Communication and Productivity

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to spend the majority of my career helping to build and market products with a core mission of helping people improve their productivity as it relates to communication. Netscape Communicator, ICQ, AIM, Yahoo! Mail, SugarSync and Catch – these products served slightly different purposes at different points in our internet and mobile journey but our goal was always the same – improvement of connectivity – not of infrastructure, but human connectivity. Our most basic instincts as humans are to communicate with others through any means possible – words, touch, pictures, sound. Communication is one of the most basic functions in business and it’s not always easy to do it well.

When I was working at Netscape, I had a conversation with Jim Barksdale that has stuck with me. He said that making things happen in business is about writing it down. You can discuss things all you want but it is the leader’s job to put the plans into writing and confirm that they are understood and acted upon. Pre-internet that meant a memo written on paper with the associated headaches of duplication and distribution. The beauty of email is that you have the power of the written word with the convenience and ease of our new technologies. Email is such a powerful tool that it survives as the default written communication tool and – despite its many flaws and forecasts of its demise – it persists.

With new technologies, we are enabling effective action through writing by optimizing the communication app for particular settings. For instance, multiple styles of chat apps for various demographics and types of groups – friends, family and work teams.

But, what if different people in the same stream of communication have different preferences in tools? What if you are trying to recruit or incent these different people who are not your employees and mandating a particular tool were a turn-off? There has been a need for a communication platform that has a lighter touch – that gives recipients greater control, while remaining effective. Initiators can encourage participation and lead particular actions. These initiators, the group leaders, are constantly recruiting and incentivizing their members and they need a tool that supports them, so their companies and missions can scale effectively.

In Mobilize (www.mobilize.io), I saw just such a platform. Some of the design points are subtle and some are very concrete but it is an incredibly thoughtful way to communicate with groups, particularly those that are not within company walls. After being introduced by my business associate, Ajay Chopra, and meeting with the cofounders, Sharon Savariego and Arthur Vainer, I was convinced that we shared a vision for a new type of communication method, in fact a new category of communication platform, designed expressly to support group communication and help leaders mobilize action. That action can be anything from brand advocacy to software development advances to product sales to volunteering to give blood. I am thrilled they invited me to join the company as COO three weeks ago and look forward to working to scale this exciting idea for so many more groups and companies globally.

P.S. We’re hiring in both San Francisco and Tel Aviv – marketing, sales and engineering positions.  Check them out at http://www.mobilize.io/jobs.html

 

 

 

The Beginner’s Mind

We often associate learning new skills with youth.  In fact, it is commonly assumed that if you don’t learn certain skills such as playing a musical instrument, a sport, or to speak a foreign language as a child, it’s “too late.”  As a culture we admire those who achieve excellence at a young age for instance a musical child prodigy or a business prodigy such as Mark Zuckerberg.  While their accomplishments are admirable why don’t we equally celebrate accomplishments, particularly learning later in life? Unfortunately many cultural and psychological constructs confound to keep us from learning new things as adults

I believe that’s why I found the concept of “Beginner’s Mind” so important when I began my journey of learning about Mindfulness.  Beginner’s Mind or “Shoshin” is a concept in Buddhism.  It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject or performing a task.  The key point is to suspend judgment or assessment when taking on a new activity.  Most children suspend this judgement naturally. Our society doesn’t expect them to be experts but more importantly, they don’t expect it of themselves.  The inner critic’s loud voice, that so often holds adults back, has not kicked in for most children.

If you think back to all the things that you learned as a child that you do well now, you typically journeyed along a path where you went from absolute clumsiness to unthinking expertise.  This applies to both mental and physical skills.  We were able to do this in part because of our mindset of Shoshin.  Nobody expects a new young violinist to play in tune and we tolerate that long, squeaky, out of tune period knowing, of course, that it is an unavoidable stage on the path to musicianship.  Mis-conjugation of a verb is almost cute by a child but can be horribly embarrassing for an adult.  Of course intellectually we know that adult learners go through that same awkward phases as do children and if we can only accept that phase in ourselves we could achieve and enjoy so much.  But somehow we can’t.  We often fear embarrassment but the reality is that most people are their own worst critics.

Holding ourselves to inappropriately high standards is an even greater risk when we are trying to relearn a skill.  I experienced this recently with my violin playing.  I studied the violin starting at three and a half and continued throughout high school and college.  When I applied to and attended a liberal arts college I decided that I would not be pursuing music as my profession though I still studied and played in college.  Once I became a parent and was juggling motherhood with graduate school and a career I could not find the time for my violin playing and the violin sat pretty much untouched for 28 years.  It wasn’t that I never thought about playing.  In fact I missed it – but knowing how rusty I was, the idea of playing at that level was intolerable to me.  Interestingly I continued to play the piano occasionally but since I had never been a very good pianist, it didn’t bother me as much to hack around.  I finally got over the hump through a combination of lucky circumstances and my mindfulness training.  The two lucky circumstances were my friendship with George Whitehill – a colleague in my Vistage group and meeting Claudia Bloom.  I witnessed George’s journey from pure beginner to accomplished pianist/composer and was seated at a wedding next to a wonderful and encouraging teacher Claudia Bloom.  Timing was fortuitous, my youngest son Adam was about to go to college and after talking to Claudia I realized that this was the time.  It was a painful first few months of lessons and practicing, especially when I realized that the piece I was working on was one I studied in 6th grade!  On the other hand, I also realized that once I mastered the technique required for that piece, I could play it with greater expression and, frankly, enjoyment than I had 40 years earlier, a humbling yet rewarding experience.

Like many others in the corporate world I did many Myers-Briggs tests and the results were consistently INTJ (though I moved closer towards ENTJ over time).  I always hated the “J” (judgement) label – I aspire to be an empathetic, accepting and tolerant person – I didn’t want to be judgmental and didn’t accept that I was until I realized during my first mindfulness class (and reading a wonderful book “How Good do We Have to Be”) that I was in fact judging.  I just most frequently pointed the judgement lens at myself and not always kindly.  It is hard indeed to find the right balance of setting high goals and standards, working and trying hard yet accepting our own imperfections, missed goals or awkwardness.  It is very hard to suspend judgement while we learn as adults.  The payoff, however, is limitless.

Baroque Chamber Ensemble – June Concert

The Palo Alto Baroque Chamber Ensemble

Joyce Malick, Director

featuring

Laura Yecies and Marianne Cooper in Bach’s Concerto in C Minor

and Music of Mozart, Ferrabosco, Still

Sunday, June 7, 2015  7:30 p.m.

Lucy Stern Center Ballroom- Middlefield at Embarcadero, Palo Alto

Admission is free – all ages welcome, program is about 1 hour

Refreshments following the Concertbaroque_2

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.