The Pivot, or the Luck Factor in Silicon Valley

A thoughtful take on the concept of the “pivot” in Silicon Valley, from Scott Adams (the creator of the Dilbert comic):

Smart observers in the valley look for the “tell” that an early stage start-up will be a winner, but none can be found. Oh, sure, the team needs to be smart, talented, and willing to work long hours. But nearly every start-up has that going for it. Most have great ideas as well. None of it predicts success. 

So imagine if you will, some of the smartest, most rational humans the world has ever created, wallowing around in the absurdity of Silicon Valley, where success is mostly based on luck. How does one feel good about that? And what is the solution?

Answer: You institutionalize the pivot.

I’ve been watching the TV show Silicon Valley, and the episode where Pied Piper tried to pivot comes to mind.

Adams argues that the pivot is basically a way to optimize one’s luck:

Here’s the system:

1.      Form a team
2.      Slap together an idea and put it on the Internet.
3.      Collect data on user behavior.
4.      Adjust, pivot, and try again.

Thanks to Google Analytics, Optimizely, Bitly, and other tools for measuring customer behavior in real time, a smart team can try different approaches and different products until something works out. A start-up in 2014 is a guess- testing machine.

Read the rest here.

Appsurd: The Jokester Apps in Silicon Valley

The Wall Street Journal profiles a few apps/services which have launched in Silicon Valley, but have been regarded as fake. When the goal is to push something out there, even if it’s a joke, how do people respond? As the founder of Jotly said, “Let’s think of the most ridiculous possible app that no one would ever consider a real thing, and make that…”

On the TacoCopter:

Meanwhile, the creators of TacoCopter, a service for delivering tacos with drone-like miniature helicopters, would love to have their idea taken so seriously.

After the project’s website got noticed in March, comedian Stephen Colbert and others treated it as a farce, and tech-news site Wired.com called it “completely fake.” (A Wired spokesman declined to comment.) Federal regulations prohibit commercial use of such devices.

But the creators say that they fully intend to launch the venture once the law changes, and one of them recently held a test flight overseas with the help of some fans. (The test aircraft crashed seconds after the taco was placed on board.)

So how do you differentiate all the apps out there?

Those seeking inspiration for the perfect pitch—or prank—might look at Itsthisforthat.com, which generates often absurd capsule descriptions of Internet start-ups by mashing up existing business concepts and buzzwords.

The site, which according to its creators has attracted more than 100,000 unique visitors, asks “Wait, what does your start-up do?” and follows with an ever-rotating set of descriptions such as “So, basically, it’s like a Google Analytics for Laundromats,” or, “like a news recommender for beer,” or, “like an Airbnb for restrooms,” a reference to the room-rental exchange for tourists.

Fun stuff.

What Software is Used at Facebook?

Andrei Alexandrescu, a self-professed hacker and current employee at Facebook, is interviewed by Server Side Magazine and answers what software/tools they use at Facebook. It’s a Linux world, with a lot of tools developed in-house:

Each Facebook engineer gets a choice of MacBook or Windows laptop, plus the invariable 30′ monitor (yum). But development is not really happening on the laptop itself; to get any work done, engineers connect to a remote Linux machine (each engineer has one assigned) using a variety of protocols over ssh (plain terminal, nx, vnc, and probably more).

There’s freedom in choosing editors, so the usual suspects – emacs and vim – are quite popular, with some Eclipse and others here and there. I personally prefer emacs via nx, the combo works quite swimmingly even over a slow connection.

We also have a lot of cool organizational tools, many developed in house. That sounds a bit NIHish, but the history behind it is that we tried hard to make off-the-shelf tools work at the scale and quality we need them to, failed, and had to write our own.

The tools use our own technologies (talk about dog food) so they work, look, and integrate beautifully. Best part, if someone doesn’t like something, well, they can just fix it. (To wit, our email and calendar software is off-the-shelf and is the most unpleasant tool to deal with. Get this – we have a few people “specialized” in sending large meeting invites out, because there are bugs that require peculiar expertise to work around. Not to mention that such invites come with “Do not accept from an iPhone lest you corrupt the invite for everyone!”)

Anyway, back to our tool chain. Once an engineer makes a code change that passes unit tests and lint, they submit for review a so-called “diff” via our Phabricator system, which we open sourced.

The reviewers are selected partly manually, partly automatically; virtually not one line of code is committed without having been inspected by at least one (other) engineer. Phabricator is great at this flow, making diff analysis, comment exchange, and revision updates very handy. I’d recommend it.

Once the diff has been approved, the author uploads it to our central git repository. We love git; when I joined two years ago, we were just starting to migrate from svn to git, and today we virtually all use git. Some of us (including myself) wrote a few popular git scripts that integrate with our workflow.

To build C++ code we have our own build system driving a build farm. I don’t do front-end work, so I don’t know many details in that area; in broad strokes, we use the recently-released HipHop Virtual Machine (HHVM) for development, and the static HipHop compiler for the production site.

We have quite a few more browser-based tools for improving workflow, such as task management, discussions, wiki, peer review, recruiting and interviewing, analytics, systems management, and many many more. Really for pretty much any typical need “there’s an app for that”. And if there isn’t, there’s a vast infrastructure allowing you to build one quickly.

Read the full interview to find out about the D programming language…

Sheryl Sandberg and the Silicon Valley Culture

In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Ken Auletta writes a detailed profile of Sheryl Sandberg, the Chief Operating Officer at Facebook. She was previously at Google, and Auletta goes in depth describing how Mark Zuckerberg wooed her to join him at Facebook. The entire piece is meticulously researched (I’d say about three months of work went into it), and worth reading in entirety. Much of the piece deals with how women are perceived in the workplace (Sandberg “blamed them [women] more for their insecurities than she blamed men for their insensitivity or their sexism”) and the challenges Sandberg faced when coming over from Google to Facebook.

Sandberg’s familiar history is particularly fascinating:

Sandberg was born in 1969, in Washington, D.C. Her family moved to North Miami Beach when she was two. Her mother, Adele, gave up studying for a Ph.D. and teaching college French in order to raise Sheryl and her two younger siblings, David and Michelle. Her father, Joel, is an ophthalmologist. After a rabbi at their synagogue asked for volunteers, Adele and Joel helped found the South Florida Conference on Soviet Jewry. “Adele did most of the work,” Joel says, but he was the president. Their home became an unofficial headquarters for Soviet Jews wanting to escape anti-Semitism, and a temporary hotel for many who had finally won the right to emigrate. On weekends, Adele says, “we schlepped the kids to rallies.”

The Sandberg children attended public school, and Sheryl was always at the top of her class. “In public schools, for a girl to be smart was not good for your social life,” Adele says. She describes her daughter as “a mother’s helper,” aiding David in tying his shoes and Michelle in taking a bath. The only time she ever rebelled, Adele recalls, was when she was in junior high school. “One day she came home from school and said, ‘Mom, we have a problem. You’re not ready to let me grow up.’ ”

“I said, ‘You’re right.’ The minute she said it, I knew she was right.”

One point raised in the piece is the relationship between work and raising a family. Sandberg is a mother, and spoke with Auletta about the challenge:

One day this spring, I spoke with Sandberg about these issues. She had rushed to the office from her son’s school wearing sweatpants, a zippered sweatshirt, and white sneakers, with her hair jammed into a ponytail. She sat under a framed photograph of her holding her baby and pulled out a Baggie containing sugar-snap peas, which she began munching as we talked. She said, “The No. 1 impediment to women succeeding in the workforce is now in the home. . . . Most people assume that women are responsible for households and child care. Most couples operate that way—not all. That fundamental assumption holds women back.” The second impediment is guilt, she said. “I feel guilty working because of my kids. I do. I feel guilty. In my TED talk, I’m talking to myself, too. I’m not just talking to other people. I have faced every one of those things myself.” Later, I asked her directly about Hewlett’s critique, and she simply said, “I feel really grateful to the people who encouraged me and helped me develop. Nobody can succeed on their own.”

Finally, I enjoyed the part about where Sandberg was to give a graduation speech at Bard College and said the following:

She described a poster on the wall at Facebook: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” She said that it echoed something the writer Anna Quindlen once said, which was that “she majored in unafraid” at Barnard. Sandberg went on, “Don’t let your fears overwhelm your desire. Let the barriers you face—and there will be barriers—be external, not internal. Fortune does favor the bold. I promise that you will never know what you’re capable of unless you try. You’re going to walk off this stage today and you’re going to start your adult life. Start out by aiming high. . . . Go home tonight and ask yourselves, What would I do if I weren’t afraid? And then go do it! Congratulations.”

So, what would you do if you weren’t afraid? It’s such an important question in how we guide ourselves in life: fear tends to brings us back down to Earth…

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Related: The Face of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg 

Readings: Silicon Valley, Twitter Influence, Mark Armstrong on Reading, Cosmonaut Crash

A few good reads from this week:

1) “Silicon Valley Hiring Perks: Meals, iPads and a Cubicle for Spot” [New York Times] – a good piece reflecting the current state of Silicon Valley. I was surprised by how well Google is paying:

Then there are salaries. Google is paying computer science majors just out of college $90,000 to $105,000, as much as $20,000 more than it was paying a few months ago. That is so far above the industry average of $80,000 that start-ups cannot match Google salaries.

Perhaps the most telling line, representing the culture shift in Silicon Valley (how long has it been in the making?):

And there has been a psychological shift; many of the most talented engineers want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg not work for him.

2) “A Better Way to Measure Twitter Influence” [New York Times] – Do you think the most influential Twitter user is Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga? I agree with the premise of this post, that follower counts on Twitter mean less for influence than actual engagement (replies, retweets):

But it turns out that counting followers is a seriously flawed way to measure a person’s impact on Twitter. Even one of Twitter’s founders, Evan Williams, made the point to me recently: someone with millions of followers may no longer post messages frequently, while someone followed by mere tens of thousands may be a prolific poster whose messages are amplified by others.

According to research by Twitalyzer, the most influential Twitter user is Rafinha Bastos from Brazil. Yes, this is a surprise to me too.

3) “Mark Armstrong: What I Read” [The Atlantic] – Mark Armstrong, founder of long reads (one of my favorite sites on the Web), reveals his daily media/reading diet:

Most weekday mornings, the first thing I’m reading is my iPhone. I’ll start with a quick check of the Twitter app, dipping into the real-time stream and checking the latest stories that readers have shared using the #longreads hashtag. (It’s for sharing any outstanding story between 1,500 and 30,000 words.)

Also, Long Reads wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t for the community, as Mark attests:

Twitter is also my main source for new stories that get featured on Longreads. The community is incredible when it comes to finding and sharing great stories using the #longreads hashtag: @hriefs, @michellelegro, @jaredbkeller, @sherlyholmes, @legalnomads, @katesilver, @nxthompson, @weegee, @eugenephoto, @petersm_th, all recommend excellent links—from magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic to regional publications doing outstanding journalism like Texas Monthly, 5280 Magazine, Atlanta Magazine, and alt-weeklies like Minneapolis City Pages and The Stranger.

I’ve bookmarked Mark’s post because I need to go through the links he has included in there more than a few times. Related: my most popular post on this blog is from last year, where I rounded up The Top Five Long Reads of 2010.

4) “Cosmonaut Crashed into Earth Crying in Rage” [NPR] – probably the most fascinating story I’ve read all week. If you’ve ever doubted that the space race wasn’t risky, read this story. If you click through the link, there is a disturbing photo at the top of the page. This is an incredible account of Vladimir Komarov, friend of the Soviet hero Yuri Gagarin (the first man to enter space). The background:

In 1967, both men [Komarov and Gagarin] were assigned to the same Earth-orbiting mission, and both knew the space capsule was not safe to fly. Komarov told friends he knew he would probably die. But he wouldn’t back out because he didn’t want Gagarin to die. Gagarin would have been his replacement.

But as detailed in the new book Starman, by Jamie Doran and Piers Bizony, Gagarin and some senior technicians had inspected the Soyuz 1 and had found 203 structural problems. Gagarin even wrote a 10-page memo on his findings, gave it to his best friend in the KGB, Venyamin Russayev, but nobody dared send it up the chain of command (to Brezhnev). So both Komarov and Gagarin knew of the dangers…but what would have happened if Komarov refused to go?

“If I don’t make this flight, they’ll send the backup pilot instead.” That was Yuri Gagarin. Vladimir Komarov couldn’t do that to his friend. “That’s Yura,” the book quotes him saying, “and he’ll die instead of me. We’ve got to take care of him.” Komarov then burst into tears.

An absolutely harrowing account. A must-read.