Encore Gig : Camperforce

Migrant workers in 2017 now work for Amazon and live out of an RV. The Guardian reports that older workers, unable to afford rising rent and medical expenses, hit the road to work at Amazon distribution centers in exchange for a place to park their RV and water, sewage and electrical hookups. They call them the camperforce.

In other news, Amazon appears to be working their drivers so hard they don’t have time to relieve themselves. In this one instance in Sacramento, the driver ended up delivering a very different kind of package.

“The delivery company supervisor came out in his personal car and was not prepared for cleanup,” Bautista posted on Facebook. “He was in shock when he saw the size of ‘it.’ He ended up scooping it up with a plastic bag, but didn’t want to take it with him (it smelled really bad).”

Amazon said in a statement, “This does not reflect the high standards we have for delivery service providers.” and gave Bautista a Amazon gift card for her troubles.

Maybe that’s the long term play for Amazon Key.

Getting the Band Together Again at SmartNews

Following a month off after my unexpected liberation from Gigaom, I started this week as Director of Media & Technology Partnerships at SmartNews. I feel very fortunate to have discovered this company at a time when I believe I have a lot to offer.

First, some recent coverage,

While researching the company, I was delighted to learn they had hired Rich Jaroslovsky. Rich and I crossed paths a few times when I was working at Dow Jones as he was getting wsj.com off the ground. We both have a fascination with technology’s impact on media and I shared his mission to bring The Wall Street Journal online. We had since gone our separate ways but I always admired his love and respect for good journalism as a writer, editor, and business guy.

Rich explained to me that SmartNews thinks of itself as a machine learning company with a news front-end which is right in the nexus of what makes me tick. The co-founders, Ken Suzuki and Kaisei Hamamoto, are super-sharp engineers who see news discovery as an interesting problem to solve and hugely important for society to get right. To give you a sense for how they think, as they look for real estate for their San Francisco office, Ken and Kaisei each created their own interactive maps showing the locations of high tech startups and compared notes to determine that the area of 2nd and Howard was the ideal spot to focus their search.

I made my pitch (excerpted below) and here I am!

Two of the hardest challenges for the publishing industry are distribution and advertising. When publishers moved online, they had to reinvent their traditional distribution channels and navigate a new landscape.

Initially it was the portals such as Yahoo and AOL that would curate the best of the web. Advertising was also sold this way, manually curated and matched to broad channels of interest maintained by the portals.

As technology improved, search engines such as Google automated discovery and matching a reader’s interests to a publisher’s content. Advertising was automated and optimized via keyword matching and auction systems to extract maximum value. Distributed widgets allowed publishers to embed advertising into their sites and a combination of publisher tags and indexing that allowed them to take advantage of an ad network’s inventory.

Social media platforms have recently taken over as a source of traffic for publishers and content snippets shared via these networks represent the fastest growing segment of inbound readers for a publisher.

A common thread to success across all these channels is attractive representation of a publisher’s content within each distribution channel. Whether it’s meta-data, SEO, or “social media optimization,” each new distribution channel has spawned a new method of representing your content to the service which is doing the crawling and aggregation.

For a new distribution channel both the crawling and aggregation algorithms are key to successful presentation of content and relevant advertising to the reader.

Technology has enabled effortless distribution of news so the looming challenge is not so much the distribution of content but more its discovery and presentation. Social media burnout and personalization algorithms are still very basic and often push more and more similar content to the reader resulting in a “filter bubble” which shows the reader only what they want to see or worse, what they already know.

Working with publishers to find them new sources of readership and readers to teach them something they didn’t know is an important goal that aligns with my interests. The fact that the team is based in Japan, a culture with a strong culture of news readership, is attractive to me as I am a big fan of introducing Japan to the rest of the world.

I no longer have a role at Gigaom

Last week certainly was interesting. On Wednesday morning I was abruptly informed that, along with my VP and two engineers, that our services were no longer needed at Gigaom.

While unravelling my personal social profiles from the various company pages I had set up for Gigaom, it was Facebook’s robotic bit of micro-copy that really brought it home, “You no longer have a role on Gigaom.” Harsh.

No Role at Gigaom

Japanese has this wonderful phrase, iro iro (いろいろ) which means roughly, “lots of things that I’d rather not go into now but feel free to ask me over drinks” and I’ll leave it at that. Nothing dramatic, just a sudden shift of course that made it clear that it was time to move on. I’ll leave it at that.

I had a great run at Gigaom and I thank Daniel Raffel for the introduction and Paul Walborsky and Om Malik for their support while working there.  I joined when Gigaom was a collection of blogs with a nascent premium subscription business. Gigaom Research is now a major driver of revenue. As a Product Manager and later Director of Product the team tackled a number of projects of which I’m proud.

  • acquired and integrated paidcontent.org
  • redesigned Gigaom, Gigaom Research, and Gigaom Events as responsive
  • replaced the e-commerce back end
  • redesigned the gigaom.com post page and front page (twice)
  • rolled out a major re-brand across all properties
  • re-configured the Gigaom Research subscriber acquisition funnel
  • launched Analyst Connect, a simple way to connect to Gigaom Research analysts
  • launched Data Connect, a charts-centric view into Gigaom Research
  • launched Gigaom Search, a faceted search engine across the 15 year archive
  • launched Gigaom Alerts, a free tag-based notification service

In addition to the projects above, I am also pleased with my contribution to setting up how the Product Team is run. As the company grew through the critical 50 employee mark where unstructured cross-department communications begin to break down, the daily stand-up, weekly Dev Diary, Friday Show-and-Tell presentation, and quarterly Product Roadmaps all played an important role in keeping things on track. The methodology was simple and I think that’s what led to its success.

The engineers greased communication even further by migrating off our group Skype chat into HipChat rooms with integrations into GitHub and a script that could spawn a Google Hangouts on demand. We even had a Sonos-driven alarm that would play Bob Marley’s Get Up, Stand Up on queue to remind us all when it was time for our daily check-in. Sometimes it’s the little things.

It’s always bittersweet to leave a place of employment, like the breakup of a band. There’s a lot of talent there and I’ll miss working with them. I will also personally miss the vortex of activity that comes with working at an organization that takes in the news of the day and validates, organizes, and distributes it back to its readers.

Gigaom is a premium content business with increasingly valuable content and services made available to customers at its higher tier customers. I often tell people that the most valuable content is in the internal Gigaom newsfeeds, the price of which is full time employment. As of now, I am unsubscribed.

Robot underlords

In 15 minutes, CPG Grey’s Humans Need Not Apply paints a bleak picture for anyone who thinks that the coming robot revolution will free everyone up for more creative pursuits. Trouble is, poetry and painting don’t pay the rent.

Transportation, driving things & people from point A to point B employs millions of people today. What will happen to these people when self-driving transport is perfected? In the Great Depression 25% of the workforce was out of work and unable to feed itself. Pointing to a list of the jobs in danger of automation Grey argues,

This list above is 45% of the workforce. Just what we’ve talked about today, the stuff that already works, can push us over that number pretty soon. And given that even our modern technological wonderland new kinds of work are not a significant portion of the economy, this is a big problem.

This is not something that will happen sometime in the future, this is something that’s already happening. Amazon’s Robot Army was mobilized two years ago. It’s a re-occurring theme, robots taking over and turning against their maker. Coming soon to a theater near you in October, Autómata.

I’m not too worried. According to Derrick Harris (who writes about this kind of stuff)

Building an AI system that excels at a particular task — even a mundane one such as recognizing breeds of dogs — is hard, manual work. Even so-called “self-learning” systems need lots of human tuning at every other step in the process. Making disparate systems work together to provide any sort of human-like concept of reality would be even harder still.

When data becomes dangerous: Why Elon Musk is right and wrong about AI

Before AI systems can communicate with each other and learn, we’ll need standards. As long as creation of standards remain in the hands of human-based, quasi-governmental international organizations that take ages to agree on anything, we’re safe

Matt, meet Andy

I love hyperbolic prose. Especially when it’s used to sell something. Better yet when it’s pitching you or something you do.

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune is hiring and Matthew Doig penned what is perhaps the all-time best Want Ad ever. It reads more like a call to arms than a job spec.

We want to add some talent to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative team. Every serious candidate should have a proven track record of conceiving, reporting and writing stellar investigative pieces that provoke change. However, our ideal candidate has also cursed out an editor, had spokespeople hang up on them in anger and threatened to resign at least once because some fool wanted to screw around with their perfect lede.

We do a mix of quick hit investigative work when events call for it and mini-projects that might run for a few days. But every year we like to put together a project way too ambitious for a paper our size because we dream that one day Walt Bogdanich will have to say: “I can’t believe the Sarasota Whatever-Tribune cost me my 20th Pulitzer.” As many of you already know, those kinds of projects can be hellish, soul-sucking, doubt-inducing affairs. But if you’re the type of sicko who likes holing up in a tiny, closed  office with reporters of questionable hygiene to build databases from scratch by hand-entering thousands of pages of documents to take on powerful people and institutions that wish you were dead, all for the glorious reward of having readers pick up the paper and glance at your potential prize-winning epic as they flip their way to the Jumble… well, if that sounds like journalism Heaven, then you’re our kind of sicko.

For those unaware of Florida’s reputation, it’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here. Our elections are colossal clusterfucks. Our new governor once ran a health care company that got hit with a record fine because of rampant Medicare fraud. We have hurricanes, wildfires, tar balls, bedbugs, diseased citrus trees and an entire town overrun by giant roaches (only one of those things is made up). And we have Disney World and beaches, so bring the whole family.

Interested? Click through to apply. I bet you this is a job Friendster Andy could handle.

 

Peaks and Valleys

There’s a great post over on TechCrunch about what it’s like to be a startup entrepreneur by Mark Suster with the usual, quick checklist of necessary qualities and caveats of what is in store for anyone that’s thinking of going down such a path. Checklists are good but nothing gives you a sense of what it’s like more than this breathless passage included below. Try and read the entire bit in one breath and then, maybe, you can appreciate what these guys go through day in and day out.

 

Snap.  Great story on TechCrunch!  Inbound calls from partners, people who want to join,“atta boys” from friends.  You knew it all along.  Your vision was right.  VCs are calling wanting meetings.  La vita e bella.  Uh, oh.  Fawk.  Facebook DID NOT just announce that!  Scoble is saying your best days are behind you?  No, I think we can still be huge.  We’re just going to have to change our focus a bit.  Weekends.  Evenings.  Regroup.  Team losing a bit of confidence in you.  VCs pushing out your meetings a few weeks.  WTF?  Just a month ago they were all emailing you!

Well, you still have 6 months runway.  What if we pivot slightly?  Not a total change – just a different way of making money.  What if we dropped the code that would compete with Facebook and instead go after this other area?  Relaunch.  Oh, man.  Our user numbers are up.  Awesome!  Loving this new direction.  It’s all good.

But … only 2 month’s cash left.  Let’s just not pay ourselves for a couple of months.  The junior devs need it.  They’re month-to-month.  I think we can be like the Maccabes and stretch this cash.  Do we tell our team? Can they handle knowing we only have 3, maybe 4 months cash? Or if we say that will they all be putting out the word to their friends to look for their next gig?

Great new product release. Another good article.  VC meetings going well.  Holy sh*t!!! We just landed the biz dev partner we’ve been working on for 9 months.  They love us!  Awesome!  $2 million in VC.  Life couldn’t be better.  All your buddies want to join.  No.  Google DID NOT just acquire our main biz dev partner.  What?  Google doesn’t know if they’re going to honor our contract?  We now have to re-convince everybody? But we had a term sheet !!!

You can’t believe it.  Eight beers that night.  Maybe even tequila.  And the next morning – water off a duck’s back.  We’ll find a way.  Startups weren’t mean to be easy.  Back to work.

– from Should You Really Be A Startup Entrepreneur?

How about you? Are you ready for the ride?

Soylent, the macro made of people

More on this question of crowdsourced writing, (plugging wet-ware into software) comes Soylent, (yes, it’s made of people) a research project which has written a add-in to Microsoft Word.

Hooked into Amazon Mechanical Turk, this project offers three services:

  • Shortn – trim document length without changing meaning
  • Crowdproof – distributed human proof-reading
  • The Human Macro – open-ended tasks such as changing the tense of document, “natural language crowd-scripting”

Think of how something like Soylent and other outsourcing services change the game. I used to work with someone that would farm out the preparation of his expense reports to Man Friday. How soon before someone, in a moment of bureaucratic weakness, whips up a script to to outsource preparation of the weekly TPS report to management from inside Corporation X. Chances are, it’s already happening.

User-Driven Development

It’s one thing to put yourself in the shoes of your potential customers and think about how to solve their pain points but it’s entirely something else to pretend that this product already exists and think about how you would market it.

This is the approach at Amazon and I think it’s quite effective. It’s something they refer to as, Working Backwards. This is the process of definition which helps clarify needed features (and their priority) before coding has even begun. I’m a big believer in hacking together working prototypes and tend to jump right in. This approach is more nuanced and helps shake off any geek-halo in the code-first approach. From Werner Vogal’s (Amazon’s CTO) post:

  1. Start by writing the Press Release [1] Nail it. The press release describes in a simple way what the product does and why it exists – what are the features and benefits. It needs to be very clear and to the point. Writing a press release up front clarifies how the world will see the product – not just how we think about it internally.
  2. Write a Frequently Asked Questions document. Here’s where we add meat to the skeleton provided by the press release. It includes questions that came up when we wrote the press release. You would include questions that other folks asked when you shared the press release and you include questions that define what the product is good for. You put yourself in the shoes of someone using the product and consider all the questions you would have.
  3. Define the customer experience. Describe in precise detail the customer experience for the different things a customer might do with the product. For products with a user interface, we would build mock ups of each screen that the customer uses. For web services, we write use cases, including code snippets, which describe ways you can imagine people using the product. The goal here is to tell stories of how a customer is solving their problems using the product.
  4. Write the User Manual. The user manual is what a customer will use to really find out about what the product is and how they will use it. The user manual typically has three sections, concepts, how-to, and reference, which between them tell the customer everything they need to know to use the product. For products with more than one kind of user, we write more than one user manual.

[1] Ian McAllister, who also works at Amazon, posts on Quora about “working backwards” (it’s via this Quora post that I found Werner’s post, thank you!). He writes in more detail about how to structure the mock-press release.

  • Heading – Name the product in a way the reader (i.e. your target customers) will understand.
  • Sub-Heading – Describe who the market for the product is and what benefit they get. One sentence only underneath the title.
  • Summary – Give a summary of the product and the benefit. Assume the reader will not read anything else so make this paragraph good.
  • Problem – Describe the problem your product solves.
  • Solution – Describe how your product elegantly solves the problem.
  • Quote from You – A quote from a spokesperson in your company.
  • How to Get Started – Describe how easy it is to get started.
  • Customer Quote – Provide a quote from a hypothetical customer that describes how they experienced the benefit.
  • Closing and Call to Action – Wrap it up and give pointers where the reader should go next.

and most importantly:

Oh, and I also like to write press-releases in what I call “Oprah-speak” for mainstream consumer products. Imagine you’re sitting on Oprah’s couch and have just explained the product to her, then you listen as she explains it to her audience. That’s “Oprah-speak”, not “Geek-speak”.

Less Powerpoint, More Prototypes

no powerpointI’m a big believer in hacking together a working prototype to demonstrate product ideas. Powerpoint mocks basically put a shiny gloss on a paper sketch and because it’s not real, generate endless debate where no one is really speaking on authority because the product doesn’t exist.

Once you have a prototype the debate becomes substantive.  Prototypes trump PowerPoint every time. Building a quick prototype is a way of sketching an idea – the emphasis should be on quick on dirty – get the pieces working with real data to see how things move, that’s it. Expect reactions and expect that you’ll need to tear it apart and redo things, that’s ok – expect that people might hate it and you’ll throw it away. Because of that, don’t invest too much time or ego into your prototype either, it will change, guaranteed. In this sense, churn is good.

This is why I really enjoyed Paul Buchheit’s post Communicating with Code where he writes about how both GMail and AdSense came together.

Of course none of the code from my prototype ever made it near the real product (thankfully), but that code did something that fancy arguments couldn’t do (at least not my fancy arguments), it showed that the idea and product had real potential.

The point of this story, I think, is that you should consider spending less time talking, and more time prototyping, especially if you’re not very good at talking or powerpoint. Your code can be a very persuasive argument.

GMail & AdSense were born from working prototypes, not PowerPoint.  Whenever possible, try and avoid PowerPoint for product design, unless it’s for art.

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Leaving Yahoo – Going Mobile

On Friday I’ll hand over my badge, laptop, and Blackberry, finishing up three years at Yahoo. I’m leaving MyBlogLog in the good hands of Todd Sampson to drive the product vision and manage the engineering team and Tilly McLain who will look over the day-to-day care and feeding of the site and community.

My self-proclaimed tag line on the internal company directory is turning Yahoo inside out. This has been my personal mission since I joined Yahoo a little over three years ago. There is great stuff to be shared at Yahoo, as long as you let people get to it in a way that’s useful to them.

I enjoyed working with people who shared my passion to transform Yahoo into to a modern platform. It hasn’t been easy – opening up programmatic access to Yahoo is fraught with many built-in conflicts. Third party content licenses, traffic guarantees, and international legal constraints all make it difficult to let services flow completely free. It’s an industry-wide problem. Much of the way the advertising industry measures the impact of their online campaigns is rooted in the pageview metric which runs counter to providing the best of what you’ve got via an API call. For folks such as ComScore (who help advertisers evaluate rates) an API call doesn’t count as a pageview or roll up into a CPM so it’s a hard to argue letting people get at data without forcing them to come to a pageview to get it.

But consumer demand on the internet is like a natural force. If you don’t go with the flow, the market will route around until it finds what it needs. As with ripped music files, if you don’t provide your data via an API and figure out how to build a business off of that, folks will scrape your pages or go to your competitor. Yahoo gets this and there are many people working to provide a structured way to get at their data in a sustainable way that can guarantee that they will be able to continue to provide it. Pay a visit to the Yahoo Developer Network site to see what’s there and watch this space as there’s more in the queue.

With this as a backdrop, I was invited to take my thinking to a new company and a new industry. In a few weeks I’ll be joining Nokia and working to make their devices more socially aware. The Nokia s60, iPhone, Blackberry and Android (rumored) application stores give us developer ecosystems around each device. What will the world be like when devices can communicate with each other via social networks, across device platforms, across mobile carrier networks? Much the same way the web browser has unified communication across Mac & PC, the mobile web will do the same for “broadband-enabled” cell phones. Add GPS (location), Bluetooth (proximity), integrated camera/video and a voice interface and you’ve got a whole new set of opportunities that are just too good to pass up.

Imagine this use case. Your phone knows your alarm goes off at 6am every morning, that you drive the San Mateo bridge every weekday on your way to work at around 7:30am. It’s entirely possible for your phone to automatically check traffic conditions before you leave sometime after you awake and let you know that there is heavier than normal traffic and suggest an alternate route and read it out to you in a phone call, while you drive. If you’ve got your calendar in there, there is no reason that your phone can’t offer to call ahead and let the people in your first meeting know that you’re running late. All the pieces are in place to make this happen, automatically, right on your device. That’s the kind of service that will enhance your life, that’s the kind of service suite I’m excited to build.

Thank you to everyone who lent an ear to my crazy talk in the early days and pointed me to others who would listen and helped me build a band of believers. A nowhere near complete list of shout outs include:

Craig Forman, Scott Gatz, and Don Loeb who brought me in and set me lose on management to get the wheels rolling.

Toby Coppel, Gerry Horkin, Dave Vockell, Gil Ben-Artzy, and David Katz, who took me under their wing in Corporate Development and helped me refine my message into bite-sized Powerpoint presentations and introduced me to the Harvey Ball.

Sumit Chachra, Aaron Stein, Josh Rangsikitpho, John Lindal, Josh Blatt, Cody Simms and others who fought the good fight down in Burbank.

Chad Dickerson, Jeremy Zawodny, Steve Spencer, Jonathan Strauss, Bradley Horowitz, Jeffery McManus, and Robi Ganguly who encouraged hackery and other inspirational corporate trickery.

Thank you especially Todd Sampson, Eric Marcoullier, John Sampson, Steve Ho, Chris Goffinet, Saurabh Sahni, Mani Kumar, Manny Miller, Tilly McLain, Robyn Tippins, Raymund Ramos, Micah Laaker, JR Conlin, Greg Cohn, Havi Hoffman, Cameron Marlow, Matt McAllister, Kent Brewster, Ryan Kennedy, Sam Pullara and all the other MyBlogLog faithful who encouraged or help me build some of the things I was talking about – we released some cool stuff which really pushed the edge and continue to lead the way.

Finally, thank you to my kids who taught me to look at social networks in a new light and and my wife who kept the family ticking and the home fires burning through it all.

For those interested in peering into a subset of what inspires me, here’s a sample of my OPML file. Keep up the good work Marshall, Louis, and Mark.

I’m going to take a week off to re-charge before the new gig kicks off at the Nokia offices in Mountain View. I’m looking forward to working with one of the original Yahoo bloggers, Russell Beattie. It’s been awhile since I’ve been a regular in the South Bay so if you’re interested in getting together, drop me a line.

Goin’ Mobile – The Who