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Peter Bihr

First and foremost, get the basics right

June 22, 2017 | By | No Comments

In my work, and in an endless stream of conversations, I notice how organizations focus on perfect delivery over getting the basics right. This is a recipe for disaster! Today I’ll make the case for focusing on the basics first, even though this might not seem as rewarding in the short term.

For example, if you build a table with four solid legs, even if it might look crappy it’ll fulfill its primary purpose. It’s a table. It’s table-ness, manifested. However, it you focus on perfect delivery and apply the most beautiful polish to a table without first getting the basics right, you’ll end up with an object that might look beautiful but is too wobbly to use. It’s not a table, but a simulacrum of a table.

This principle holds for all walks of life and organizational output. For something a little less cliché than a table, consider a developer event. Even the most polished developer event with fantastic catering and a great video documentary is bound to fail if there isn’t a powerful API and the documentation to go with it: If the company culture isn’t yet at the point to be open for external developers, no amount of polish at the event will help.

First and foremost, we need to get the basics right.

I could go on listing examples, but the principle is clear: Basics first. Once the basics are in place, the rest can follow, but the opposite is not true.

The issue is, of course, that often the basics don’t offer much chance to increase one’s standing or profile internally or externally, at least not in the short term. It’s essentially plumbing work like all infrastructure: Incredibly important, but not generally lauded.

The same holds true for solid strategy and future-proofing work: In order to successfully future-proof an organization, it’s usually necessary to touch on all parts of the organization. Org charts, business models, culture, strategy, tactics, processes, product, marketing and all the rest needs to be on the table. Like security, you can’t just tack it on after.

Before you can run, you need to learn how to walk. Only once a reliable foundation—the basics!—is in place, you can move on to greatness.

We can move past the outdated cult of the genius founder

June 22, 2017 | By | No Comments

Following the recent news about Uber and its leadership issues, I can’t help but think of the structural issues at play here. Personally I think of Uber as a near-perfect manifestation of what’s wrong with the tech industry, but the underlying issues go way beyond this company.

The outdated cult of the genius founder

In the saga around Uber founder being ousted by investors as CEO, there’s been lots of talk about changing the company’s culture, about making changes, about reigning in bad behavior. First of all, if this happens after being slapped on the wrist it doesn’t come from a place of credibility: Uber’s behavior in all of their scandals has been pretty clearly just window-dressing. When there was enough public pressure, course-correct just enough. Never has there been any credible sign of truly wanting to change. These are just my 2 cents, and I’m obviously not an Uber fan.

This whole culture, as has been documented very well in lots of places, is an expression of the founder’s personality and mode of operation. A culture doesn’t just exist, and change when you tell it to: Culture is the accumulation of decisions, reinforced by success.

In Silicon Valley, the myth of the genius founder is strong. And how couldn’t it be. It’s such a strong narrative! But like all narratives, it’s a fiction.

This wouldn’t be dangerous if there weren’t such a broad range of VCs who went for this myth of the genius founder, and for the alpha male bravado that comes with it. (And make no mistake, this cannot be discussed without talking about gender.)

Whenever I think about Uber and its culture the thing that strikes me most is how outdated Uber seems. Despite the technology, the angle of disruption and innovation and what have you, it feels like a company more like 1980s movie Wall Street rather than a 21st century enterprise.

This reminded me a lot of former ISS commander Chris Hadfield’s explanations of how the requirements for becoming an astronaut have changed since the 1950s, which turned into this little Twitter rant (some typos removed):

In his (excellent!) book Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, Chris Hadfield explains how requirements for astronauts have changed over time.
In the early days of space exploration, it was all about technical skills and bravery: You would have to be ok being strapped onto a rocket. In modern space exploration, it’s all about good leadership and being a team player, having broad skillsets, and handle stress well.
When I see Uber news, the company feels so outdated it makes me realize: Maybe the startup & tech scene moves in the same direction. Rather than the brilliant, visionary—but potentially ruthless—genius preferred in the past, we’re moving into a new world:
Imagine a tech & startup world of great, level-headed team players and leaders with broad interdisciplinary skills and diverse teams.

Turns out, this might be huge also under inclusion and diversity aspects.

The Atlantic’s brilliant and painful article Why Is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women? refers to a study published 2015 in Science and how the cult of the “genius founder” is highly problematic, especially—but not only—regarding diversity (highlights mine):

The researchers found that telling participants that their company valued merit-based decisions only increased the likelihood of their giving higher bonuses to the men.
Such bias may be particularly rife in Silicon Valley because of another of its foundational beliefs: that success in tech depends almost entirely on innate genius. Nobody thinks that of lawyers or accountants or even brain surgeons; while some people clearly have more aptitude than others, it’s accepted that law school is where you learn law and that preparing for and passing the CPA exam is how you become a certified accountant. Surgeons are trained, not born. In contrast, a 2015 study published in Science confirmed that computer science and certain other fields, including physics, math, and philosophy, fetishize “brilliance,” cultivating the idea that potential is inborn. The report concluded that these fields tend to be problematic for women, owing to a stubborn assumption that genius is a male trait.
“The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer the female PhDs,” the study found, pointing out that the same pattern held for African Americans. Because both groups still tend to be “stereotyped as lacking innate intellectual talent,” the study concluded, “the extent to which practitioners of a discipline believe that success depends on sheer brilliance is a strong predictor of women’s and African Americans’ representation.”

Just imagine that: What if VCs and consumers alike gave their support not to alpha male-led “genius founder” personalities, and carte blanche to break things first and ask forgiveness later? What if instead they guided them to build more sustainable businesses and cultures?

To be fair, some VCs and other investors do. Most notably, or at least most “purely”, Bryce RobertsIndie VC, which is fantastic.

What about non-tech skills?

There’s another angle to this that’s relevant if only somewhat related: A broader intake of talent.

Traditionally, there’s a bit of a two class society in tech: Technical skills and non-technical skills, the former being at the core, the other playing support roles.

There are of course founders from other backgrounds, and increasingly some non-tech disciplines like design are starting to have a seat at the table. But it’s nowhere near diverse enough.

So let’s talk about how we value skills.

Recently Berlin announced that to fight a shortage of teachers, primary school teachers are soon going to make €5.100 a month. For a city with traditionally very low wages (for a big European city), that’s a solid salary. For comparison, it’s roughly in the ballpark, but actually above, what developers earn in Berlin. Gasp! That’s right, teachers could earn more than software developers. First I thought whaaaat, how can that be, but then it actually made some sense to me given the societal contribution of teachers. But I digress!

As someone working in tech but not in the tech skills section of tech, I believe there’s lots to be gained by getting to a better mix of disciplines and skills in tech.

My training was in the methods of social sciences and humanities: I hold two masters degrees; one in communications science with a minor in political science, and one in media practice. While people in tech have looked at me funny more than once in my career, I’ve always found this broad background, methodology training, and big picture perspective extremely helpful in my line of work. For example, this is what allows me to do research and distill the insights into writing (and of course strategy advisory).

When I think about a model for a successful, sustainable, desirable 21st century company, I imagine a team of humble experts with broad skillsets and diverse backgrounds, both in terms of origin and professional training.

That, and only that, allows a company to develop the flexibility, resilience, and broad perspective—to ability to ask the right questions!—to thrive in an environment shaped by uncertainty, ambiguity, and rapid change.

Two new reports out now! The State of Responsible IoT & View Source Shenzhen

June 15, 2017 | By | No Comments

We’ve had the great opportunity to do a lot of research these last few months, and it’s super nice to be able to share the results: Two new reports are out this month—one in fact went live just today!

The State of Responsible IoT

The ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is a collection of essays by experts from the inter-disciplinary ThingsCon community of IoT practitioners. It explores the challenges, opportunities and questions surrounding the creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things (IoT).

For your convenience you can read it on Medium or download a PDF.

View Source: Shenzhen

We went to Shenzhen to explore opportunities for collaboration between European Internet of Things practitioners and the Shenzhen hardware ecosystem—and how to promote the creation of a responsible Internet of Things.

Download View Source: Shenzhen as a as a PDF (16MB) or read it on Medium.

08 Jun

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“View Source: Shenzhen” is now out

June 8, 2017 | By |

View Source: Shenzhen cover

Executive Summary: We went to Shenzhen to explore opportunities for collaboration between European Internet of Things practitioners and the Shenzhen hardware ecosystem—and how to promote the creation of a responsible Internet of Things. We documented our experience and insights in View Source: Shenzhen.

Download View Source: Shenzhen as a as a PDF (16MB) or…
read it on Medium.

View Source is the initiative of an alliance of organizations that promote the creation of a responsible Internet of Things:

  • The Incredible Machine is a Rotterdam-based design consultancy for products and services in a connected world.
  • The Waving Cat is a Berlin-based boutique strategy, research & foresight company around the impact and opportunities of emerging technologies.
  • ThingsCon is a global community of practitioners with the mission to foster the creation of a responsible & human-centric IoT.
  • Mozilla Foundation’s Open IoT Studio aims to embed internet stewardship in the making of meaningful, connected things.

Along for part of the ride were two other value-aligned organizations:

  • Just Things Foundation aims to increase the awareness about ethical dilemmas in the development of internet connected products and services.
  • ThingsCon Amsterdam organizes the largest ThingsCon event globally, and also organized a guided delegation of European independent IoT practitioners to Shenzhen which coincided with our second Shenzhen trip.

What unites us in our efforts is great optimism about the Internet of Things (IoT), but also a deep concern about the implications of this technology being embedded in anything ranging from our household appliances to our cities.

About this document

This document was written as part of a larger research effort that included, among other things, two trips to Shenzhen, a video documentary, and lots of workshops, meetings, and events over a period of about a year. It’s part of the documentation of these efforts. Links to the other parts are interspersed throughout this document.

This research was a collaborative effort undertaken with the Dutch design consultancy The Incredible Machine, and our delegations to China included many Dutch designers, developers, entrepreneurs and innovators: One of the over-arching goals of this collaboration was to build bridges between Shenzhen and the Netherlands specifically—and Europe more generally—in order to learn from one another and identify business opportunities and future collaborations.

Creative Industries Fund NL
We thank the Creative Industry Fund NL for their support.

*Please note: While I happen to be the one to write this text as my contribution to documenting our group’s experiences, I cannot speak for the group, and don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth. In fact, I use the “we” loosely; depending on context it refers to either one of the two delegations, our lose alliance for responsible IoT, or is a collective “we”. I hope that it’s clear in the context. Needless to say, all factual errors in this text are mine, and mine alone. If you discover any errors, please let me know.

01 Jun

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For IoT, we need a holistic understanding of security

June 1, 2017 | By |

Like the internet, IoT is a big horizontal layer of technologies and practices. It has touch points across industries (like healthcare, automotive, consumer goods, infrastructure) and regulatory areas. That’s what makes it so hard to discuss, to regulate, and to make secure.

More importantly, security has a pretty clear meaning in IT. But I’d argue that for the Internet of Things we need a more holistic concept of security than for traditional IT—one that includes aspects like data protection, privacy, user rights. A more human rights-style that goes beyond pure security and extends protection into adjacent but equally important areas.

Otherwise even the most technologically secure systems won’t serve the purpose of protecting users from negative consequences.

29 May

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Monthnotes for May 2017

May 29, 2017 | By |

May was AI month at Casa The Waving Cat. Also, #iotlabels. Also, #thingscon.

Read More

24 May

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Impact and questions: An AI reading list

May 24, 2017 | By |

As part of some research into artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) over the past few months, I’ve come across a lot of reading material.

Here’s some that stood out to me and that I can recommend looking into. Please note that this is very much on the non-technical end of the spectrum: Primers, as well as pieces focusing on societal impact, ethics, and other so-called “soft” aspects, i.e. societal, political, humanitarian, business-related ones. These are the types of impact I’m most interested in and that are most relevant to my work.

The list isn’t comprehensive by any means—if you know of something that should be included, please let me know!—but there’s a lot of insight here.

Enjoy!

Basics, primers:

Resources, reading lists, content collections:

Books:

Articles:

Reports, studies:

Presentations, talks:

Fiction:

For completeness’ sake (and as a blatant plug) I include three recent blog posts of my own: