Mercenaries

A frequent theme you hear among a certain set of tech VC and executive is distinguishing between so-called “mercenary” and “missionary” employees. The latter joins a firm because they just believe so strongly in your “mission,” and find their self-actualization in helping you evangelize it; the former’s interests are merely base, pedestrian concerns like compensation. You want those “missionaries,” they say, and should avoid “mercenary” employees at all costs.

Frankly, this kind of greed-shaming of frontline employees is garbage. It is insulting and hypocritical for wealthy investors to complain about employees demanding a bigger share of the pie. (I considered pasting in relevant tweet quotes here, but skewering individuals isn’t my goal.) Instead, let me lay out an alternative case: tech workers should be more “mercenary.” Much more.

Let me pause and make a charitable concession: I’m sure that most of the VCs who say this stuff don’t actually mean it to be as insulting as it sounds. What they mean is: hire people who believe in the potential of your business, especially early in a company’s life. If your people believe in the fundamental promise of a company and have a stake in that success, they’re more likely to do their best work and put in the effort required. That much is common sense.

But even people who believe in a company’s potential need to be paid. You can’t eat, support a family or pay rent or student loans with options. When investors and executives make company equity a big part of their standard compensation package, they’re asking employees to take a big leap of faith in order to make the cash flow statement look better. If you work for Amazon, perhaps this isn’t such a big deal. But if you work for a no-name small or mid-sized firm, it’s a big concession for employees to make. And if you’re at a startup? Well, startup options are like lottery tickets – they are usually worthless. This doesn’t stop some slimy founders (and VCs) from hyping their potential value to younger and less-experienced job candidates. That’s life in the big city, I guess.

The tech industry has no shortage of investment capital, but a distinct and well-remarked-upon shortage of people with experience and know-how. (Note: this is different from an overall “talent shortage,” which is a myth I don’t put much stock in.) Good employees are really valuable, and as good capitalists, should accordingly demand a bigger share of the wealth that they are relied upon to create. This will sometimes entail pushing back on what executives and even investors are initially offering, because no matter how well-intentioned those parties are, they are counterparties, not your friends, and your interests are not fully aligned. All big boys and girls should clearly understand this.

It is, of course, highly ironic for venture capitalists to accuse employees who actually do the work of being greedy. VCs certainly aren’t “missionaries” – they’re out to make a buck. The whole VC business model is premised on seeking out outlier mega-returns, which results in pressuring many companies to pursue growth at all costs. Always remember: investors and executives routinely ensure that employees are the very last ones in line when a big exit arrives. Preferred stock classes, ratchet clauses, and various other accounting tricks that non-specialists aren’t privy to make sure of that. So the irony of venture capitalists shaming tech employees for negotiating for better compensation is pretty… rich. (See what I did there? 😄)

Look – I want to underline that I’m not demonizing all VCs here. There are many, especially outside the SV bubble, who have developed great reputations as being fair, helpful and trustworthy partners who look out for us frontline guys. I know several. But accounts to the contrary are also legion, and like it or not, the VC industry has developed a bad reputation for good reason. Tech employees need to be careful, and they also shouldn’t be afraid to exercise their own market power.

I won’t name the specific VC(s) whose recent mercenary/missionary nonsense elicited this rant, but I checked into his recent investments. They include a photo stickers app, yet another social media spam tool and call center software. Not exactly inspiring, world-changing stuff, but probably worthwhile investments. I wonder if this VC would have us believe that early employees in these firms signed on because they saw themselves as evangelists for these companies’ “missions.” Frankly, I doubt it. I’m guessing they got paid, in cash and well, and hopefully got a great options package too.

Tech workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your upside.

I’m restarting my email list

A few years ago, I ran a weekly email newsletter on stuff I found interesting in marketing technology. It was fun for a while, and I garnered a few hundred subscribers pretty quickly. But the newsletter space got really noisy, real fast, and eventually I just didn’t feel like I was still adding value. So I killed the newsletter.

But now I’m bringing it back – sort of. I’m not doing another newsletter. Instead, I’m going to send out a very occasional email – probably monthly, but biweekly at the most frequent, and only when I have something I really think is worth sharing. I get a lot of dumb email, and I know y’all do too, so I promise I won’t send any.

The first email went out on Sunday before Game of Thrones, and you can check it out here. I also invite you to sign up if you’re interested. Thanks!

Retirement is dead

The majority of Americans have little or nothing saved for retirement. This should terrify you.

Let’s lay out some facts first. Among working-age families (ages 32-61), as of 2013, only 53% participated in any kind of retirement plan – most of those are some form of defined-contribution plan (like a 401k), and about half as many have a defined-benefit plan (like a pension). That’s down from 60% in 2001, and probably a few points lower by now. So even as the Boomers are approaching retirement, we have not seen a trend towards saving more. That’s troubling by itself.

But here’s the really crazytown part. Because of egregious wealth inequality, mean figures about American retirement trends are less meaningful. If you look at the median, families that would’ve once been on the verge of retirement (aged 56-61) have a whopping $17,000 saved. Nearly half have literally nothing.

(This is from a great report from the Economic Policy Institute.)

Basically, what has happened here is that employers have mostly done away with pensions and shifted employees to defined-contribution plans (401ks), which puts the onus on employees to save for themselves. (“Pensions” are something of a joke now among millennials bitter that Boomers mostly don’t appreciate how the economic landscape has changed.) 401ks have turned out to be highly unequally distributed, which will surprise no one who lives in the world.

Keep in mind that the median Social Security annual benefit is around $14,000, and the real horror of this situation really comes into focus. As the Boomers age further into retirement, most simply can’t afford to retire. Forget puttering, seeing the grandkids and golf – retirement for most people is going to involve any work they can get and hold on to for as long as possible to pay for mounting medical costs. Prepare to see lots of people hanging on to their jobs into their 80s, especially low-impact, prestige-type gigs. (Think that plum professorship or director role is going to open up when the 60-something currently there retires? Don’t be so sure.)

So picture this: it’s the mid-2020s, and the Boomers are now between 65 and 79. 80% of them are in some sort of crisis. Their medical care and prescriptions are stressing Medicare to its breaking point, probably requiring many billions in additional taxpayer support. You have millions who need assisted living care. Dementia, enormously expensive to treat and care for, is rampant. You’ll have a widespread trend of their millennial children, now raising kids of their own, stretching to either take in or care for mom and dad. Oh, and they have little or no savings, and Social Security is in its own slow-motion crisis of solvency, meaning that their kids (again, us) or, in direct and indirect ways, the public sector will wind up footing many bills.

(Side note: I did an informal poll of some of my millennial peers a while back about how much they expect to get back from Social Security in our old age. Most answers were “none” or 50-ish percent. I personally think Social Security will stick around, but there will definitely come a political movement to abolish it, which I hope fails.)

Honestly, the economic ramifications of this not-so-distant crisis deeply trouble me – let alone the havoc it will cause in American society between a generation that has done little or nothing to prepare for, let alone fix, the mistakes it has caused, and the ones who will have to deal with them (us).

tl;dr: You should start saving a lot more for retirement.

 

 


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Origins

The din of politics is (rightly) dominating most of the attention market right now. But outside of the crumbling of our democratic norms, there is an absolutely fascinating story unraveling in the realm of archeology that is going largely overlooked relative to its consequences for our understanding of the origin of our species.

The standard model of the origin of homo sapiens that you probably learned in school is that we evolved in the “cradle of humanity” somewhere in East Africa, likely around modern Kenya/Ethiopia, about 200,000 years ago. Then we basically stayed there for about 130,000 years, until, sometime about 70,000 years ago, one or two small groups ventured northward, across the Sinai and into the rest of the world. People eventually spread to Australia about 50,000 years ago, and North America about 15,000 (Bering Strait land bridge, ice age, etc.). This single migration of just one group is why, so goes the theory, all other ethnic groups throughout the world have a remarkable level of genetic similarity relative to those of African descent. The level of genetic diversity within African populations today, and their descendants, is much, much greater than that between, say, modern Chinese, Indians, Europeans and Inuit. All of those subsequent groups basically descended from this very small population that left Africa in the first place. Put another way: Zimbabweans and Senegalese have much less in common genetically than a white American does with a Polynesian. This much is proven fact.

But a bunch of recent discoveries have challenged this origin model.

  • We know that the Neanderthals and Denisovans probably descended from a common ancestor with homo sapiens. Recent genetic research has shown that they interbred not only with each other much earlier (like, ~500,000 years ago, outside Africa), but also with modern homo sapiens. The weird thing is that we find evidence of this interbreeding with homo sapiens about 270,000 years ago, not 70,000, and in Europe. So… at least some homo sapiens were in Europe two hundred thousand years earlier than we’d thought.
    • Fun fact: the average modern non-African carries around 2.5% Neanderthal DNA. (Mine is perhaps a bit higher, according to a genetic ancestry test I took. My wife is not surprised.) The average modern African carries 0%.
  • Next: we’ve now also found fossils of ancient homo sapiens… in Morocco, not East Africa, that are over 300,000 years old. That’s ~100,000 years older than the earliest we’d previously found (in Ethiopia), and really far away. This really re-writes the whole theory. Homo sapiens would have to have evolved and then spread widely throughout Africa.

It’s becoming clear that, even if early modern humans did evolve primarily in East Africa, they didn’t just stay there. Different groups moved. We surely don’t even know the half of it yet.

Then, you get to the really crazy stuff.

  • Good evidence has now been found in Australia indicating human settlement 65,000 years ago, far longer than earlier thought. That time frame also indicates tens of thousand of years of human co-existence with Australian megafauna like the Diprotodon (the giant wombat), contrary to the standard assumption that humans quickly hunted giant creatures like this to extinction.
  • If you’re into really crazy stuff, try this: there’s evidence, albeit controversial, of settlement in North America about 130,000 years ago, which would put it well before modern humans are even supposed to have left Africa. The evidence of this theory is still thin, but worthy of consideration. (Basically, they found mastodon bones that had been smashed, marked and distributed in ways distinctive of stone tools.) If humans, or even proto-humans, were in North America that long ago, it changes a lot. The next-oldest hard evidence of settlement is over 100,000 years later, in Clovis culture sites in the Southwest.

It’s becoming very clear that we still don’t really know that much about the origins of our species. It’s possible we’ll never know the full truth. But the gradual uncovering of evidence is showing that humans (and Neanderthals, and Denisovans) were older, smarter and way more resourceful and resilient than the “cavemen” joke goes.

One of the themes I explore in The Second Transit is the slow process of an entire species discovering the exogenous forces that have defined its development. Something that fascinates me is how creatures of biological time (like us) grapple with and understand forces that act on geological or universal timescales. We can’t really do it, right? Creatures that only live and understand ~75 year lifespans can barely conceive of the lifespan of your average rock, let alone a species like the alligator, which has been around a lot longer than humans have. In “Second Transit,” the challenge the characters have is dealing with, and transmitting meaningful knowledge of, this asteroid that only shows up every 2,000+ years. How do you pass meaningful knowledge on to descendants hundreds of generations subsequent to you? Ozymandias would like to know.

A lot of people don’t care where or when humans came from, and I get it. It’s not very practical knowledge, I guess. Yet understanding our origins is central to understanding who we are as people and as a species. That understanding expresses itself in a vast number of ways (cue, the absurdist theories of race propounded by racist know-nothings). It’s the kind of foundational knowledge that provides the critical context for everything else you know. And it seems to me that knowledge like that is some of the most valuable you can learn.

 

 


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Birthing babies

My wife is 34 weeks pregnant. We took a tour of our local hospital’s obstetrics wing today, as the culmination of the baby care basics ($65), breastfeeding (another $65) and Lamaze classes ($185) they offer to new parents. As a part of the tour, we got to see the different tiers of private recovery rooms available:

I can’t help but contrast this with two other experiences of bringing babies into the world that I’ve seen or been told about.

Continue reading “Birthing babies”

The Second Transit

As I posted about the other week, I recently finished a first version of my first novel. I’ve now formatted it into an ebook and put it on Amazon. You can find it here.

I don’t have any illusions about capturing a wide audience or making money on my book (which, fully formatted in ebook form, came out to 271 pages! 😵). This has led me to wonder why I bothered with spending a year and a half writing in the first place – and the truth is, I don’t exactly know. I needed to write it. It was a creative outlet, I guess. A way to stretch and focus this part of my brain that doesn’t get enough exercise in the rest of my life. Like a story I could explore for myself.

FYI: I set up a “Free” promotion on Amazon that will be active for the next couple of days.

It probably won’t be my last creative project. I don’t especially love creative writing. Sometimes I just have to get ideas on a page, you know?

Mise en oeuvre

This month marks a decade since I finished my Peace Corps service in Cameroon. I was a health and water sanitation volunteer in the rural South Province there. I learned a lot about public health in low-resource settings, French, a good deal of the local language, Bulu, and broke down and then rebuilt my whole perspective on what “international development” can or should aim to accomplish. I have a lot of thoughts about Cameroon, but the most fascinating one for me today is what’s happening in the first village where I lived, Nyabessan.

Many people have a pretty old-fashioned idea of what Peace Corps service is like. They think Peace Corps volunteers sleep in mud huts in tiny villages and are in constant danger. Almost none of that is true. Most “PCVs,” particularly in Africa, are based in small to medium-sized towns or cities. Most have power and network for cell phones that would be comparable with most parts of America. You can Skype with the vast majority of PCVs today. All live in modern structures and many even have indoor plumbing. As for the danger part, well, that’s mostly a product of dumb American fears of the developing world. Most people are at far higher risk of personal injury on an American college campus than in an African village.

That all said, Nyabessan, my first posting, was instead a more “classic” Peace Corps experience. It was a small village of less than 100 people in the middle of a giant rainforest along the Ntem River. It was six-to-eight hours, frequently on a motorcycle, on hardly more than a mud track before you got to paved road, and then two hours to electricity/phones/internet/mail. It was very isolated and very poor. I lived there for about a year before getting moved to Ambam, a much larger (but still small) town elsewhere in the province.

About two/three hours’ hike from Nyabessan are the Memve’ele waterfalls. Here’s a picture:

This was on film. I didn’t have a digital camera at that time.

They were pretty extraordinary, but also very remote. I visited a couple of times, but didn’t think too much about it. You have to understand, pretty much no one lived anywhere close. Nyabessan was the closest village, and around us were thousands of square miles of utter wilderness.

Around the time I was there, Cameroon was in talks with the China Import/Export bank for a big infrastructure “loan” to build a hydroelectric power station there. Well, those went well. China eventually “loaned” Cameroon 243 billion CFA (about the equivalent of $420M) to construct the project. Here’s what it looks like now:

I can’t stress enough how insane this is. None of what you see in this picture was even conceivable ten years ago. (Btw, I think we were standing in the upper-righthand bend in the river in the first photo.) They had to level and pave the road all the way there, import materials and people (mostly Chinese laborers, by the way) and pay off god only knows how many. The actual work was mostly done in the last few years, and the dam is partially operational today. There’s a good article about it in a recent Afrik Actuelle.

Sure, it’ll be an environmental disaster in a lot of ways, but the Memve’ele Dam also represents tangible progress in living standards in Cameroon. It represents power generation, infrastructure, jobs and opportunity for millions, and it was made possible through deliberate Chinese diplomatic and economic strategy. Most of that “loan” above will eventually be written off when China needs something.

I wish America was capable of strategy like this in the 21st century. But for Cameroon’s sake, I’m at least glad China is. On est ensembles.

A First Draft

Late last night, I wrote a final few paragraphs, put my computer on the coffee table, stood up and stretched. I got a piece of banana bread and looked out our window onto the Upper East Side. I’d just finished a project that I’ve been working on for a year and a half, and it was a weird feeling. Good. Great, even. But… strange.

Two years ago, I went backpacking in Zion National Park with one of my closest friends. Brian and I did the entire cross-Zion trek, from west to east sides. It was amazing/brutal. Along the way, I was inspired with an idea for a fictional narrative that I just couldn’t shake. It rattled around my brain for six months afterwards until I finally outlined what that story might look like. And then… I went and wrote some of it.

I wrote it in fits and starts for a long time – finishing pieces and then laying it aside for a while. Earlier this year, though, I committed to getting it done. Perhaps not “finished,” insofar as a piece of creative writing ever is; and perhaps not written extremely well. But written. Out of my head and onto a page. And last night, I finished the last installment to my first-draft satisfaction.


UPDATE 7/22: I’ve written a fuller description of the project here.

Tech and solution-ism

A little over a decade ago, the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) idea was hoisted out of obscurity by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab at – where else? – the WEF in Davos. He got a bunch of big, mostly techie corporations to commit to backing it, and later, at another Davos summit, the UNDP. The idea was basically this: schoolchildren in the developing world needed computer literacy to compete, yet computers (notably then) were expensive. So a non-profit effort needed to develop a basic computer that would cost <$100. This would enable massive distribution and give children in poor countries access to computers.

The program has been mired in controversy for the last decade. It’s still something of a cause célèbre in some techie do-gooder circles, while development experts have generally reserved deep skepticism. Sure enough, the American Economic Association just published a new, large-scale, randomized evaluation of the OLPC program in Peru, where it found “no evidence” that the devices contributed to math or language skills improvement.

Before I got into tech, I worked in international development, first as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon and then as a program manager for a U.S.-based development contractor implementing a bunch of USAID projects. (I’ll write about that sometime.) In 2008, I got to play with one of the “OLPCs,” as they were called. It was cute, but manifestly not a “computer.” Ironically, I had just gotten my first iPhone at that time. Like many people, I’d started to suspected that was the future of computing for most of the world; now, we know it is.

I have started writing, abandoned and then revisited a big formal Medium post on tech silver-bullet-ism many times. (I had one that was popular earlier on why Google’s balloons and Facebook’s drones are bad ideas.) It’s incredibly frustrating. Every year, millions are spent on dumb, gadget-y projects that some white person sitting in America (or Europe), who either spent a cursory amount of time in the developing world or sometimes none at all, imagines will revolutionize life there. The OLPC is just one such example. PlayPumps was another famous one. It’s an incredibly myopic, and predictably ineffectual, view on structural, contextual problems like poverty, education and healthcare. But it makes for great PR. So the reason it keeps happening should tell you why many people/companies invest in it.

OLPC’s goal was to improve education in the developing world. The best way to do that, as almost any expert on the topic agrees, is not by building a school (every “mission trip’s” favorite pastime) or handing out gadgets. Rather, it’s systemic: you start by paying teachers. (No, that doesn’t always happen.) Pay them enough, and on time, regularly. Give them respect and don’t place them in a corrupt administrative system. Provide sufficient resources for children to learn. In many contexts, comparatively small investments in providing meals and healthcare at school works wonders.

Just imagine what could’ve happened if Negroponte had pitched those ideas at Davos?

Recommended

Buddy of mine and I saw these guys in person. Sissoko is a renowned Malian kora musician, and Segal an accomplished French cellist. Unreal how good they are together. This is one of my go-tos now for background music when I put my headphones on. (They’re on Spotify too.)