Melinda Byerly and her team at “Stayin’ Alive in Tech” have put together a cool compendium from their various podcast interviews in honor of Women’s History Month and I’m thrilled to be included – you can see the post here
I have had the good fortune to enjoy over 25 years of building a range of software businesses – enterprise and consumer – big companies and startups. I loved the challenge and am proud of the positive impact of these products which have touched millions (SugarSync, Catch) and in some cases hundreds of millions (Netscape, Yahoo) of people. As I looked toward my professional goals for the next 25 years, however, I felt there was a void I had not filled. Perhaps it was my family values – growing up surrounded by doctors (both parents, father-in-law, multiple siblings, aunts, uncle, cousins) and having two sons and two daughters-in-law in healthcare (3 as MD’s and one PhD in cancer research, I’ve always wanted to be doing more to improve people’s lives in a more humanistic and direct way.
Many of the software products I worked on democratize access – bringing the proprietary big company technology to small businesses or consumers (e.g.SugarSync, ZoneAlarm). Although the healthcare industry has traditionally been a late adopter, with the advent of cloud and mobile technologies and increasingly VR and AR – we are at a tipping point and I knew that using technology to drive this type of healthcare democratization and the potentially large associated businesses was what I wanted to work on next.
Through a confluence of fortunate events and connections I met the team at SyncThink and was immediately impressed by both the science (based on years of D.O.D. funded research) and the potential impact of its technology. SyncThink has developed innovative eye-tracking technology analytics, delivered in customized Samsung VR headsets, that provide objective metrics for visual attention and dynamic orientation. It turns out that these metrics provide critical information about brain health by measuring our orientation and ability to pay attention to our environment. Eye-tracking analytics can show patterns that correlate with such serious issues as concussion, ADHD, dementia, marijuana impairment and sleep deprivation. The first application in sports in concussion and performance management but there is an even bigger potential impact in these other fields as well as occupational safety.
I was personally excited about the immediate term market – we are focusing on bringing our brain health platform to college and professional sports as well as the clinics who serve them. As the mother of 3 sons who played Lacrosse, Rugby and Football in college and a daughter who played high school Lacrosse I resonated with that need recalling how I held my breath on the sidelines watching some serious and aggressive “contact”. There are thousands of athletes whose health we can protect and improve with SyncThink. I am thrilled to see SyncThink being deployed in universities such as the Pac-12 and beyond and love knowing that our home town champion Golden State Warriors are using SyncThink at the next level to both protect their players as well as measure and enhance their performance.
Of course with Sync in the name I knew it was “beshert” (destined) for me to join and was excited to get started. We have lots of new tech and programs in the works – stay tuned for more to come!
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
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.
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.
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.
The video from my speech was posted on the Georgetown site here. My part starts at about 20 minutes in.
I was honored to be invited to speak at the graduation for the Georgetown MSFS, the 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.