Doing Data Science, Helping People Get Jobs @Indeed

I_help_people_get_jobsHaving just marked my 1-year anniversary at Indeed, it occurs to me that I have not yet blogged about my not-so-new job as a data scientist helping people get jobs. In addition to ending a long (7+ month) drought in my blogging practice, I'm also hoping that in sharing a bit about my work at Indeed, I might help more people learn about and get jobs at Indeed's growing Seattle office.

When I tell people I work for Indeed, I get 2 basic types of responses:

  • "Cool - I love Indeed!"
  • "What's Indeed?"

I don't think I can add much to the first response, except to say that I have found several of my own jobs on Indeed (including my current Data Scientist job at Indeed and my former Principal Scientist job at Nokia Research Center Palo Alto) and helped my daughter find two of her jobs on Indeed, so I love Indeed, too.

Job_search_indeedTo address the second response: is the world's top job site, offering a number of tools to both help people find jobs and help jobs find people (or, more precisely, help employers find employees) - an ideal combination for someone like me with a long-standing passion for making connections ... and helping others make valuable connections.

Indeed helps people get jobs by providing tools to both job seekers and employers. Job seekers can upload or create a resume, search for jobs, receive email alerts when new jobs that match their search criteria are posted, directly apply for some jobs, and track the status of jobs for which they have applied, interviewed or been made offers, all at no cost to job seekers. The company also provides parallel tools for employers to upload jobs, search for resumes, receive email alerts when new resumes that match their search criteria are uploaded.

Employers can enjoy some Indeed services for free. Indeed automatically aggregates millions of job postings from thousands of web sites every day. The site also provides an interface for employers to post jobs directly through Indeed. Paid services include sponsoring jobs to appear in job search results (using a pay-per-click revenue model), contacting job seekers who have uploaded resumes to the site, enabling job seekers to directly apply for jobs through Indeed, and using Indeed's applicant tracking system.

Many things have impressed me during my first year at Indeed, but I'll focus on just a few: mission, measurement, transparency and non-attachment.

The most impressive aspect of Indeed - which was apparent even during the interview process - is the pervasive and relentless focus on the mission of the company: helping people get jobs. I've long been fascinated by the world(s) of work, and it is inspiring to work alongside others who are similarly inspired to help people address a fundamental human need. Just about every internal discussion of a new product or feature at Indeed eventually boils down to the question of "Will this help more people get jobs?"

And the next question is usually "How can we measure the impact?" While a steadily increasing number of users are sharing their stories about finding jobs on Indeed, we don't always know when our users get jobs, so measuring impact often involves various proxies for job-seeking success, but such approximation is a fact of life in most data-driven companies.

Agile-boardIndeed makes extensive use of the Atlassian JIRA software project tracking system for new features, bugs and other issues that arise in the course of software development. Some of the other organizations in which I've worked had cultures of parochialism, secrecy and defensiveness, where critiques were best kept to oneself, or communicated privately. Early on at Indeed, I would often report bugs or make suggestions for improvements via email. After gentle and persistent encouragement, I now report them via JIRA, which - being publicly searchable (within the firm) - increases the possibility for sharing lessons learned. I have yet to encounter an Indeedian who has taken any such feedback personally, or felt so attached to a product feature or segment of code that they weren't willing to consider reviewing and revising it (or allowing someone else to do so) ... and unlike reports I've read about the culture at some other tech companies, I have yet to encounter an asshole at Indeed.

My own work at Indeed currently centers on helping people get jobs by taking greater advantage of the data in the millions of resumes that job seekers have created or uploaded at Indeed. This involves a mix of analyzing, cleaning and provisioning resume data to enhance existing products and inform new products designed to improve search and recommendations for both job seekers and employers.

Ignorance_book_coverOver the past several months, I've acted as the chief question answerer in an internal "Resume Q&A" forum we've created to help product managers, data scientists and software engineers better understand and leverage our resume data. Answering these questions has enabled me to practice thoroughly conscious ignorance, offering me numerous opportunities to ask questions of my own, and thereby learn about a broad range of products and processes, as well as various data and code repositories ... and helping forge new connections across them. The work offers me a nice blend of analysis, communication, coding (in Python and Java) and education, a few of my favorite things.

One of the advantages arising from my spiral career path is a user-centered focus I adopted during my years doing user experience research and design. As a practicing data scientist, my UX orientation occasionally helps me trace anomalies in the data back to shortcomings in one or more of the user interfaces or the flow of the user experience across Indeed web services. This UX-oriented data analysis has resulted in at least 2 small, but substantive, changes in the user interface, which I hope has helped more people get jobs.

In addition to regular opportunities to practice my natural inclinations toward instigating and connecting, I've recently started exercising my evangelizing inclinations. I gave a demonstration / presentation on how Indeed can help job seekers to a local job search support group in Bellevue last week, and am hoping to do more evangelizing to job seekers in the future. I am also hoping to start giving more technical presentations on some of the cool things we are doing at Indeed, evangelizing to different audiences, in part, to help us help more data scientists, software engineers, UX designers and researchers, product managers and quality analysts get jobs ... at Indeed, in Seattle and elsewhere.

WTF Economy: Augmentation, Disintermediation and Small Acts of Production

NextEconomy_logoTim O'Reilly (O'Reilly Media) opened last week's conference on the Next:Economy, aka the WTF economy, noting that "WTF" can signal wonder, dismay or disgust. I experienced all three reactions at different times during the ensuing two-day "investigation into the potential of emerging technologies to remake our world for the better". I attended the conference because I have long been interested in the nature and meaning of work, and now that I work for Indeed, I am particularly interested in how we can remake our world by reimagining how the world works for the better.

The conference presentations and discussions, curated by Tim and his co-organizers Steven Levy (Backchannel) and Lauren Smiley (Medium), provided many interesting insights, experiences and provocations. If I had to choose three top themes that emerged for me, they would be


  • Augmentation vs. automation: technology designed to assist human workers by taking over some of their tasks vs. technology designed replacing human workers by taking over all of their tasks
  • The disintermediation of creative work: the vast array of tools and resources available for creative people to pursue their (our?) passions while earning a sustainable income outside of the constraints of a traditional job or company
  • Small is beautiful: the growing number of platforms for designing and creating products and/or offering services at small scales that can enrich the lives of the producers, consumers and society at large

I'm sharing - and shortening - my conference notes here, as I tend to understand and remember what I learn better when I re-process them for potential public consumption. I've also compiled a Twitter list including all the Next:Economy speakers I could find. Kevin Marks compiled and shared a much more extensive collection of notes from day 1 and day 2 of the conference, and a Pinboard storify offers an alternative perspective.

No ordinary disruption

NoOrdinaryDisruption_coverJames Manyika (McKinsey Global Institute) shared so many interesting facts, figures and forecasts that I had a hard time keeping up. The following are among the nuggets I was able to capture:

  • The consuming class (those who live above the subsistence level) will rise from 23% of the population to 50% in 2025
  • The last 50 years of year-over-year 3.5% average global GDP growth were fueled by the combined growth of labor (1.7%) and productivity (1.8%); with labor supply expected to peak in 2050, productivity growth will have to increase 80% to maintain overall growth rates
  • Labor markets don't work very well, producing massive shortages of workers with the right skills in the right places; digital platforms for helping increasing the quality of matches and decreasing job search times may help improve labor markets as labor supply declines
  • If all countries were to improve gender parity to level achieved by their "best in region" neighbors, we could add as much as $12 trillion (11%) to annual 2025 GDP
  • 45% of tasks could be automated, but only 5% of jobs can be completely automated; up to 30% of tasks in 60% of jobs could be automated, redefining occupations and skills needed
  • We need to change our mindset from jobs to work, and from wages to income

From self-driving cars to retraining humans

Sebastian Thrun (Co-Founder and CEO, Udacity) offered an interesting perspective on human learning vs. machine learning: when a person makes a mistake (e.g., causes an automobile accident), that person learns, but no one else learns; when a robot (e.g., a self-driving car) makes a mistake, all other robots can learn. He said Udacity's strategy is to develop nano-courses and nano-degrees in response to industry demand for specific skills, to help more people get unstuck more quickly. He also recommends that everyone become an Uber driver for a day.

The future of personal assistants

Alexandre Lebrun (Head,, Facebook) said that Facebook's M personal assistant is designed to interact with customers as far as it can go, and then observe human customer service representatives ("trainers") when they intervene so it can learn how to handle new situations. Adam Cheyer (Co-founder and VP of Engineering, Viv Labs) talked about exponential programming in which an application can write code to extend itself; in the case of the Viv personal assistant, when you make a request, Viv writes a custom program at that moment to respond to that request.

Will robots augment us or rule us?

WhatTheDormouseSaid_coverJohn Markoff (Journalist, New York Times) identified two divergent trajectories that emerged at Stanford around 1962: John McCarthy's lab focused on autonomous systems (Artificial Intelligence or AI) while Doug Englebart's lab focused on augmenting human intelligence (Human Computer Interaction or HCI), and noted that system designers have a choice: design people into the system or design people out. Jerry Kaplan (Visiting Lecturer, and Fellow at The Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, Stanford University) said the oft-cited [especially at this conference] 2013 Oxford study on the future of employment, which warned that 47% of total US employment is at risk of being automated was intellectually interesting but critically flawed; his view is that tasks will continue to be automated - as they have for 200 years - but not jobs, except for jobs whose tasks can all be automated (consistent with James Manyika's earlier forecast).

"Knowledge Work": No longer safe from automation

Kristian Hammond (Chief Scientist, Narrative Science) began with a bold claim about Quill, his company's software that uses templates to automatically construct narratives (text) to explain structured data: "If your data and their analysis have meaning, Quill can transform that into language". Since one might characterize everything in the world that humans attend to as some mix of data and analysis, I'm not sure exactly what that claims means, but I do understand - and like - his more modest claim that Quill specializes in small audiences ("writing for one"). I was also impressed with some of the examples of pilot projects he gave, including narrativizations of MasterCard's narrativization of targeted recommendations for small business owners, a portfolio fund manager's quarterly report (which typically takes a month to produce) and web site performance reporting. Echoing the theme of augmenting human intelligence that pervaded many presentations, he proposed that "If anyone has the word 'analyst' in their job title, something like Quill is going to be working with them at some point". And ending on yet another provocative note, he observed that "we need data scientists everywhere, but they don't scale" and suggested "'data scientist' is the sexiest job of the 21st century; it's the next job we're going to automate".

The Kickstarter economy

Yancey Strickler (Co-Founder & CEO, Kickstarter) presented some examples of how his crowd funding site has redefined hardware design as an artful medium, facilitating small-scale manufacturing of product lines with 150-5000 units and enabling creative people to be more independent and move easily from product to product. He also articulated three guiding principles for the WTF economy:

  1. DON"T SELL OUT (but still survive); creative people often feel guilty charging money for work they do, but they need to earn enough to support themselves and their families
  2. BE IDEALISTIC: you don't have to buy into the money monoculture and its new rules for competition based on anxiety, paranoia, disruption and war (Kickstarter is now a Public Benefit Corporation)
  3. IT'S HARDER, BUT IT'S EASIER: it's harder to measure success without an exclusive focus on financial profits, but it's easier to make decisions based on more human-centered principles

The small scale factory of the future

LimorFried_ThisIsHowIWorkLimor Fried (hacker, slacker, code cracker, Adafruit Industries) gave the most engaging remote presentation I've ever witnessed from her 80-person, $40M open-source hardware company's factory in New York. She articulated a particularly pithy description of Adafruit, which has produced nearly 900 tutorials -"we're an education company, with a gift shop at the end" - and offered an endearing story of a 6-year-old girl who regularly watches the Adafruit "Ask an Engineer" show, which features so many women engineers that the girl asked "Daddy, are there any men engineers?"

One, two, three, boom!

Mark Hatch (CEO, TechShop) launched into his presentation by informing us "I love revolutions" such as the one that was ignited when "the middle class got access to the tools of the industrial revolution", and "I'm a former Green Beret, and I love blowing things up". He proceeded to give us a whirlwind tour of his multifaceted response to the question "Has anything serious come out of the maker movement?", inviting the audience to share his enthusiasm for each example of a product - and lifestyle business - created bymembers of his TechShop hackerspaces by shouting "Boom!". The examples included an electric motorcycle, a jet pack, a desktop diamond manufacturing device, a laser-cutting cupcake topper, an underwater robot, as well as more well-known companies that started as a TechShop project such as Square, Solum and DripTech (the latter 2 being among the 5 top agricultural startups of 2014).

Real R&D is hard

Saul Griffith (CEO, Otherlab) shared highlights from two seminal 1945 essays by Vannevar Bush: As We May Think, which presaged the Internet, speech recognition and online knowledge sources (among other things) and the lesser-known report, Science, the Endless Frontier, which effectively transformed and transitioned research from small labs to large universities. With Google''s R&D budget of $9B now rivaling the combined funding of the National Science Foundation ($6B) and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA, $3B), we are in the midst of a transition of research from universities toward industry. Smaller scale industry research labs, such as Otherlab) have produced innovations that include drones used for wind power generation, inexpensive and durable trackers for solar panels, cheap actuators that can be used on a [slow] walking inflatable elephant robot, pneubotic (air-filled / air-powered) robots that can lift their own weight and minimize risks that their heavier counterparts pose to human collaborators, and soft exoskeletons that can enable anyone to run faster with less energy.

Why services aren't enough

Jeff Immelt (Chairman and CEO, General Electric) noted that industrial productivity growth has been declining from 4% (2006-2011) to 1% (2011-2015), but that reframing industrial products as data platforms (e.g., a locomotive today is a rolling data center with 600+ sensors) may open up opportunities for new products and productivity gains.

Workplace monitoring, algorithmic scheduling, and the quest for a fair workweek

FWI-fact-sheet_rev4Esther Kaplan (Editor, The Investigative Fund) chaired a panel discussion about what it is like to live (and work) in the reality of "the hyper-lean, electronically scheduled labor force", focusing primarily on retail jobs, which make up 10% of all US jobs.

Darrion Sjoquist (Starbucks barista, Working Washington) shared stories of growing up with a mother who worked for Starbucks, in which the entire family and was adversely affected by the unpredictability arising from 5-day advance schedule notices and clopenings (a closing shift followed by an opening shift the next day), making it difficult to commit to clubs or other extra-curricular school activities, as well as stories from his own experience as a Starbucks barista, in which co-workers and customers are at risk from sick employees doing their best to operate in a work regimen that is so lean that they cannot afford to take sick days.

Carrie Gleason (Director, Fair Workweek Initiative Center for Popular Democracy) noted that involuntary part-time employment more than doubled between 2008-2010, cited research on the instability created by schedule unpredictability among early career workers in the US labor market and said that workers are trying to minimize the instability by setting up shift-swapping groups on Facebook. She also announced a new Fair Workweek Initiative designed to "provide working families with stable employment, a livable income, and family-sustaining scheduling".

Charles DeWitt (Vice President, Business Development, Kronos) said that Walmart ushered in an era in which labor became "a big bucket of cost and compliance issues", and people became an asset to be optimized. Schedule stability was not factored into workforce management software, but it could be. Citing the annual Gallup Employment Engagement Survey, and Gallup's estimate that disengaged employees cost the US $450-550B in lost productivity each year, he proposed that linking scheduling practices to employee engagement metrics may be a good way to promote greater stability.

Does on demand require independent contractors?

Leah Busque (Founder, TaskRabbit) framed TaskRabbit as service networking vs. social networking, which now includes 30K taskers (people who perform tasks for pay) in 21 cities, who make an average of $35/hour and $900/month across all locations, with 10% of taskers working full-time (via TaskRabbit). The service was first launched in Boston in 2008, where the large population of students was expected to provide plenty of candidate taskers; instead, early taskers tended to be stay-at-home moms, retired people and young professionals. Leah noted that "any business with a platform with 2 sides of a market has to make both sides successful" ... however, she did not recommend that everyone sign up to become a tasker for a day.

What's it like to drive for Uber or Lyft?

Eric Barajas (Driver, Uber), Jon Kessler (Driver, Lyft, former cab driver) and Kelly Dessaint (Driver, National Veterans Cab, former Uber and Lyft driver) provided a lively exchange of insights and experiences regarding the costs and benefits for driving for different companies. I don't know whether they would want their income shared publicly (outside the conference), but it appeared that Kelly, the cab driver, is faring better than the others in terms of higher revenue (due, in part, to larger and more frequent tips) and lower expenses (a daily gate fee of $111-121). Uber and Lyft drivers are responsible for gas, vehicle maintenance and insurance (Uber and Lyft only cover insurance only while drivers have paying passengers in the vehicle), and, in some cases, a lease; they face the perpetual prospect of being "deactivated" due to a customer complaint, and so have relatively little autonomy once they pick up a passenger. Kelly noted that taxi drivers are a community - "we look at each other, we nod" - and warned "the worst drivers in SF are tourists" and "most Uber/Lyft drivers are tourists" (because they live outside the city); he offered an interesting counter-perspective to what I've heard from the relatively few cab drivers I've traveled with recently.

The changing nature of work

Esko Kilpi (Managing Director, Esko Kilpi Company) observed that "People are not clever, people have never been clever, and people will never be clever" and so we create and use technology to compensate. He argued that the work systems we have are broken, because they are based on artificial scarcity and "wrong ideas about who human beings are", failing to take into account different situations with different demands. While work has always been about solving problems; it used to be that your boss told you the problem you were supposed to solve, but increasingly, defining the problem is itself part of the work, and so work and learning are inextricably linked. I highly recommend his recent Medium post on The New Kernel of On-Demand Work.

What's the investment opportunity?

Simon Rothman (Partner, Greylock Partners), Gary Swart (Venture Partner, Polaris Partners) and James Cham (Bloomberg Beta [whose homepage is on GitHub (!)]) shared a number of interesting insights; unfortunately, I missed the introductions and so cannot offer precise attribution, but here are some of the highlights shared during this session:

  • Just because the customer model is appealing doesn't mean the business model will work
  • A lot of platforms that call themselves marketplaces are actually managed services
  • Well intermediated marketplaces feel like a service
  • Regulation is a historical artifact, attempting to project the past into the present / future
  • Silicon Valley is the QA department for the rest of the world

Supporting workers in the on-demand economy

Nick Grossman (General Manager, Union Square Ventures) presented his views on the deconstruction of the firm, or "the jobs of a job": brand, income, customers, taxes and administration, benefits and insurance, facilities and equipment, scheduling, community, training. More and more of these elements can be found outside of traditional companies, enabling Individual workers to become, in effect, networked micro-firms.

Creating better teams

Stewart Butterfield (Co-founder and CEO, Slack) shared his view on the evolution of objects around which computer applications are based: applications, documents and (now) relationships. Slack has 1.7M users, including 1M paid subscribers, and for 3+ years was produced unselfconsciously as a tool to support lateral transparency while the team worked on what they thought would be their primary product (a game), until the tool itself emerged as a useful product in its own right.

Tax and accounting tools for the franchise of one

Brad Smith (President and CEO, Intuit) talked about the difficulties of quantifying "self-employment" because the term can be defined in so many ways. 78% of US Intuit users who are self-employed have 3 or more sources of income. He sees the recent extension of myRA (my Retirement Account) eligibility from small- to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to self-employed people as a more positive step than most of the other reviews I've read.

Flexibility needed: Not just for on-demand workers

Anne-Marie Slaughter (President and CEO, New America) noted that "having a job that allows you to support your family is an essential ingredient in a personal life narrative" and that supporting your family means more than earning income: workers need the flexibility to care for family members. In discussing generous parental leave policies announced recently by some firms, she argued that you have to change the culture, not just the policy, and so extended parental leave won't matter much unless the men in senior leadership positions take advantage of the new policies.

Conference dinner

There were two separate talks presented by Code for America fellows: one has avoided signing a rental lease or owning a home through serial AirBnB stays in each place he's worked for a number of years now; another went on food stamps in his effort to better understand the challenges faced by food stamp recipients in California. Unfortunately, I did not take notes during either talk, and now cannot even remember the names of the presenters.

Humans need not apply? Not so fast!

Nick Hanauer (Second Avenue Partners) offered a number of observations and insights:

  • Some amount of economic inequality is good (healthy incentives), but too much is bad
  • We think of prosperity as money, but this is wrong
  • What matters is the accumulation of solutions to human problems
  • Not GDP, but the rate at which we solve these problems
  • "How we improve our lives" is the point of the economy
  • Revolutions, like bankruptcies, come gradually, and then suddenly (see also: The Pitchforks are coming .. for us Plutocrats)
  • "Trickle-down economics is an intimidation tactic masquerading as an economic theory" [my favorite sound bite from the conference]

Managing talent in the networked age

Reid Hoffman (Co-Founder & Executive Chairman, LinkedIn; Partner, Greylock Partners) and Zoë Baird (CEO and President, Markle Foundation) announced the Markle Rework America initiative: "A 21st Century Digital Labor Market for Middle-Skill Job Seekers", designed to boost the signaling and improve the matching among employers, workers and educators. The initiative partners include LinkedIn, Arizona State university and edX, as well as regional partners in Colorado and Phoenix (the regions where the program is initially being rolled out). Reid wrote an interesting critique of higher education, Disrupting the Diploma, a few years ago, highlighting the need to "make certification faster, cheaper, and more effective". Zoe suggested that we need to create boot camps for other kinds of training to support other parts of the market beyond the technology sector, and explore new methods of credentialing beyond the traditional degrees granted by colleges and universities (which collectively make up the third largest lobbying group in Washington DC).

Exponential teaching

Kimberly Bryant (Founder, Black Girls CODE) championed exponential teaching: "If you teach one girl, she will naturally turn around and teach five, six, or 10 more”. Teaching black girls to code is a promising effort to counteract the effects of 45% of black women aged 25 and over having no high school diploma. The grass-roots organization has created 10 chapters in 4 years, and she invoked the optimism of Grace Lee Boggs with respect to the program's prospects: "I believe we are at the point now, in the US, where a movement is starting to emerge".

Matching workers with opportunities at high velocity

Stephane Kasriel (CEO, Upwork) talked about how UpWork ("Tinder for work") matches freelance knowledge workers (primarily software developers) to remote work opportunities, shortening the typical job search from 3-4 weeks to 1-2 days. With the steadily declining half-life of any skill (especially in the technology sector), Stephane declared "the resume is dead", and "all we want to do is reduce all the time people waste writing long form job descriptions and long form job proposals". To match workers with work, Upwork utilizes three different machine learning models to determine

  • Who is qualified?
  • Who is interested?
  • Who is available?

Upwork has 150K work descriptions and 250K worker profiles, with 5K workers signing up every day. Stephane said only about 2% of new workers get jobs right away, and one of the challenges for Upwork ("the celebrity agent of the freelancers") is to effectively manage talent at different stages of their pipeline (newcomers, rising stars and established workers). Stephane suggested that industry is not doing a good job of communicating data about needed skills back to academia. Having looped in and out of academia a few times myself, I would suggest that academia is not configured in a way that facilitates rapid response to changing educational needs, and so other learning channels will likely be needed to support the continuous cycle of nano-jobs, nano-skills and nano-degrees in the future.

Work rules: Lessons from Google's success

WorkRules_coverLaszlo Bock (Senior Vice President of People Operations, Google) said an internal study revealed there is little predictive value in determining the probability of success based on which school a candidate attended; the most predictive value was found in a sample work test, in which a candidate performs the type of work associated with the job function, and the second most predictive value was in cognitive ability, which can be assessed via structured interview questions (give me an example of a time when you did X). Google does not look only for superstars, since many superstars don't perform as well when they switch companies, but also looks for team players who improve the performance of everyone around them (like basketball player Shane Battier). Among their efforts to promote diversity, they have implemented an unconscious bias training program, and a Google in Residence program in which Google engineers are embedded in a handful of historically black colleges and universities where they advise on curriculum matters and mentor students. Google also conducts an anonymous survey of 8 management attributes to provide specific feedback (with no penalties) to managers; they have found that average favorability ratings increase every cycle, and that a 2-hour management program can help managers improve by 6-7 points.

Intelligent agents, augmented reality, and the future of productivity

Satya Nadella (CEO, Microsoft) posited the agent as the third runtime model (after the PC operating system and the browser), and talked about some of Microsoft's work in speech recognition, augmented reality and machine learning. He described augmentation as a "race with the machine", rather than a race against the machine (which may be a more apt description of automation).

Augmented reality in the factory

Daqri_smart_helmetBrian Mullins (Founder and CEO, DAQRI) asked "What if you could put on a helmet and do any job?" and proceeded to present a number of applications of their augmented reality Smart Helmet: digitizing analog devices (e.g., gauges), providing thermal vision and improving "cognitive literacy". He went into some detail - including a video - on one deployment in partnership with Hyperloop using the helmet in a steel mill. I can't find that video, but found another video from EPRI that provides a better sense of how the Smart Helmet works.

How augmented workers grow the market

David Plouffe (Chief Advisor and Member of the Board, Uber) posed what he calls the central government question: How do we get more income to more people? He said asking how Uber is affecting the taxi market is the wrong question; instead, we should be looking at how Uber is affecting a multi-modal ecosystem, noting that fewer millennials are choosing to own cars and expanding transportation options can be crucial in helping people escape poverty. Uber has 400K drivers, but 100K drive only a few times a month and 50% of drivers drive < 10 hours / week. During the Q&A session, Eric Barajas, the Uber driver who had appeared on the previous day's panel, asked about what Uber can do to better support drivers who are driving full-time, and was invited to come talk to the Uber SF office about it (I hope he doesn't suffer any adverse consequences from speaking up).

Reinventing healthcare

Lynda Chin (Director, Institute for Health Transformation) talked about the Oncology Expert Adviser, a healthcare application based on IBM Watson. As is so often the case when I read about Watson in healthcare, I love the idea of a system that can take in all kinds of input - text analysis of articles from the medical literature as well as individual patient charts, diagnoses of past cases by human experts - and assist doctors in diagnosis and treatment. Unfortunately, as is also so often the case when I hear or read about Watson in healthcare, I don't get a clear idea of what it can actually do yet.

Policy action recommendations for the 21st century economy

In this panel discussion, Felicia Wong (President and CEO, Roosevelt Institute) championed campaign finance reform, reversing the financialization of the economy and making massive investment in human capital; Neera Tanden (President, Center for American Progress) noted that the US is relatively unique among leading industrial countries in the downward pressure on wages and pointed toward Australia and Canada as better models for achieving median income growth through higher rates of unionization (30% vs. 6%), more equitable education (higher education is [nearly] free) and relatively smaller and more regulated financial sectors; Zoë Baird (CEO and President, Markle Foundation) recommended the adoption of policies that will help SMBs better reach global markets.

Rewiring the US labor market

Byron Auguste (Managing Director, Opportunity@Work) claims that "talent is far more evenly distributed than opportunity or money" and that the labor market is "a wildly inefficient 'efficiency' market", pointing to credential creep (e.g., only 20% of current administrative assistants have bachelor degrees and yet 65% of administrative assistant job descriptions require them), Okun's Law (the correlation between increased unemployment and reduced GDP), a quit rate that is down 28% since 2010 and a record number (5.8M) of unfilled jobs. The White House TechHire initiative includes a national employer network and an open platform to provided better training for and access to information technology jobs in 31 cities for some of the segments of the US population that are not being well served by the current labor market:

  • 30-40M college goers who did not graduate
  • 15-20M caregivers limited in ability to work for pay
  • 10-15M experienced skilled older workers needing to re-tool
  • 1.5M veterans who are unemployed or entering the workforce soon
  • 6M disconnected youth

Worker voice in the 21st century

Jess Kutch (Digital Strategist and Co-founder, and Michelle Miller (Co-founder, addressed the conference via video, providing examples of workers speaking up and instigating changes in companies, using their petition campaign platform. One notable example is the successful effort by Starbucks baristas to change the company policy barring visible tattoos. Perhaps more relevant, given other sessions at the conference, are petition campaigns to urge Starbucks to give employees a fair workweek and to urge Uber to give consumers the option of adding a tip to all Uber fares.

Reinventing the labor union

Liz Shuler (Secretary-Treasurer / CFO, AFL-CIO) talked about some of the challenges facing unions ("the original disrupters" of the workplace) and unionization efforts. Andy Stern (Senior Fellow, Columbia University; former President, SEIU) talked about the strategic inflection point we are approaching with respect to automation's potential impact on work and the long-standing connection between work and income. He suggested that now is an ideal time to consider universal basic income, which guarantees everyone a basic level of income by having government give money directly to those in poverty, rather than via special programs such as food stamps and earned income tax credits that are burdensome for everyone involved. "If you want to end poverty give people money".

Portable benefits and the "shared security account"

Laura Tyson (Professor & Director of Institute for Business and Social Impact, Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley) spoke with Nick Hanauer (Second Avenue Partners) and David Rolf (President, SEIU 775) about some of the ideas they raised in an inspiring article on Shared Security, Shared Growth, in which they argue for decoupling benefits from specific jobs and attaching them to the workers, a separation which will become increasingly important as workers increasingly work multiple jobs (or tasks). Among the many interesting topics discussed was the incentives for CEOs to buy back stock (vs. incentives for programs that might benefit workers), which led me to an HBR article on profits without prosperity.

Reinventing public transportation

Logan Green (CEO, Lyft) talked about some of the ways that Lyft is trying to support its drivers. Although 78% of Lyft drivers drive < 15 hours / week, they offer a power driver bonus, giving increasing amounts of commission back as drivers drive more. The Lyft app offers passengers the option to include a tip, though Tim O'Reilly (who was interviewing Logan) said that a Lyft driver told him that only 20% of passengers leave a tip. Toward the end of the conversation, Logan noted that the least profitable runs in public transportation are the most expensive, and that some kind of public/private partnership might enable Lyft to complement public transportation.

A people-centered economy

Chad Dickerson (CEO, Etsy) talked about how Etsy embraces the idea that small is beautiful. In addition to enabling individual artisans to sell their creations, Etsy is reimagining manufacturing, allowing Etsy users to register as manufacturers if they want to work with other Etsy users to help create their products. There are also self-organized teams of Etsy sellers around the world, and he gave an example where Italian sellers were encouraging prospective buyers to buy things produced from Greek sellers during the Greece financial crisis. He also said that Etsy has become a Public Benefits Corporation.

The good jobs strategy

GoodWorkCodeZeynep Ton (Associate Professor, MIT Sloan School of Management) presented her research into the financial success enjoyed by companies that embrace human-centered systems and provide jobs with meaning and dignity, offering the following principles: operate with some slack (not too lean), offer less (fewer products), cross train, standardize and empower. Dan Teran (co-founder, Managed by Q) said he recognized early on that "if we wanted to have the best employees, we had to be the best employer"; engineers at the company go out and clean an office the first week, so they can better understand the tasks and environment in which the cleaners who work for the company operate. Palak Shah (Social Innovations Director, National Domestic Workers Alliance) noted that "in a way you can consider domestic workers [nannies, caregivers, cleaners] as the original gig workers" and presented the Good Work Code, "an overarching framework of 8 simple values that are the foundation of good work".

Enable people, and they will amaze you

Evan Williams (CEO, The Obvious Corporation, and founder of Medium and Blogger), whose first tech job was with O'Reilly Media, said the thing that got him excited about the Internet was the idea of knowledge exchange. One of the motivations behind Medium was that comments on blogs are not on the same level as the posts; on Medium, replies are posts, and so all commentary is on the same level. Noting that "what you measure gets rewarded", Medium measures time on a page, not [just] page views or unique visitors. In the Q&A session, someone asked "how do you think about the future". Ev replied "I just listen to Tim" ... and then Tim replied "I look for people who are passionate about what they do".

The conference sessions offered a compelling collection of people who are passionate about what they do, and much of what many of the speakers do is helping other people find ways to exercise their passions in what they do ... and a recursive promulgation of passion seems to be as good a note as any on which to end this post.

Conversations, Re-evaluations and Recombinations: A David Whyte Workshop on Difficult Harvests

David Whyte Workshop: A Difficult HarvestI attended my first David Whyte workshop last month, held at the First Covenant Church in Seattle. The theme was The Harvest of Winter, exploring the challenges posed by difficult harvests and the opportunities they provide for asking beautiful questions: disturbing, provocative questions whose answers can unlock deep, hidden insights. These questions become increasingly important during increasingly difficult times, when many of our traditional sources of power and security are undergoing transition.

Throughout the workshop, Whyte recited - mostly from memory - poems written by him and other poets, told stories about the contexts in which the poems originated, and highlighted the beautiful questions articulated through the poems, implicitly or explicitly. The content seemed loosely organized around a three-step process one might follow when attempting to harvest from a difficult source of nourishment and sustenance, which I will briefly enumerate here and then elaborate further below.

  1. Turn to a different source; i.e., stop having the conversation you're having now, to create an "invitational absence" in which a new conversation can emerge.
  2. Re-evaluate the stories you've been telling about yourself, and discard the stories that are not - or are no longer - true.
  3. In the search for a new source, try combining different parts of your self that have never been in conversation before.

Whyte frames much of our awareness of ourselves and others - and our relationships and interactions with each other and the rest of the world - in terms of conversations, a concept he has articulated in many ways in many media, including the following excerpt from a SoundsTrue interview with Tami Simon on "Being at the Frontier of Your Identity":

The old Latin root of that word is Conversatia and it really means a kind of "living with" or "in companionship with," so you’re having a Conversatia with your spouse or your partner at home every day. There’s a "living with" whether it’s spoken out loud or not. There is an equal kind of conversation with silence, and with a particular way that you as an individual ask the question of life. You’ve got to find that contact point as an individual. Ask the question, "Where am I interested? Where, in a very short time, do I become passionate once I’ve opened up that initial interest? What do I have energy for? And will I have faith enough to actually spend enough time that I can open up that door into what to begin with is a new territory but eventually becomes my new home?"

The_Heart_Aroused_coverOne of the interesting stories he shared in illustrating this conversation about passions was his experience in applying for a job as a naturalist guide aboard a schooner in the Galapagos Islands (a story I first encountered in his book, The Heart Aroused). Among the 500 applicants, 90 were invited for an on-site interview for the position, and what set him apart - and made him an ideal candidate for his ideal job - was not so much his degree in marine biology, but all the extracurricular interests he had pursued during his studies: scuba diving, rock climbing and vagabonding around Europe (and thereby picking up some foreign languages). The experience led him to adopt an abiding faith in his intrinsic interests and passions ... and subsequently to encourage others to similarly have faith in what draws them.

I've long been intrigued by the stories we make up about ourselves. Whyte characterized such stories as hermetic enclosures - bubbles that we create so we don't have to engage in wider conversations. One of the stories he once made up about himself was a need for quiet and solitude in order for him to write. Letting go of that story opened up new frontiers - internally and externally - for his subsequent writing.

The identification and letting go of untrue stories reminds me of The Work of Katie Byron, and the power of articulating and transforming - possibly through recombination - personal narratives articulated by John Hagel. An interesting observation about this topic shared by Whyte was that the nice thing about letting go of a story that you suspect is not true is that if it later turns out to be true, you can rest assured that it will come back to you.

Crossing_The_Unknown_Sea_coverWhite also made a non-specific reference to some story involving his mother that he learned was not true after her death. He did not share any details about this story, but I wonder if it was a story he wrote about in Crossing the Unknown Sea in which his mother told him about a dream in which she interceded to save him during a near death experience during his time in the Galapagos, which included details of the experience that he had never told her about. Regardless of the truth of that particular story, the revelation it evoked for him seems like a timeless truth:

But irrespective of the far-fetched psychic reality of it all, something else had happened inside me. I stopped trying to do it all myself. I was like everything else in this life. I didn't need to have absolute total control over my destiny. I couldn't have it anyway. ... I was given a sense of the intimate way everything is a brother and sister to everything else. Everything we see as private is somehow already out in the world. The singularity of existence is only half the story; all our singularities are in the conscious and unconscious conversation with everything else.

The_Three_Marriages_coverWhyte often uses the word marriage to describe the intimate relationships we have with our selves, other people and even our work, a theme most extensively elaborated in his book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining Work, Self and Relationship. During the workshop, he observed that there is no worthwhile path that does not risk leaving us heartbroken, and that even the longest, most successful marriages include periods of heartbreak. This notion of periodic heartbreak is a theme he writes about in one of his periodic "Letters from the House", this one on The Poetic Narratives of Our Time:

If we are sincere, every good marriage or relationship will break our hearts in order to enlarge our understanding of our self and that strange other with whom we have promised ourselves to the future. Being a good parent will necessarily break our hearts as we watch a child grow and eventually choose their own way, even through many of the same heartbreaks we have traversed. Following a vocation or an art form through decades of practice and understanding will break the idealistic heart that began the journey and replace it, if we sidestep the temptations of bitterness and self-pity, with something more malleable, compassionate and generous than the metaphysical organ with which we began the journey. We learn, grow and become compassionate and generous as much through exile as homecoming; as much through loss as gain, as much through giving things away as in receiving what we believe to be our due.

I recently encountered a related illustration and excerpt in the BrainPicker review of The ABZ of Love, which nicely captures the periodic heartbreaks involved in loving relationships ... and although that book focuses on human relationships, I believe these highs and lows - or, perhaps, dark nights of the soul - also characterize our relationships with our work.


…after swinging around a certain point for a time, very small swings to and from in either direction, a sudden drop with the resultant feeling of hopelessness [and then] once more pendulation around one point for a time, then a drop, then that hopeless feeling, improvement again, etc., etc., without ever reaching the absolute ideal. Disappointments and depressions are necessary features of any process of learning, every development.

One of the themes that pervades much of Whyte's poetry and prose is the courage to explore the edges of our identities (hence the title of the SoundsTrue interview). During the workshop, he encouraged us to look to our edges as we explore new conversations - or new stories we might make up about our selves - so that "the edge may become the center". One of his poems that he recited, Coleman's Bed, speaks to this process:

Above all, be alone with it all,
a hiving off, a corner of silence
amidst the noise, refuse to talk,
even to yourself, and stay in this place
until the current of the story
is strong enough to float you out.

The story I have been making up about myself for some time now is that I am currently "between stories", a period in which I don't seem to have - or be aware of - a particularly powerful or passionate personal narrative. Considered in the context of the poem, this prompts a beautiful question about why no new story has yet gained sufficient strength to "float me out". While I find myself talking less - online and offline - I may not have been cultivating sufficient silence to allow a new story to emerge ... and upon reflection, that seems an appropriate note upon which to end this post.

Clear Mind, Wild Heart, Spiral Career Path, New Job

Atigeo-Logo_150x41pxI recently accepted an offer to assume the role of Director, Analytics and Data Science, at Atigeo LLC. This career transition mostly marks a shift of title and status, as I've been consulting at Atigeo as a Principal Scientist for the past 18 months (part-time during the academic year and full-time during summers). I'm excited about continuing to exercise and extend my skills and experience in natural language processing, machine learning and usability, contributing to Atigeo's health products - an area of heightened interest for me over the last several years - as well as exploring other emerging opportunities for the company and its partners and customers.

ClearMind_WildHeart_DavidWhyteOn the cusp of this transition, I was inspired by David Whyte's 6-CD set, Clear Mind, Wild Heart, and his compelling poetry and prose regarding "courageous conversations", "cyclical invitations", "investigative vulnerability" and "hazarding" oneself on "successive frontiers" of existence. I've listened to this entire collection dozens of times, and have referenced his poetry in several previous posts. During this particular cycle, I was struck by his observations about feeling hemmed in, and the importance of taking advantage of periodic opportunities to harvest the fruits of one's labors and loves. I also revisited and reflected on Martin Buber's insights - channeled by Oriah Mountain Dreamer - about bringing all of who I am to my work, and came to believe that I am better able to bring more dimensions of myself into my new (current) work than I could at my previous work.

Uwb-logo-purple-150x150This is not to say that I was not able to bring many dimensions of myself into my previous work. Indeed, teaching computer science at UW Bothell (and UW Tacoma) offered me an opportunity to exercise and extend a broad array of skills initially cultivated in an earlier teaching cycle at the University of Hartford. Unfortunately, as time went on, I was experiencing increasing conflict between my desire to promote experimentation and exploration among students, and my need to assess their competency in a standard, objective and time-efficient way. I found myself acting as gatekeeper - to ensure that students' grades reflected their capabilities to take on greater and greater challenges further along the curriculum (and ultimately in their careers) - and yet wanting to help them tear down walls. I also found myself increasingly uncertain about opportunities for my own career growth in academia.

Supreme_Spiral_Staircase_-_Rory_FinnerenAs I pondered the paths that lay before me, I reflected on the ways my professional life has evolved in cycles. I started to chart the different stages on a spiral graph, but soon realized that there are too many dimensions, and my progression has not followed an orderly or entirely predictable sequence. Instead, I'll settle for inserting an emblematic photo (that I particularly like for its upward vs. downward perspective) and simply listing some of the dimensions through which my career has cycled:

  • academia and industry (and large and small institutions in both realms)
  • teaching, research, design, development and management
  • artificial intelligence, mobile and ubiquitous computing, and human-computer interaction

Apparently, I'm not the only person to have thought of careers as following a spiral path. In an intriguing paper on "Career Pandemonium: Realigning Organizations and Individuals" (Academy of Management Executive, 10(4), 1996), Ken Brousseau and his colleagues describe the spiral career path as a non-traditional model involving periodic major moves across different areas, in which "the new field draws upon knowledge and skills developed in the old field, and at the same time throws open the door to the development of an entirely new set of knowledge and skills". That sounds about right.

The authors also offer a related insight about career resiliency:
Instead of people dedicated to a particular discipline, function, job, or career path, the career resilient workforce would be composed of employees who not only are dedicated to the idea of continuous learning but also stand ready to reinvent themselves to keep pace with change; who take responsibility for their own career management and, last but not least, who are committed to the company's success.

I am grateful for all the support of my continuous learning at UW Bothell - from the faculty, staff, students and administrators - during the last career cycle, and I hope to maintain some form of connection with the university during this next cycle.

As I proceed with my latest self-reinvention (or, at least, transition), I can't help but note the marvelous rendition of the idea of non-linear paths through life articulated in one of my favorite Harry Chapin songs, All My Life's a Circle:

No straight lines make up my life;
And all my roads have bends;
There's no clear-cut beginnings;
And so far no dead-ends.

Valuable Advice on Preparing for Technical Interviews ... and Careers

CrackingTheCodingInterview TheGoogleResume The cover of Gayle Laakmann McDowell's book, Cracking the Coding Interview, and links to her Career Cup web site and Technology Woman blog are included in the slides I use on the first day of every senior (400-level) computer science course I have taught over the last two years. These are some of the most valuable resources I have found for preparing for interviews for software engineering - as well as technical program manager, product manager or project manager - positions. I recently discovered she has another book, The Google Resume, that offers guidance on how to prepare for a career in the technology industry, so I've added that reference to my standard introductory slides.

While my Computing and Software Systems faculty colleagues and I strive to prepare students with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed in their careers, the technical interview process can prove to be an extremely daunting barrier to entry. The resources Gayle has made available - based on her extensive interviewing experience while a software engineer at Google, Microsoft and Apple - can help students (and others) break through those barriers. The updated edition of her earlier book focuses on how to prepare for interviews for technical positions, and her latest book complements this by offering guidance - to students and others who are looking to change jobs or fields - on how to prepare for careers in the computer technology world.


I have been looking for an opportunity to invite Gayle to the University of Washington Bothell to present her insights and experiences directly to our computer science students since I started teaching there last fall, and was delighted when she was able to visit us last week. Given the standing room only crowd, I was happy to see that others appreciated the opportunity to benefit from some of her wisdom. I will include fragments of this wisdom in my notes below, but for the full story, I recommend perusing her slides (embedded below) or watching a video of a similar talk she gave in May (also embedded further below), and for anyone serious about preparing for tech interviews and careers, I recommend reading her books.

Gayle emphasized the importance of crafting a crisp resume. Hiring managers typically spend no more than 15-30 seconds per resume to make a snap judgment about the qualifications of a candidate. A junior-level software engineer should be able to fit everything on one page, use verbs emphasizing accomplishments (vs. activities or responsibilities), and quantify accomplishments wherever possible. Here are links to some of the relevant resources available at her different web sites:

One important element of Gayle's advice [on Slide 13] that aligns with my past experience - and ongoing bias - in hiring researchers, designers, software engineers and other computing professionals is the importance of working on special projects (or, as Gayle puts it, "Build something!"). While graduates of computer science programs are in high demand, I have always looked for people who have done something noteworthy and relevant, above and beyond the traditional curriculum, and it appears that this is a common theme in filtering prospective candidates in many technology companies. This is consistent with advice given in another invited talk at UWB last year by Jake Homan on the benefits of contributing to open source projects, and is one of the motivations behind the UWB CSS curriculum requiring a capstone project for all our computer science and software engineering majors.

IntroductionToAlgorithmsGayle spoke of "the CLRS book" during her talk at UWB and her earlier talk at TheEasy, a reference to the classic textbook, Introduction to Algorithms, by Thomas H. Cormen, Charles E. Leiserson, Ronald L. Rivest and Clifford Stein. She said that entry-level software engineer applicants typically won't need to know data structures and algorithms at the depth or breadth presented in that book, and she offers a cheat sheet / overview of the basics on Slides 23-40, and an elaboration in Chapters 8 & 9 of her CtCI book. However, for those who are interested in delving more deeply into the topic, an online course based on the textbook is now part of the MIT Open CourseWare project, and includes video & audio lectures, selected lecture notes, assignments, exams and solutions.

One potential pitfall to candidates who prepare thoroughly for technical interviews is they may get an interview question that they have already seen (and perhaps studied). She recommended that candidates admit to having seen a question before, equating not doing so with cheating on an exam, and to avoid simply reciting solutions from memory, both because simple slip-ups are both common and easy to catch.

Gayle stressed that was there is no correlation between how well a candidate thinks he or she did in an interview and how well their interviewers thought they did. In addition to natural biases, the candidate evaluation process is always relative: candidates' responses to questions are assessed in the context of the responses of other candidates for the same position. So even if a candidate thinks he or she did well on a question, it may not be as well as other candidates, and even if a candidate thinks he or she totally blew a question, it may not have been blown as badly as other candidates blew the question.

Another important factor to bear in mind is that most of the big technology companies tend to be very conservative in making offers; they generally would prefer to err on the side of false negatives than false positives. When they have a candidate who seems pretty good, but they don't feel entirely confident about the candidate's strength, they have so many [other] strong candidates, they would rather reject someone who may have turned out great than risk hiring someone who does not turn out well. Of course, different companies have different evaluation and ranking schemes, and many of these details can be found in her CtCI book.

Gayle visits the Seattle area on a semi-regular basis, so I'm hoping I will be able to entice her to return each fall to give a live presentation to our students. However, for the benefit of those who are not able to see her present live, here is a video of her Cracking the Coding Interview presentation at this year's Canadian University Software Engineering Conference (CUSEC 2012) [which was also the site of another great presentation I blogged about a few months ago, Bret Victor's Inventing on Principle].

Finally, I want to round things out on a lighter note, with a related video that I also include in my standard introductory slides, Vj Vijai's Hacking the Technical Interview talk at Ignite Seattle in 2008:

Scott Berkun's Personal Insights on the Experience of User Experience Professionals


Scott Berkun shared some mistakes and lessons learned from his experience as and with user experience (UX) professionals last night at a meeting of the Puget Sound Special Interest Group on Human-Computer Interaction (SIGCHI). In a highly interactive session, he also invited the 40 or so other UX professionals who attended the meeting to share their own mistakes and lessons. The most prominent lesson I took away from the evening was one that applies much more broadly than to the UX (or HCI) profession: being a specialist generally means most people won't know what you do, so you must always be prepared to give a brief "101" explanation - and/or demonstration - to the uninitiated about what you do, how you contribute value and why others should care.

Scott began with a playful scree about the proliferation of titles - user experience researcher, usability engineer, interaction designer, etc. - that has led to a factionalization of UX, and suggested that we do away the variants and focus on the primary verb that unites the different roles: design. He then presented his list of UX mistakes and provoked a lively discussion that revealed that many experiences of many user experience professionals designers involve many of the mistakes (and lessons) he listed. Having recently written about the interrelationships between client-centered therapy, student-centered learning and user-centered design, it struck me that the root of many of the mistakes arise from a deficit in transparency, acceptance and/or deep empathic understanding on the part of one or more parties.


A large portion of the discussion revolved around issues of credibility, and the challenges designers face when working with teams composed primarily of software engineers and/or business folk. Many of these challenges arise from others' lack of transparency, acceptance or understanding of design[ers]. However, some challenges result from an unwillingness on the part of some designers to fully understand the needs of their other team members. Scott described one category of mistakes as "Vulcan pretension", an approach in which a designer focuses [only] on collecting, analyzing and reporting data, and is more concerned with the number of studies produced rather than how the results of those studies will be effectively applied to the problem(s) the team is trying to solve. Organizational and individual incentives that reward designers based on the count vs. impact of studies only serve to reinforce and exacerbate this issue.

Scott highlighted the multidimensional facets of usability involved in the design process: a designer might create an incredibly rich mockup of an interface that represents the epitome of usability for the eventual users of the product, without paying sufficient attention to how developers - another important set of users - will use that mockup to implement that interface. Taking care to specify details such as colors, fonts and sizes of different interface elements greatly eases the usability of the mockup for the developers who have to use it ... which also helps build credibility for the designer. Design is an inherently iterative process, but It is important to iterate with the developers - not just the intended end users - so as to become better acquainted with the developers' challenges as early as possible in the design process.


Another suggestion Scott had for designers to gain credibility was to find allies. Even if no one else on the team "gets" design, a designer can at least identify the one person who is least unappreciative, and invite that person to coffee or create another 1:1 interaction opportunity to help that person better appreciate the process and products of design. And if designers finds themselves in meetings without anything useful to contribute, it is best to be transparent, and talk with the manager about whether or how to set the stage to make contributions, or raise the prospect of not going to future meetings. This last suggestion sparked some interesting discussions about meetings, and about laptops in meetings making people more productive even when they cannot contribute [much] ... but Scott - fortunately - steered the discussion away from a potential rathole on meetings. Throughout this portion of the discussion, I found myself musing about Goethe's provocative insight in The Holy Longing:

Tell a wise person or else keep silent.


Another set of common UX mistakes involves what Scott calls a"Dionysian pretension" - being intoxicated with lofty ideas without sufficient concern for their applicability - and is also related to Scott's mistake category of "never get dirty". A willingness to roll up one's sleeves and do the dirty or disagreeable work the team must slog through - e.g., sticking around to participate in late night bug bashes - both yields a deeper empathic understanding [my words] of challenges faced by other members of the team and builds greater credibility among them. This wisdom aligns well with a post I recently encountered by David Heinemeier Hansson of 37signals arguing that There's No Room for the Idea Guy, in which he emphasizes the relative importance of execution vs. [only] ideation.

I would share more details of Scott's presentation, but I know he is planning to write his own blog post on the topic, and didn't want to steal too much of his [mind]fire. I will update this post with a link when his post is available.

[Update: Scott has posted a far more thorough writeup on the top 10 mistakes UX designers make.]

The Gaps, Crap and Gumption Traps in Creative Work


ThisAmericanLifeThe poster above reflects hard-won wisdom acquired and shared by Ira Glass, host of PRI's This American Life, emphasizing the importance of perseverance in developing mastery of creative production. While Glass focuses on storytelling for radio and television, his insights and experiences about the gaps between ambitions and realizations - and the connections between quantity and quality - relate to wisdom I've encountered from masters of the crafts of filmmaking and maintaining motorcycles. I believe this wisdom applies to any creative endeavor, and I would argue that storytelling is an essential ingredient in every creative enterprise, as the creative things we produce and consume comprise an integral part of the stories we make up about ourselves.

The poster is derived from a video interview posted in August 2009 (Ira Glass on Storytelling, Part 3 of 4) in which he describes both the frustration and importance of making stuff that is still "kind of crappy" as an unavoidable part of the apprenticeship required for the journey to master craftspersonship ... and, according to Sturgeon's Law, 90% of everything is crap anyway.

Being_Wrong_Kathryn_SchulzIra Glass is my favorite interviewer, and so I was intrigued when he was interviewed by another experienced interviewer, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong. The interview, which appeared in a June 2010 Slate article, On Air and On Error: This American Life's Ira Glass on Being Wrong, offers some glimpses of the wisdom captured in the pithy poster above:

One of the reasons I was interested in doing this interview is because I feel like being wrong is really important to doing decent work. To do any kind of creative work well, you have to run at stuff knowing that it's usually going to fail. You have to take that into account and you have to make peace with it. We spend a lot of money and time on stuff that goes nowhere. It's not unusual for us to go through 25 or 30 ideas and then go into production on eight or 10 and then kill everything but three or four. In my experience, most stuff that you start is mediocre for a really long time before it actually gets good. And you can't tell if it's going to be good until you're really late in the process. So the only thing you can do is have faith that if you do enough stuff, something will turn out great and really surprise you.

WoodyAllen_AmericanMastersIn a recent American Masters documentary on Woody Allen, the prolific writer, actor and director shared a similar perspective on the need to produce lots of stuff. Although the documentary is no longer viewable online, an interview with Robert B. Weide, the documentary filmmaker - a filmmaker filming a filmmaker - is available, in which Weide shares Allen's Quantity Theory:

You ask him [Woody Allen] about his endurance and his longevity over 40 years, and how prolific he is, doing a film a year for 40 years, as a writer and a director, and in many of them, an actor. And he says, "You know, longevity and endurance have their place, those are accomplishments of a sort, but those aren't the accomplishments I care about, which is to make a really great film." He says that he's working on the quantity theory, which is that if you just keep knocking them out, one picture after another, just keep making them and making them, some of them won't be that great, but every now and then, one will come out good.

ZenAndTheArtOfMotorcycleMaintenanceAllen's Quantity Theory brings to mind the Metaphysics of Quality, and the idea of a gumption trap that Robert Pirsig described in his classic 1974 book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Pirsig uses motorcycle maintenance as a metaphor for life, and explores a variety of gumption traps - externally induced out-of-sequence reassembly, intermittent failure and parts problems as well as internally induced traps arising from value rigidity, ego, anxiety, boredom and impatience - and ways of addressing and overcoming them. I won't include the full text of Pirsig's hypothetical course in Gumptionology 101 here, but the following passage gives a sense of his perspective, and its relevance to the views shared more recently by Ira Glass and Woody Allen:

Throughout the process of fixing the machine things always come up, low-quality things, from a dusted knuckle to an accidentally ruined "irreplaceable" assembly. These drain off gumption, destroy enthusiasm and leave you so discouraged you want to forget the whole business. I call these things "gumption traps."

There are hundreds of different kinds of gumption traps, maybe thousands, maybe millions. I have no way of knowing how many I don’t know. I know it seems as though I’ve stumbled into every kind of gumption trap imaginable. What keeps me from thinking I’ve hit them all is that with every job I discover more. Motorcycle maintenance gets frustrating. Angering. Infuriating. That’s what makes it interesting.

Pirsig's ideas about gumption were part of the inspiration for this blog, and I have consciously and unconsciously encountered some of these traps when writing - and not writing - posts here. When I look back on my early posts, many of them now seem like crap ... and I don't think any of the posts I've written - or anything I've produced in any other realm - have ever quite closed the gap between my ambitions and my realizations. I suppose blogging gives me a channel through which to work out - or at least work with - the ongoing tension between striving and acceptance.

Finally, speaking of blogging, I first encountered the poster at the top of this post a few weeks ago at the top of a post at Tim Kastelle's blog (which I always enjoy) on How to Make Things Look Simple. Tim found it amid one of the longest chains of Tumblr reblogs I've ever encountered, but further searching suggests that it was originally created by Sawyer Hollenshead. In digging around for the source, I also found a plain text version of the Ira Glass quote on a blog maintained by NPR's Fresh Air associate producer Melody Kramer, which I'll include - and conclude with - here, as I find it more readable (though less striking) than the poster:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Continuing Education: Senior Lecturer at the University of Washington, Bothell

Uwb-logo I recently embarked on the next stage of my re-engagement with academia, as a Senior Lecturer in the Computer & Software Systems program at the University of Washington, Bothell. Like the Tacoma campus, where I taught last winter and spring, the Bothell campus cultivates a small college culture within a large university system: classes are relatively small (with a maximum of 30-45 students in each) and there is a strong student-centered orientation among all the faculty and staff. The faculty - tenure track and non-tenure track - are actively engaged in research and other scholarly activities, but excellence in teaching is an essential attribute among all faculty.

During my first quarter, I am teaching courses on the Fundamentals of Computing (the introductory course for the CSS major) and Operating Systems (a senior-level core course in the major). I'm excited about teaching these courses for a number of reasons, not least of which is that these are the same courses I taught my first full-time semester teaching at the University of Hartford in 1985. Some content has changed, but many of the basic concepts have persisted over the intervening years. I'll be teaching courses on human-computer interaction, network design and web programming in the spring and winter quarters.

I don't anticipate much time for research during the next few quarters, as all of these courses will require new preparations on one or more dimensions. However, I do anticipate engaging some of my entrepreneurial energy. Although the Bothell campus is 20 years old, in the academic world this still qualifies as a "startup". The campus has ambitious growth plans to double in size over the next 5 years, and I'm looking forward to new opportunities for instigating, connecting and evangelizing in this new educational setting.

I also don't anticipate much time for blogging during this period; this post is already late (classes started last week), and I won't add much more to it. I do want to express my sincere gratitude for all the support I enjoyed from the faculty, staff and students at UW Tacoma throughout my initial re-engagement with academia last year. I am similarly grateful for the warm welcome I have received from the faculty, staff and students at UWB and CSS, and I look forward to my continuing education - as both a producer and a consumer - at the University of Washington.

Irritation Based Innovation

If necessity is the mother of invention, irritation is the father.

People can be motivated to make changes based on so-called positive emotions, but I would argue that anger is more often the spark for fueling innovation. Some people live by the credo

Don't get mad, get even.

But as Mohandas Gandhi so adroitly observed,

An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Aristotle offers additional insight into the challenges of channeling irritation:

Anyone can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person at the right time, and for the right purpose and in the right way - that is not within everyone's power and that is not easy.

When the wronged can transform their anger in constructive ways, they produce benefits that often outweigh and outlast the instigating incidents.

ImMadAsHell-Network I've been thinking about the inspirational power of irritation for a while now. The numerous clips I've seen and heard over the past several days from the late director Sidney Lumet's 1976 film, Network, have inspired me to compile some examples of irritation being a factor in empowering people to take action. The famous line repeated by the late actor Peter Finch as newscaster Howard Beale - and many of his viewers - is particularly on-point:

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore!

I have often described my own work as irritation-based research: don't [just] get mad about something, create a research project and/or prototype to solve it! MusicFX was born out of irritation with music playing in a fitness center; ActiveMap grew out of frustration with colleagues being chronically late to meetings; Ticket2Talk was a response to a newcomer's awkwardness of meeting people and initiating conversations at a conference

I believe we are all productive - or potentially productive - but differences in our personalities, training and experiences lead us to contribute in different ways in different realms. When irritation strikes, we naturally gravitate toward the channels through which we are best able to express or transform our frustration. Research happens to be a channel that has proven useful for me, but over the years, I've encountered numerous variations on this theme, applied to a broad range of domains. For the purposes of this post, I'll focus on a subset, exploring examples of people demonstrating how to constructively channel irritation to

  • write a book
  • write a program
  • create a company

Write a book

HowWeDecide One of the most inspiring convocation keynotes I've ever seen was Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, delivered at Willamette University last fall. After presenting a fun and fascinating whirlwind tour of neuroscience, psychology and sociology, in the context of a 5-point guide to how to succeed in (and through) college, the 27 year-old author of How We Decide entertained questions from the audience. My favorite question was asked by a student who wanted to know how Lehrer decides which questions to ask (or pursue). He answered that he wrote a book about decisions primarily because he is pathologically indecisive, and generally tends to begin with his own frustrations. [Update, 2012-Apr-01: A Brain Pickings review of Lehrer's new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works, includes his observation that "the act of feeling frustrated is an essential part of the creative process."]

More recently, in preparing slides for a guest lecture on human-robotic interaction, I highlighted the irritation that prompted Sherry Turkle to write her book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle experienced a robotic moment several years ago while viewing live Galapagos tortoises at the Darwin exhibit showing at the American Museum of Natural History, when her 14 year-old daughter, Rebecca, commented "they could have used a robot". While Turkle had been growing increasingly concerned about the ways that robots and other technologies were changing our perspectives and expectations, this moment provided the spark that led her to take on the daunting challenge of writing a book. And this constructive channeling of irritation has sparked numerous conversations about the relative costs and benefits of online vs. offline interactions.

Write a program

image from upload.wikimedia.orgOne of the earliest articulations of irritation-based software development I encountered as by Eric Raymond, author of the 2001 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, in which he states the first rule of open source software:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer's personal itch.

Later in the book, he begins the chapter on The Social Context of Open Source Software with the following elaboration of this principle:

It is truly written: the best hacks start out as personal solutions to the author's everyday problems, and spread because the problem turns out to be typical for a large class of users. This takes us back to the matter of rule 1, restated in a perhaps more useful way:

To solve an interesting problem, start by finding a problem that is interesting to you.

More recently, in a March 2008 blog post articulating 37signals' response to a critique by Don Norman, Jason Fried invoked a principle and rationale to support designing for ourselves (a fabulous post which also includes related insights about editing, software feature curation and not trying to please everyone):

Designing for ourselves first yields better initial results because it lets us design what we know. It lets us assess quality quickly and directly, instead of by proxy. And it lets us fall in love with our products and feel passionate about what we make. There’s simply no substitute for that. ...

We listen to customers but we also listen to our own guts and hearts. We believe great companies don’t blindly follow customers, they blaze a path for them. ...

Solutions to our own problems are solutions to other people’s problems too [emphasis mine]. By building products we want to use, we’re also building products that millions of other small businesses want to use. Not all businesses, not all customers, not everyone, but a healthy, sustainable, growing, and profitable segment of the market.

Interestingly, Don Norman's perspective on design innovation appears to have evolved since that exchange: a view articulated in a controversial essay on Technology First, Needs Last: the research-product gulf, which appeared in the March 2010 issue of ACM Interactions. Although he does not cite irritation as a prime mover, Norman does call into question the influence of necessity on innovative breakthroughs:

I've come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. ... Although we would prefer to believe that conceptual breakthroughs occur because of a detailed consideration of human needs, especially fundamental but unspoken hidden needs so beloved by the design research community, the fact is that it simply doesn't happen. ... grand conceptual inventions happen because technology has finally made them possible.

Create a company

MartinTobias-FastCompany-December2010 One recent articulator of irritation as inspiration is Martin Tobias, a serial entrepreneur and currently CEO of Tippr, who was profiled in a December 2010 Fast Company article on Innovation Agents:

The one common thread throughout Tobias' entrepreneurial journey: a healthy dose of anger. With Imperium Renewables, Tobias was "personally pissed at the climate damage that oil companies were doing,” he says. “When I started Kashless, I was personally pissed that my friends in the local bar and restaurant business didn’t have effective ways to use the Internet to get people to walk in the door to their businesses. I’m saving small businesses that are run by my friends. That’s an incredibly personal thing.”

That kind of righteous fury, according to Tobias, is the secret to any startup. “Find a problem that personally pisses you off and solve it, and you’ll be a good entrepreneur," he says. "The day that I wake up and I don’t have a hard problem to solve, I will stop being an entrepreneur."

PatientsLikeMe-logo The personal problem that motivated Jamie Heywood, Benjamin Heywood and their friend Jeff Cole to create PatientsLikeMe was the the struggle of their brother, Stephen Heywood, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in 1998. They developed a company and web platform to enable patients to share and learn from each others' experiences, and track the course of their condition and treatment(s), enabling them to tell their stories in data and words. The company recently expanded from its initial focus on 22 chronic conditions (including ALS, Parkinson's disease, HIV, depression, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and organ transplants) to support patients suffering from any condition(s).

The story of the family's frustration - and response - also provided the inspiration for a movie, So Much, So Fast:

Made over 5 years, So Much So Fast tracks one family's ferocious response to an orphan disease: the kind of disease drug companies ignore because not there's not enough profit in curing it. In reaction, and with no medical background, Stephen's brother Jamie creates a research group and in two years builds it from three people in a basement to a multi-million dollar ALS mouse facility. Finding a drug in time becomes Jamie's all-consuming obsession.

As I get to know more Health 2.0 activists, advocates and platforms - some of whom I profiled in previous posts on social media and computer supported cooperative health care and platform thinking - and encounter more examples of their blessing, wounding, longing, loss, pain and transformation, I increasingly appreciate the innovative power of irritation ... especially when the source of the irritation is a matter of life and death.

In reviewing these examples, I am repeatedly reminded of the wisdom of Carl Rogers' profound observation:

What is most personal is most general.

There are, of course, many other ways that people channel their personal frustrations in innovative ways that benefit a more general population, and I would welcome the contribution of other inspiring examples in the comments below.

I will finish off with a video clip of the scene from the movie, Network, that I mentioned at the outset. It's interesting to note how many of the problems that contributed to Howard Beale's madness in 1976 are still - or again - prominent in today's world ... providing plenty of fodder for future innovation.

Fitting in vs. Belonging: The Costs and Benefits of Conformity

TheGiftsOfImperfection-cover A while back, I wrote about Brene Brown's inspiring TEDxHouston talk on Wholeheartedness as connection through courage, vulnerability and authenticity. I have since read her most recent book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, and was so moved by her insights that I have added it to my "top 10" books on the right column of this blog. As with most of the books on that list, I won't attempt a review of the entire book in one post, but will [continue to] tap into on themes from the book in various contexts. In this post, I want to explore the distinction Brown makes between fitting in and belonging, and how that distinction relates to other themes I've read, thought and/or written about recently with respect to personal and professional growth.

On the second page of the preface in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown shares two lists of recurring themes that emerged from the thousands of stories she's collected from people over her years of research into shame and resilience. The first list characterizes people who enjoy a strong sense of love and connection; the second list characterizes people who don't.

Do: worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude and creativity.

Don't: perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment and scarcity.

The inclusion of belonging in the first list and the inclusion of fitting in on the second list immediately jumped out at me, as I had previously thought of these two terms as synonymous. A little further on, Brown notes that she was [also] surprised at the distinction, and offers definitions for the two terms:

Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn't require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are.

She goes on to define belonging in more detail:

Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self acceptance.

In one of several guideposts she shares for learning how to be more courageous, vulnerable and authentic, Brown champions the idea of letting go of comparison, which she describes as being all about conformity and competition.

The comparison mandate becomes this crushing paradox of "fit in and stand out!" It's not cultivate self-acceptance, belonging and authenticity, it's be just like everyone else, but better.

The conflict between wanting to fit in and wanting to stand out appears to be yet another manifestation of the tension between agency and communion that lies at the heart of the stories we make up about ourselves, a topic I wrote about a few weeks ago. As I reflect on those ideas in this context, it occurs to me that conformity could be defined as adhering to the stories that others make up about us.

Battle_Hymn_of_the_Tiger_Mother-cover This conflict also seems to lie at the heart of the controversy surrounding a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Why Chinese Mothers are Superior, excerpted from a new book by Amy Chua, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. While Brown writes about the gifts of imperfection, Chua writes about the gifts of perfection. Citing a study of American and Chinese immigrant mothers, Chua notes that

the vast majority of the Chinese mothers said that they believe their children can be "the best" students, that "academic achievement reflects successful parenting," and that if children did not excel at school then there was "a problem" and parents "were not doing their job." ... Chinese parents can say, "You're lazy. All your classmates are getting ahead of you."

Chua offers three distinctions between the American and Chinese style of parenting, which reflect the expectation of [some] Chinese parents that children will conform to their parents' idea of who they should be by standing out from their peers in areas the parents deem important:

  1. Chinese parents demand perfect grades because they believe that their child can get them. If their child doesn't get them, the Chinese parent assumes it's because the child didn't work hard enough
  2. Chinese parents believe that their kids owe them everything.
  3. Chinese parents believe that they know what is best for their children and therefore override all of their children's own desires and preferences.

The article - and book - has triggered intense debate.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen responded with an article in the Huffington Post on The Question No One is Asking in the Tiger Mom Debate: Is achievement really the best measure of success? She goes on to share several examples of the high costs that conformity to parents' ideals has extracted from some famous child prodigies - including penury, profligacy and prostitution - and reports that the suicide rate among Asian-American women aged 15-24 is the highest of any race or ethnic group in that age range.

image from Ayelet Waldman, a Jewish-American mother and author of Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities and Occasional Moments of Grace, offered a defense of the guilty, ambivalent, preoccupied Western mom in a followup article in the Wall Street Journal. Waldman's response is well-balanced and compassionate, expressing admiration for some of the positive elements of parental perseverance, guilt and regret for not always doing the best she might have done, but also proposing a more nuanced approach in which a child's individual needs are prioritized: "our job as mothers is to be the type of tigress that each of our different cubs needs".

Chua modulates her tone a bit in her own WSJ followup article, The Tiger Mother Talks Back, acknowledging the importance of love, compassion and willingness to make individual adjustments based on children's special needs. She also emphasizes that the book was intended as a description rather than a prescription, written as a memoir rather than a how-to manual. I have not read her book, but based on others' reviews, I suspect that the excerpted chapter or section was intentionally provocative, and that the book itself offers a somewhat more balanced perspective on parenting.

PowerOfPull Turning from parenting to business leadership - roles I see as having many common themes - the issue of fitting in vs. belonging was an implicit theme in my review of the recent book by John Hagel, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison, The Power of Pull: Institutions as Platforms for Individual Growth. As the authors note in their book:

Rather than molding individuals to fit the needs of the institution, institutions will be shaped to provide platforms to help individuals achieve their full potential by connecting with others and better addressing challenging performance needs ... Rather than individuals serving the needs of institutions, our institutions will be crafted to serve the needs of individuals.

Large organizations have traditionally tended to promote conformity, and to treat employees as standardized parts of a predictable machine, who suppress their intrinsic creative instincts in return for extrinsic rewards. Although the tactics employed by managers in most large organizations to encourage conformity are not as drastic as those employed by Amy Chua - e.g., the explosive episode of parenting pressure she describes in encouraging her daughter to play her piano piece correctly - they reflect a similar underlying premise: we know what is best [for you].

However, if one believes that innovation is more likely to occur at the edges than the core of an organization, and be practiced by people who are taking risks rather than conforming to written or unwritten rules, then the cost of conformity is to sacrifice innovation, and the benefits of innovation will accrue to those organizations that are willing to embrace non-conformity ... or perhaps even anti-conformity.

Few large organizations are willing or able to embrace - or even accept - non-conformity, much less anti-conformity. This is why many large organizations attempt to import innovation via acquisitions ... and why so few innovators stay on with their acquiring benefactors beyond the point at which their stock options vest ... and why so few imported innovations turn out to be sustainable.

Reflecting on Brene Brown's ideas, I suspect this corporate emphasis on conformity (and comparison and competition) is also why so few employees of large organizations are willing to be courageous, vulnerable and authentic in their work[places] ... and why so many employees feel so disengaged. Looking back at her "Do" and "Don't" list, I believe that the "Don't" list aligns more closely with most employees' experience in the workplace ... which may explain why wholeheartedness is more the exception than the rule in most workplaces.

John Hagel (@jhagel) recently tweeted a link to a provocative and compelling video on the topic of Conformity by YouTube video artist/scientist TheraminTrees, who weaves together a number of interesting and informative studies on our tendency to conform. One image in the video, in particular, reminded me of Brene Brown's ideas about wholeheartedness, authenticity ... and fitting in vs. belonging:


I highly recommend watching the entire video, but for the benefit of those who might not have the time or inclination to do so, I'll include a brief synopsis below the embedded video.

The narrator starts off with a definition of conformity as "behaving in accordance with real or imagined social norms, rules and expectations". He goes on to share a number of interesting studies from psychology and neurology about our tendency toward conformity in our perceptions, actions and judgments. Acknowledging that conformity can work for us - providing structure, predictability and helpful conventions - or against us - leaving us vulnerable to the tyranny of group opinion and the loss of authentic self - he warns that "we give up a lot more than we know". To guard against the costs of conformity, he offers four recommendations:

  • be aware of our vulnerability to conformity
  • actively change our behavior based on this awareness
  • cultivate healthy scepticism towards our own groups
  • be willing to disappoint people

TheInvitation This invitation to be willing to disappoint people reminds me of one of the most inspiring prose poems (and books) I've ever encountered - The Invitation, by Oriah Mountain Dreamer - and so I'm going to leave the last words on conformity to her:

It doesn’t interest me
if the story you are telling me
is true.
I want to know if you can
disappoint another
to be true to yourself.
If you can bear
the accusation of betrayal
and not betray your own soul.
If you can be faithless
and therefore trustworthy.