Amazon hires Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin as Director of Alexa Gadgets

Amazon has hired Disney SVP Kyle Laughlin to head its Alexa Gadgets division, TechCrunch has learned. Laughlin spent eight years at Disney, most recently as the SVP and General Manager of Games, Apps and Connected Experience at the entertainment giant’s Consumer Products and Interactive Media division.

According to his LinkedIn profile, the role found Laughlin overseeing apps, connected hardware and games for Disney and Lucasfilm. The gig also involved AI, IoT and AR/VR. Also, lots of Muppets.

Amazon has since confirmed the hire. A spokesperson for the company told TechCrunch, “I can confirm that Kyle Laughlin has joined Amazon as Director, Alexa Gadgets. We’re very excited to have him.”

The gig appears to revolve around the newly defined “Alexa Gadget” category, which the company describes as “fun and delightful accessories that pair to compatible Echo devices via Bluetooth.”

Doesn’t seem like much of a stretch after eight years at Disney. Examples of current Alexa Gadgets include the Echo Wall Clock and Gemmy Industries’ connected Big Mouth Billy Bass and Dancing Plush Animatronics.

In a few short years, the Echo has transformed from smart speaker to a category defining, industry driving project. Alexa has become a huge business for Amazon and left everyone else struggling to catch up. Alexa Gadgets is a big push from Amazon to grow the smart assistant’s ecosystem beyond the smart speaker, through a wide range of connected devices.

Hire faster, work happier: Startups target employment with AI and engagement tools

If you have a job today, there’s a good chance you personally reached out to your employer and interviewed with other humans to get it. Now that you’ve been there a while, it’s also likely the workday feels more like a long slog than the fulfilling career move you had envisioned.

But if today’s early-stage startups have their way, your next employment experience could be quite different.

First, forget the networking and interview gauntlet. Instead, let an AI-enabled screening program reach out about a job you don’t seem obviously qualified to do. Or, rather than talk to a company’s employees, wait for them to play some online games instead. If you play similarly, they may decide to hire you.

Once you have the job, software will also make you more efficient and happier at your work.

An AI-driven software platform will deliver regular “nudges,” offering customized suggestions to make you a more effective worker. If you’re feeling burned out, head online to text or video chat with a coach or therapist. Or perhaps you’ll just be happier in your job now that your employer is delivering regular tokens of appreciation.

Those are a few of the ways early-stage startups are looking to change the status quo of job-seeking and employment. While employment is a broad category, an analysis of Crunchbase funding data for the space shows a high concentration of activity in two key areas: AI-driven hiring software and tools to improve employee engagement.

Below, we look at where the money’s going and how today’s early-stage startups could play a role in transforming the work experience of tomorrow.

Artificial intelligence

To begin, let us reflect that we are at a strange inflection point for AI and employment. Our artificially intelligent overlords are not smart enough to actually do our jobs. Nonetheless, they have strong opinions about whether we’re qualified to do them ourselves.

It is at this peculiar point that the alchemic mix of AI software, recruiting-based business models and venture capital are coming together to build startups.

In 2018, at least 43 companies applying AI or machine learning to some facet of employment have raised seed or early-stage funding, according to Crunchbase data. In the chart below, we look at a few startups that have secured rounds, along with their backers and respective business models:

At present, even AI boosters don’t tout the technology as a cure-all for troubles plaguing the talent recruitment space. While it’s true humans are biased and flawed when it comes to evaluating job candidates, artificially intelligent software suffers from many of the same bugs. For instance, Amazon scrapped its AI recruiting tool developed in-house because it exhibited bias against women.

That said, it’s still early innings. Over the next few years, startups will be actively tweaking their software to improve performance and reduce bias.

Happiness and engagement

Once the goal of recruiting the best people is achieved, the next step is ensuring they stay and thrive.

Usually, a paycheck goes a long way to accomplishing the goal of staying. But in case that’s not enough, startups are busily devising a host of tools for employers to boost engagement and fight the scourge of burnout.

In the chart below, we look at a few of the companies that received early-stage funding this year to build out software platforms and services aimed at making people happier and more effective at work:

The most heavily funded of the early-stage crop looks to be Peakon, which offers a software platform for measuring employee engagement and collecting feedback. The Danish firm has raised $33 million to date to fund its expansion.

London-based BioBeats is another up-and-comer aimed at the “corporate wellness” market, with digital tools to help employees track stress levels and other health-related metrics. The company has raised $7 million to date to help keep those stress levels in check.

Early-stage indicators

Early-stage funding activity tends to be an indicator of areas with somewhat low adoption rates today that are poised to take off dramatically. For employment, that means we can likely expect to see AI-based recruitment and software-driven engagement tools become more widespread in the coming years.

What does that mean for job seekers and paycheck toilers? Expect to spend more of your time interfacing with intelligent software. Apparently, it’ll make you more employable, and happier, too.

Applied gets $2M to make hiring fairer — using algorithms, not AI

London-based startup Applied has bagged £1.5M (~$2M) in seed funding for a fresh, diversity-sensitive approach to recruitment that deconstructs and reworks the traditional CV-bound process, drawing on behavioural science to level the playing field and help employers fill vacancies with skilled candidates they might otherwise have overlooked.

Fairer hiring is the pitch. “If you’re hiring for a product lead, for example, it’s true that loads and loads of product leads are straight, white men with beards. How do we get people to see well what is it actually that this job entails?” founder and CEO Kate Glazebrook tells us. “It might actually be the case that if I don’t know any of the demographic background I discover somebody who I would have otherwise overlooked.”

Applied launched its software as a service recruitment platform in 2016, and Glazebrook says so far it’s been used by more than 55 employers to recruit candidates for more than 2,000 jobs. While more than 50,000 candidates have applied via Applied to date.

The employers themselves are also a diverse bunch, not just the usual suspects from the charitable sector, with both public and private sector organizations, small and large, and from a range of industries, from book publishing to construction, signed up to Applied’s approach. “We’ve been pleased to see it’s not just the sort of thing that the kind of employers you would expect to care about care about,” says Glazebrook.

Applied’s own investor Blackbird Ventures, which is leading the seed round, is another customer — and ended up turning one investment associate vacancy, advertised via the platform, into two roles — hiring both an ethnic minority woman and a man with a startup background as a result of “not focusing on did they have the traditional profile we were expecting”, says Glazebrook.

“They discovered these people were fantastic and had the skills — just a really different set of background characteristics than they were expecting,” she adds.

Other investors in the seed include Skip Capital, Angel Academe, Giant Leap and Impact Generation Partners, plus some unnamed angels. Prior investors include the entity Applied was originally spun out of (Behavioural Insights Team, a “social purpose company” jointly owned by the UK government, innovation charity Nesta, and its own employees), as well as gender advocate and businesswoman Carol Schwartz, and Wharton Professor Adam Grant.

Applied’s approach to recruitment employs plenty of algorithms — including for scoring candidates (its process involves chunking up applications and also getting candidates to answer questions that reflect “what a day in the job actually looks like”), and also anonymizing applications to further strip away bias risks, presenting the numbered candidates in a random order too.

But it does not involve any AI-based matching. If you want to make hiring fairer, AI doesn’t look like a great fit. Last week, for example, Reuters reported how in 2014 ecommerce giant Amazon built and then later scrapped a machine learning based recruitment tool, after it failed to rate candidates in a gender-neutral way — apparently reflecting wider industry biases.

“We’re really clear that we don’t do AI,” says Glazebrook. “We don’t fall into the traps that [companies like] Amazon did. Because it’s not that we’re parsing existing data-sets and saying ‘this is what you hired for last time so we’ll match candidates to that’. That’s exactly where you get this problem of replication of bias. So what we’ve done instead is say ‘actually what we should do is change what you see and how you see it so that you’re only focusing on the things that really matter’.

“So that levels the playing field for all candidates. All candidates are assessed on the basis of their skill, not whether or not they fit the historic profile of people you’ve previously hired. We avoid a lot of those pitfalls because we’re not doing AI-based or algorithmic hiring — we’re doing algorithms that reshape the information you see, not the prediction that you have to arrive at.”

In practice this means Applied must and does take over the entire recruitment process, including writing the job spec itself — to remove things like gendered language which could introduce bias into the process — and slicing and dicing the application process to be able to score and compare candidates and fill in any missing bits of data via role-specific skills tests.

Its approach can be thought of as entirely deconstructing the CV — to not just remove extraneous details and bits of information which can bias the process (such as names, education institutions attended, hobbies etc) but also to actively harvest data on the skills being sought, with employers using the platform to set tests to measure capacities and capabilities they’re after.

“We manage the hiring process right from the design of an inclusive job description, right through to the point of making a hiring decision and all of the selection that happens beneath that,” says Glazebrook. “So we use over 30 behavioural science nudges throughout the process to try and improve conversion and inclusivity — so that includes everything from removal of gendered language in jobs descriptions to anonymization of applications to testing candidates on job preview based assessments, rather than based on their CVs.”

“We also help people to run more evidence-based structured interviews and then make the hiring decision,” she adds. “From a behavioral science standpoint I guess our USP is we’ve redesigned the shortlisting process.”

The platform also provides jobseekers with greater visibility into the assessment process by providing them with feedback — “so candidates get to see where their strengths and weaknesses were” — so it’s not simply creating a new recruitment blackbox process that keeps people in the dark about the assessments being made about them. Which is important from an algorithmic accountability point of view, even without any AI involved. Because vanilla algorithms can still sum up to dumb decisions.

From the outside looking in, Applied’s approach might sound highly manual and high maintenance, given how necessarily involved the platform is in each and every hire, but Glazebrook says in fact it’s “all been baked into the tech” — so the platform takes the strain of the restructuring by automating the hand-holding involved in debiasing job ads and judgements, letting employers self-serve to step them through a reconstructed recruitment process.

“From the job description design, for example, there are eight different characteristics that are automatically picked out, so it’s all self-serve stuff,” explains Glazebrook, noting that the platform will do things like automatically flag words to watch out for in job descriptions or the length of the job ad itself.

“All with that totally automated. And client self-serve as well, so they use a library of questions — saying I’m looking for this particular skill-set and we can say well if you look through the library we’ll find you some questions which have worked well for testing that skill set before.”

“They do all of the assessment themselves, through the platform, so it’s basically like saying rather than having your recruiting team sifting through paper forms of CVs, we have them online scoring candidates through this redesigned process,” she adds.

Employers themselves need to commit to a new way of doing things, of course. Though Applied’s claim is that ultimately a fairer approach also saves time, as well as delivering great hires.

“In many ways, one of the things that we’ve discovered through many customers is that it’s actually saved them loads of time because the shortlisting process is devised in a way that it previously hasn’t been and more importantly they have data and reporting that they’ve never previously had,” she says. “So they now know, through the platform, which of the seven places that they placed the job actually found them the highest quality candidates and also found people who were from more diverse backgrounds because we could automatically pull the data.”

Applied ran its own comparative study of its reshaped process vs a traditional sifting of CVs and Glazebrook says it discovered “statistically significant differences” in the resulting candidate choices — claiming that over half of the pool of 700+ candidates “wouldn’t have got the job if we’d been looking at their CVs”.

They also looked at the differences between the choices made in the study and also found statistically significant differences “particularly in educational and economic background” — “so we were diversifying the people we were hiring by those metrics”.

“We also saw directional evidence around improvements in diversity on disability status and ethnicity,” she adds. “And some interesting stuff around gender as well.”

Applied wants to go further on the proof front, and Glazebrook says it is now automatically collecting performance data while candidates are on the job — “so that we can do an even better job of proving here is a person that you hired and you did a really good job of identifying the skill-sets that they are proving they have when they’re on the job”.

She says it will be feeding this intel back into the platform — “to build a better feedback loop the next time you’re looking to hire that particular role”.

“At the moment, what is astonishing, is that most HR departments 1) have terrible data anyway to answer these important questions, and 2) to the extent they have them they don’t pair those data sets in a way that allows them to prove — so they don’t know ‘did we hire them because of X or Y’ and ‘did that help us to actually replicate what was working well and jettison what wasn’t’,” she adds.

The seed funding will go on further developing these sorts of data science predictions, and also on updates to Applied’s gendered language tool and inclusive job description tool — as well as on sales and marketing to generally grow the business.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Nick Crocker, general partner at Blackbird Ventures said: “Our mission is to find the most ambitious founders, and support them through every stage of their company journey. Kate and the team blew us away with the depth of their insight, the thoughtfulness of their product, and a mission that we’re obsessed with.”

In another supporting statement, Owain Service, CEO of BI Ventures, added: “Applied uses the latest behavioural science research to help companies find the best talent. We ourselves have recruited over 130 people through the platform. This investment represents an exciting next step to supporting more organisations to remove bias from their recruitment processes, in exactly the same way that we do.”

Upwork pops more than 50 percent in Nasdaq debut

Upwork, the rebranded merger of oDesk and Elance, debuted on Nasdaq this morning, after dropping its S-1 about four weeks ago. Shares opened at $23.00, which represents a 53% jump — shares were priced at $15 before the opening bell by investors, a significant uptick from the company’s revised projection of $12 to $14, which was already an increase from its original $10 to $12 target. The stock trades under the ticker UPWK, and the company will fundraise approximately $102 million of new cash for its balance sheet ($187 million total with existing shareholders).

Shares are still currently up 40% compared to their original price.

I talked with Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel this morning about the IPO road show, in which he said he took approximately 160 meetings with investors. Investors were engaged on the “combination of the strengths of the business and the strengths of the mission,“ and he was clearly excited about the engagement the offering received.

Upwork, whose antecedent companies go back almost two decades, is a positive cash flow business, albeit one growing top line revenue only about 27.6% year over year. Kasriel said that the company should be able to “compound at that rate for decades” due to the growing number of workers who freelance around the world in order to have flexible work arrangements. “When you think about which jobs are being created in the global economy, in most countries it is these knowledge jobs,” he said.

Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel (Photo from Upwork)

In addition, “When you really take a long term view, what really matters is to be good stewards of capital,” Kasriel noted, and said that the company was very focused on areas like sales and marketing ROI. His goal is to continue to grow the company with limited dilution to shareholders, a message that apparently has been well-received.

As for Kasriel himself, he becomes a public company CEO. He was elevated to the CEO role in 2015 from SVP of Engineering – a somewhat unusual path, even in tech-obsessed Silicon Valley. He emphasized that “we are a tech company,” and noted that every day is a learning experience. “I was just on CNBC, and for introverts, what really scares me is to be on live broadcast TV,” he said.

A huge part of Upwork’s business today is focused on the enterprise, particularly complex workflows that require multiple types of talent. The company’s platform not only handles talent management, but the long array of tasks to manage people: HR, legal, procurement, information security, and others.

According to the company, it will host $1.5 billion worth of gross sales value across two million unique projects. The company estimates that its products are used by 30% of the Fortune 500.

Upwork, which has offices in Mountain View, San Francisco, and Chicago, has 1,500 employees – and as is to be expected – roughly 1,100 of them are freelancers. Kasriel said, “We use our own product, which we call drinking our own champagne.”

Among the major VC investors behind the company are Benchmark, which owned 15%, Sigma Partners, which owned 14.2%, and Globespan, T. Rowe Price, and FirstMark. The company is offering 6,818,181 new shares as well as 5,658,512 shares from existing shareholders. Citigroup, Jefferies, and RBC jointly led the book.

Now that the company has debuted, Upwork wants to refocus once again on its business following weeks of talking to investors. “We need to build this company for the ages,” Kasriel noted, and said that his message to employees was to “focus on the mission.”

Mike Curtis, Airbnb’s VP of engineering, is leaving

Airbnb’s head of engineering will leave the company before the end of 2018 to pursue other projects and focus on his family. The news was first reported by The Information and later confirmed to TechCrunch by Airbnb.

Curtis joined the home-sharing platform in 2013 after about two years as the director of engineering at Facebook.

Airbnb will work with Heidrick & Struggles to find his successor, who will be named chief technology officer, a title some at the company had expected Curtis to receive last year, per The Information. Airbnb has several other holes in its C-suite; it’s also in the process of hiring a chief marketing officer and a chief financial officer.

“For a while, Mike has been thinking about making this change to take a long break,” an Airbnb spokesperson told TechCrunch. “After discussing this change with [CEO] Brian Chesky, they agreed that Mike would step down after helping the company choose his successor.”

Curtis may be feeling the early-stage itch. When he joined Airbnb nearly six years ago, he told TechCrunch he was particularly excited about how early the company was: “the opportunity with where we can take it is limitless,” he said.

But Airbnb is no longer a little startup, it’s one of the most valuable private tech companies in the world.

In Curtis’ tenure alone, the engineering team grew from 40 people to more than 1,000 and the company raised more than $4 billion and garnered a $31 billion valuation. Now, it’s gearing up to go public in 2019.

Tokens can better incentivize startup employees than equity

Token structuring and tokeneconomics are among of the most important considerations when designing a blockchain. When thinking about how best to distribute these tokens, founders often think about how the tokens will impact external stakeholders such as their investors, the community, and stakers (people that can mine or validate block transactions according to how many coins he or she holds). But token economies are also bringing disruption to organizations internally, especially when it comes to HR and compensation.

If the tokens are structured properly for a blockchain, external stakeholders will be directly aligned with the goal of the project. Those incentives can encourage participation on the blockchain platform and/or drive token demand with community-building and marketing. Similarly, if internal stakeholder incentives are structured correctly, the project could accrue long-term value by motivating employees to work towards the same goal, while reducing adversarial behavior and also bad actors.

For any blockchain company to succeed long-term and scale, it’s inevitable that they need to structure their tokens to retain and reward the best employees sustainably. This is as important it not more important than incentivizing external token holders.

How does an employee look at tokens vs equity? 

Currently, equity in the form of stock options is widely distributed as part of compensation packages amongst startups. When employees join a company, they are usually offered a combination of cash and stock options. The options become a way for the employees to meaningfully participate in a company’s upside should they succeed. Often, employees can negotiate between taking a higher cash comp or higher options amount, depending on their risk appetite.

There are many ways tokens and equity are similar. For one, both assets motivate individuals to align their goals with that of a company’s. If the company becomes more successful, the value of its tokens and equity should theoretically go up. Nonetheless, one of the downsides of stock options is that they usually require a liquidity event for an employee to convert them to paper money. Historically, that was when a company went public and the employee could convert their options into stocks and then sell them in the public markets.

However, in the last decade, with the increasing amount of private capital and subsequent larger private fundraising rounds, companies are taking way longer to IPO. Companies such as Dropbox took eleven years from founding to IPO, while Airbnb has been around ten years and still hasn’t gone public. As a result, private companies started doing option buybacks to provide liquidity for their employees. Simultaneously, this phenomenon has caused the secondary market to thrive in Silicon Valley.

Token liquidity changes the game

One of the largest differences between tokens and equity is that tokens are immediately liquid, assuming that they have already been listed on an exchange. To put simply, equity options only prove their value at the end, whereas tokens have certainty values from the beginning.

Now in cryptocurrency and blockchain companies, employees could get paid in tokens in lieu of equity or cash, primarily outside of the U.S. Many tokens have a liquidity advantage over equity. For example, it can be immediately sold upon reception, assuming that the token has been listed on an exchange and there is enough trading volume.

This is also one of the reasons why exchanges are so important for the cryptocurrency space because 1) it’s one of the easier ways to gauge the value of a company given that the industry has yet to figure out a proper valuation methodology, and 2) it provides immediate liquidity for employees who have been burned by the hopes a billion dollar company not coming to fruition and all the options going to zero.

For an employee looking for a job in a technology-based company, consider two companies that are exactly the same, with the same team quality and same targeted industry, but one company has a token incentive structure instead of an equity incentive structure, and the token is already traded on an exchange. Why would the employee ever want equity? With tokens, you’d still share the upside in the company’s success, but also have immediate liquidity.

Additionally, outside the U.S., often employees can also get paid in tokens or stable coins in lieu of cash to take advantage of tax benefits given the lack of regulatory sophistication. That may change very soon, however. Token structure, therefore, is a disruption to a company’s internal structure and we will share some examples below of how that’s already affecting a number of Chinese crypto companies.

Token incentives will disrupt traditional ways of compensating employees

These changes to employee compensation have already become popular in places like China, where a number of Chinese blockchain companies have started on the foundation of distributing tokens as compensation. Companies like Ontology, NEO, Huobi, and Binance pay their employees in their own tokens. Many of these teams operate worldwide but they are able to manage hundreds of people, often with just a handful of HR staff, through a shared incentive structure.

In the case of Neo, the original founding team, in fact, didn’t have anyone with a computer science background. When they were looking for developers, they would pay tokens to people to do development work for them. For Ontology, it was even more extreme. The founding team initially set up the Ontology Foundation. They didn’t want to hire people, so instead, they listed out a list of things that needed to be developed and paid tokens to all the developers who contributed.

Binance, similarly, paid their employees in tokens. They would then use their quarterly profits to burn tokens, which subsequently boosted the value of the remaining tokens. It is possible that partially due to these effective token incentives, Ontology has been the best performing token this year while Binance continues to hold the lead in the exchange space.

China has taken a lead here compared to the U.S. partially because of regulatory uncertainties, but there are examples in America as well of these changing compensation norms. In the early days of cryptocurrency when it was (even more) wild west, Consensys got started by compensating their employees in tokens until their first legal hire came along. That story is similar to Coinbase, where initially a number of first employees were given the choice of being paid in coins and/or cash.

Token compensation also seems to be particularly powerful incentives for Chinese blockchain companies, more so than their U.S. counterparts. Maomao Hu, Partner at Eigen Capital and CTO of Calculus Network, talks about the psyche of the young generation of Chinese developers: “Being Chinese, Chinese engineers, especially the young ones, have a hunger that you only see in some parts of Silicon Valley, and that’s like everyone. They are just doing 80 hours 100 hour weeks because they hate being poor and they hate not having an opportunity and they don’t have other ways to get an opportunity, and that’s like everyone.”

It may also be that because there have been fewer technology cycles in China, and the rise of the largest technology companies happened only in the last decade, equity compensation remains a relatively new concept to local citizens. With token compensation introduced, this is the first time for many Chinese people to be able to participate in a company’s upside so directly.

Despite their growing popularity, these incentive schemes are still early and experimental, and there are unforeseen risks associated with token issuance as compensation. In particular, the appeal of short-term, quick gains from tokens is ever more attractive. If wrongly incentivized, people could end up spending time hyping up their tokens instead of building product, allowing employees to cash out quickly without producing.

As a result, serious founders of new token-based companies should be aware of such short-sightedness when designing employee token incentives. They can potentially introduce long-term token vesting schedules, and also hire people who care about driving long-term value. For CEOs, this is going to be an increasingly important role they will have to take in the token economy. I’m certain though that the next set of large unicorns will be coming from tech companies with great token incentives structures, in or outside of the U.S.

How Silicon Valley should celebrate Labor Day

Ask any 25-year old engineer what Labor Day means to him or her, and you might get an answer like: it’s the surprise three-day weekend after a summer of vacationing. Or it’s the day everyone barbecues at Dolores Park. Or it’s the annual Tahoe trip where everyone gets to relive college.

Or simply, it’s the day we get off because we all work so hard.

And while founders and employees in startup land certainly work hard, wearing their 80-hour workweeks as a badge of honor, closing deals on conference calls in an air-conditioned WeWork is a far cry from the backbreaking working conditions of the 1880s, the era when Labor Day was born.

For everyone here in Silicon Valley, we should not be celebrating this holiday triumphantly over beers and hot dogs, complacent in the belief that our gravest labor issues are behind us, but instead use this holiday as a moment to reflect on how much further we have to go in making our workplaces and companies more equitable, diverse, inclusive and ethically responsible.

Bloody Beginnings

On September 5th, 1882, 10,000 workers gathered at a “monster labor festival” to protest the 12-hours per day, seven days a week harsh working conditions they faced in order to cobble together a survivable wage. Even children as “young as 5 or 6 toiled in mills, factories and mines across the country.”

This all erupted in a climax in 1894 when the American Railway Union went on a nationwide strike, crippling the nation’s transportation infrastructure, which included trains that delivered postal mail. President Grover Cleveland declared this a federal crime and sent in federal troops to break up the strike, which resulted in one of the bloodiest encounters in labor history, leaving 30 dead and countless injured.

Labor Day was declared a national holiday a few month later in an effort to mend wounds and make peace with a reeling and restless workforce (it also conveniently coincided with President Cleveland’s reelection bid).

The Battle is Not Yet Won

Today in Silicon Valley, this battle for fair working conditions and a living wage seems distant from our reality of nap rooms and lucrative stock grants.  By all accounts, we have made tremendous strides on a number of critical labor issues. While working long hours is still a cause for concern, most of us can admit that we often voluntarily choose to work more than we have to. Our workplace environments are not perfect (i.e. our standing desks may not be perfectly ergonomic), but they are far from life-threatening or hazardous to our health. And while equal wages are still a concern, earning a living wage is not, particularly if the worst case scenario after “failing” at a startup means joining a tech titan and clocking in as a middle manager with a six-figure salary.

Even though the workplace challenges of today are not as grave as life or death, the fight is not yet over. Our workplaces are far from perfect, and the power dynamic between companies and employees is far from equal.

In tech, we face a myriad of issues that need grassroots, employee-driven movements to effect change. Each of the following issues has complexities and nuances that deserve an article of its own, but I’ve tried to summarize them briefly: 

  1. Equal pay for equal work – while gender wage gaps are better in tech than other industries (4% average in tech vs. 20% average across other industries), the discrepancy in wages for women in technical roles is twice the average for other roles in tech.
  2. Diversity – research shows that diverse teams perform better, yet 76% of technical jobs are still held by men, and only 5% of tech workers are Black or Latino. The more alarming statistic in a recent Atlassian survey is that more than 40% of respondents felt that their company’s diversity programs needed no further improvement.
  3. Inclusion – an inclusive workplace should be a basic fundamental right, but harassment and discrimination still exist. A survey by Women Who Tech found that 53 percent of women working in tech companies reported experiencing harassment (most frequently in the form of sexism, offensive slurs, and sexual harassment) compared to 16 percent of men.
  4. Outsourced / 1099 employees – while corporate employees at companies like Amazon are enjoying the benefits of a ballooning stock, the reality is much bleaker for warehouse workers who are on the fringes of the corporate empire. A new book by undercover journalist James Bloodworth found that Amazon workers in a UK warehouse “use bottles instead of the actual toilet, which is located too far away.” A separate survey conducted found that 55% of these workers suffer from depression, and 80% said they would not work at Amazon again.Similarly, Foxconn is under fire once again for unfair pay practices, adding to the growing list of concerns including suicide, underage workers, and onsite accidents. The company is the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, and builds products for Amazon, Apple, and a host of other tech companies.
  5. Corporate Citizenship & Ethics – while Silicon Valley may be a bubble, the products created here are not. As we’ve seen with Facebook and the Cambridge Analytica breach, these products impact millions of lives. The general uncertainty and uneasiness around the implications of automation and AI also spark difficult conversations about job displacement for entire swaths of the global population (22.7M by 2025 in the US alone, according to Forrester).

Thus, the reversal in sentiment against Silicon Valley this past year is sending a message that should resonate loud and clear — the products we build and the industries we disrupt here in the Valley have real consequences for workers that need to be taken seriously.

Laboring toward a better future

To solve these problems, employees in Silicon Valley needs to find a way to organize. However, there are many reasons why traditional union structures may not be the answer.

The first is simply that traditional unions and tech don’t get along. Specifically, the AFL-CIO, one of the largest unions in America, has taken a hard stance against the libertarian ethos of the Valley, drawing a bright line dividing the tech elite from the working class. In a recent speech about how technology is changing work, the President of the AFL-CIO did not mince words when he said that the “events of the last few years should have made clear that the alternative to a just society is not the libertarian paradise of Silicon Valley billionaires. It is a racist and authoritarian nightmare.”

But perhaps the biggest difference between what an organized labor movement would look like in Silicon Valley and that of traditional organized labor is that it would be a fight not to advance the interest of the majority, but to protect the minority. In the 1880s, poor working conditions and substandard pay affected nearly everyone — men, women, and children. Unions were the vehicles of change for the majority.

But today, for the average male 25-year old engineer, promoting diversity and inclusion or speaking out about improper treatment of offshore employees is unlikely to affect his pay, desirability in the job market, or working conditions. He will still enjoy the privileges of being fawned over as a scarce resource in a competitive job market. But the person delivering the on-demand service he’s building won’t. His female coworker with an oppressive boss won’t. This is why it is ever more important that we wake up and not only become allies or partners, but champions of the causes that affect our less-privileged fellow coworkers, and the people that our companies and products touch.

So this Labor Day, enjoy your beer and hot dog, but take a moment to remember the individuals who fought and bled on this day to bring about a better workplace for all. And on Tuesday, be ready to challenge your coworkers on how we can continue that fight to build more diverse, inclusive, and ethically responsible companies for the future. 

Distributed teams are rewriting the rules of office(less) politics

When we think about designing our dream home, we don’t think of having a thousand roommates in the same room with no doors or walls. Yet in today’s workplace where we spend most of our day, the purveyors of corporate office design insist that tearing down walls and bringing more people closer together in the same physical space will help foster better collaboration while dissolving the friction of traditional hierarchy and office politics.

But what happens when there is no office at all?

This is the reality for Jason Fried, Founder and CEO of Basecamp, and Matt Mullenweg, Founder and CEO of Automattic (makers of WordPress), who both run teams that are 100% distributed across six continents and many time zones. Fried and Mullenweg are the founding fathers of a movement that has inspired at least a dozen other companies to follow suit, including Zapier, Github, and Buffer. Both have either written a book, or have had a book written about them on the topic.

For all of the discussions about how to hire, fire, coordinate, motivate, and retain remote teams though, what is strangely missing is a discussion about how office politics changes when there is no office at all. To that end, I wanted to seek out the experience of these companies and ask: does remote work propagate, mitigate, or change the experience of office politics? What tactics are startups using to combat office politics, and are any of them effective?

“Can we take a step back here?”

Office politics is best described by a simple example. There is a project, with its goals, metrics, and timeline, and then there’s who gets to decide how it’s run, who gets to work on it, and who gets credit for it. The process for deciding this is a messy human one. While we all want to believe that these decisions are merit-based, data-driven, and objective, we all know the reality is very different. As a flood of research shows, they come with the baggage of human bias in perceptions, heuristics, and privilege.

Office politics is the internal maneuvering and positioning to shape these biases and perceptions to achieve a goal or influence a decision. When incentives are aligned, these goals point in same direction as the company. When they don’t, dysfunction ensues.

Perhaps this sounds too Darwinian, but it is a natural and inevitable outcome of being part of any organization where humans make the decisions. There is your work, and then there’s the management of your coworker’s and boss’s perception of your work.

There is no section in your employee handbook that will tell you how to navigate office politics. These are the tacit, unofficial rules that aren’t documented. This could include reworking your wardrobe to match your boss’s style (if you don’t believe me, ask how many people at Facebook own a pair of Nike Frees). Or making time to go to weekly happy hour not because you want to, but because it’s what you were told you needed to do to get ahead.

One of my favorite memes about workplace culture is Sarah Cooper’s “10 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings,” which includes…

  • Encouraging everyone to “take a step back” and ask “what problem are we really trying to solve”
  • Nodding continuously while appearing to take notes
  • Stepping out to take an “important phone call”
  • Jumping out of your seat to draw a Venn diagram on the whiteboard

Sarah Cooper, The Cooper Review

These cues and signals used in physical workplaces to shape and influence perceptions do not map onto the remote workplace, which gives us a unique opportunity to study how office politics can be different through the lens of the officeless.

Friends without benefits

For employees, the analogy that coworkers are like family is true in one sense — they are the roommates that we never got to choose. Learning to work together is difficult enough, but the physical office layers on the additional challenge of learning to live together. Contrast this with remote workplaces, which Mullenweg of Automattic believes helps alleviate the “cohabitation annoyances” that come with sharing the same space, allowing employees to focus on how to best work with each other, versus how their neighbor “talks too loud on the phone, listens to bad music, or eats smelly food.”

Additionally, remote workplaces free us of the tyranny of the tacit expectations and norms that might not have anything to do with work itself. At an investment bank, everyone knows that analysts come in before the managing director does, and leave after they do. This signals that you’re working hard.

Basecamp’s Fried calls this the “presence prison,” the need to be constantly aware of where your coworkers are and what they are doing at all times, both physically and virtually. And he’s waging a crusade against it, even to the point of removing the green dot on Basecamp’s product. “As a general rule, nobody at Basecamp really knows where anyone else is at any given moment. Are they working? Dunno. Are they taking a break? Dunno. Are they at lunch? Dunno. Are they picking up their kid from school? Dunno. Don’t care.”

There is credible basis for this practice. A study of factory workers by Harvard Business School showed that workers were 10% to 15% more productive when managers weren’t watching. This increase was attributed to giving workers the space and freedom to experiment with different approaches before explaining to managers, versus the control group which tended to follow prescribed instructions under the leery watch of their managers.

Remote workplaces experience a similar phenomenon, but by coincidence. “Working hard” can’t be observed physically so it has to be explained, documented, measured, and shared across the company. Cultural norms are not left to chance, or steered by fear or pressure, which should give individuals the autonomy to focus on the work itself, versus how their work is perceived.

Lastly, while physical workplaces can be the source of meaningful friendships and community, recent research by the Wharton School of Business is just beginning to unravel the complexities behind workplace friendships, which can be fraught with tensions from obligations, reciprocity and allegiances. When conflicts arise, you need to choose between what’s best for the company, and what’s best for your relationship with that person or group. You’re not going to help Bob because your best friend Sally used to date him and he was a dick. Or you’re willing to do anything for Jim because he coaches your kid’s soccer team, and vouched for you to get that promotion.

In remote workplaces, you don’t share the same neighborhood, your kids don’t go to the same school, and you don’t have to worry about which coworkers to invite to dinner parties. Your physical/personal and work communities don’t overlap, which means you (and your company) unintentionally avoid many of the hazards of toxic workplace relationships.

On the other hand, these same relationships can be important to overall employee engagement and well-being. This is evidenced by one of the findings in Buffer’s 2018 State of Remote Work Report, which surveyed over 1900 remote workers around the world. It found that next to collaborating and communicating, loneliness was the biggest struggle for remote workers.

Graph by Buffer (State of Remote Work 2018)

So while you may be able to feel like your own boss and avoid playing office politics in your home office, ultimately being alone may be more challenging than putting on a pair of pants and going to work.

Feature, not a bug?

Physical offices can have workers butting heads with each other. Image by UpperCut Images via Getty Images.

For organizations, the single biggest difference between remote and physical teams is the greater dependence on writing to establish the permanence and portability of organizational culture, norms and habits. Writing is different than speaking because it forces concision, deliberation, and structure, and this impacts how politics plays out in remote teams.

Writing changes the politics of meetings. Every Friday, Zapier employees send out a bulletin with: (1) things I said I’d do this week and their results, (2) other issues that came up, (3) things I’m doing next week. Everyone spends the first 10 minutes of the meeting in silence reading everyone’s updates.

Remote teams practice this context setting out of necessity, but it also provides positive auxiliary benefits of “hearing” from everyone around the table, and not letting meetings default to the loudest or most senior in the room. This practice can be adopted by companies with physical workplaces as well (in fact, Zapier CEO Wade Foster borrowed this from Amazon), but it takes discipline and leadership to change behavior, particularly when it is much easier for everyone to just show up like they’re used to.

Writing changes the politics of information sharing and transparency. At Basecamp, there are no all-hands or town hall meetings. All updates, decisions, and subsequent discussions are posted publicly to the entire company. For companies, this is pretty bold. It’s like having a Facebook wall with all your friends chiming in on your questionable decisions of the distant past that you can’t erase. But the beauty is that there is now a body of written decisions and discussions that serves as a rich and permanent artifact of institutional knowledge, accessible to anyone in the company. Documenting major decisions in writing depoliticizes access to information.

Remote workplaces are not without their challenges. Even though communication can be asynchronous through writing, leadership is not. Maintaining an apolitical culture (or any culture) requires a real-time feedback loop of not only what is said, but what is done, and how it’s done. Leaders lead by example in how they speak, act, and make decisions. This is much harder in a remote setting.

A designer from WordPress notes the interpersonal challenges of leading a remote team. “I can’t always see my teammates’ faces when I deliver instructions, feedback, or design criticism. I can’t always tell how they feel. It’s difficult to know if someone is having a bad day or a bad week.”

Zapier’s Foster is also well aware of these challenges in interpersonal dynamics. In fact, he has written a 200-page manifesto on how to run remote teams, where he has an entire section devoted to coaching teammates on how to meet each other for the first time. “Because we’re wired to look for threats in any new situation… try to limit phone or video calls to 15 minutes.” Or “listen without interrupting or sharing your own stories.” And to “ask short, open ended questions.” For anyone looking for a grade school refresher on how to make new friends, Wade Foster is the Dale Carnegie of the remote workforce.

To office, or not to office

What we learn from companies like Basecamp, Automattic, and Zapier is that closer proximity is not the antidote for office politics, and certainly not the quick fix for a healthy, productive culture.

Maintaining a healthy culture takes work, with deliberate processes and planning. Remote teams have to work harder to design and maintain these processes because they don’t have the luxury of assuming shared context through a physical workspace.

The result is a wealth of new ideas for a healthier, less political culture — being thoughtful about when to bring people together, and when to give people their time apart (ending the presence prison), or when to speak, and when to read and write (to democratize meetings). It seems that remote teams have largely succeeded in turning a bug into a feature. For any company still considering tearing down those office walls and doors, it’s time to pay attention to the lessons of the officeless.

InVision hires former Twitter VP of Design Mike Davidson

InVision continues its slow march toward design world domination, today announcing the hire of Mike Davidson who will take over as Head of Partnerships and Community.

Davidson was previously the VP of Design at Twitter, where he built a 100-person team that was responsible for every aspect of Twitter’s user experience and branding, including web, mobile web, native apps, and business tools.

Before Twitter, Davidson worked at ESPN/Disney until 2005, when he founded NewsVine, which was purchased by NBCNews in 2007. Davidson then took on a Vice President roll for five years before starting at Twitter.

At InVision, Davidson will oversee partnerships, product integrations, strategic acquisitions and community building. This includes leading InVision’s Design Leadership Forum, which hosts private events for design leaders from big companies like Facebook, Google, Lyft, Disney, etc. Davidson will also work with the new Design Transformation team at InVision to help create educational experiences for InVision’s customers.

Davidson says he plans to spend the next 30 to 60 days talking as little as possible, and listening to the feedback he hears from his team around what can be improved.

“InVision has a seamless workflow that includes everyone in the company in the design process,” said Davidson. “If there’s one goal I’d like to realize, it’s that. Design is a team sport these days, which wasn’t the case 10 or 20 years ago.”

In Davidson’s own words, the position at InVision is “less about business to business and more about designer to designer.” Davidson will be meeting predominantly with the design teams from various companies to discuss not only how InVision can help them build better experiences, but how InVision can incorporate those design teams’ personalities into the product.

InVision was built on the premise that the screen is the most important place in the world, considering that every brand and company is now building digital experiences across the web and through mobile applications. CEO Clark Valberg hopes to turn InVision into the Salesforce of design, and partnerships, acquisitions and product integrations are absolutely vital to that.

“We couldn’t be more excited to have an authentic leader like Mike step into this role to help us further build out our design community — which is as important to us as our product — and to help drive design maturity inside of every organization,” said Valberg. “Digital product design is shaping every industry in the world, and as the leader in the space, we see it as our responsibility to support and foster community and advanced education.”

Huge numbers of job postings in China specify ‘men only’ or dictate women’s appearance

Gender discrimination may be a hot-button issue here in the U.S., but we don’t have a monopoly on the practice by a long shot. A new report from Human Rights Watch highlights widespread and blatant discrimination in Chinese job descriptions, despite its ostensibly being illegal there. In fact, the highest incidence rates were found in government jobs.

The report looked at 36,000 job descriptions posted in the last few years, including 2017 and 2018 listings for civil service and government jobs. The authors note that their work was conducted under increasing hostility and suppression of the topic by Chinese authorities, meaning no cooperation (but perhaps some interference) was expected.

Thousands of the listings included such language as “men only,” “suitable for men,” or the like, for example “need to work overtime frequently, high intensity work, only men need apply.” In the civil service category, this happened in as frequently as one in five listings, with no corresponding “women only” language except in a single 2018 job. In the Ministry of Public Security, more than half the jobs required the applicant be male.

When women are permitted or requested to apply, they are subject to gendered requirements: be married with kids, for instance. But more common are appearance-based demands: to be a train conductor, a woman must be between 5’1″ and 5’6″, weigh less than 143 pounds, and have “normal facial features, no tattoos, no obvious scars on face, neck or arms, good skin tone, no incurable skin conditions.”

Women lucky enough to already be employed in major companies like Baidu and Tencent are used as lures for male applicants: these “goddesses” are presented as potential matches, as in this Alibaba ad: “They are the goddesses in Alibaba employees’ heart—smart and competent at work and charming and alluring in life. They are independent but not proud, sensitive but not melodramatic. They want to be your coworkers. Do you want to be theirs?”

Of course we shouldn’t throw rocks, at the risk of shattering our own glass house of sexism and other discriminatory practices over here, but it is worth being reminded that this is a worldwide and deeply seated phenomenon.

You can read the full report, “Only Men Need Apply,” here. Its recommendations, though the Chinese authorities seem unlikely to heed them, are to modernize laws relating to discrimination and enforce the ones that exist. China is in fact party to some international agreements to guarantee its citizens certain rights and quash discrimination when it is detected, so that may work as leverage.