Techie in the Headlights

I have an impression that people who work in the technology sector tend to skew liberal, with a certain disdain for politics. The tech world, largely in line with the scientific community, is populated by science geeks and nerds*, with strong emphasis on reason and intellect; highschool popularity be damned. Both contribute to a strong belief in meritocracy and egalitarianism, that everyone should be judged according to their achievements regardless of race / gender / sexual orientation / nationality. The superstars of tech world today are mostly self made billionaires, from Bill Gates to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.

Brendan Eich was carving his way to be one of these superstars – he was the inventor of JavaScript, cofounder and CTO of Mozilla, and for about 11 days he was the CEO of the company he helped to create. The disclosure of his past donations to anti-gay campaign in California and other right wing politicians have resulted in public relations disaster, employees calling for his resignation and more than half board members resigned over his promotion. On the aftermath of Eich’s resignation, opinions abound on whether he should not have been lynched for his personal views or he should not have been appointed in the first place.

I call this a techie in the headlights problem – much like a deer caught offguard in front of a fast approaching car, we (speaking from experience here) don’t always comprehend the treacherous field of human relations. With utopian ideals of a workplace like Google campuses or ideosyncratic one like Mozilla, techies often regard having difference in publicly held opinions and privately held ones as a fatal flaw in integrity. Eich offered a reserved apology but did not recant his views, writing blog entries reassurancing inclusiveness but granted media interviews reiterating his freedom of opinion and that Indonesian mozilla developers with “different opinions” that supported him didn’t have “megaphones“. Geez, thanks for namedropping us Indonesians, Brendan, but it didn’t sound like your charm offensive would’ve worked anyway. Moreover, if your employees decide to revolt in full media glare and none of the other board members backed your selection, it’s likely that you didn’t have enough political capital to become the CEO in the first place.

In the ideologically meritocratic world of tech, people often forget that the CEO is a political role, not simply the best engineer in the company or the most influential contributor for the community. The CTO’s candid remark about product naming being “a marketing scam” may be overlooked, but the CEO’s may not. Aside from being the most powerful person in the organization, the CEO also represents it to the outside world. A brand ambassador and also a lightning rod*, if you will, because the job also includes deflecting undue distractions from outside the company. This should be a lesson for techies who aspire to play the game of thrones : acquire the dark art of so-called people skills. If people don’t want to work for you it’s a dead end, no matter how brilliant you are technically. Offer an unreserved apology when it is required of you. Sure, self righteously holding on to your beliefs felt like standing on higher moral ground. You might, however, lose your head over it – but you know that already, don’t you?

 

(* exception that proves the rule

Corporation as an Organism

Corporations are people, my friend.

The infamous comment flared a lengthy discussion about corporations and the state during recent US presidential elections. The discourse on political role of corporations within democracies is will not be included within this blog entry, but viewing a business entity through the lens of biology certainly merits some elaboration.

This post was initially intended to reflect about the role of management in companies, which comes with higher pay grade and status alongside the perception of arrogance and (technical) incompetence. The entire Dilbert catalogue was based on the perception of management impracticality if not outright ineptitude. Joel Spolsky argued that the management’s task in software companies should be to play an administrative role: creating optimal environment to work and letting the programmers steer the company. Github and others tried to do away with hierarchical management altogether. Dilbert’s ridicule comes from disdain towards management class, while Spolsky and flat organizations tries to move away from the traditional hierarchy-based control – but these did not highlight why management – as a specialized class – is necessary.

Neurons inside the brain

The management as a whole, in terms of biology, is an analogue of the nervous system. Humans and starfishes have different nervous systems but their functions remain the same: to detect signals from the environment and coordinate various body parts. The more complicated the organism is, the more sophisticated their nervous system, and the more resource intensive it will be. Human brains devour about 20% of total energy consumption, the largest of any human organ. These expensive nervous system helps humans to become the most invasive species on earth, thriving in nearly every type of ecosystem and even modifying the environment for their own benefit.

The brain as a collective of nervous cells holds consciousness beyond simple sensor and control center. They have their own ideas about survival and prosperity as an organism. In survival mode, instinct dictates the fight-or-flight response against other organisms or environmental factors. In prosperity mode, the mind works to create tools and manipulate nature to a such extent that now physical prowess no longer holds importance as it had in the hunter-and-gatherer era. The brain had effectively reduced reliance towards motoric activity for survival, in dystopian scenarios resulting in muscle atrophy and blood circulation problems. Modern companies tend to emphasize the importance of management and reward them dearly. This does increase the companies’ survival odds to a certain extent, but also opens future vulnerabilities that well-balanced companies will be better equipped to handle.

This leads us to the original question of this entry: does management have to be done by specialized people whose job is mainly to meet each other, make decisions and dispatch command to others? In short, no, it doesn’t have to. But highly specialized personnel will be more efficient in performing these tasks, the way dairy farmers milk the cows so you won’t have to. Without specialized managers, decision making through consensus will be exponentially more difficult. The Swedish military joke (starting at 0:55) highlights this to a caricatural level. Managerial skillset also tend to have little overlap with technical skills, the same way nerve cells should deliver electric signals but muscle cells do not. This is not to say that managers can only be born – certain personalities do naturally gravitate towards the chain of command, but some others can be trained to perform the role reasonably well. The corporate world today appreciates highly specialized personnel more than the jack-of-all-trade personnel, and this applies to management as well.

Specialization, in a sense, is a byproduct of growth within organisms. In the animal kingdom, life began as a monocellular zygote, which will then multiply into multicellular embryo that consisted of stem cells. These stem cells will then multiply further while differentiating themselves as they grow in size and age: an adult organism has much fewer stem cells that act as its replenishment system. The founder of the company is a zygote: it has the DNA of the whole organism and charts its growth: whether it will become a starfish or a sponge (or the Kraken, for that matter). In its early stage, it needs generalist personnels who can do a lot of different things at the same time, minimizing resources needed while fighting for survival in an unfriendly environment. If it manages to survive and grow, the company will recruit more specialized labor, each specialized department forming a constellation of organs that becomes the corporation.

Returning to the opening aphorism, a corporation is probably more akin to an organism than a person. Each business entity inherited a cultural DNA from its founder and influenced by its environment, continuously evolving for its survival. Some end up as a starfish living under the sea, others became mice and lions on dry land, each with a differing level of sentience and reason. Maybe only a small number of companies have enough of each to be justifiably personified. But then again, thanks to our anthropomorphizing tendencies, we are prone to imagining abstract collectives as an individual anyway.

Disruption and Ingenuity

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Disruptive innovation is the core tenet of the startup scene everywhere, with young entrepreneurs proudly presenting what they view as an inefficiencies ripe for disruption, toiling away to find technological solutions to these problems. Whether it’s the retail industry with Amazon, or news outlet like The Huffington Post, the innovative products and services are being touted as the futuristic way of solving old problems. The established industries have either voted to join the revolution, going up in arms to protect their livelihoods, or simply resign to their fate and slowly die out.

I have recently stumbled upon this article from the Atlantic, discussing the automation and its effects both on the human workers and on the economy as a whole. It highlights how automation have reduced the bargaining power of manual labor, aggravating inequalities and reducing economic output as a whole. It is easy to view technological advances as reducing necessities for human labor, since the Industrial Revolution with the invention of steam engines up to the Information Era with the advent of personal computer, internet and now smartphones. What’s interesting, was that the article gave a quote from Farewell to Alms as a cautionary example :

There was a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. The population of working horses actually peaked in England long after the Industrial Revolution, in 1901, when 3.25 million were at work. Though they had been replaced by rail for long-distance haulage and by steam engines for driving machinery, they still plowed fields, hauled wagons and carriages short distances, pulled boats on the canals, toiled in the pits, and carried armies into battle. But the arrival of the internal combustion engine in the late nineteenth century rapidly displaced these workers, so that by 1924 there were fewer than two million. There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

The disruptive technologies by the startup culture also has a strong efficiency streak: if the work can be done with less labour, less cost, less “pain”, it’s all for the better. But will these disruptions lead to lower employment as a whole, creating vast underclass while ever strengthening the winners? And as automation encroaches every part of our lives, will it lead to economic setbacks and even irrelevance for most of human labourers, the way horses vanished in 20th century?

Hmm.

I came up with an answer after a discussion about Japan with a friend of mine Mr. Jorge Blanco. You see, Japan is a highly mechanized country – with a culture that worships technology, probably hellbent towards mechanizing the world. And yet, in that very country, they actually have invented a business model called cuddle cafe. You know, where you actually pay to sleep in loving arms for an hour or more. Of which, aside from the Japanese idiosyncracies like Soapland and Pop Life Akihabara that we talked about that day, goes to show that human beings value human touch. Most importantly, though, I realized that

Human Beings are the Arbiters of Value

as economic value is the most basic human invention. Horses, on the other hand, don’t assign value to things other than green grass. It is humans who value them as transportation means, or as part of military muscle. The things that human beings value, on the other hand, evolve over time, thanks to human ingenuity. When manual labor went out of style, the health and fitness industry has grown to $19 billion in the US alone. Isn’t it ironic that ancient humans run across the field to chase their prey and nowadays we run only on treadmills and urban marathons?

Disruptive technology may cause job losses and obsolete trades, but in the long run, human ingenuity will ensure that new values will be created, and the economy will recover.

Eureka

Winklevossgetty

A guy who makes a nice chair doesn’t owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair.

This is a line from The Social Network movie, Mark Zuckerberg’s retort on the allegation that he stole the idea for Facebook. 

The lawsuit by the Winklevoss brothers* against Mark is the subplot from the Social Network movie, providing a comical, if not contrasting background to the major internal struggles in the early days of Facebook. The scenes of the idea theft lawsuit are interwoven with the main narrative through flashbacks – summarily telling a story about a nimble, brilliant but rather nasty programmer who outrun the wealthy Goliathesque twin with an over-reliance on rules of conduct. This movie does not paint Mr. Zuckerberg in an especially unflattering light (some damning report about their conflict are actually missing from the movie), but it does raise the question on the uniqueness of a software, and how much can they borrow from one another’s playbook. This fits in nicely as a part of a broader debate on whether or not software should be patentable at all, but for the sake of brevity this essay will only discuss the arguments as spoken by the fictional Mark Zuckerberg in the movie.

The first argument by Mark was the line as quoted in the beginning of the movie: a guy who makes a nice chair does not owe money to everyone who has ever built a chair. However, using the same analogy, certain chair designs which fulfill several criteria may be protected by intellectual property law. A generic chair design is generally considered as public domain, and therefore cannot qualify for protection, therefore, it’s not incorrect to say that a chair designer is not liable to pay for the generic concept of chairs. But the intention of intellectual property law is to prevent a design from being ripped off by others – so the guy who made a nice chair which strongly resembles another nice chair is bound to be called a copycat or ripoff – and probably get embroiled in a lawsuit.

The second argument was the fictional Mark Zuckerberg’s quip that says if the Winklevosses have invented Facebook, they would have invented Facebook. Facebook might be different than the site that the Winklevosses had envisioned as HarvardConnection, but the former perceivably draws important aspects from the latter. Zuckerberg had collected photographs from all Harvard freshmen before on some prank project called FaceMash, but he had not thought about college freshmen directory being a social network before his encounter with the Winklevosses without which there’s small chance the idea will occur to him. Moreover, the early success of Facebook is attributed to its strengths within the college circles and exclusivity pertaining to university networks – something which was a central idea of HarvardConnection. Facebook’s inception is undoubtedly linked to that of the twin rower’s idea.

Certainly Zuckerberg had done things in a different way on the idea development department – he genuinely believed in the idea, and he worked really hard for it – even so far as to deliberately slowing down his rival project by paying lip service to their project. In the era of online competition where the product can be easily copied, he gave himself a critical advantage of brand recognition by being the pioneer. By contrast, the twins have had two programmers working on this idea for them before Zuckerberg was invited – neither have succeeded in creating a working solution. To the Winklevosses this was just another project to be managed; the only fault to their bureaucratic corporate instincts was the fact that they did not have a legal contract signed. Facebook has made several distinctive technology-oriented choices in its development that contributed heavily to their current success, namely opening its platform to third party developers and embracing the dynamic web interface. With his entrepreneurial spirit, technology savvy and some shrewd financial advice from Shawn Parker, Zuckerberg himself proved to be the most important factor to Facebook’s success. 

Creativity and ideas may provide the initial spark for a product, but its development and execution form a large part of what makes it successful – if not the largest part in software development contexts. Unlike a physical products whose qualities are visible, software embodies a service that can easily be offered by other similar software. Service, by its very definition, is uniquely tied to its subject and therefore does not require any legal protection from competitors. In the long run, software patents may become irrelevant if not hampering development by giving less incentive to innovate and improve development. 


(* their being a twin olympic rower is enough reason for me to pick their picture as the essay’s illustration 😛