"business" entries

Amazon, boredom, and culture

Corporate leadership is as much about building people as it is about developing product.


Attend Cultivate, September 28 to 29 in New York, NY. Cultivate is our conference looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

I want to call attention to two articles I’ve read recently. First, Rita King’s analysis of Amazon’s corporate culture, Culture Controversy at Amazon, Decoded, is an excellent, even-handed discussion of one of the past year’s most controversial articles about corporate culture. I hadn’t intended to write about Amazon, but King’s article needs to be read.

King doesn’t present a simple “bad Amazon” story. Anyone in the industry knows that Amazon is a tough place to work. King presents both sides of this picture: working at Amazon is difficult and demanding, but you may find yourself pushed to levels of creativity you never thought possible. Amazon’s culture encourages a lot of critical thinking, questioning, and criticism, sometimes to the point of “brutality.” This pressure can lead to backstabbing and intense rivalries, and I’m disturbed by Amazon’s myth that they are a “meritocracy,” since meritocracies rarely have much to do with merit. But the result of constant pressure to perform at the highest level is that Amazon can move quickly, react to changes, and create new products faster than its competitors — often before their competitors even realize there’s an opportunity for a new product.

Without pressure to achieve, and without critical thinking, it’s easy to build a culture of underachievers, a culture of complacency. A culture of complacency is more comfortable, but in the long run, just as ugly. DEC, Wang, and a host of other high-tech companies from the 70s and 80s never understood how the industry was changing until it was too late. HP is arguably in a similar position now. I can’t see Amazon making the same mistake. When you’re making the changes, you’re less likely to be done in by them. Read more…


4 trends in fintech startups

An analysis of fintech competitions shows a focus on data, payments, lending, and small business.

Photo close-up of Mexican paper money, by Kevin Dooley on Flickr.

Request an invitation to Next:Money, O’Reilly’s conference focused on the fundamental transformation taking place in the finance industry.

Fintech hackathons and competitions occur globally. In January 2012, Swift launched the Innotribe Startup Competition as an initiative to bring together disruptive startups and incumbents in financial services. It was one of the first of its kind and has been joined by similar events in subsequent years. Just this year, I counted 18 fintech hackathons and startup competitions — eight of which are happening later this year.

Fintech startups are aiming to disrupt financial institutions with their technology, products, and design. Meanwhile financial institutions focus on secure systems for money transfer, payments, and lending at a global scale. But the two are not necessarily at odds. It’s hard for incumbents to innovate existing businesses in house, and this is where startups thrive: testing new business models and pushing the limits of technology unencumbered by regulations or corporate baggage. Hackathons and startup competitions are where innovative ideas are tested. Read more…

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Four short links: 19 August 2015

Four short links: 19 August 2015

Privacy-Respecting Algorithms, Dealers Growing, Book Recommendations, and End of Internet Dreams

  1. Efficient Algorithms for Public-Private Social Networks — Google Research paper on privacy-respecting algorithms for social networks. From the overview: the models of privacy we’re landing on (nodes or edges in the graph are marked as “private” by a user) mean that enforcing these privacy guarantees translates to solving a different algorithmic problem for each user in the network, and for this reason, developing algorithms that process these social graphs and respect these privacy guarantees can become computationally expensive. The paper shows how to efficiently approximate some of the graph operations required to run a social network.
  2. Rise of Networked Platforms for Physical World Services (Tim O’Reilly) — the central player begins by feeding its network of suppliers, but eventually begins to compete with it. […] Over time, as networks reach monopoly or near-monopoly status, they must wrestle with the issue of how to create more value than they capture — how much value to take out of the ecosystem, versus how much they must leave for other players in order for the marketplace to continue to thrive.
  3. Book Recommendations from BLDBLOGWinslow memorably pointed out how farmers in the Sinaloa region of Mexico had been swept up into the cartel’s infinitely flexible method of production, and that, despite any ensuing role growing and harvesting marijuana or even poppies, the cartel offered them new jobs in logistics, not agriculture. “They didn’t want to be farmers,” Winslow said at Bookcourt, “they wanted to be FedEx.”
  4. The End of the Internet Dream (Jennifer Granick) — this is all gold. Something resonating with my current meditations: People are sick and tired of crappy software. And they aren’t going to take it any more. The proliferation of networked devices — the Internet of Things — is going to mean all kinds of manufacturers traditionally subject to products liability are also software purveyors. If an autonomous car crashes, or a networked toaster catches on fire, you can bet there is going to be product liability. […] I think software liability is inevitable. I think it’s necessary. I think it will make coding more expensive, and more conservative. I think we’ll do a crappy job of it for a really long time.

Cultivate in Portland: Leadership, values, diversity

Building the next generation of leaders, for any size organization.


Register now for Cultivate NY, which will be co-located with Strata + Hadoop World NY, September 28 and 29, 2015.

At our recent Cultivate event in Portland, O’Reilly and our partnering sponsor New Relic brought together 10 speakers and more than 100 attendees to learn about corporate culture and leadership. Three themes emerged: diversity, values, and leading through humility.

Almost every speaker talked about the importance of diversity in the workplace. That’s important at a time when “maintaining corporate culture” often means building a group that’s reminiscent of a college frat house. It’s well established that diverse groups, groups that include different kinds of people, different experiences, and different ways of thinking, perform better. As Michael Lopp said at the event, “Diversity is a no-brainer.” We’re not aiming for tribal uniformity, but as Mary Yoko Brannen noted at the outset, sharing knowledge across different groups with different expectations. No organization can afford to remain monochromatic, but in a diverse organization, you have to be aware of how others differ. In particular, Karla Monterroso showed us that you need to realize when — and why — others feel threatened. When you do, you are in a much better position to build better products, to respond to changes in your market, and to use the talent in your organization effectively. Read more…

Four short links: 6 August 2015

Four short links: 6 August 2015

Music Money, Hotel Robot, Performance Rating, and SIGGRAPH Papers

  1. Open the Music Industry’s Black Box (NYT) — David Byrne talks about the opacity of financials of streaming and online music services (including/especially YouTube). Caught my eye: The labels also get money from three other sources, all of which are hidden from artists: They get advances from the streaming services, catalog service payments for old songs, and equity in the streaming services themselves. (via BoingBoing)
  2. Savioke — hotel robot. (via Robohub)
  3. Deloitte Changing Performance Reviews (HBR) — “Although it is implicitly assumed that the ratings measure the performance of the ratee, most of what is being measured by the ratings is the unique rating tendencies of the rater. Thus, ratings reveal more about the rater than they do about the ratee.”
  4. SIGGRAPH Papers Are on the Web — collected papers from SIGGRAPH.

Coming up at Solid Amsterdam

A look at our unified program for unified creators.


Register now for Solid Amsterdam 2015, our conference exploring the intersections of manufacturing, design, hardware, software, and business strategy. The event will take place in Amsterdam on October 28, 2015.

Creating a great product means knowing something about many things: design, prototyping, electronics, software, manufacturing, marketing, and business strategy. That’s the blend that Solid brings together: over our one-day program at Solid Amsterdam on October 28, 2015, we’ll walk through a range of inspiration and insight that’s essential for anyone who creates physical products — consumer devices, industrial machines, and everything in between.

Start with design: it’s the first discipline that’s called on to master any new technology, and designers whose work has been confined to the digital realm are now expected to understand hardware and connected systems as well.

Design at Solid begins with our program co-chair, Marko Ahtisaari, who was head of product design at Nokia from 2009 to 2013, and is now CEO and co-founder of The Sync Project. We’ll also hear from Thomas Widdershoven, creative director at Design Academy Eindhoven and co-founder of thonik, a design studio whose work specializes in interaction and motion design. Read more…

Four short links: 5 August 2015

Four short links: 5 August 2015

Facebook Video, Lost Links, Regulatory Push, and LLVM Teases

  1. Theft, Lies, and Facebook Video (Medium) — inexcusable that Facebook, a company with a market cap of $260 BILLION, launched their video platform with no system to protect independent rights holders. It wouldn’t be surprising if Facebook was working on a solution now, which they can roll out conveniently after having made their initial claims at being the biggest, most important thing in video. In the words of Gillian Welch, “I wanna do right, but not right now.
  2. The Web We Have to SaveNearly every social network now treats a link just the same as it treats any other object — the same as a photo, or a piece of text — instead of seeing it as a way to make that text richer. You’re encouraged to post one single hyperlink and expose it to a quasi-democratic process of liking and plussing and hearting: Adding several links to a piece of text is usually not allowed. Hyperlinks are objectivized, isolated, stripped of their powers.
  3. California Regulator Pushing for All Cars to be Electric (Bloomberg) — Nichols really does intend to force au­tomakers to eventually sell nothing but electrics. In an interview in June at her agency’s heavy-duty-truck laboratory in downtown Los Angeles, it becomes clear that Nichols, at age 70, is pushing regulations today that could by midcentury all but banish the internal combustion engine from California’s famous highways. “If we’re going to get our transportation system off petroleum,” she says, “we’ve got to get people used to a zero-emissions world, not just a little-bit-better version of the world they have now.” How long until the same article is written, but about driverless cars?
  4. LLVM for Grad Students — fast intro to why LLVM is interesting. LLVM is a great compiler, but who cares if you don’t do compilers research? A compiler infrastructure is useful whenever you need to do stuff with programs.
Four short links: 31 July 2015

Four short links: 31 July 2015

Robot Swarms, Google Datacenters, VR Ecosystem, and DeepDream Visualised

  1. Buzz: An Extensible Programming Language for Self-Organizing Heterogeneous Robot Swarms (arXiv) — Swarm-based primitives allow for the dynamic management of robot teams, and for sharing information globally across the swarm. Self-organization stems from the completely decentralized mechanisms upon which the Buzz run-time platform is based. The language can be extended to add new primitives (thus supporting heterogeneous robot swarms), and its run-time platform is designed to be laid on top of other frameworks, such as Robot Operating System.
  2. Jupiter Rising: A Decade of Clos Topologies and Centralized Control in Google’s Datacenter Network (PDF) — Our datacenter networks run at dozens of sites across the planet, scaling in capacity by 100x over 10 years to more than 1Pbps of bisection bandwidth. Wow, their Wi-Fi must be AMAZING!
  3. Nokia’s VR Ambitions Could Restore Its Tech Lustre (Bloomberg) — the VR ecosystem map is super-interesting.
  4. Visualising GoogleNet Classes — fascinating to see squirrel monkeys and basset hounds emerge from nothing. It’s so tempting to say, “this is what the machine sees in its mind when it thinks of basset hounds,” even though Boring Brain says, “that’s bollocks and you know it!”
Four short links: 9 July 2015

Four short links: 9 July 2015

Conservation of Attractive Profits, Prototyping Tool, Open Source PM, and Dev Snark

  1. Netflix and the Conservation of Attractive Profits (Stratechery) — Note the common element to all three of these companies: all have managed to modularize the production/delivery of their service which has allowed them to move closer to the customer. To put it another way, all of this new value is being created by specialized CRM companies: Airbnb for travelers, Uber for commuters, and Netflix for the bored.
  2. Origami — Facebook’s prototyping tool.
  3. Go as Open Source — keynote from this year’s Gophercon. I’ve been pondering lately how successful open source projects go beyond “anyone can scratch their itch,” and instead actively manage the tendency for scope creep. We’d rather have a small number of features that enable, say, 90% of the target use cases, and avoid the orders of magnitude more features necessary to reach 99% or 100%.
  4. The Universal Data StructureGiven the abysmal state of of today’s software engineering, I believe that a full embrace of the universal hash will result in better, simpler programs. Your weekly dose of snark.

To suit or not to suit?

At Cultivate, we'll address the issues really facing management: how to deal with human problems.

Attend Cultivate July 20 and 21, in Portland, Oregon, which will be co-located with our OSCON Conference. Cultivate is our event looking at the challenges facing modern management and aiming to train a new generation of business leaders who understand the relationship between corporate culture and corporate prosperity.

Ties_(Cravate_-_Larousse)_crop1What does it take to become a manager? According to one article, you should buy a suit. And think about whether you want to be a manager in the first place. You’re probably being paid better as a programmer. Maybe you should get an MBA. At night school. And take a Myers-Briggs test.

There are better ways to think about management. Cultivate won’t tell you how to become a manager, or even whether you should; that’s ultimately a personal decision. We will discuss the issues that are really facing management: issues that are important whether you are already managing, are looking forward to managing, or just want to have a positive impact on your company.

Management isn’t about technical issues; it’s about human issues, and we’ll be discussing how to deal with human problems. How do you debug your team when its members aren’t working well together? How do you exercise leadership effectively? How do you create environments where everyone’s contribution is valued?

These are the issues that everyone involved with the leadership of a high-performance organization has to deal with. They’re inescapable. And as companies come under increasing pressure because of ever-faster product cycles, difficulty hiring and retaining excellent employees, customer demand for designs that take their needs into account, and more, these issues will become even more important. We’ve built Cultivate around the cultural changes organizations will need to thrive — and in many cases, survive — in this environment. Read more…