3 truths and a lie, career edition

truths-liesI’ve titled this talk three truths and a lie, based on a game often used as an icebreaker. You share four things about yourself — three are true, and one, intuitively enough, is a lie. The goal is to guess which is which. If you ever play the game with me, watch for the one where I met my future mother-in-law after playing a darts game called cricket in a Scottish pub. In this game, I lost a round of drinks to a one-armed workman, who doubled out to victory. That was, in fact, true. Correlation is not causation, but the marriage lasted only a few minutes longer than my presentation here this evening.

But I digress. For the purposes of this talk — which I assume is aimed at undergrads trying to make sense of the world — I’m using 3 truths and a lie as a framework. It’s a way to think about living your life once you are not surrounded by red brick Georgians and the ability to linger at brunch with your friends for hours without ever settling a check.

Truth #1: It’s not the red pill or the blue pill.
There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love false dichotomies, those who hate false dichotomies, and those who recognize they are utter bullshit. Be the last of these. We organize information and categorize choices into black and white, because it’s an easier way to make sense of all the things. The people who go into consulting enter this kind of world, the people who go into tech enter another. Sure there are cultures and bodies of knowledge and locations that these choices imply, but in the end, people are remarkably similar. We saw that with the internet, too, right? We had access to all the world’s knowledge, and immediately a good deal of human endeavor went to cat memes, porn, and Angry Birds, which we’ve collectively spent some 300,000 years playing.

Cultures do differ, but the tyranny of the hoodie uniform is not entirely dissimilar from that of the three-piece suit. The VC’s Arc’tryx jacket, complete with useless apostrophe, is as much about primitive signaling as the beat cop’s uniform. So, choose your tribe wisely, but recognize that tribal behaviors are universal.

Truth #2: Practicing unnecessary compassion will enrich you.
“Character is what you are when no one is looking” is one of the platitudes that may have resided on a poster in your middle school gym, right next to the one with that kitten that said “Hang in there!” But here’s the thing about trite clichés: sometimes they are right.

What they don’t tell you is character is either the millstone around your neck, or the badge you wear proudly as you reach midlife. It’s the blueprint through which you make other decisions. Nick Kristof recently wrote of the compassion gap in US culture. He had written a piece about the working poor, which included a mother of a hearing-impaired boy. In the picture, she reading to him — but appeared fat, with several tattoos. His comments stream flooded — less with concern about the boy’s plight, and more with vitriol for the woman and her choices. I’m as much about personal responsibility as the next guy, but Kristof correctly flagged the compassion gap issue. As Kristof pointed out, a professor at Princeton found that our brains at times process images of people who are poor or homeless more like things rather than people.

What to do with this? Many of you got to Harvard by making concerted and strategic decisions not only about your coursework and athletics and extracurriculars — but also by thinking about who to thank and who to reach out to. I encourage you all to lean in toward compassion a little closer. The research backs me up here — giving to others time, money, or compassion actually leaves you with more, rather than with less. Wherever you come from, whatever challenges you face, all of you will leave here with the imprimatur of privilege. Use this privilege to show compassion.

Truth #3: The technology we create is not a value-free medium.
One of my favorite expressions is, “algorithms are just people’s opinions, mathematically expressed.” Anyone who’s done a Google search from a computer other than one’s own has realized that search is, understandably, not a universal experience. In the name of convenience (think: location, language), Google tries to deliver the content most relevant  to you. In the same way, the Facebook News Feed constantly tweaks its algorithm, serving up posts that may be most relevant — but may also favor the most active and engaged Facebook users. Reddit just launched a “trending subreddits” bar — with an algorithm picking what gets displayed — in order to promote growth of smaller communities. These are all examples of ways algorithms reflect their creators’ opinions, like “some people’s posts may be more interesting” or “it’s important to nurture small communities.” Few would argue these are inherently bad choices, but you are naive if you believe that such choices have no consequence.

So as you conceive, design, develop, and launch software and hardware products, consider the impact of your intended results — and watch for the unintended consequences of your choices.

Finally, the lie. The lie, the biggest lie of all, is that it’s too late. Women are particularly adept at telling this lie to themselves, as are those who are perennially precocious — a term that may well apply to many of you in this room. It often sounds like this:

It’s too late for me to …

  • learn to code
  • play the French horn
  • enjoy a team sport
  • be an expert in my field
  • move to my dream city
  • find the right person for me

“Too late” is too often a self-imposed limitation — and a cop out. Pursue a life where you bump up hard against the borders. Do some doors shut with time? Absolutely. As much as I wish Tommy Amaker would start me in a game against Yale, it seems prudent to concede those days are long gone. Or, never actually existed. But watch for “too late” as a trap you set for yourself. Ask yourself: Is it really too late, or are you intimidated/worried/lazy/risk-averse?

All of you in this room have varying degrees of experience with CS and entrepreneurship. Your life in technology may be old hat or a new experience, but your lives as adults are just now taking shape. So, to recap, choose your tribe wisely; practice compassion; and consider the ethical ramifications of the technology you create. Finally – it’s not too late. This is your big chance to swipe right on your future — to make the most of every opportunity given to you, and to commit to life filled with creating opportunities for others. Now, go pursue it.

This talk was given in April 2014 at the HRVD.IO event organized by HITEC – Harvard Innovation, Technology, and Entrepreneurship Collaboration


Photo credit: Jason Borneman

Friday Five
  1. carousel app Now that we’re all shooting more photos and videos than ever before, Dropbox is hell bent on storing them for you. Dropbox knows there’s a high switching cost for moving all your personal stuff (hassle, trust) so they’re making it easy and appealing to store and share, particularly via mobile. And yesterday Dropbox purchased iOS photo app Loom to continue the offensive.
  2. This week, Twitter took a page out of Facebook’s monetization playbook by adopting app install ads. With a heavily mobile user base, Twitter provides an appealing audience for app creators looking for new users. Here’s hoping this proven ad revenue model shores up Twitter’s languishing stock price.
  3. Hunter Walk illustrates how context matters when serving up recommendations for end users. When YouTube recommended videos to users, the interface explicitly told them why: e.g., “because you watched these puppy videos, we’re showing you this kitten.” As a result, users were less likely ignore the recommendations — and consumed more video.
  4. But what if you don’t want your online behavior tracked, for relevant video recommendations or anything else? The Atlantic cites research from Zeynep Tufekci on emerging user behaviors, from passive-aggressive subtweeting to active hatelinking, that regular people are adopting to remain invisible to the algorithms that track online behavior.
  5. Also filed under “what your social networks now know about you,” Facebook has launched Nearby Friends, a way for you to find out who’s close by. The technology is based on Glancee, a startup Facebook acquired back in 2012. Needless to say, early messaging is all about user control and privacy settings.

Weekend fun: Done right, Vine videos are a glorious, six-second art form. Here are this year’s winners from the Tribeca Film Festival, with my favorite Wrap Dancer winning the animation category.

Every Friday, find five, highly subjective links about compelling technologies, emerging trends, and interesting ideas that affect how we live and work digitally.

Cloud factory

banff mountainsThanks to the team at The Cloud Factory in Canada for putting together a great event on the state of cloud technology — and its digital economy and innovation impact. Stunning backdrops, great ideas, and good debates about everything from pricing wars to cloud commoditization to flavors of Open Stack.

Below are the slides I presented on  innovation made possible by the cloud for the theme of “democratizing the enterprise.” Now that we’ve moved beyond the first step for creating a web initiative being “write a million dollar check for some servers,” we’re seeing products and services that can focus more time to delivering value and iterating fast, rather than developing datacenter protocols.

Friday Five

twitter michelle obama

  1. Twitter is going all Facebook with new, expanded profile pages. The new profile pages offer a wider banner, a larger profile image, and the ability to “pin” a tweet to the top of your profile. The profile pages will now emphasize your tweets with the most engagement by making them larger. First Lady Michelle Obama is already up and running — soon you will be, too.
  2. Good explainer post on the difference between the card design proliferating across the web and emerging card architectures. The former reflects a design aesthetic, which may be a more ephemeral trend. The latter supplants embedded media, and enables third-party and first-party content to co-mingle — potentially delivering more value to the user.
  3. Speaking of cards, the explanatory journalism startup Vox launched this week with a lush, card-enhanced look. Bright yellow highlights tease explainer cards that act almost like dynamic FAQs. Topics range from “what is marijuana” (really?) to “is it the Ukraine or just Ukraine.” GigaOm broke down the benefits and challenges of the new site.
  4. Internet of Things was canonized as the biggest new thing when John Chamber at Cisco referred to it as a $19T (t, as in trillion) market back in January. This Business Insider scrolling presentation walks you through examples (smart TVs, connected cars, wearables), venture capital investments, and security questions.
  5. A new report from mobile analytics and advertising firm Flurry tracked mobile behaviors from January to March 2014. Findings confirm that native mobile apps (versus mobile web) continue to dominate, commanding an astonishing 86% of the average U.S. mobile consumer’s time. HTML5 and CSS3 were the mobile web darlings of 2010 — today, not so much..

Weekend fun: Turns out, Game of Thrones is more than a blood-thirsty way to spend a delightful Sunday evening with the family. The show’s popularity has ensured that there are now more baby Khaleesis than Betsys, and has spawned a veritable spike in female baby Aryas. But cheer up — weekend is coming.


Every Friday, find five, highly subjective links about compelling technologies, emerging trends, and interesting ideas that affect how we live and work digitally.

Friday Five
  1. social-networking-over-timeA Pew report on older adults and technology use finds that more seniors are online. Today, 59% of 65+ adults are connected, compared with 53% in 2012 and only 35% back in 2008. And they’re more social: more than half of women 65+ use social networking sites, validating my theory that grandchildren photos are a critical driver for Facebook adoption. Seniors still lag notably in smartphone adoption, with only 18% penetration compared to 55% of the general population.
  2. On-demand car service Lyft raised 250 M, putting them in a fundraising league with Uber as the two compete for marketshare. How big will these “collaborative economy” or sharing services grow as a generation less invested in owning enters its prime earning years?
  3. Hard to believe that Gmail is already 10 years old. The service launched on April 1, 2004, via a mere 1,000 initial invitations. Gmail changed the way we think about searchable email, and turned up the pressure for ease-of-use and storage for IT departments struggling to keep up with heightened employee expectations. Fun fact: Gmail was a skunkworks project, and launched in beta on 300 old Pentium III computers nobody else at Google wanted.
  4. Amazon, Google, and now Microsoft are engaging in price wars over their cloud offerings. Thankfully, gone are the days when the first thing you did when you build a website was, “First, write a million dollar check to Sun for some servers…”
  5. Lots of people have great ideas for social products and services — but many of those products depends on critical mass of users. How do you grow enough to get the metrics to understand where to improve and scale? Andrew Chen lists some solid approaches to solving for the dreaded cold start problem.

Weekend fun: Lots of people are already sick of watching this video of an ecstatic two-legged puppy romping on the beach. I am not one of those people.


Every Friday, find five, highly subjective links about compelling technologies, emerging trends, and interesting ideas that affect how we live and work digitally.

Friday Five
  1. facebook rift This week, Facebook acquired virtual reality purveyor Oculus Rift for $2B in cash and stock. This purchase gives the social networking company, which was only two years ago struggling to get its arms around mobile, a leg up in virtual reality hardware. What will they use it for? Gaming’s an obvious first use case, but there’s a big vision opportunity. Semil Shah penned a terrific, if pun-laden piece on Facebook’s strategy and direction.
  2. In an effort to boost Google Wallet, Google enables friction-free money transfer for Gmail users. The simple user interface — as easy as adding an attachment — is sure to attract entice more people into signing up for Google Wallet.
  3. What’s content marketing, again? This piece breaks down this generic term, and explains why companies like NewsCred and Percolate are closing significant financing rounds.
  4. From the Something Useful Now department, the Starbucks app has added a couple of handy features. The app now enables shake-to-pay, which uses your mobile’s native accelerometer to pull up the scannable barcode, and a feature than enables tipping for up to two hours after your visit.
  5. Nieman Lab runs an extensive review of NY Times Now, a mobile product launching in the app stores on April 2. The launch is a step forward into current digital news best practices (mobile-first approach, briefs, curation of third party content). But will it lure more subscribers with this new app, or introduce product confusion with too many similar offerings?

Weekend fun: Are you still immersed in March Madness this weekend? Then check out @NailbiterBot, which will tweet to you when games are close in the second half. Follow the account now, so you can quietly excuse yourself from your in-laws and tune in.


Every Friday, find five, highly subjective links about compelling technologies, emerging trends, and interesting ideas that affect how we live and work digitally.

The skinny on startup accelerators

RDV sketch

Speakers looking pensive, only mildly upstaged by Brent Grinna’s pants

If you have a startup that’s launched but needs to grow, how do you choose, apply to, and make the most of a tech accelerator experience? Monday’s Rough Draft Ventures Sketch brought together four accelerator alumni and professionals to demystify the accelerator process — the pain and the perks.

Several themes emerged:

  • Accelerators are competitive, and can afford to be choosy. Have your startup pitch down cold. Make your one-minute video clear and focused on business value. Know who your CEO is, and how decisions will be made.
  • Accelerators can unlock a broad network, so if you’re lucky enough to be accepted, make the most of the resources made available to you.
  • Every member of the founding team should show they are actively learning. Share new ideas and lessons learned — even when those lessons are “we chose the wrong direction, and here’s why.”
  • Speaking of the founding team, having a strong technical co-founder matters. A lot.
  • Be serious about your startup. Applicants who are merely in love with the glamorous idea of start-up life will swiftly be weeded out via a five-year grueling process of starting a business.
  • Don’t rule out incubators. While they don’t offer investment, they provide space, enable connections to business services, and valuable introductions to mentors. And you don’t give up 6%.
  • Women apply at much lower rates than men — for example, given odds that only 20% of applicants are accepted, many women will choose not to apply. In contrast, men will apply even when their likelihood of success is roughly a snowball’s change in hell. There’s an opportunity for women to step up and stand out in the accelerator applicant pool.

Thanks to Natalie Bartlett who ran the show for Rough Draft Ventures, and to speakers Brent Grinna, Merrill Lutsky, Karen Murphy, and Katie Rae for sharing insights and ideas — and staying late to connect with the students.


Friday Five
  1. design enterprise on mediumMedium has released its first mobile app, bringing its elegant, curated reading experience to your iPhone. Login requires Twitter, and they made the somewhat curious decision not to “bog users down” with a homepage. Still to come: more robust search and a mobile writing experience.
  2. The internet of things garnered a lot of attention in January when Google shelled out $3.2 billion for Nest, its patents, and its people. Is the next step for IoT consumers an app store for hardware? NEX band is making an early foray, counting on the viral sharing behaviors of youth to attract developers and ideas.
  3. If you manage a Facebook page for a brand, you might want to double-check those reach numbers. With an upcoming algorithm change, the organic reach for a brand page may fall to as little as 1-2% of the fan base. Facebook is looking to migrate organizations to a paid acquisition and retention model.
  4. Why do people edit Wikipedia? Here’s a quick explanation — part of a useful short series on the who, why, and how of Wikipedia editors.
  5. Is Twitter ditching @ replies and hashtags? Sounds as though they will keep the functionality, but lose some of this “visible scaffolding” around user behaviors. Expect to see ongoing evolution of the user experience as Twitter seeks the user growth needed to buoy its newly-public stock.

Weekend fun: Ever wish you could go back and erase or edit your early online ramblings? For better or worse, Twitter is breathing new life into them by featuring “my first tweet” for its eighth birthday. Here’s how you can look up your own very first tweet.

first tweet

Every Friday, find five, highly subjective links about compelling technologies, emerging trends, and interesting ideas that affect how we live and work digitally.