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Lean Startup Conference 2014: Wrap and Thanks

Friday, December 12th, 2014

kg_charles-harris

KG Charles-Harris is once again attending the Lean Startup Conference and sharing his impressions and what he’s learning with you.

Once again the team of Sarah Millstein & Eric Ries has created a weeklong conference – the Lean Startup Conference – that hits it out of the ballpark! 

If you didn’t see my updates from last year’s conference, I must reiterate that this is the most useful of all the tech/business conferences I have attended.  And this year they took it to a new level of excellence in several different areas.

There were two very notable differences from previous years, firstly, the larger contingent and programming for enterprise organizations and government (intrapreneurship), and secondly, the significant inclusion of women and minorities in the speaker and mentor lineup.

One would think that for a startup conference, having a large portion of programming dedicated to mature and large organizations would be a distraction or departure from the core values and intent of the conference.

However, the way in which they developed the programming, it became a learning experience for aspiring entrepreneurs of how to not only grow their companies, but also for how to keep their companies vital and vibrant as they became larger.

Several of my conversations with people who came from large organizations and governments, both nationally and from far flung destinations like Norway and Portugal, displayed a tremendous optimism that the Lean Startup methodology had potential to revitalize their organizations and how they serve their customers/constituents.

The second important difference from previous years is that the conference was characterized by the diversity of speakers and mentors. 

In terms of gender, age, racial background and experience, the conference was replete with different perspectives that give us the knowledge that Lean Startup is good execution regardless of whether I am a diminutive woman from India or a large, bearded white male. 

This made the conference much more interesting than any other I’ve attended and the networking was exceptional as a result. 

Clearly the conference organizers thought carefully of how they could provide both a learning experience in business and a culturally expanding perspective. 

Thank you Sarah and Eric for both a superb learning experience, as well as a personally expanding event – truly exceptional!

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If the Shoe Fits: Diversity vs. the Rules of Tech

Friday, December 5th, 2014

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mIn the course of today’s culture I am a virtual nobody. Aside from this blog, LinkedIn profile and a few comments here and there over the years I have no visibility.

This was pointed out to me in an irate email that asked who I thought I was to belittle the wonderful world of tech on non-issues like diversity.

Actually, I was surprised at both the lack of four-letter words and that writer didn’t blast me publicly. When I complimented the former and inquired about the latter I was told that “Ryan” assumed I wouldn’t see anything done in social media (true), so he decided to write directly.

The following is specifically for Ryan and those who agree with him, as well as those who find these posts enlightening. And a shoutout to KG Charles-Harris, who sent me the link.

Leslie Miley wrote a post at Model View Culture called The Top 10 (%) Tech Rules, but could as easily have been “why nothing changes” or “a self-propagating culture.”

Hopefully Ryan and friends will accept Miley’s comments as valid, since his credentials are above reproach.

Working as an engineer at Google, Apple, and Twitter has afforded me a view of the hiring process that for years has produced a homogenous culture: mostly male, and significantly white and Asian.

The Silicon Valley hiring process has been homogenized to the point that it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy—as entrenched as the “old, white guy” culture in the east.

I don’t believe much will change in my lifetime and maybe not in yours or your kids.

As Miley points out, habits are hard to break and breaking this systemic habit will make quitting smoking look like a stroll on the beach.

I am not optimistic about the future of diversity in tech. I see too many of my co-workers ask what university before they ask what applicants have accomplished. I see bias in the CS questions culled from the top universities, and preference given to candidates from the top companies, referred by their peers. The system now serves itself. And that will be the hardest habit to break.

That said, it could change.

How?

Read Miley’s post carefully and then stop doing what it talks about. In other words, be your own person and stop being an organization person.

Talk about it and, whenever possible, call out those you see abiding by the system.

Then share it over and over until it goes viral.

It’s a start.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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Ducks in a Row: Mark Andreessen’s Views on Diversity

Tuesday, October 28th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/infomastern/10190186943/

For all the talk about the lack of diversity some folks still don’t get it.

It’s a recognized fact that sometimes very smart people do or say very stupid things as reflected in Marc Andreessen’s recent comment explaining that companies actually are diverse.

“When you actually go in these companies, what you find is it’s American people, but it’s also Russians, and Eastern Europeans, and French, and German, and British. And then there are the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Thais, Indonesians, and Vietnamese.”

This is a direct contradiction of 2013 research done by Reuters.

A recent Reuters report found that the majority of Silicon Valley startup founders that receive Series A funding come from the same pedigreed cohort: either they previously worked at a large, well-known tech firm, a well-connected smaller tech company, they previously created a successful startup, or they come from one of three universities—Stanford, Harvard, or MIT.

Of course, one image is worth ten thousand words when proving this.

Andreessen also says that the lack of women and people of color in Valley companies is a function of education inequality and not having the right connections; another thought that flies in the face of facts.

Except for the fact that a recent analysis conducted by USA Today found that top universities are graduating black and Hispanic computer science and computer engineering students at twice the rate that technology companies are hiring them. Last year, 4.5% of computer science and engineering graduates from top universities were black and 6.5% were Hispanic. But on average, just 2% of employees at Silicon Valley tech companies (specifically, the seven companies that have released diversity stats) are black and 3% are Hispanic.

The walls around the Valley investor community are far higher now than they were when in 1993 when he happened to meet Jim Clark, who suggested forming a company based on a program Andreessen wrote in college called Mosaic.

The Valley needs to wake up, bite the bullet and follow the lead of Google, instead of pulling Andreessen’s rationalizing over their collective heads.

Flickr image credit: Susanne Nilsson

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If the Shoe Fits: Is San Francisco/Bay Area Really the Promised Land?

Friday, October 24th, 2014

A Friday series exploring Startups and the people who make them go. Read all If the Shoe Fits posts here

5726760809_bf0bf0f558_mThe Bay Area is touted for being the best place in the world for startups; the place that all others try to copy.

But is it really the best place?

I live in Washington State, just across the river from Portland, Oregon, AKA, Silicon Forrest. Lots of startups including a few that have jumped ship from San Francisco.

Tilde joins startups like Simple, Panic, and Sprint.ly, which have already set up shop in the city. Big-name companies like Salesforce, eBay, and Airbnb have also opened outposts here in recent months.

New York State offers cushy lures and there’s a lot more to the state than just New York City.

START-UP NY, Governor Cuomo’s groundbreaking initiative, is transforming communities across the state into tax-free sites for new and expanding businesses. Now, businesses can operate 100% tax-free for 10 years. No income tax, business, corporate, state or local taxes, sales and property taxes, or franchise fees.

Detroit should be up for consideration, too, thanks to Dan Gilbert, Quicken Loan’s billionaire owner who bought 60 skyscrapers totaling nine million square feet.

He has brought 12,500 employees with him to downtown, and along with other private investors is funding the construction of a light-rail system that will connect the central business district with the neighboring Midtown district. Through his umbrella company, Rock Ventures, he formed a start-up incubator called Bizdom and a venture-capital firm, with some of the funded companies already expanding into other Gilbert-owned office space.

Or you might prefer the new Las Vegas being guided by Tony Hsieh, using $350 million of his own money, because he deeply believes that some of the best ideas come from the unplanned interactions of dissimilar people.

He has brought 12,500 employees with him to downtown, and along with other private investors is funding the construction of a light-rail system that will connect the central business district with the neighboring Midtown district. (…) Around the same time, the Las Vegas city government was also about to move, and Hsieh saw his opportunity. He leased the former City Hall — smack in the middle of downtown Vegas — for 15 years. Then he got to thinking: If he was going to move at least 1,200 employees, why not make it possible for them to live nearby? And if they could live nearby, why not create an urban community aligned with the culture of Zappos, which encourages the kind of “serendipitous interactions” that happen in offices without walls?

One thing all of these areas have in common is diversity; because living costs are lower their populations reflect real-world attitudes and concerns, as opposed to the more homogenized views of the wealthy, super-educated white males that dominate the Bay Area.

More on them next Tuesday.

Image credit: HikingArtist

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Ducks in a Row: the Problem with Change

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/anemoneprojectors/5620251974

After 40 years the architectural profession isn’t any more open to women than it was.

In 1974, Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic for The New York Times, wrote that it was “appalling” that the institute’s national membership consisted of 24,000 men and 300 women.

Although women now account for half of all graduates of American architecture schools, they represent only 20 percent of licensed practitioners and an even lower proportion of partners in firms…

It took pressure from Millennial men in search of better work-life balance to force some law firms to effect change, in spite of the fact that losing a second-year associate costs $200,000 – $500,000 and nearly 50% of women lawyers quit.

Paying for women to freeze their eggs is the latest perk being offered, including by Apple and Facebook.

Many in tech believe that organizations such as Girls that Code and mentoring groups like WEST will change the dismal gender diversity numbers.

Facebook, Box and Pinterest announced on Wednesday that they have gotten together to launch a new mentorship program called WEST (Women Entering and Staying in Tech). The idea is to get more women interested in computer science, and to help them be prepared for the tech jobs of the future.

Google is ahead of the pack by taking a different approach and addressing unconscious bias.

Will any of these initiatives work long-term?

Doubtful.

Because, other than Google, none address the need for cultural change.

Changing culture is hard and it needs to start from the top, which means that leadership must change its MAP (mindset, attitude, philosophy™).

But considering the example set by the architectural profession I’m not holding my breath.

Flickr image credit: Peter aka anemoneprojectors

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Entrepreneurs: It Started with Ada

Thursday, October 9th, 2014

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ada_Lovelace

I do love learning new bits, especially the kind you can toss out when someone says something stupid and shut them down cold.

I was working by Skype with a friend; she was at a cafe in the Valley and there was a group of braggy programmers who could have been poster boys for the “bro culture.”

At another table were 3 young women quietly discussing a problem one was having tracking down a bug.

When the guys realized that the woman were also programmers they started talking loudly about how women couldn’t program because they aren’t smart enough, blah, blah.

My friend shared what was going on and I quickly shared a link to an article I read last week.

It talked about women who were instrumental in the math world, but whose names were quickly erased from tech history.

My friend was in a slow burn listening to the guys, so she interrupted them and asked if they were aware that it was a woman mathematician, a Countess no less, who wrote the first-ever computer algorithm and dreamed up the concept of artificial intelligence.

One guy said that was bull poop, so she suggested he Google Ada Lovelace.

And when he was done with that he should check out Jean Jennings and Betty Snyder, who were two of the original programmers of Eniac, the first general-use computer built and used during WWII.

In an interview, Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs authorized biographer, said

“If it wasn’t for Ada Lovelace, there’s a chance that none of this would even exist,” Mr. Isaacson added as he waved his hand in the air, gesturing as if to encompass all of Silicon Valley and the techies sitting around us.

The guys had gotten very quiet as they read the results of their search and left soon after.

The women left also after thanking my friend for her intervention.

Hopefully, the next time the women are being disparaged they will invoke the name of Ada Lovelace and share the story with their friends.

I love it.

Algorithms and AI—both from the brain of a woman.

Image credit: Wikipedia

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Entrepreneurs: Deleting the Rose-colored Glasses

Thursday, October 2nd, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/virtualsugar/357908606

Entrepreneurs come in all forms, but most aren’t from the golden circle—right race, right gender, right families, right schools, right friends—although that’s who the media tends to focus on.

I don’t know what the actual breakdown is, but for convenience I’ll call it 10% golden circle and 90% the rest (probably not far off).

While the 90% are just as creative and talented as the 10% they usually have a very different entrepreneurial experience.

One that is far more difficult and fraught and, as a result, more often fails and with more catastrophic repercussions.

An article in The Economist takes an unbiased look at entrepreneurship in terms of the effort and cost, not just in money, but in physical and mental health, sans the magic of the golden circle.

I’ve known entrepreneurs from both groups and although the words used to describe the experience are similar the actuality is not.

It is one thing to work 80 hour weeks in a well-resourced environment with similarly-minded people and another to spend those 80 hours alone, using a café internet connection, living on ramen and peanut butter, with no support network or cheering section rooting for you.

Yes, people from the 90% succeed and some of the 10% fail.

The importance of the article is to debunk the stupid, inaccurate romanticism with which popular culture has imbued and colored the startup world and those who dwell there.

Flickr image credit: John Martinez Pavliga

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Ducks in a Row: Google and Bias

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/23155134@N06/12139780184

Just as people are hard wired to respond to attractiveness they harbor other biases.

And just as the bias for attractiveness is anthropological, not biological, so are other biases.

Biases are fueled by assumptions, which are rarely logical—or conscious.

Google, along with most of tech, is rife with biases—both pro and con.

The idea of unconscious bias came to the attention of Google HR boss Laszlo Bock via a story in the New York Times about the biases among American university science professors regarding the difference in competency between female and male students (the women were ranked as less competent).

Unconscious bias, the sometimes useful tendency to make snap judgments (that subway car is empty for a reason), guides us into unexamined bigotry (she’s a woman, not a leader). 

Google being Google they approached the situation using a combination of education—not just for executives and managers, but for everybody

plus four specific steps to identify and deal with unconscious bias;

  • Gather facts.
  • Create a structure for making decisions.
  • Be mindful of subtle cues.
  • Foster awareness. Hold yourself — and your colleagues — accountable.

Google’s efforts are driven by competitiveness, as opposed to political correctness.

“If we have an employee base that reflects our user base, we are going to better understand the needs of people all over the world,” said Brian Welle, the researcher in charge of Google’s diversity training workshops. “Having people with a different worldview and different ways of solving problems gives you the raw materials to be more innovative and to be able to solve problems that nobody has asked before.”

Flickr credit: Don Graham | YouTube credit: Life at Google

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Ducks in a Row: Cognizant of Cultures

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/foxypar4/2168375264

Erin Meyer is the author of The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business and teach cross-cultural management at the international business school Insead, in Paris.

His article explaining how he learned to identify seminar participants with questions by looking for “bright eyes” is something every manager should read—whether or not they are managing an international team.

Why? Because different cultures are more than a function of Japanese vs. Russian vs. British.

Just as culture differs from country to country it differs by areas within each country.

In the US it’s beyond the difference between Massachusetts and Texas or Nevada and Colorado.

The cultural differences between Northern and Southern California are considerable, as are the differences between New York City and Rochester.

Cultural differences can be even finer; think of the differences between the various Burroughs in NYC starting with attitude all the way to language and almost everything in-between.

Beyond that different cultures can exist next door to each other, passed on through families, friends and social media.

Some cultural differences are obvious, while others are extremely subtle.

But they all have one thing in common.

To succeed, a boss needs to recognize the obvious, tease out the subtle and address them all.

Flickr image credit: John Haslam

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Comeuppance

Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

https://www.flickr.com/photos/cheezepix/4933836639Tech currently has a high profile for arrogance, not to mention chauvinism and bigotry, with Google, Apple and Facebook are its most public whipping boys.

However, their comeuppance came with the intense media focus that will likely force them to at least put some effort into cleaning up their respective acts.

Not like their psychological brethren on Wall Street.

And while tech has a modicum of excuse that stems from age—its frat house culture has gotten worse as entrepreneurs have gotten younger—proven by the numbers, i.e., more women entered tech in the 1980s than do today—Wall Street has none.

The investment banking world has always been a bastion of white, male elitists; and hardcore harassment—an old boys group that didn’t give a damn what anybody thought.

Arrogance has been synonymous with investment bankers for decades, so seeing it kicked in the teeth by upstart tech arrogance was exhilarating.

Google’s Larry Page created his own acquisition yard stick,

The toothbrush test: Is it something you will use once or twice a day, and does it make your life better? …The esoteric criterion shuns traditional measures of valuing a company like earnings, discounted cash flow or even sales.

Page, for example, is looking for “usefulness above profitability, and long-term potential over near-term financial gain.”

Potential and usefulness are esoteric concepts to most bankers and “long-term” isn’t even in their vocabulary.

Bankers are fine with the hard stuff revolving around money, but are often useless on human side.

But often, when big tech companies are looking to grow through acquisitions, it is the culture and vision, not the earnings and revenue, that are of paramount importance.

Of course, investment banks need to lose a lot for it to really start mattering, but it looks like they are.

The acquiring company did not use an investment bank in 69 percent of American technology acquisitions worth more than $100 million this year, according to Dealogic.

All I can say is that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving group of guys—their comeuppance was a long time coming and it’s hitting the only place they might notice—their bank balance.

Flickr image credit: Chris Hartman

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