Friday, March 28, 2014

More on Ageism in Silicon Valley

I came across this post by Tim Worstall on Pando yesterday. At first it made me chuckle -- it reminded me of a topic that I wrote about recently -- clearly there is a bit of a content zeitgeist here.

While I'm not a big fan of the Pando post, it did link me to this piece by Noam Scheiber in the New Republic. The New Republic article reminds me of another one that I found in a search during some of the reseearch on my post. That article featured discussions about plastic surgery, people dying their hair, and how the clothing people wore during interviews changed improved some of their results.

Sometimes when you read these broad-brush thematic articles about how there are not enough women or minorities in tech, you can't help but feel the shadow of some academic or journalist looking for an angle to drive eyeballs. Meanwhile, a short trip through the bay area can be a vivid reminder of the reality of just how incredibly diverse the area is.

At the same time, Scheiber's piece works better as it spans hiring, culture, and even VC funding. The culture here is shifting, and not necessarily for the better.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Moneyball and Hiring: Why Businesses Don't Know How to Find Talent

By this time, most people are familiar with Moneyball, whether through the book or the movie, so it's not unfair to expect people to have applied some of the general ideas to their areas of expertise. If you were to search right now, you could find a number pieces posted on Moneyball and hiring. I think that we can safely say that the overall thematic notion has permeated our collective conscious. So why then do so many businesses suck at hiring and building amazing teams?

Forget about individuals for a minute. Instead, think about the predefined restrictions we place on the people we hire. I talked about ageism in this previous post, but there are many other ways. Google, famously, had it's brain teasers even though they later came out and said that the puzzles didn't correlate to better employees. Similarly, they have made college ranking and GPA into an important criteria. And what about all of those job listings that specify experience within a given industry -- sure it might get you off the ground faster, but are you excluding some exceptional talent because of your one-dimensional conventional thinking (e.g. Scott Hatteberg only being a catcher)?

Consider, most tech job listings tend to set Engineering or Business degrees as the preferred background, while liberal arts degrees tend to outperform them on GMAT tests. Why are we focused on Business and Engineering degrees? Conventional wisdom says that they will have the background and training needed to succeed. But what if the real secret to a great team member is the ability to learn new things, to understand complex concepts, to analyze and problem solve? And what about communication? What if communication does not equal cutting and pasting bullets from a Powerpoint?

In that way, the Moneyball strategy is looking for undervalued aspects and using that as the target criteria. If the market puts a premium on young, on engineering degrees, on GPAs and top tier schools, then those aspects are probably expensive. Meanwhile, there are probably lots of bargain talent in the pool of older, experienced workers with liberal arts degrees. And yet, so many businesses and recruiters are reluctant to consider candidates from this pool. Why? Here are three reasons that I can think of immediately:
  1. An inclination to hire "like us" accompanied by an overall disregard for all things liberal arts. Remember President Obama's art history joke? When the guy who goes out of his way to avoid offending anyone uses a demographic as the focus of a joke, it's a telling perspective on 'common knowledge perception' of a liberal arts degree. The thematic aspect of this is the idea that, during college, we worked, we were focused on our future, while those liberal arts students all just read books, looked at art, film and music, or argued about philosophy. We were real world. They were the crazy ones, the dreamers.
  2. The inability to measure or score capabilities and understanding accurately. We all want smart people who fit well in our team, but so many aspects of the interview are stacked against us. There are typical questions that we're expected to ask -- we've published a list of requirements and most interviews are like standardized tests on those topics. Meanwhile, as candidates, we review the test criteria, prepare our answers, practice our delivery and look for tactical ways to deflect things that probe our weaknesses. But companies really want thinking, analyzing, capable, so companies like Google explore techniques like brain teasers -- and candidates begin preparing for brain teasers. But the real problem is, just like in academics, somebody can go through an exercise and produce an answer, an essay or a result that matches the accepted response, but still not have thought about it, analyzed it, or understood the why behind it. But with school, you have several months to shake things up, to ask variations on structure and content in an effort to explore the processing capabilities of the student. Job candidates are typically decided in a couple of interviews, but you never really get a measure until they are on the team and under fire.
  3. Recruiters, hiring managers, and what I'd call the "not shooting at the center effect". Some time ago, The Freakanomics guys did this podcast on soccer and the penalty kick. The basic premise was that, while it was a statistically underexploited approach that should yield more goals, when they have the opportunity to take a penalty shot, few players kick it toward the middle of the goal. The reasoning behind is that, if they do and the goalie stops it, the player looks like an idiot. In that same way, imagine a recruiter saying, "I found this really talented candidate, but they don't have the background that matches your criteria -- but I think that they are amazing." Not only will the amazing candidate probably still going to be looking for work, the recruiter probably will be as well.
Of course, all of this only matters if you need cognitive skills. Just because you understand the effect of heat on proteins doesn't mean you can fry an egg. If your looking for a production person like a line cook, you're probably better suited to hire someone that has repeatedly cooked eggs over an MIT thermal engineering graduate. But in the same way that most real world problems don't look like those word problems you saw on math tests, determining how to solve a problem isn't usually a basic execution problem. Consider the problem, "we need a brochure". Or another common one, "we need to find a new product that we can sell to a new market."

Years ago I was in Las Vegas as part of our company's team to help set up a networked product demonstration. We'd broght along a number of sample products, plus a product manager, an application engineering manager, our ace networking guy, and myself. On the night before the event, we spent several hours trying to set up this demonstration that involved a complicated bit of network routing. For hours, the network guy was trying different things to make it work, without success. After letting the experts bang away at it in frustration, at one point I asked some questions to better understand the problem. Shortly thereafter, I had to ask the question, couldn't you just do this? It was like a light clicked on for the network guy, and suddenly a solution to the problem became apparent. While, at the time, I lacked the specific vocabulary to detail the solution or the technical chops to implement it, I understood enough of the problem to spark a solution.

It's a different kind of thinking that enables these kinds of solutions. You may not need this kind of creative thinking if you're banging out eggs, but if you're an organization dedicated to creating something new under conditions of extreme uncertainty, then you need to be able to learn, adapt, and travel down new paths.

Moneyball Versus The Cheapskate
There are some businesses that look at the idea of bargain candidates as people that we don't have to pay very much because they will be grateful to get paid something. These types of businesses keep the threshold on salaries so low that only the most desperate will accept the salary and working conditions involved.

While you might be able to read this strategy into a Moneyball philosphy, it misses a key element in the psychology of enabling talent. Specifically, in order to get the best performances out of your team, you need people who are engaged, motivated, and want to participate. I could be the Albert Einstein of solving your business problem, but if you ask me to spend my day changing diapers, I'm relatively unlikely to direct much energy or passion into anything you put in front of me.

In that way, while Moneyball may seem like it's all about not paying people very much, what it's really about is finding undervalued talent. With the Scott Hatteberg example, the market was said you're worth zero as a player now and the A's said, we value you. From the mindset of the person being hired, they are being valued at more that their perceived market value versus not less. In practical terms, that means that you are offering them an opportunity, not exploiting them, which also correlates to engaged, involved output.

Moneyball and Your Hiring Strategy
So, if you're not thinking Moneyball in your hiring strategy, perhaps you should ask yourself why. More to the point, if you don't say anything, you're hiring team is also probably avoiding shooting at the center. Somebody like me -- I would probably never make it through even your first round of screening. So, the question is, do you want to keep playing to conventional wisdom or do you want to explore new approaches to building something great.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Ageism, Statistical Discrimination and The Lost Civilization of Silicon Valley

With all of the back and forth about the cost of housing, Google buses, economic class warfare and other symptoms of something horribly wrong with things these days, I want to pull together something that is sort of a synthesis of several items to help fill in a few more dots on the changes in Silicon Valley. You might call this Part 2 of my endless rant on Silicon Valley Lost.

As I spent time reflecting on why the culture has changes so much, I was reminded of how much aspects of age have changed around here. When I first began working in tech back in the 1990s, I was one of the younger members of the staff. Demographically speaking, the workplace was reasonably well distributed in terms of age; young workers just out of college, middle aged workers that had been in the workplace for ten years or more, and older workers that had been around for a long time.

These days, much of that has shifted. Consider this data from research by Payscale:
  • While the overall median age of American Workers is 42.5, the oldest median age in the Payscale survey of technology workers was at Hewlett-Packard at 41 years.
  • The other five companies with older workers, in descending order of median age, were I.B.M. Global Services (38 years old), Oracle (38), Nokia (36), Dell (37) and Sony (36). Note that from this list Oracle is the only business that's primarily here in Silicon Valley.
  • The seven companies with the youngest workers, ranked from youngest to highest in median age, were Epic Games (26); Facebook (28); Zynga (28); Google (29); and AOL, Blizzard Entertainment, InfoSys, and (all 30).
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only shoe stores and restaurants have workers with a median age less than 30.
You can look at that data and the companies and draw a lot of conclusions, but one that's noteworthy factor is that most of the companies in the youngest end of the rank are Internet and companies. Some of that probably goes back to a shift in thinking that took place back in the days of the era when part of the world wanted to invest everything in Internet clicks, and the brick and mortar world kept asking where the money was going to come from. Sure, some companies found ways to make money, but the conventional wisdom take-away was that the old guys just don't get it.

Perhaps, like this story about the economist on the dating site, hiring youth is more statistical discrimination than it is anything else. When I heard Stanford Professor Paul Oyer on the radio promoting his book, he also described some of the significant similarities between the dating world and the job market. To paraphrase something that he said during his KQED appearance, "like dating, both the employer and the job candidate must like each other and be interested in the relationship."

Whatever the reasoning behind it, working from a general recognition that today's emerging companies are less likely to hire older workers, you can draw some other conclusions; specifically, if there is a surging economy in the world of tech start-ups and if you don't belong to a specific demographic, then, like a Google bus, you're probably not getting on in. It matters little whether you are a nice person with a great personality, whether your interests are aligned, or even if you've been waiting at that public bus stop for a long time, you're not going to get on that bus.

Want to see what the impact of this trend has been? Here are a couple of links:
What you can see is that there isn't nearly the kind of growth out in the Avenues and the Sunset, the areas that tend to be older, quieter, more families. In that way, this is not a story of the awesomeness and desirability of the geography of San Francisco. Instead, it really highlights the demographics of this economic surge -- and the bystanders, or casualties, depending upon where you find yourself in relationship to that trend.

Today's Silicon Valley is trending Logan's Run. It's an Amazing place. There's just one catch. You are only allowed so many technology cycles before you're replaced by an H1B visa, an Ivy League intern or perhaps someone with not less than 4.6692 Likes on Facebook. Then, it's carrousel. Or you can run.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Comcast Comedy and my Cable Internet

Following my previously mentioned move, I had to select a new Internet service provider. After looking through the options for cost and bandwidth, I wound up with Comcast and their Xfinity cable service again. Just Internet though, no TV. I even decided to try their 50 Mbps service in order to gauge the performance, but the entire time I was wishing that I had other options for reasonably priced higher bandwidth connectivity.

So last week, I was trying to pay my bill. As we often do these days, I started with trying to pay my bill online at work. As I worked my way through the login screen and trying to get to my account, the first thing that I realized is that I would need the account number that was listed on the initial paper bill that they had sent me. It was also the only paper bill that I expected to receive from them, since I had signed up for electronic billing during the activation process. I should note that the self-activation and the bring-your-own-modem process were both pretty straightforward, and didn't leave me too frustrated. Anyway, realizing that I needed that account number, I delayed paying until I got home.

Once at home, I tried to log in using the account number, but Comcast's network insisted that I had already created an account. Since I didn't set up the account and didn't have the password, I tried to do a "I forgot my password" reset, but the system wouldn't let me and directed me to customer service.

BTW, a note for you prospective Comcast customer service users: after going through several communications channels, I recommend Online Chat. It's actually much more direct. While you might think phone would be quick or quicker, working your way through the phone system will frustrate you before you come close to interacting with a human -- unless you're calling sales.

So I'm in the online chat with the Comcast discussing this issue, and this is what the Comcast rep informs me:
Comcast Rep: Just to set proper expectations, in order for you to pay your bills online, you will need to use the Comcast Email, to manage your account.
Me: seriously?
Me: There is no way to change that?
Comcast Rep: We can attach your email only to receive the billing statements that is sent to your Comcast Email.
Comcast Rep: But to manage your account, we need to use the Comcast Email.
I then proceeded to explain how AT&T doesn't require that I create or us an AT&T email in order to manage my iPhone bill, nor does PG&E. And my customer service rep explained:
Comcast Rep: Please understand that this is to make sure your informations will be safe. This is for your own security.
That's right. Even though my bank, credit card companies and a host of others are comfortable with the security of me using a third party email address to manage my account, Comcast is not. Comcast would rather have me set up a new email account so that I am forced further into their system. Rather, let me correct that -- by default they set up an email account and they were so convinced that I would use it right away that they began sending my bill to that email address.

Ultimately I think I was able to get this sorted out. If you replace the term "Comcast Email" with "User Name", you can closely describe their system; it just has an email attached to it. Oh, and it starts out as the default email address for all of your account interaction. Imagine if you changed the communication above to "you can't manage your account without a Comcast user name." That would be one of those "duh" moments. Short answer: Comcast User Name should not equal Comcast Email Address.

In the end, I probably narrowly avoided another customer service call with them in a few days, trying to figure out why my Internet had suddenly stopped working, only to discover the root cause being the unpaid bill sitting in the email inbox of this unused account.

Recently, Google announced plans to build out Google Fiber in a number of cities here in the south bay. I, for one, can't wait. A high-bandwidth broadband service that's reasonably priced and not one of the entrenched monopolies carriers -- and they probably won't tie their managing your account to a Gmail account. Then again, they may use it to force you to into Google plus (sigh). We see. Still, more options can't come soon enough.