What it really means to be responsible for your own career

Guest post by James Wallace of extroverteddeveloper.com

You are responsible for your own career.

We’ve probably all heard that phrase before. You may have even seen some advice about what it means. I’ve found that most of that advice revolves around networking and visibility or self-advocacy.

Instead, today I’m going to write about what this means when it comes to decision-making.

Making decisions that serve your career

I am from a time in the computing industry when folks had offices and cubicles. We worked in pretty quiet environments and had a considerable amount of space compared to today. While generally I think it’s been a terrible descent into open office madness as an industry, I knew it was here to stay. So the question arose: How am I going to be successful and grow in my career in this new environment?

The evidence is pretty clear that open offices have been detrimental to overall knowledge worker effectiveness. (Hmm, I wonder if that’s why so many want to work from home?) And companies have largely left it up to individual employees to figure out how they’re going to thrive in an open office. That’s what I mean in this post when I say, your career is in your hands.

You might be thinking that when the companies took away our cubicles, it was then their responsibility to buy us headphones so we could continue concentration-heavy work. Some did. Most didn’t. So now what? What should you do if you find yourself in an open office environment, distracted by all the noise around you? By now I think the industry has landed on an answer: You should buy the best noise-isolating headphones you can afford. Why? Because it will increase your productivity, and a single promotion more than pays for the headphones.

Owning your career in a remote work world

We’ve entered a new era of change in our industry: the rise of remote work. Just like with cubicles before, there are some benefits, but also many costs to being fully remote. Who should bear the brunt of those costs?

In the office, the company provides the best possible internet service it can get. Further, it provides a fail-over internet service, just in case the first connection goes down, because everyone knows how important internet connectivity is for everything we do.

Now that you’re home, is the internet still as important? Is it more important, since it’s the lifeline you maintain back to the company? It seems to me that something so important, where if it goes down you can’t do your job, should be taken very seriously. As such, I have dual internet service providers at home: a fast fiber connection and a fail-over cable connection, along with an in-home enterprise grade wifi network. Because I was remote for 6 years, and the internet is how I made money for my family. The decision to make these investments was easy.

The next thing that’s dramatically different in a remote world: whiteboards have effectively disappeared. I have personally found collaborating at a whiteboard to be very beneficial. Turns out, there’s some great virtual whiteboard apps (Jamboard from Google, Whiteboard from Microsoft, etc.) that work great with an iPad and a iPencil. Another benefit of the latest iPad Pro is that it has very nice camera tracking, freeing you from having to worry about whether you’re in frame when on a video call. So… should you drop $1,000 on an iPad and iPencil to get team whiteboarding capability back? I did.

Invest in yourself and your own productivity, and if the company will reimburse you, great! If not, they’ll reimburse you with a promotion.

Has the metaverse missed its moment? Three recent misses explored

If you were looking at “metaverse” mentions alone in 2022 earnings calls, you might be fooled into thinking massive adoption is underway, a-la Facebook in 2007.

Mentions of “metaverse” in earnings calls (Q1 2016-Q1 2022)

Source: Axios

And in the last three years, three concurrent forces emerged that could have catapulted the metaverse into the next ubiquitous computing platform, similar to how the iPhone turned cell phones into pocket computers in 2008. These cultural moments have been catalyzed or amplified by the forced isolation of the a pandemic. They are:

  1. The loneliness epidemic
  2. Remote school and work
  3. Diversity, equity, and inclusion

Below we look at these three cultural moments and consider what the missed opportunities with each mean for the future of the metaverse.

1. The loneliness epidemic

As Luminary Labs summarized it, “before the coronavirus pandemic, there was the loneliness pandemic. Three in five Americans say they are lonely.” Forced isolation and social distancing during the pandemic exacerbated loneliness, but also jolted us into trying new ways of interacting remotely. Zoom Christmas became a thing that even grandma attempted.

Source: Business Insider

But the change in circumstance didn’t change the underlying mental health crisis. Loneliness leads to depression, and depression saps motivation, especially motivation to try new things. Ironically, virtual reality (VR) — the metaverse’s cornerstone technology — can effectively treat depression and anxiety, among other psychological and physical disorders. But outside of a few medical vanguards, no metaverse investor made significant strides to bridge the user motivation gap.

2. Remote school and work

Remote school and remote work are both here to stay. At a minimum, remote school will be a supplement to in-person schooling. (Goodbye snow days!) At a maximum, remote school will continue to unlock access, including for disabled, rural, and other student populations. Similarly, remote work will continue, as demand from workers is clear and employers are trending towards offering it in a competitive labor market. Metaverse solutions could arguably be the highest quality and lowest cost tech for both. An Oculus Quest 2 costs less than many Chromebooks, and offers many more capabilities. Further, two of VR’s biggest applications to date are in education and professional training, from surgeons to customer service reps.

Despite the high potential use cases and cost efficacy, no big employers or schools have announced the launch of internal metaspheres. This is likely for the same reason accounting firms issue buggy five-year-old laptops to employees making six figures: internal infrastructure is viewed as a cost center, not a value-generator. Why give employees infinite screens on their Oculus when they can still eke out the “same” work on their tiny laptop screens? Metaverse investors have done little to reverse this myth. So educators are likely to continue cobbling together free and lower cost resources, and employers are unlikely to significantly revise their budgets for remote work systems development.

3. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI)

For as little as $15, anyone can begin to experiment with VR and, thus, the metaverse, via Google Cardboard. With one download, you can fly around the globe in Google Earth, visiting the Coliseum or the Pyramids. And on Oculus, popular games like Beat Saber cost half as much as Nintendo Switch games. This affordability presents an epic inclusion opportunity. Oculus Quest 2 sales have already topped 15 million, making the barriers to participation pretty low. In addition to being relatively affordable, the diversity of subcultures and self-expression possibilities are endless. Inclusion could be easier with the freedom to choose avatars that reflect your identity. A woman can choose a male avatar, a man could choose a wolf avatar, and perhaps in the future, a gender fluid person could change their avatar daily if they so chose.

Despite the metaverse’s economic accessibility, and its potential to welcome diverse populations equitably, most people don’t seem to see themselves participating. Critics hesitate to become legless floating bodies, and some women feel awkward in the currently male-dominated spaces. As many companies have learned in the great return-to-office debate, cultivating a sense of belonging is not as simple as just creating the persistent space. And its not clear that metaverse investors are creating welcoming on-ramps to expand inclusion.

Did metaverse miss its moment?

Why did the metaverse’s biggest advocates, from Microsoft to Facebook, not double down on pushing products like Mesh, the holographic collaboration tool, or experiences like Meta Quest meet-ups (surely a welcome alternative at the height of Zoom fatigue)? The problem seems to be two fold: lack of focus and premature hype.

The metaverse remains so loose a concept that even tech evangelists are confused about what it is. In theory it’s such a flexible concept — inclusive of most shared, persistent digital spaces — that, with some interest and ingenuity, early investors should be able to find pockets of growth. But instead that flexibility has cultivated a lack of focus. A very expensive lack of focus at that — Meta’s investors hammered the stock for having too little to show for its $10 billion of losses per year. While Oculus hardware is making great strides, the virtual experiences themselves haven’t reached the quality level that can attract everyday use. And with very public tech flubs like Facebook’s virtual Foo Fighter’s concert mishap, the technology clearly isn’t ready to support mass adoption.

The metaverse today is like QR codes in the 2000s — useful, but not convenient, intuitive, or ubiquitous enough to see mass adoption. That took a pandemic to change. And the metaverse has (hopefully) mostly missed this one. But that doesn’t mean it won’t catch the next growth opportunity. And we certainly can’t call the three cultural moments discussed above — loneliness, remote school and work, and DEI — solved problems. The metaverse is on its way. Just more slowly than its proponents would have you think.

The nudge report: A new marketing exploit being tested in retail

On a stroll through Soho, I noticed an unusual sale sign. It wasn’t your typical “40% off!” or “End of year sale!” promising deep discounts on already marked-up products. It was actually the opposite. Yes, it was price anchoring high, but in the most direct way possible:

$75 and under. Not $75 and over. The sign lists the highest price you’ll pay. By anchoring high, the sign is nudging you to spend at least $75 per item. Versus a sign listing the lowest sale price e.g. “99¢ and up”, which nudges you to expect to only pay that bottom price. This bifurcation in price anchoring indicates target market segmentation. The low anchor marketing is for low price, high volume businesses, whereas the high price anchor is likely for high price, low volume businesses. This sign was in front of Athleta, so targeting somewhere between the Under Armor and Lululemon athleisure segments.

It’s a creative new tact, but it utterly failed to entice me. I suppose I’ve been exposed to 40% of Banana Republic signs for all of my independent shopping life, so my brain is primed towards that particular bug. I give this social nudge 2 out of 5 stars. High marks on creative experimentation, low marks on efficacy on an audience of one.

(Don’t?) try this at home: DIY biotherapeutics are on the rise

Brinter, a modular bioprinter platform pending patent.

Last May, a YouTube video with a fascinating lede caught my eye: a biology student claimed to have cured himself of lactose intolerance through DIY gene therapy. He’d literally grown a cure, popped it in some capsules, and swallowed. Just a few months later, Stanford scientists posted the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine sequence on Github. And in the same time frame, Feles demoed their direct to consumer, all-in-one desktop science lab. Together, these puzzle pieces are building a picture of a more personalized and decentralized future of health. And COVID-19 has only accelerated the trend towards knowledge-sharing and accessible tools for biotherapeutics.

The DIY biology movement was already well underway before COVID-19. Curious students like Justin Atkin of the Thought Emporium wanted to take their health into their own hands. As a fellow lactose intolerant, I know such persistent health issues take a toll. I simply accepted my fate. But not Justin. He combined what he knew about cells and viruses to design a lactose intolerance cure — by growing a virus programmed to make the lactase enzyme. What makes Justin’s work powerful isn’t simply his success. It’s his commitment to making his insights accessible. He published a cheap, safe, and effective theoretical alternative on Creative Commons.

While bioscience knowledge is becoming more accessible through the open source movement, so are bioscience tools. While most scientific labs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit, a growing number of science-minded entrepreneurs are bringing equipment costs down. Feles developed a full science lab the size of a printer, priced at just $3,000. The accompanying software allows you to run reproducible experiments at the molecular level.

Feles was developed by biology students seeking to make biology experimentation accessible to everyone.

With the growth of the open source bioinformatics movement and the falling cost of scientific tools, Stanford’s publication of a reverse engineered Moderna vaccine sequence raised some natural questions: How many biology savvy people are as frustrated with limited COVID-19 vaccine access as I am with my lactose intolerance? How many self-empowered individuals would make their own vaccine? How feasible would that be now and in the future?

There is no question that COVID-19 has brought the future closer. Most notably, it has accelerated the trend towards open source scientific collaboration. The urgent needs to develop a COVID-19 vaccine unleashed a wave of scientists sharing their research. The Wall Street Journal reported a spike in publishing preliminary findings (prior to peer review) as researchers work to limit the number of dead ends their peers pursue.

Yet while the accessibility of knowledge has gone up vis-a-vis COVID-19 vaccine development, material costs are not trending downward as quickly. While Stanford scientists indicated use of typical biology lab materials for their reverse engineering, the vaccine production process is an entirely different matter. Unstable biological agents, like mRNA require careful handling, which does not lend itself to distributed manufacturing.

We also can expect some regression to the mean with scientific knowledge sharing. Solutions unvetted by clinical trials or peer review will continue to pose risks that the public may not fully appreciate. Yet the field appears to be becoming less risk averse. I expect a sustained shift towards rapid experimentation and sharing early insights.

While “nobody will be making an mRNA vaccine in their garage any time soon,” it may not be so far fetched in our lifetime. Just as 3D printers have become a household item, perhaps one day doctors will email us vaccine scripts that we run on our household bio-printer, eliminating all storage problems. When mutations arise, your doctor could email you a revised script. It may sounds futuristic, but Codex DNA could be as little a year away from going to market, and they aim to have their vaccine printer in every hospital, pharmacy, and doctor’s office. Then personalized medicine may know no limits. I look forward to seeing what Justin Atkin and the open source bioscience community do once this tech becomes direct to consumer.

Modern community: three levels being re-shaped by social distancing

Well before COVID-19 struck, the U.S. faced a loneliness epidemic: 61% of Americans reported feeling lonely prior to the pandemic. Compare this with a November 2020 study, where 80% of participants reported significant depressive symptoms. People have felt isolated because, well, they have been. Self-isolation and social distancing are our best prevention methods for mitigating COVID-19’s spread. While we protect our psychical health, people have also needed to find way to bolster mental health.

More than three in five Americans are lonely, with more and more people reporting feeling like they are left out, poorly understood and lacking companionship.

Elena Renken, NPR

In a testament to human resilience and ingenuity, with each social door that has closed, people have tested and tried a dozen alternative doors to open. I’ve seen social connection re-imagined at three levels: one-on-one, affinity groups, and the workplace. Below I share the trends that have warmed my heart to see, and my favorite examples within each.

Three levels of community

One-on-one

With space in our calendars, our collective memories have been stirred, to think of loved ones and old friends far and wide. We’ve felt the urge to connect with them using tools we almost forgot existed: telephones and pen and paper. Paper Source Inc.’s greeting-card sales jumped 1,200% following social distancing orders in March. And phone call volume surged more than internet use in the weeks following lock-down, as people wanted to hear the sound of each other’s voices.

Favorite for one-on-one: Lovepop cards are the notes I have both enjoyed sending the most and gotten the warmest responses for. In a world that feels mostly 2D right now because of excessive screen time, it’s revitalizing to inject some 3D into it.

Lovepop cards range from the lovely to the nerdy.

Affinity groups

Lockdowns across the globe have re-shaped and consolidated our social networks. People have focused on connecting with those they have the most in common with over people that are geographically near. This includes revived interest in hobbies and affinity groups. In Ireland, over 250,000 people joined Facebook hobby groups following lock-down orders, with 30,000 people joining Irish Gardening alone.

When social interactions moved online, only certain kinds of relationships seemed to survive.

Dr Marlee Bower, loneliness researcher, University of Sydney

While incumbent social media has done well, new platforms for online social interaction have proliferated. Clubhouse has enjoyed huge engagement. I’ve been invited to many Sims-esque social spaces, from Gather to Kumospace.

Favorite for affinity groups: Toucan wins for small (less than 15 people) social e-events. It’s essentially a virtual cocktail room where you can move between different social circles. Among the ‘organic’ platforms that permit free movement, it has been the easiest to interact with. However, the organic movement of participants starts to feel chaotic if the event gets too big.

Toucan lets you mix and mingle across different audio circles in the same event.

The workplace

Remote work has changed much of how we communicate with coworkers. For many, social distance has also created emotional distance. In a study by Sharehold, mental health was the top-reported factor that impacted employees after New York’s March 2020 stay-at-home orders (due to COVID-19). Another international survey showed 40% of employers felt concern for how remote work might impact workers’ mental health.

Many employers have tried to address our yearning for informal chats and ‘micro-interactions’ with new tools (Slack, Zoom) and new norms. My company started including personal checkins at the beginning of Monday stand-ups. And working sessions quickly transitioned from ‘business-first’ to ‘catch-up first’.

Favorite for the workplace: My company instituted quarterly ‘cafes’ with trivia pulled from our personal Readmes and Slack. It gamifies getting to know each other and is full of laughs.

Community in the long run

Loneliness experts hypothesize that people will recover from the lock-down-induced loneliness spike and return to their previous baseline over the long-term. So while we’ve explored new ways to engage in community virtually, nothing can supplant the human need to be with one another in person.

We are creatures of habit. . . I think we will revert back to our social groups [in the long run].

Michelle Lim, loneliness expert

Out with the old: How to make resolutions you’ll keep

We’ve all heard that the journey is more important than the destination. And the most important part of the journey is the next step. But how does this apply to New Year’s resolutions? Below is a simple guide to nixing the lofty end-goals and re-centering around continuous improvement.

Your brain on resolutions

Run a marathon. Learn beginner guitar. A classic resolution names exactly the outcome you want. It gives you a mountain to climb, literally or metaphorically. While it’s nice to have a vision to work towards, these kinds of goals can often have negative psychological effects.

First, lofty goals can dampen your self-esteem. When you set a goal, you place yourself in an immediate state of failure, by definition. And since most resolutions relate to self-improvement, this may provoke feelings of inadequacy. Second, we are particularly susceptible to “false hope syndrome” when making resolutions. A variant of the planning fallacy, we can assume that achieving a goal will be easier or faster to achieve than is realistic. When reality sets in, we give up or experience de-motivation.

False hope syndrome is characterized by a person’s unrealistic expectations about the likely speed, amount, ease and consequences of changing their behavior.”

Mark Griffiths, Psychology Professor, Nottingham Trent University

Third, a narrowly-defined goal may lead to de-motivation once we achieve the goal. We can mentally disconnect the goal from its underlying aspiration or principle. That’s why most dieters quickly regain all their lost weight, and then some. People who decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle, by contrast, often sustain success.

But how do you hold yourself accountable for self-improvement without a resolution? By changing your mindset to focus on the journey. That means prioritizing continuous improvement over specific milestones.

“No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Tim Harford, Author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure

From resolutions to themes

For the last few years I have swapped out resolutions for annual themes. C.G.P. Grey describes themes as something you want more of in your life, a principle that you will use to make decisions. For me, last year was the “Year of Intentionality.” I wanted to do fewer things better. I wanted to avoid weaker interests that might crowd more important areas of my life. This theme gave me the grace to “Marie Kondo” my life. I said “thank you and goodbye” to the things that I like doing but didn’t have space for. And pandemic not withstanding, this was my most successful New Year’s resolution yet.

C.G.P. Grey explains how to make an annual theme that supports your growth.

From planner to navigator

It’s an unpredictable world out there. Having detailed life plans that you regularly scrap or revise can feel like a waste. Of course an initial plan can provide a valuable starting place. Plans can help you test assumptions and approaches. And the goal you are mapping towards can give you an inspiring vision and a sense of urgency. But the scale of the plan directly relates to the probability of success. A plan to get from your couch to the front door is more likely to succeed than a plan to get from your couch to Times Square, which depends on whether your E train became an F or your Q became a 2 train.

“Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

General Dwight D. Eisenhower

If resolutions are truly meant to help improve your life, themes are much better suited to the job. They provide clear decision-making principles that enable you to plan your next step, no matter what life throws at you. And because the locus of control is with you, in a year’s time, you will look back and see visible growth.

The shape of COVID-19: NYC’s testing data to date

On the eve of Phase 2 reopening in NYC, New Yorkers have a lot to look back on and a lot to look forward to. Since the start of the pandemic, between 8 and 11% of confirmed and suspected NYC cases ended in death. At the same time, the total number of confirmed new cases was only 81 on June 19th and has been declining across the city. So as we ready ourselves for reopening, we need to take a look at the trends to answer that burning question: is a haircut worth the risk just yet?

COVID-19 data. Source: nyc.gov

One month ago: A tail of three cities

One month ago, when Mayor Cuomo extended NY “PAUSE” and postponed Phase 1 reopening to May 28th, New York got a signal that we were still in the danger zone. But why? Our R0, the rate of contagion spread, was consistently below 1 (the critical threshold). A look at the data shows that quality of our data and, thus, our ability to accurately estimate the true R0, varied widely by neighborhood.

Comparing just three different parts of the city — Chelsea/NoMad, Flatbush, and East New York — points to very different testing trends. These neighborhoods could be fairly described as high, medium, and low income, respectively. While Chelsea and NoMad (zip code 10001) saw the total number of tests per day rising from April 1 to May 20, Flatbush and East New York (zip codes 11203 and 11239) actually saw their daily testing rate *fall* during the same period. Although the number of positive cases dropped steadily over time in all three areas, the rate of change (indicated by the line graphs) for testing and positive test cases trend downward together in Flatbush and East New York. This suggests under-reporting of cases. The Chelsea and Nomad rates of change, by contrast, show an acceleration of testing and declining growth in positive diagnoses. With bigger sample sizes and more data points, we can confidently say Chelsea and Nomad had falling R0s.

Since Phase 1: More universal testing and better results

Today, looking back on the two weeks since Phase 1 began, there are sustained signs of improvement. Across our three sample zip codes, we saw total case levels flatten while total testing continued to increase, giving us confidence that our R0 was truly falling across the different locales.

Chelsea/Nomad, Flatbush, and East New York all saw significant growth in testing during Phase 1. As total tests grew, the total positive case curve continued to flatten. Source: James Wallace’s analysis of of gov.nyc health data

The data indicate that targeted interventions in areas like East New York meaningfully boosted the rate of testing. Whereas testing rates hovered around 30 per day for all of April and May, for one day in June, shortly after Phase 1 reopening, testing jumped to about 150.

These signs bode well. So should we be encouraged? On balance, yes. Even in our biggest recent gatherings, the Black Lives Matter protests, protesters have had each other’s backs, wearing face masks and gloves and offering hand sanitizer. There may be pockets of regression as Gen Zers flock back to bars sans masks, but with new cleaning and hygiene norms everywhere, I remain cautiously optimistic that our city will heal.

Today: Still worth taking a different “PAUSE”

Despite the positive recent trends, the aftershock will be felt for a long time. Nearly as many New Yorkers have died from COVID-19 as live in the 10001 zip code. But very few of these deaths were in Chelsea and Nomad. Flatbush experienced hundreds of deaths, and East New York experienced seven times the number of deaths per 100,000 that Chelsea and Nomad did.

Source: nyc.gov

It is worth pausing to think through what exactly needs to change in order for the darkness of a pandemic case map to not reflect the darkness of neighborhood residents’ skin.

Source: nyc.gov

Top five post-COVID-19 predictions

How will COVID-19 leave society changed?

New York’s new normal

Each day as I step outside, keeping at a social distance, I am reminded of how not normal New York City life is right now. Empty sidewalks, save for the homeless and a few runners. Wary looks behind masked faces. Empty roads and fresh air. Supply shortages and long grocery store lines, for those who brave them. A sudden interest in the movie Contagion. This is the new normal. And when this passes, I wonder, what will the new new normal look like? I offer five predictions about how society, government, and individuals will change — or not change, as the case may be:

  1. Niche media will become more mainstream than mass media
  2. Everyone will emerge with a new survival skill
  3. Asthma cases will drop, as the air quality improves with less pollution
  4. Both parties will take the crisis as evidence that their principles are the right ones
  5. Social activism will see a significant jump

I predict these changes, because they are already underway. Here’s what I’ve observed in the last few weeks of quarantine:

1. Niche media will become more mainstream than mass media

John Krasinski and Steve Carell, Some Good News, Episode 1

In the early days of corona virus news, national “reporting” was a loose term — you could read article upon article and learn almost nothing. As the severity of the situation became clear, hand-wavy vagaries just weren’t enough to keep us informed about how to stay safe. My peers and neighbors quickly started relying on a narrower set of localized and trusted sources for the intel we needed on the pandemic. The Daily by the New York Times became the most pervasive, providing a combo of expert advice and front-line reporting. As New York became the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, and no national support emerged, Gothamist emerged as one of the best sources of informative and actionable coverage. They gave locals a source of food security by reporting on Baldor, a restaurant supplier turned direct-to-consumer, with higher quality and better prices than anything on Instacart. The TLDR from national news outlets, by contrast, was just ‘food is getting harder to buy… countries should do something about that.

The same-y-ness, shallowness, and sensationalism of mainstream news has spurred other niche counter-movements in media. Some Good News with John Krasinski has brought the local global, featuring positive COVID-19 stories of hope, solidarity, and recovery from around the country and the world. He’s married curated, hand-made content contributions with global icon pop-ins, notably Steve Carell and Lin Manuel Miranda. At 16 million views for Episode 1, SGN’s popularity has blown every prime time show out of the water. In effect, channels like SGN are making YouTube more mainstream than ABC or CBS.

2. Everyone will emerge with a new survival skill

First quarantine-inspired, homemade bread

All the twenty-somethings of New York have discovered their kitchens, perhaps for the first time, as take-out has become more of a luxury than a norm. “I’m confident we can survive the apocalypse now,” my husband smiled, with a sigh of relief, when our 50-pound flour order arrived from a Queens wholesaler. He made his first-ever homemade bread. I have picked up running and stair climbing in lieu of a gym, and could easily make it to any bridge of the island if needed. All we need now is to take some streaming karate lessons, and we will be ready to kick some zombie butt if a worse kind of outbreak happens.

3. Asthma cases will drop, as the air quality improves with less pollution

U.S. cities with the best and worst air quality, Realtor.com

Few cars on the road and planes in the air doesn’t just mean we can wander the streets and tarmacs unfettered. It means we can breath deep and feel refreshing, mountaintop-quality air, even in the middle of New York City. This can only be positive for children as they develop. As an urban-dweller who developed chronic rhinitis at a young age, I can’t remember what normal breathing feels like. While some argue impaired smelling is a benefit in New York City, I still hope young New Yorkers today continue to reap the benefits of our reprieve from pollution. In a dream world, we would mandate the sunset of combustion engine vehicles and allow only electric vehicles within city limits. I won’t hold my breath for New York to be the vanguard of new clean air policies, but maybe California can pave the way.

4. Both parties will take the crisis as evidence that their principles are the right ones

Massachusetts Senators Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, WGBH

In response to the coronavirus crisis, Republicans and Democrats alike have taken refuge in their respective ideologies. Conservative groups have mobilized to demand that the U.S. re-open the economy, while liberals have reminded us that people *are* the economy. The GOP’s economy-before-people stance has led to a temporary demand for big government, but no significant shift in their social safety net policy stances. Democrats, by contrast, consider this crisis as evidence that our safety net policies are already far too weak. While the 2020 election campaigns are essentially on hold for now, I expect to see renewed campaign efforts in the fall that will amount to a battle of ideologies for what we want post-COVID-19 America to look like.

5. Social activism will see a significant jump

Change.org highlights COVID-19-related petition victories

This crisis has led to a number of spotlights on companies and institutions reaping concentrated benefits while trying to pass on the pandemic’s costs to the larger populations they serve. WeWork is still charging tenants in cities with shelter-in-place orders. Amazon fired a protesting employee who called out unsafe working conditions following a streak of in-warehouse COVID-19 cases. When the stakes are life and dealth, right and wrong become fairly black-and-white. It also gives people more to fight for. We’re seeing more masses of people taking action. Millions have signed petitions through Change.org, and many more are organizing and making their voices heard. I expect this momentum to continue as the aftershocks of the crisis continue to reverberate.

Predictions unfurled

For better or for worse, this crisis will have a long tail, not just through the presence of the virus, but also in how our society is changed by the crisis. The five trends above are already under way, and will build as we adapt and reshape our social systems in the wake of COVID-19.

Scaling company culture with AI: an interview with George Swisher, CEO of LiiRN

Can AI help foster cohesive community in an organization? LiiRN thinks so.

Source: Simplilearn

Creating a healthy work environment that scales is something of a holy grail for all growing companies. As internal networks become more dispersed and organizational structures grow more complex, it becomes easier for communication disconnects to occur. How can companies continue to cultivate a shared vision and culture, and give employees a chance to define and improve both? LiiRN CEO George Swisher thinks the answer is AI-driven.

Swisher founded LiiRN, a people-centric, AI-powered transformation software, in 2018. The AI platform has a two-fold purpose: to help leaders make decisions based on employee feedback, and then allow employees to participate in enacting those decisions. The LiiRN platform collects customized survey data on leadership performance and company priorities. The AI synthesizes upward feedback, converts it into leadership performance ratings, and identifies quantitative and qualitative trends and findings to inform decision-making. The platform also invites self-nominated change-agents to shape and drive forward company-wide initiatives.

In an interview with Swisher, he shared how AI can drive rather than reduce personal connection, and help business leaders to listen to and lean on their people.

What problem are you solving with LiiRN?

LiiRN aims to help companies drive change through people versus processes. Many leaders working to design strategy end up working with small populations of people, doing surveys or doing stakeholder interviews. But trying to drive a huge change with the input of a small group of people is a disservice to both the firm and the company. People are fearful of change when they don’t understand it. So a few years ago I thought, what if I had the ability as an individual consultant to work with all hundred thousand employees in real time? The impact would be tremendous.

And so the idea was to launch a software that could do that, that could physically touch people as if it was someone you knew and who understood the big program that was going on out there and help the employee relate. When you drive change from the bottom up instead of from the top down, you avoid the education and awareness gaps that come with large scale change.

Companies can use our technology as kind of a middleware between the leadership and staff, to find the gaps between what leadership thinks and what the people on the ground are actually seeing and thinking. Our voting feature makes people feel like they’re part of the decision-making process. If you can do that for a company, say, that’s 100,000 employees, you’re able to help 100,000 employees feel like they’re contributing to a decision that the leadership is making. You get people who are more empowered, and I think that’s a big emotional feature of how you activate people. It automates some of the change management processes and helps leadership make decisions and investments that their company believes in. With ongoing feedback collection, you can create a dynamic feedback loop, to continually shape the change journey.

What are some of the most common pain points the leaders you work with encounter?

New leadership teams are sometimes nervous to listen to data and to draw conclusions if it can be interpreted in multiple different ways. It’s one of the reasons that we have moved to partnering with consulting firms with expertise in software-based data analysis. We use the data to quantify how many people activate and why. Typically, we see north of 30% of the total population raising their hand to be on a work stream in a specific change management area.

If you have lower adoption, we use the data we collect to understand why. We track when people opt out or say “I don’t understand what you’re asking and talking about.” This feedback surfaces whether the real issue is understanding and awareness, versus the willingness of people to participate. Alternatively, the data can also show if people think the initiative is misguided or has implementation risk. Leaders gain transparency through the software’s data analysis.

It sounds like you’ve found ways for AI to create more human interactions. What are the limitations to leaning on AI? In what ways can AI tools be anti-social, and how do you mitigate those risks?

If you’re going to trust the output of our system, you have to know it’s based on the right input. Potential biases to data come in so many different forms. Ideally, if we look at, for example, who is in the sample population that you’re getting information from, we’d account for any skewing as we analyze it. We have limited control, of which population, the stakeholder at the enterprises chooses to invite into our software. So if they choose to only involve the US population and use that information to influence the way they make decisions for their Asia-based population, for example, that clearly creates a lot of challenges, given the cultural differences. We work to screen out and limit bias with some of our onboarding screens and some of the setup and training that we do. We promote as much as we possibly can an approach of widening the sample size, to make sure that you’re involving as large a population as possible that is as diverse as possible. But there’s definitely limitations to it. It’s hard to solve it when you’re collecting what others choose to input.

Also, if there is a high concentration of a certain demographic in a company, we can’t control for who they’ve hired. So if they’re only getting information from a specific group of people that’s the majority of their population, it clearly sways the input that we’re getting and the resulting outcomes. So for us, I think we’re trying to maintain a middle ground where we highlight who companies are asking for input from and how it impacts the output. 

We’re focused on making our data inputs more comprehensive by integrating with more internal systems in our upcoming work. HR systems can provide added layers of data, like performance management data and learning data; systems like NetSuite provide more business performance data. The more that we can integrate, the more our machines can learn, and the more we can build better cases for the viability of the decision we’re recommending.

Change management in the context of technology often raises the specter of worker displacement. How can technology-based change management tools like yours help us prepare for an unknown future of work?

What I learned personally moving from a tech-enabled service businesses working with big enterprises to being a full software company is that technology isn’t replacing us. There is a fear of tech advancing too fast. But I think the bigger question is how do we reskill and retrain ourselves? And how will we hold the enterprises of the world responsible for managing change? Even if there are people who will be losing jobs, which is never a good thing, we have the opportunity to say, “Well how do we rethink what workers are doing and what new skills they need to adapt? And how can we help them do that?” Yes, we’ve introduced self checkout into the grocery store. But if we’re going to replace those people, what are the skills they have that we can still benefit from? They may be really great at customer service and customer success — can you retrain them to help people shopping inside the store, to create a personalized experience? Flipping the way that you look at it can help people understand the opportunity. Then we all advance. But a lot of companies don’t think that way when they’re developing or implementing automation technology.

It’s a large number within consumer retail and manufacturing — upwards of 70% of some of the largest companies and employers in the world — whose jobs will be automated away in the next 10 years. The magnitude of that is scary. Unless you retrain people to think about it as an opportunity and change the way that they’re actively pursuing alternatives, we’re going to have problems. Being a coder isn’t the answer for everyone.

Tesla is the new Starbucks

Making the common uncommon

There are few companies that manage to define a market, and even fewer that manage to re-define a market. Consider two companies that have turned necessities into luxury products with powerful brand equity: Starbucks and Tesla.

Starbucks developed a masstige product in a previously commoditized category. Morning commuters went from 50 cents Styrofoam cups to $5 shmancy coffees as part of their daily routines. Tesla is carving out a similar growth path by redefining the electric vehicle (EV) market and the automotive industry more broadly. Tesla introduced luxury to a product category previously seen as an R&D experiment. Over the last decade, EVs have gone from virtually non-existent to widespread, with roughly 1.2 million on the road in the U.S. — and a big chunk of those are Teslas. The two companies are on a similar trajectory, and for similar reasons.

The parallel paths of Starbucks and Tesla

Starbucks and Tesla are on track to achieving similar market share in the U.S. Tesla announced in their Q4 earnings call that they expect to sell over 500,000 vehicle in 2020. This 50% bump in year-on-year global fleet growth will position Tesla to gain market share of the U.S. EV market comparable to Starbucks’ share of the U.S. coffee market.

Source: Statista, EEI, MBA in the City analysis

How are these two companies landing in such similar places? It has to do with the two key strategies they share:

  1. Delivering superior user experience
  2. Establishing strong economic moats

With these two cornerstones, both companies are not only leading their categories, but also positioning themselves for long-term success. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s look at the facts and figures that are proving out their strategies.

1. Superior user experience

Starbucks and Tesla have each created superior user experiences that are entwined with their brand identities — in large part because those experiences departed from what was seen as possible in their markets.

Starbucks has defined the category of quality coffee by created a seamless, pleasant customer journey. From app orders to friendly baristas calling your name, the familiarity of a Starbucks PSL has a tug that brings in customers in Hawaiian Septembers. (I speak from experience). Starbucks’ category-defining success has been proven out by their dominance in the premium coffee market. As artisanal “hipster coffee” shops have sprouted up, consumers can find a multi-sensory coffee experience within walking distance in any U.S. urban center. Now I can get oat milk flat whites with a dusting of cinnamon just about anywhere in the Big Apple. Yet even as boutique cafes have emerged across NYC, many people still go to Starbucks, because they are reliable. As an early mover in premium coffee, Starbucks effectively defined what people expect and want.

Similarly, Tesla has shaped what people want in an EV. The Model S was the first to prove that electric vehicles could offer speed and range, creating brand cache and infrastructure that other companies, like GM and Ford, are unlikely to catch up to. Tesla is also positioned to grow brand loyalty because they perform as well as leading sports cars and are easier to maintain, creating an overall better user experience. EVs have fewer moving parts, so less things can break. For example, an Audi A5 costs almost 7x as much to maintain as a Tesla Model 3.

Compelling user experiences for both companies have resulted in significant earned media. Tesla’s sports models have earned the EV spotlight, with the most media notoriety of any car company, despite having zero marketing spend. Starbucks, in a similar vein, has steadily decreased marketing spend over the last decade. They don’t need the marketing, because both brands have become synonymous with their categories.

But what is to stop either company from losing market share to “me too” competitors, I hear you ask? The answer is economic moats.

2. Strong economic moats

An economic moat refers to a business’ ability to maintain competitive advantages that protect its long-term profits and market share from competitors. The critical mass and vertical integration of both Starbucks and Tesla have created operating efficiencies and economies of scale — both significant economic moats.

Starbucks boasts vertical integration from bean to cup. They work directly with nearly 300,000 coffee growers around the world to ensure quality and flavor standards, as well as sustainability. Full vertical integration makes their supply chain less susceptible to disruptions. Its automated supply chain monitoring also enables responsiveness to operational changes — ensuring that their 31,000+ stores globally are never short on supply. With this scale and integration, Starbucks has even left Dunkin’ in the dust.

Tesla is also vertically integrated. They recently doubled down on a piece of the supply chain that will drive (pun intended) the most critical competitive edge an EV can have: battery life. Tesla’s bleeding edge in-house battery technology will soon halve the number of charging station trips needed. These swift advances are likely a result of their Maxwell Technologies and HiBar Systems acquisitions in 2019. In its latest battery patent, Tesla noted that some battery formulas “doubled the number of cycles (or recharges) the battery could take while keeping the same 95 percent capacity retention.”

Tesla customers are willing to pay for this quality guarantee. While other electric vehicle manufacturers worry about losing tax credits, Tesla unit sale remain largely unaffected. Tesla hit their max tax credit qualification of 200,000 vehicle sales in 2018 — but this did not dampen 2019 sales. Tesla remains as dominant in its category as Starbucks is.

What can we learn from Tesla and Starbucks?

  • Customer experience and quality are huge differentiators in consumer categories with historically low performance.
  • Raising the customer experience and quality bar for a common product (like transportation or caffeine) can create foundational brand equity and drive market dominance that is hard to displace.
  • Providing exceptional experience will drive your NPS, and you will have a highly defensible market position.
  • Economic moats cement the victories of customer loyalty and turn them into sustainable businesses.