You think women in tech have a problem? We all have a problem

women learning to code

The tech industry’s complicated and sorry treatment of women has become a big topic.

Lawsuits have helped blow up the issue. Most notably, former Kleiner Perkins partner Ellen Pao filed a discrimination suit against the VC giant last year, lost the suit this year, and recently dropped her planned appeal.

Also in the spotlight are public speaking appearances by some of the industry’s most powerful women, where they are inexplicably asked to talk about motherhood before they are asked about the billion-dollar businesses they run.

And of course, women continue to be underrepresented in tech, particularly in engineering, executive, and investor roles.

Google, Facebook, Twitter, and other big Silicon Valley companies have all gotten into the habit of releasing their diversity statistics, which are remarkably consistent: In almost every case, less than 30 percent of their workforces are female. (Amazon is the lone standout, with a 37 percent female workforce.) The transparency is laudable, but the ratio is not changing. When releasing the numbers, these companies all provided pretty much the same predictable spackling of public relations on top of their data: We know these numbers aren’t great, but we’re doing the best we can.

Note: Those poor diversity numbers don’t only reflect the plight of women in tech; they show that African-American and Latino techies are underrepresented in these companies, too.

This is an issue that should concern everyone in tech, male or female, particularly when there is so much demand for talent. The arguments that men are somehow better than women at coding carry no water, especially when you look at the history of computer science, where there were accomplished female programmers in abundance until the past few decades. The industry collectively turning its back on almost 50 percent of the available talent pool is not optimal. It’s also just not right.

That’s why I think everyone who hires or manages anyone in tech ought to read the remarkable book, Lean Out, edited by Elissa Shevinsky. Shevinsky is an entrepreneur and coder, and, as it turns out, an excellent aggregator of passionate, useful, insightful, and infuriating essays about all aspects of gender and tech.

We’ve written about Shevinsky before, when she got the nickname “Ladyboss” while working with Pax Dickinson, a man who got into trouble for being outspoken (and indeed quite offensive) in social media while working as the CTO of Business Insider. She’s hung onto that moniker, even though she has since moved on from the startup she and Dickinson cofounded. It suits her: She seems like someone who is comfortable owning her differences and is able to command the respect of brogrammers even as she pushes to make tech more welcoming to all kinds of women.

Lean Out is clearly a response to Sheryl Sandberg’s wildly successful book Lean In, which convinced a small army of women to step up, “lean in” to their workplaces, and demand more responsibility and more respect. Shevinsky and the authors of the essays in this book take a different angle: If tech companies are unwelcoming places, to hell with them. Start your own company and run it better.

It’s fitting that Lean Out begins and ends with exhortations from FakeGrimlock, a Twitter personality who, as a robot dinosaur, shouts at people to get them to follow their passion and start companies themselves.

But the book is not just directed at women who might want to opt out of the rat race and start their own thing. This book is packed with stories — and statistics — that should give anyone in tech management pause. Katy Levinson’s stories of frequent harassment, and even rape, in corporate work contexts are starker and scarier than most of the anecdotes that make it into public discussion about gender equality. Essays from transgender writers like Anna Anthropy and Squinky show that it is possible to A/B test gender in tech, with some unsurprising, but moving, conclusions.

Katherine Cross offers a somewhat academic, but ultimately sensitive and understanding, portrait of male nerd culture, and how (and why) it only reluctantly accommodates women. Her essay makes it clear why the current nerd culture we have is so gendered — and why it leads to ridiculous outbursts of anti-female sentiment, of which Gamergate is the most egregious example.

And Shevinsky herself, in an essay critiquing the “pipeline problem,” points out that she and many of her female friends have not been able to land jobs at companies like Google — or even get called by their recruiters — despite having over 10,000 hours of programming experience and having held leadership roles at sites with millions of users. She recounts that in her college classes, not that long ago, the students were about equally split between male and female. But at some point those women were unable to find work in tech, or found themselves unwilling to put up with the static that went along with the job.

In other words, tech has a pipeline issue, but not the one companies usually blame: The supposedly empty “pipeline” of girls taking an interest in science in grade school, leading to fewer female engineering majors, leading to a dearth of qualified women.

No, the problem is the pipeline coming from the other direction: The VCs and executives funding and running most Silicon Valley companies are overwhelmingly male, and largely white, and they have been trained through years of “pattern recognition” to place bets where they seem the safest: On companies and new hires that reflect their often unconscious assessments of what quality looks like.

That means they tend to hire white, male executives, who in turn hire white, male middle managers and engineering leads, who tend to hire white, male engineers.

Meanwhile there is a persistent, male-oriented nerd culture that actively drives women out of the field.

Katy Levinson offers a three-point program to address this in her essay:

The first thing is pretty simple: in all organizations, demand that there exists a code of conduct and clear method to report misconduct. …

Second, while there will always be truly malicious people, most people just don’t realize the harm of their actions. There needs to be correction without punishment for people who are not malicious. …

Third, and most important, is making a serious personal commitment to solving this.

The overwhelming sense from this book is of a group of women and transgender people who are just fed up with all the crap. As Shevinsky wrote in an earlier essay, also reprinted in this book, “I didn’t want to think about gender issues but the alternative is tit and dick jokes at our industry’s most respected events.

It’s time to change that. And it’s not just women who need to do something about this. Whether by “leaning out,” or by doing what you can to make the company you’re at work better for women, you need to help fix this. We all do.

originally published on VentureBeat

You think women in tech have a problem? We all have a problem

The writing is on the wall for the ad-supported Web: It’s the end of the line

It's the end of the line.

With the release of iOS 9 this week, the discussion over ad blocking has reached a peak.

That’s because the latest version of Apple’s mobile OS includes tools for developers to create ad-blocking software, affording mobile users the same freedom from advertising that desktop browser add-ons like AdBlock Plus and Ghostery have provided for years.

In the U.S., 16 percent of Internet users employ ad-blocking tools, according to a recent study by PageFair and Adobe. (Note: PageFair provides tools for publishers and advertisers to get around ad blockers.) The percentage is even higher in Europe, with the highest rate of ad blocking in Poland, where 39 percent of the population blocks ads.

Expect that number to rise even higher in the coming year, as iOS tools like Crystal give people the ability to remove mobile web clutter, promising that this will increase page load times by 4x, cut data usage in half, and increase battery life.

The discussion around ad blocking has been going on for weeks. Instapaper creator Marco Arment wrote a self-reflective piece on the ethics of ad blocking in mid-August. Investor and former Apple executive Jean Louis-Gassée provided a very smart analysis titled “Life after content blocking” later that month. Over on the Awl last week, Casey Johnston wrote a long essay called, cleverly, “Welcome to the block party.” And today, Verge editor Nilay Patel got in on the action, welcoming us to the hell of an advertising-free web. They’re all good pieces, and I recommend anyone interested in the issue to read all four of these.

The story, in a nutshell, is that readers are finally getting fed up. Fed up with incessant banner ads, obnoxious pop-ups, and videos that automatically start playing when you load a page. Fed up with fullscreen takeovers that force you to find, and click, a tiny “x” before you can read the article you actually came for. Fed up with cookies and widgets that track their every move online, allowing advertisers to target them with increasing precision. Did you look at an underwear website a few weeks ago? You’re going to be seeing ads for underwear every time you visit Facebook — or any of dozens of other sites — thanks to retargeting software that lets the underwear maker target ads to you based on the fact that you expressed a fleeting interest in their product.

Advertisers are throwing all this crap on the web for two simple reasons: It works, and publishers are out of alternatives.

Advertisers use retargeting and data-collecting ads because they provably increase the efficiency and accuracy of their ad spend. Those ads really do get people to buy more underwear, and if the price for that increased revenue is putting photos of tightie whities into a bunch of people’s browsers, so be it. Banner ads don’t really work, but there’s a tiny, tiny percentage of people who click on them, and some small fraction of those people will go on to buy something, so it becomes a numbers game: Throw up enough banner ads, and you’ll generate a return on your investment.

Publishers allow these ads because they need the revenue from advertisers. For a decade and a half, the predominant business model for online publishers — not to mention gigantic platforms like Google and Facebook — has been advertising. The problem is that, thanks to the law of supply and demand, the value of advertising has been steadily decreasing over the past 15 years. Advertising is sold based on impressions, or the number of times that people have seen it (or are assumed to have seen it). As web use goes up, people see more web pages, and that means publishers are delivering more impressions. As the number of impressions approaches infinity, the value of those impressions approaches zero.

For publishers, that means that ad revenues have been steadily decreasing for years. The most obvious response is to try to increase the number of impressions to offset their declining value. There are two ways to do that: Increase traffic, and put more (and more intrusive) ads on each page. The first strategy leads to BuzzFeed-like clickbait and desperate reblogging of the stories deemed to have the most traffic potential. The second leads to ad-choked pages and increasingly in-your-face advertising.

A third approach is to try selling native advertising: Ads disguised as content, so ad-blockers can’t block it and readers are confused about whether they’re reading independent content or an ad. Lots of publishers are embracing this model, and advertisers love it, for obvious reasons. Readers, however, find native ads obnoxious, because their implicit value lies in deception.

These three responses, of course, have resulted in the ad-choked, click-bait, sponsored-content Web we have today.

There are two other strategies available to publishers, but they haven’t worked in most cases. One is to try to stay above the fray, offering premium content in search of higher-value advertising aimed at a more premium audience. That works, but only if the publisher has a truly premium audience (like Techmeme) or enough scale to build out a network of sufficient size to get advertisers to take it seriously (like Vox Media).

The other is to find a non-advertising revenue source. VentureBeat, for instance, is building a research business, selling high-value reports to companies willing to pay for valuable information. That’s a good bet if, like VentureBeat, you have a deep pool of in-house expertise and a relevant audience. It didn’t work for GigaOm, which went out of business last year, but VentureBeat is running its operation differently enough that I think it’s got a good chance.

Other publications have experimented with paywalls, to varying degrees of success; events (VB does these too); micropayments; and tip jars or fundraisers, where readers can chip in a few cents or a few dollars to help support publications they value. There are very, very few examples of these working at any kind of scale.

The thing is, there’s not even really a debate about ad blocking. It’s coming, whether advertisers and publishers like it or not. The economic forces governing Web advertising have led us to a point where ads are out of control, and readers have no choice but to take measures to protect themselves and their bandwidth.

For publishers that are dependent on ads, that means a very grim future indeed.

The question is, can they evolve new business models in time?

Originally published on VentureBeat

The writing is on the wall for the ad-supported Web: It’s the end of the line

To embrace innovation, CIOs need to learn to let go

Nope, not making a "Frozen" reference this time.
Nope, not making a “Frozen” reference this time.

How do you find and foster innovation, whether in your organization or outside it? I’d like to hear from you, as I’m writing about this topic a lot.

A version of this post first appeared on VentureBeat.

The role of the chief information officer is changing dramatically. Gartner famously predicted a few years ago that by 2017 the chief marketing officer’s budget for new technology would outstrip that of the CIO. That might have been an exaggeration but many CIOs are taking it seriously. Faced with the prospect of becoming mere custodians of whatever cool projects their fellow executives in marketing cook up, CIOs are learning to embrace innovation on their own terms.

It’s not always easy. To learn more about innovation, about 150 CIOs and other tech executives gathered in a small Microsoft-sponsored event on open innovation in Las Vegas this week.

I moderated a panel there with senior tech execs from several very large organizations: NASA, Coca-Cola, Toyota, and AT&T.

It was quite a crowd. At dinner on Tuesday I found myself sitting between Enrique Uriel Arias, who is the CIO for Real Madrid, and Jason Crusan, a NASA director overseeing IT for human space missions — everything from the flight control software for rockets to the Wi-Fi on board the International Space Station. Both guys were pretty humble about working for such stratospherically world-famous organizations. Though both admitted that they were able to get a lot of things for free that other companies would have to pay for, simply because vendors want the association with their brands.

A common theme at the event: CIOs need to look outside their own organizations in order to innovate effectively. In some cases, that requires undoing decades of comfortable precedent. In a nutshell, it means letting go of control.


Take NASA for example. Crusan has pushed his organization to embrace — and foster — open-source projects as a way of increasing the organization’s leverage. NASA’s 2015 budget is $17.5 billion, or about 0.5 percent of the overall federal budget, and Crusan points out that 95 percent of that budget is spent on outside contractors, private companies who have long formed the backbone of the space industry in the U.S. So with just 5 percent of its budget left for personnel, and salaries strictly limited by government pay scales, Crusan doesn’t have the kind of liberal hiring budget that a Silicon Valley startup would.

Instead, NASA seeds innovation through open-source projects. OpenStack, for instance, was kicked off as a joint project between NASA and Rackspace. It has gone on to become a major cloud-computing platform used by many companies through the IT industry — including NASA.

More recently, Crusan has been supporting open-source development of a delay-tolerant networking protocol that could supplement the basic Internet TCP/IP layer. That could help NASA make Internet connections to the International Space Station more efficient. It could also help Internet pioneer Vint Cerf realize his dream of an interplanetary Internet.

Cerf and Crusan debated the best way to create a DTN protocol, incidentally, and Crusan says that Cerf initially opposed the open-source route. Crusan won, and in a few years, as this protocol reaches fruition, I hope the two will publish their email debates on the topic.

NASA is even open-sourcing its flight control software, so people can use the same thing to control their quadcopter drones as NASA uses for rocket launches. That has lots of benefits for NASA, Crusan says: The open-source work is likely to improve the software. Many eyes on the code mean that it’s more likely one of them will discover (and fix) hidden flaws that could have serious safety (or security) implications. And by making the software open-source, NASA is creating a pool of student talent that already knows how to work with this code — talent that it can hire later, or which will go on to create new companies that will supply needed products and services to the space agency. (Perhaps for free!)


AT&T has made its hunt for outside innovation explicit, by setting up five “AT&T Foundry” locations around the world. These are essentially incubators where promising companies can work and have access to other startups as well as AT&T expertise. Igal Elbaz, the vice president of ecosystem and innovation for the telco, and another panelist, spoke about how AT&T looks to foster the development of ecosystems, not just companies. And it doesn’t view its innovation centers as startup farms, growing companies for possible acquisition. It’s much more interested in making sure that the telco, and its networks, are at the center of a vibrant array of interdependent and mutually beneficial relationships between different companies.

And AT&T is willing to make changes in the way it does things in order to make that happen. For example, Elbaz described trying to set up a three-month free trial of a small two-person startup’s service a few years ago. AT&T had agreed to try the product, the entrepreneurs were willing to deliver it, and everything was good to go — until one of the entrepreneurs called up Elbaz to say she’d just received a 128-page contract from AT&T’s legal department. Needless to say, burying well-meaning startups in paperwork is no way to make your company startup-friendly. Elbaz says that today the company is able to execute such partnerships with one- and two-page contracts.


Another panel featured Techstars co-founder David Cohen along with a couple representatives of two joint Techstars projects, one with Disney and one with Barclay’s. The trio spoke about how important it was for the accelerator’s corporate partners not to be too “transactional” about their interest in the startup world. The ultimate benefit for corporations may indeed be improvements to the bottom line, but you can’t go into every startup relationship with an eye toward the bottom line. “Just give first,” Cohen advises his corporate partners, without expecting an immediate return. Open up the space for an incubator. Invite startups to play with your API. Give away free accounts. And don’t make every gift contingent on some expected future return on investment.

For CIOs, who are accustomed to managing projects to deadline and keeping costs under control while guaranteeing network uptime and application efficiency, this all may seem a bit “woo-woo.”

But, as Microsoft’s own CIO Jim DuBois said at the beginning of the day, the success metrics for IT organizations are different than they used to be. Now, IT needs to deliver end-to-end experiences. It needs to demonstrate a positive impact on the organization’s key performance indicators (KPIs).

You can’t do all that by yourself. So for CIOs, it’s time to start looking outside for innovation.


To embrace innovation, CIOs need to learn to let go

A VC and a labor leader walk into a workers’ rights debate…

Photo of a minimum wage protest, by The All-Nite Images, on Flickr.
Photo of a minimum wage protest, by The All-Nite Images, on Flickr.

Nick Hanauer and David Rolf are an unlikely pair of troublemakers. Hanauer is a Seattle venture capitalist and was the first non-family investor in David Rolf is a labor organizer who once rallied enough support to unionize 74,000 home health care workers in Los Angeles.

Yet the two of them agree on one thing: We need to pay part-time workers better, and provide better benefits. And they’ve teamed up to start a campaign to make that happen.

Their argument could slash the profitability (or future profitability) of many tech startups, including Uber, Lyft, TaskRabbit, and more. But it might also ensure the continued existence of a robust middle class, even in an era in which most of us work part-time or contract jobs for companies like Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit. And those companies actually require middle-class people to be their customers, so it might be win-win in the end.

On this Labor Day weekend, it’s an argument worth considering.

Bear with me, tech execs and captains of Silicon Valley. This might sound like some kind of socialism, but it’s not. Hanauer and Rolf say it’s about ensuring the future of work — and the viability of companies that depend on having a U.S. market for their services.

“All of the people I employ at startups can afford to go to Starbucks every day. But none of the people who work at Starbucks can afford to buy the products that we make,” Hanauer explained in a recent conversation.

That’s a problem that even Henry Ford recognized: You need to pay auto workers enough so they can afford to buy your cars or you’re not going to have a market for your product for very long.

Establishing better pay and better benefits will help preserve a robust middle class, even as many people increasingly work in what’s called the “1099 economy,” named after the tax form that independent contractors get at the end of each year. (Disclosure: After leaving VentureBeat’s employ recently, I’m an independent contractor now too.)

The duo recently published an article in the journal Democracy called “Shared Security, Shared Growth.” In it, they propose raising the minimum wage to $15. They think there should be mandatory overtime pay for anyone making less than $69,000 a year, far higher than the current threshold of $23,000.

And they propose a “Shared Security System,” somewhat like Social Security, except that in addition to providing retirement benefits, it also provides a way to fund vacation time, sick pay, and a host of other benefits to all people, including part-time workers.

“You have this idiotic situation where you have vast industries essentially parasitic off the rest of the economy by paying their workers poverty wages, and expecting the rest of us to make up the difference in food stamps, Medicaid, and rent assistance,” Hanauer said.

He’s not just talking about Uber and the like: He’s also referring to Walmart, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and other giants of part-time, minimum-wage employment. The fact is, there are many companies — tech “unicorns” as well as publicly traded Fortune 500 companies — that are benefiting from a generational shift from long-term full-time work for a single company to a constellation of part-time, temporary jobs for a variety of companies.

That shift provides flexibility for individuals, efficiency for companies, and a more rational allocation of labor resources for the economy at large, at least in principle. But it also leaves a large class of workers without benefits that many of us would consider standard, such as sick days, vacation days, or even the knowledge of what hours they’re expected to work next week.

These “on-demand” companies depend heavily on a workforce of people who work a few hours here, a few hours there, but remain independent contractors — or so the companies argue. (California courts recently took a different view, stating that Uber drivers are employees, but litigation is still ongoing.)

“All of the on-demand platforms, what they’re really selling is labor,” Rolf said.

Not that he’s opposed to that in principle, or to the rich valuations these companies have attracted. “It’s fair that since they invented a cool app, they ought to get something for it,” Rolf said. And, he added, “I’m a huge fan of the on-demand economy.” He regularly uses Uber, Lyft, and TaskRabbit. “It’s made life easier for a huge number of people.”

But, he points out, the people who actually provide this labor are having an increasingly hard time getting into, or staying in, the middle class. And that’s not fair — or smart.

It’s a shift that’s been decades in the making, thanks to deliberate policy changes and shifts in the way companies hire. Now, Rolf and Hanauer argue, it’s gone too far.

As Rolf put it, “Everyone got rewarded for driving down the wages of their workers and reducing benefits. That only works as long as you’re the only one doing it.”

“When one person doesn’t pick up after their dog in the park, nothing bad happens. When everyone doesn’t pick up after their dog, there’s no more park.”

These guys might sound so far out in left field that you can safely ignore them, but guess again: Their proposal for a $15 minimum wage has found surprising traction in a large number of cities, even if it was a nonstarter in Congress. New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles all have $15 minimum wages, and Washington, D.C. is considering it, along with other locales.

The annual salary cap for mandatory overtime also got recently raised, though not as high as Rolf and Hanauer would like. President Obama recently announced plans to raise the overtime threshold to $50,440, which means if you make less than that, your employer will be required to pay you extra for working more than 40 hours in a week.

What’s next on the duo’s program is a plan for a privately operated Shared Security System that collects payments from companies for every worker, even the most transient ones, and puts those payments into a trust fund that the worker can use to pay for benefits.

It’s not a tax, but a benefits payment, on the order of a few cents for every dollar of wages paid. And while they hope it will be federally mandated, they think it should be privately managed.

In a techie twist, Hanauer and Rolf propose that implementing this scheme — which would have been a top-heavy accounting nightmare in past decades — should be simple with today’s technology. It would be straightforward for even small employers to outsource all their benefits work to a company managing one of these trust funds. The fund itself could easily keep track of thousands or millions of accounts. And individual workers could check on the status of their accounts, or draw on them for approved purposes (like sick days), using an app.

Rolf told me that the two are already in discussions with some companies about prototyping the system on a smaller scale, although no one has actually tried it yet, and he wouldn’t say which companies.

“If all you had to do was install an app, and all your benefit payments would be allocated and taken care of, that takes a huge headache off the entrepreneur and a huge number of sleepless nights off the workers,” Rolf said.

The two will be speaking in November at O’Reilly Media’s Next:Economy conference, and maybe they’ll have more to say about this then.

As Rolf and Hanauer argue, it’s time to make sure that on-demand workers — and the greeters at Walmart and the baristas at Starbucks — get some economic security too.

Otherwise, who’s going to be left to take advantage of all these wonderful services provided by on-demand startups?

(Note: this article originally appeared on VentureBeat.)

A VC and a labor leader walk into a workers’ rights debate…