figuring out the product and customer fit first in the home market then going abroad is becoming antiquated in non-regulated markets.

As you graduate and go off into the world, my concluding message to you is this – technology is quite impactful on the international stage – mostly for good but sometimes for evil.  It is important.  It is exciting, and, it is fun to work on.  So I invite you to join me on this exciting journey.  Some of you may do this directly – starting or working in a technology company but I encourage all of you to join me at least indirectly, leveraging the power of technology to amplify your international skills and efforts wherever you chose to apply them.

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First Experiment with Quantified Self

As someone who works in technology it’s no surprise that I am typically an “early adopter” of technology. I bought my first PC in 1984, became hooked on my first PalmPilot in 1997 and followed similarly with Blackberries, iPhones etc. Cameras and music players are no different. I also love trying new “apps” and truly delight when they improve my life in ways both small (Paybyphone Parking in SF) and large (Facebook). So given my commitment to exercise I was logical that I should try out one of the wearable devices

I tried on various wristband devices by JawBone, Fitbit,and Nike but really didn’t like the wristidea of seeing one of these on my wrist all the time. Plus, I have extremely small wists and they look ridiculous on me not to mention feeling annoyingly large.

When I read about the Fitbit One which has pretty much all of the physical features of the wrist models(actually more than the Flex) in a form factor that can be worn attached to clothing I thought I would give it a try.

Two months in I must say I’m not won over.

First off, I believe there needs to be a significant benefit to the device if I am going to deal with yet another thing that needs to be kept track of, managed and kept charged. Larger  benefit required if the designers force me to use a dedicated charger instead of micro usb  – I really do not relish one more charger to take with me when I travel.

So what have I found to be the benefits? The Fitbit one is light weight and comfortable to wear (easy to clip on bra, waistband). The charge is long lasting – at least I don’t need to bring the charger for a short trip. The Fitbit amazingly survived a trip through the washer and dryer.  My floors climbed are tracked. Living in a three-story house, it turns out that when I am doing chores at home I can get a surprising amount of exercise – this was interesting. The most important benefit is it is always on (at least if I remember to wear it which has not been difficult) – all of my steps are tracked unlike an app like RunKeeper which you need to start and stop

On the other hand there are several drawbacks and limitations. The Fitbit is useless to monitor my exercise classes – I enjoy a variety of dance, conditioning, crossfit, barre and power yoga classes and they barely register on the Fitbit. Yes I know I can manually log them but that defeats the point of wearing the device. I wish it came in a light beige color – the dark colors show through my clothes. Accuracy has not been great – I hike many trails where the distance is known to me and the Fitbit consistently give me about 15% extra miles. Perhaps this is because as a small person I take more steps to cover the same distance?

I also bought the Aria scale. Nice looking device and an improvement in usability over our Tanita but also not much value add beyond the independent device. I don’t need an app to tell me if I’m gaining or losing – the scale plus my second grade math skill does it independently.

Bottom line for me is that I found this experiment with quantified self devices to be interesting and educational but not compelling. I exercise for my own health benefit – physical and mental, not because I’m competing with anyone so the gamification and social elements were not interesting to me. Most of my exercise is hiking, where I know the distance, or exercise classes where the device isn’t very useful. For new hikes I can use the iPhone to know the distance if that’s important to me. I do find it interesting to use the Fitbit to learn how active I am when I’m not doing a formal workout but I haven’t found that information to be anything that changes my behavior. This was in contrast to what I find to be the best food journal app on the market – MyFitnessPal. A couple of weeks of tracking my food in MyFitnessPal showed me my trouble spots (who would have imagined a medium CineArts popcorn without butter has 760 calories?) and helped me achieve my weight goal.

It’s not that quantification is useless. Quantification of health data does matter. Calories matter if you are trying to manage your weight and apps can be helpful if you enter correct quantities. How far you hike or how many steps you take in a day absolutely matters if you are counting on that activity as part of your exercise and fitness plan. The question is if regular use of the device adds enough more quantification data than you have without to justify constant use – so far for me the answer is no but I’m curious what others think about this.

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Dependent -> Independent -> Interdependent

I was reminded of this psychological construct popularized by Steven Covey when chatting with an entrepreneur today.   I was encouraging the founder to seek help with a particular product issue – he resisted at first, expressing that it would show a weakness to “need help”.

The ever popular Stephen Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People describes the maturation process from dependent to independent then interdependent. The independence stage is where we demonstrate mastery and competence. This is the developmental task of children and peaks for teens and young adults. Parents need to allow children space for this development even when that feels risky. Independence is very much encouraged in today’s world. It seems logical that it would take someone with a strong sense of independence and competency to leave the security of a university or large company to start a company. Our society admires and encourages this independence and some of the entrepreneurs’ energy may be derived from their desire to demonstrate independence. I believe this was true for me. But we can be stuck in our independence and I believe that startup founders are at risk of this trap by their very personality.

Many of the most rewarding experiences in life, however, happen when we transition from independence to embrace interdependence. Biology is full of interdependence examples.  Common_clownfish_curves_dnsmplFamily is obviously one of the most cherished interdependent structures in our society. Many musical and sports activities are interdependent. Interdependence is, I believe, the essential quality in business environments today which absolutely require teamwork and good leadership.   Interdependence at a societal level has had profound impact – countries that are interdependent with one another are less likely to resort to war to manage conflicts.

It seems that the more successfully independent we were as a young person, the more difficulty we have during the inevitable later bumps in the road where we need the support of others.  Appropriate interdependence is not automatic – it is learned and takes practice. I was empathizing with one of my young adult children over a particularly difficult research paper they were writing. It was an esoteric topic outside their comfort zone. I asked if they had brainstormed with peers – the answer was “no” as it might be viewed by the professor as “cheating”. I found this interesting as I cannot remember the last time I wrote an important document – e.g. presentation or business plan completely by myself. That’s simply not how the business world works. Even if I were fairly independent in developing the content I would certainly show it to colleagues to find ways to improve – everything from graphics and language to logic and examples. And often the core idea is developed in a collaborative manner.

In my own life, I have found that the times when I have done something significant to seek  support or collaborate – taking what felt like a risk – have directly correlated with the times when I’ve had the most significant personal breakthroughs. When we are encouraged to seek support or other help, it is easy to perceive it to be a step back towards dependence when, in fact, accepting that support is moving forward towards interdependence and progress.

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