The Maddeningly Simple Way Tech Companies Can Employ More Women

From the New York Times, August 15, 2017 by Katherine Zaleski:

I am the co-founder of a company that helps clients find ways to diversify their work force. We recently set up an interview at a major company for a senior African-American woman software engineer. After meeting with the hiring panel, she withdrew her application, telling us she felt demeaned by the all-white male group that failed to ask her any questions about her coding skills. She described how one of the men had made it clear to her that she wasn’t a cultural fit and that therefore they didn’t need to proceed with technical questions.

I hear stories like this regularly, as I work with companies in Silicon Valley and beyond who want to bring more women onto their tech teams. Higher-ups declare their intention to hire more women. But the actual hiring is still all too rare.

There’s a continuing debate about the reasons for the lack of diversity in the tech sector, including candidate pools that are mostly male, and stubborn, superficial notions of what it means to be a “cultural fit” for an organization — the template for which is often based on young white men. But at least one small component of this problem is immediately solvable: Many companies are alienating the qualified women who want to work for them, and who they want to hire, during the interview process itself.

While Silicon Valley companies are enthusiastically putting money into STEM programs in schools and nonprofits focused on diversity, with the goal of creating a richer pipeline of talent in 10 years, they’re missing opportunities to make simple, immediate improvements by changing how they communicate with women who are sitting across the table from them now.

Read the entire article here.

Robocalypse Now? Central Bankers Argue Whether Automation Will Kill Jobs

From today’s New York Times by Jack Ewing:

SINTRA, Portugal — The rise of robots has long been a topic for sci-fi best sellers and video games and, as of this week, a threat officially taken seriously by central bankers.

The bankers are not yet ready to buy into dystopian visions in which robots render humans superfluous. But, at an exclusive gathering at a golf resort near Lisbon, the big minds of monetary policy were seriously discussing the risk that artificial intelligence could eliminate jobs on a scale that would dwarf previous waves of technological change.

“There is no question we are in an era of people asking, ‘Is the Robocalypse upon us?’” David Autor, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told an audience on Tuesday that included Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank, James Bullard, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, and dozens of other top central bankers and economists.

The discussion occurred as economists were more optimistic than they had been for a decade about growth. Mr. Draghi used the occasion to signal that the European Central Bank is edging closer to the day when it will begin paring measures intended to keep interest rates very low and bolster the economy.

“All the signs now point to a strengthening and broadening recovery in the euro area,” Mr. Draghi said. His comments pushed the euro to almost its highest level in a year, though it later gave up some of the gains.

But along with the optimism is a fear that the economic expansion might bypass large swaths of the population, in part because a growing number of jobs could be replaced by computers capable of learning — artificial intelligence.

Policy makers and economists conceded that they have not paid enough attention to how much technology has hurt the earning power of some segments of society, or planned to address the concerns of those who have lost out. That has, in part, nourished the political populism that contributed to Britain’s vote a year ago to leave the European Union, and the election of President Trump.

“Generally speaking, economic growth is a good thing,” Ben S. Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, said at the forum. “But, as recent political developments have brought home, growth is not always enough.”

In the past, technical advances caused temporary disruptions but ultimately improved living standards, creating new categories of employment along the way. Farm machinery displaced farmworkers but eventually they found better paying jobs, and today their great-grandchildren may design video games.

But artificial intelligence threatens broad categories of jobs previously seen as safe from automation, such as legal assistants, corporate auditors and investment managers. Large groups of people could become obsolete, suffering the same fate as plow horses after the invention of the tractor.

Read the entire article here.

A New Kind of Tech Job Emphasizes Skills, Not a College Degree

From today’s New York Times by Steve Lohr:

ROCKET CENTER, W.Va. — A few years ago, Sean Bridges lived with his mother, Linda, in Wiley Ford, W.Va. Their only income was her monthly Social Security disability check. He applied for work at Walmart and Burger King, but they were not hiring.

Yet while Mr. Bridges had no work history, he had certain skills. He had built and sold some stripped-down personal computers, and he had studied information technology at a community college. When Mr. Bridges heard IBM was hiring at a nearby operations center in 2013, he applied and demonstrated those skills.

Now Mr. Bridges, 25, is a computer security analyst, making $45,000 a year. In a struggling Appalachian economy, that is enough to provide him with his own apartment, a car, spending money — and career ambitions.

“I got one big break,” he said. “That’s what I needed.”

Mr. Bridges represents a new but promising category in the American labor market: people working in so-called new-collar or middle-skill jobs. As the United States struggles with how to match good jobs to the two-thirds of adults who do not have a four-year college degree, his experience shows how a worker’s skills can be emphasized over traditional hiring filters like college degrees, work history and personal references. And elevating skills over pedigree creates new pathways to employment and tailored training and a gateway to the middle class.

Read the complete article here.

Is the Gig Economy Working?—For Some, But Not For Most Workers

From this month’s The New Yorker magazine by Nathan Heller:

The American workplace is both a seat of national identity and a site of chronic upheaval and shame. The industry that drove America’s rise in the nineteenth century was often inhumane. The twentieth-century corrective—a corporate workplace of rules, hierarchies, collective bargaining, triplicate forms—brought its own unfairnesses. Gigging reflects the endlessly personalizable values of our own era, but its social effects, untried by time, remain uncertain.

Support for the new work model has come together swiftly, though, in surprising quarters. On the second day of the most recent Democratic National Convention, in July, members of a four-person panel suggested that gigging life was not only sustainable but the embodiment of today’s progressive values. “It’s all about democratizing capitalism,” Chris Lehane, a strategist in the Clinton Administration and now Airbnb’s head of global policy and public affairs, said during the proceedings, in Philadelphia. David Plouffe, who had managed Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign before he joined Uber, explained, “Politically, you’re seeing a large contingent of the Obama coalition demanding the sharing economy.” Instead of being pawns in the games of industry, the panelists thought, working Americans could thrive by hiring out skills as they wanted, and putting money in the pockets of peers who had done the same. The power to control one’s working life would return, grassroots style, to the people.

The basis for such confidence was largely demographic. Though statistics about gigging work are few, and general at best, a Pew study last year found that seventy-two per cent of American adults had used one of eleven sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under forty-five had used four or more. “To ‘speak millennial,’ you ought to be talking about the sharing economy, because it is core and central to their economic future,” Lehane declared, and many of his political kin have agreed. No other commercial field has lately drawn as deeply from the Democratic brain trust. Yet what does democratized capitalism actually promise a politically unsettled generation? Who are its beneficiaries? At a moment when the nation’s electoral future seems tied to the fate of its jobs, much more than next month’s paycheck depends on the answers.

Read the entire article here.

How Tech Companies are Waging “Psyops” Warfare on American and British Democracies

From yesterday’s Guardian by Carole Cadwalladr:

In June 2013, a young American postgraduate called Sophie was passing through London when she called up the boss of a firm where she’d previously interned. The company, SCL Elections, went on to be bought by Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund billionaire, renamed Cambridge Analytica, and achieved a certain notoriety as the data analytics firm that played a role in both Trump and Brexit campaigns. But all of this was still to come. London in 2013 was still basking in the afterglow of the Olympics. Britain had not yet Brexited. The world had not yet turned.

“That was before we became this dark, dystopian data company that gave the world Trump,” a former Cambridge Analytica employee who I’ll call Paul tells me. “It was back when we were still just a psychological warfare firm.”

Was that really what you called it, I ask him. Psychological warfare? “Totally. That’s what it is. Psyops. Psychological operations – the same methods the military use to effect mass sentiment change. It’s what they mean by winning ‘hearts and minds’. We were just doing it to win elections in the kind of developing countries that don’t have many rules.”

Why would anyone want to intern with a psychological warfare firm, I ask him. And he looks at me like I am mad. “It was like working for MI6. Only it’s MI6 for hire. It was very posh, very English, run by an old Etonian and you got to do some really cool things. Fly all over the world. You were working with the president of Kenya or Ghana or wherever. It’s not like election campaigns in the west. You got to do all sorts of crazy shit.”

On that day in June 2013, Sophie met up with SCL’s chief executive, Alexander Nix, and gave him the germ of an idea. “She said, ‘You really need to get into data.’ She really drummed it home to Alexander. And she suggested he meet this firm that belonged to someone she knew about through her father.”

Who’s her father?

“Eric Schmidt.”

Eric Schmidt – the chairman of Google?

“Yes. And she suggested Alexander should meet this company called Palantir.”

I had been speaking to former employees of Cambridge Analytica for months and heard dozens of hair-raising stories, but it was still a gobsmacking moment. To anyone concerned about surveillance, Palantir is practically now a trigger word. The data-mining firm has contracts with governments all over the world – including GCHQ and the NSA. It’s owned by Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of eBay and PayPal, who became Silicon Valley’s first vocal supporter of Trump.

In some ways, Eric Schmidt’s daughter showing up to make an introduction to Palantir is just another weird detail in the weirdest story I have ever researched.

A weird but telling detail. Because it goes to the heart of why the story of Cambridge Analytica is one of the most profoundly unsettling of our time. Sophie Schmidt now works for another Silicon Valley megafirm: Uber. And what’s clear is that the power and dominance of the Silicon Valley – Google and Facebook and a small handful of others – are at the centre of the global tectonic shift we are currently witnessing.

Read the entire story here.

Trumpism: The Dangers of Disruption

From today’s New York Times (Opinion Section):

by Francis Fukuyama, Senior Fellow, Stanford University

In Silicon Valley, where I live, the word “disruption” has an overwhelmingly positive valence: Thousands of smart, young people arrive here every year hoping to disrupt established ways of doing business — and become very rich in the process.

For almost everyone else, however, disruption is a bad thing. By nature, human beings prize stability and order. We learn to be adults by accumulating predictable habits, and we bond by memorializing our ancestors and traditions. So it should not be surprising that in today’s globalized world, many people are upset that vast technological and social forces constantly disrupt established social practices, even if they are better off materially.

Of course, globalization has produced enormous benefits. From 1970 to the 2008 financial crisis, global output quadrupled, and the benefits did not flow exclusively to the rich. According to the economist Steven Radelet, the number of people living in extreme poverty in developing countries fell from 42 percent in 1993 to 17 percent in 2011, while the percentage of children born in developing countries who died before their fifth birthday declined from 22 percent in 1960 to less than 5 percent by 2016.

Yet statistics like these do not reflect the lived experience of many people. The shift of manufacturing from the West to low labor-cost regions has meant that Asia’s rising middle classes have grown at the expense of rich countries’ working-class communities. And from a cultural standpoint, the huge movement of ideas, people and goods across national borders has disrupted traditional communities and ways of doing business. For some this has presented tremendous opportunity, but for others it is a threat.

Mr. Trump’s ascent poses a unique challenge to the American system because he fits comfortably into the trend toward illiberal democracy. He validated himself through popular support, but his entire career has been spent trying to bypass inconvenient rules — like the requirement to pay his own subcontractors. Much of his popularity rested heavily on his willingness to break existing customs about political correctness. This seemed politically bracing at first, but quickly became worrisome when Mr. Trump suggested that as president, he would “open up our libel laws” to initiate civil suits against his media critics. His pitch to the American voter was “I alone” can fix the country’s problems through sheer force of personality, and not through a reform of the country’s institutions.

That Mr. Trump expressed admiration for Mr. Putin, and that Mr. Putin returned the favor, should come as no surprise. Like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump seems to want to use a democratic mandate to undermine the checks and balances that characterize a genuine liberal democracy. He will be an oligarch in the Russian mold: a rich man who used his wealth to gain political power and who would use political power to enrich himself once in office. And like Mr. Putin, Mr. Trump was able to create alternative narratives that often went unchallenged by his supporters.

Read the full article here.

End the Tyranny of 24/7 Email

From yesterday’s NYT “Opinion” by Clive Thompson:

This Labor Day weekend, odds are you’ll peek at your work email on your “day off” — and then feel guilty about it.

You might envy the serene workers at Daimler, the German automaker. On vacations, employees can set their corporate email to “holiday mode.” Anyone who emails them gets an auto-reply saying the employee isn’t in, and offering contact details for an alternate, on-call staff person. Then poof, the incoming email is deleted — so that employees don’t have to return to inboxes engorged with digital missives in their absence. “The idea behind it is to give people a break and let them rest,” a Daimler spokesman told Time magazine. “Then they can come back to work with a fresh spirit.”

Limiting workplace email seems radical, but it’s a trend in Germany, where Volkswagen and Deutsche Telekom have adopted policies that limit work-related email to some employees on evenings and weekends. If this can happen in precision-mad, high-productivity Germany, could it happen in the United States? Absolutely. It not only could, but it should.

White-collar cubicle dwellers complain about email for good reason. They spend 28 percent of their workweek slogging through the stuff, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. They check their messages 74 times a day, on average, according to Gloria Mark, an authority on workplace behavior and a professor at the University of California, Irvine.

And lots of that checking happens at home. Jennifer Deal, a senior research scientist at the Center for Creative Leadership, surveyed smartphone-using white-collar workers and found that most were umbilically tied to email a stunning 13.5 hours a day, well into the evening. Workers don’t even take a break during dinner — where, other research shows, fully 38 percent check work email “routinely,” peeking at the phone under the table. Half check it in bed in the morning. What agonizes workers is the expectation that they’ll reply instantly to a colleague or boss, no matter how ungodly the hour. Hence the endless, neurotic checking, and the dread of getting in trouble for ignoring something.

So as a matter of sheer human decency and workplace fairness, reducing the chokehold of after-hours email is a laudable goal.

But it also appears that, from a corporate standpoint, the sky won’t fall. The few North American firms that have emulated Daimler all say it is surprisingly manageable.

At the Toronto office of Edelman, the global public relations firm, managers created the “7-to-7” rule. Employees are strongly discouraged from emailing one another before 7 a.m. and after 7 p.m. Sure, they can check email if they want — but they’re not to send it to colleagues. It’s an acknowledgment that the only way to really reduce email is to persuade colleagues not to reflexively write every time they have the tiniest question.

Those who do are scolded. “You have to stick to it,” Lisa Kimmel, the general manager of the office, told me. “When we tell prospective employees about it, their eyes light up.”

Even start-ups are experimenting with email limits. Book Riot, a website for book lovers, has eight full-time employees who mostly work remotely, in different time zones, on often hectic schedules. They all agree: Email someone whenever you want, but don’t expect a reply until the recipient is back in the office.

“It’s understood that if someone has a crazy idea at 3 a.m. and sends it, that’s their problem that it’s 3 a.m. — you respond when you want,” Rebecca Schinsky, the site’s director of content, told me. At the Boston Consulting Group, when a team of stressed-out consultants began organizing “predictable time off” — no-messaging zones during their off time — their total work hours dropped by 11 percent, yet the same amount of work was accomplished.

Why would less email mean better productivity? Because, as Ms. Deal found in her research, endless email is an enabler. It often masks terrible management practices.

When employees shoot out a fusillade of miniature questions via email, or “cc” every team member about each niggling little decision, it’s because they don’t feel confident to make a decision on their own. Often, Ms. Deal found, they’re worried about getting in trouble or downsized if they mess up.

In contrast, when employees are actually empowered, they make more judgment calls on their own. They also start using phone calls and face-to-face chats to resolve issues quickly, so they don’t metastasize into email threads the length of “War and Peace.”

This is basic behavioral economics. When email is seen as an infinite resource, people abuse it. If a corporation constrains its use, each message becomes more valuable — and employees become more mindful of how and when they write.

Granted, not all late-night email is bad. As Ms. Deal found, employees don’t like being forced to reply at 1 a.m., but they appreciate the flexibility of being able to shift some work to the evening if they choose. And they don’t mind dealing with genuine work crises that crop up during leisure hours. At Edelman in Toronto, employees try not to bug each other in the evenings — but if a client emails with a time-sensitive issue, they’ll respond.

These changes can’t happen through personal behavior: The policy needs to come from the top. (If your boss regularly emails you a high-priority question at 11 p.m., the real message is, “At our company, we do email at midnight.”) And some changes may seem like matters of housekeeping, but have major repercussions, like keeping a separate email box for your personal messages. You can’t ignore your work inbox if that’s also the place where friends send you weepy accounts of their breakups.

But it’s worth it. More than a century ago, blue-collar workers fought for a limited workday with an activist anthem: “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” It’s a heritage that, this Labor Day, we need to restore.

When Tech Makes Work Worse

From yesterday’s NYT “Op-Talk” Blog by Anna North:

When we talk about robots taking people’s jobs, we often mean it almost literally — we envision if not the humanoid androids of science fiction, then at least machines programmed to do tasks once done by humans. But technology may also be altering Americans’ working lives in another way, via the software and hardware that companies use to determine when and how they work.

Read the entire article here.