photo by misty xicum

Jean Hsu Speaks Up

Engineer at Medium, a risk-taker who builds things

Jean Hsu, an Engineer at Medium, went straight from Princeton to Google—a safe career move—but she’s not afraid to go out on a limb: “I wanted something different in the ecosystem of startups. I wanted to exercise control and ownership. I like to be able to say, ‘I made that.’”

When the ex-Googler left her software engineering job in Mountain View a few years ago, she didn’t have another gig lined up. “A place like Google never gets bad enough that you actually need to leave,” she admits. “But I always felt very junior, and I wanted to be an expert in something. So I jumped into the deep end and just quit. I took six months, worked on some personal projects, taught myself Android development.”

Hsu recognized that Android “was going to take off. It was so new that I thought, if I invest some time in this, I could be on the leading edge of people who know Android really well.” She went on to work as an Android lead at Pulse, a mobile news reader. After the structure of a large company, startup life felt novel. “The culture is really scrappy,” she notes, “and you make a lot of mistakes.” Hsu might have made some mistakes, but she also helped grow Pulse’s Android userbase from 50,000 to over three million users.

Immersed in the tech industry since leaving her undergraduate CS department, Hsu somehow maintains a critical perspective: “Silicon Valley glamorizes this idea of young people straight out of school creating enormously successful companies. But the truth is that 99.9% of those companies don’t take off because they’re not set up to succeed. There’s something to be said for experience, for being thoughtful about the people you bring in and employee development.”

Such critiques characterize Hsu’s own writing on tech. Her blog posts, which have garnered a lot of “good and bad” attention, are notable for their discussions of women and tech:

A lot of readers are encouraging—‘Thanks for sharing your story’—but there are many who take the stance that women just aren’t interested in tech, so why we should we try to get them into it? People don’t quite understand the problem; it goes back to when you’re a child and you’re handed these stupid toys or dolls. Gender education like that is largely unintentional, but it’s ingrained in our society.
Photo by Misty Xicum

Hsu struggles with being viewed as “that woman who talks about gender.” That label, she contends, is one reason many accomplished females in the industry don’t address the issue publicly: “My posts that ended up on Hacker News or Reddit were always the gender ones. People would say, ‘If she were a good engineer, she would have a technical blog.’ And I did, but those posts didn’t make the front page of Hacker News.” It’s enlightening to scan comments on some of Hsu’s most popular blog posts. She notes,

“I only filtered comments that were outright obscene. There were plenty that said, ‘It would be nice if we had more women in tech, but they’re just not wired for it.’”

A year and a half ago, Hsu left Android development behind and joined Medium, working with a handful of other designers and engineers to build a prototype of the product. She had barely programmed in Javascript but, as CTO Don Neufeld notes, “We wanted an engineer with aptitude and trajectory, someone who was a risk-taker and a good problem-solver. Jean has all of those more important, amorphous qualities.” As Hsu puts it, “I’m happiest when I’m working on something that’s a new challenge.”

Medium is an interesting technical challenge, but Hsu says it’s also made her a better writer. An established blogger, Hsu observes that she’s more discriminating when writing for her current project because “it looks so good. If you put a post on your blog, it doesn’t need to be polished. On Medium, you want the post to feel right. There’s an element of personal transformation behind both the way the company is run and how the product works. I believe in our vision.”

Next Story — Make Me Uncomfortable: The Discomfort Zone at Epicurrence
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Make Me Uncomfortable: The Discomfort Zone at Epicurrence

Nominally, this post is about diversity in tech; really, it’s about how discomfort can be our most profound source of inspiration. It’s also the story of my loud, public rant on feminism and diversity at a conference, why I do not regret it, and how we fail to extend our optimistic assumptions about tech culture when it matters.

Photo: Rico Castillero

I recently spent a week at Epicurrence with 70+ talented people who build brands and products as designers, writers, and researchers. It would have been easy to stay in a collegial comfort zone, chatting about how wonderful everyone’s work is, and can you talk about your process? Instead, we asked some complex questions: What are best practices for maintaining work/life balance? How do you create a positive and productive culture? Are we building things that the world needs? And, perhaps most importantly:

How do you address a systemic issue that no one can ever really figure out how to talk about, let alone solve: diversity?

The last one was as much a challenge at Epicurrence as it is in the tech industry at large. I came away with a better sense of how we can jumpstart discussion around it. That process—an anatomy of group inspiration—looks something like this:

  1. Get comfortable and build trust.
  2. Get honest and be vulnerable.
  3. Confront what we think we know and get uncomfortable.

Result: Walk away with new thoughts and ideas.

My guess is that many of us think (hope?) we can dispense with step 3 and reach the same result. I’m going to argue otherwise, using Epicurrence and our conversations around diversity there as a case study. Epicurrence has discomfort baked into its DNA. It was designed — by the inimitable Dann Petty — around surfing for a reason:

Photo: Rico Castillero
Surfing is satisfying and inspirational and addictive because it’s hard. The thrill of catching a wave for the first time is tempered only by disbelief at having caught a wave at all.

I’ve been clobbered by waves before, going over the falls and getting pushed under for so long that my only thought was, “I need to breathe soon.” I continue to do it because the challenge is just as important as getting the ride, but I’d prefer not to limp out of the water gasping and bleeding. I’d prefer to surf the breaks where I can’t catch everything, but where the waves I ride feel like hard-earned wins.

And I think most things worth doing — most inspiring things — work something like surfing. Inspiration happens when you’re pushed, productively, into your discomfort zone.

1. Get Comfortable

Getting comfortable was not a problem.

Photo: Rico Castillero

The Epicurrence crew convened on the North Shore of Oahu.We got to know one another through shared housing and meals and (mis)adventures. We chatted over coffee in the mornings and toasted the events of the day in the evenings. We gathered in a backyard tent, waves crashing just beyond, for panels and discussion. We confronted the ocean together, surfing and jumping off cliffs.

And, eventually, we started having conversations. Some of those conversations, at an event with proportionately few women or people of color, were about diversity.

2. Get Honest

Getting honest presents a particular challenge when there’s not easy agreement on what we need to get honest about. It’s not, for example, evident to everyone that we need to talk frankly about diversity. Dismal diversity reports notwithstanding, diversity can feel passé. But the reason it can feel passé is not because sexism and racism are a thing of the past, or because gender and race just don’t matter anymore.

Fatigue with the diversity problem is grounded in a truth that is quite the opposite of irrelevance: Sexism and racism have been issues on the professional agenda for decades, we still haven’t solved the disparities, and we’re largely tired of having to think about it.

Photo: Rico Castillero

On the second night of Epicurrence, we had a “women’s panel.” The need for such a panel, with its qualifying adjective, only pointed up the relative lack of diversity at the event itself.

Discussion and Q&A were awkward, for several reasons. Several of the women on the panel were ambivalent about being asked to represent women in design. The subtle, nuanced ways in which discrimination by race or sex often manifest (see also: death by a thousand cuts) are hard to communicate to people who haven’t experienced them regularly. Unless you tell a dramatic and gory story — and sometimes even if you do — you’re unlikely to be taken seriously. It becomes much easier to write off experiences as not a big deal, or to frame those experiences as small, personal, character-building obstacles.

After the panel, a group of us stayed up late, crowding cross-legged onto beds to discuss the issues that had surfaced. Over the next few days, we talked, privately, in more revealing ways on the subject with other attendees. It felt like the beginning of a real conversation.

3. Get Uncomfortable

I should admit, before going any further, that my threshold for discomfort is high. I spent a long time being very uncomfortable before anyone would give me a PhD. Leaving academia to feel out a new industry was a seemingly endless source of discomfort. Now, as an academic-turned-design-writer who works on a developer-focused product involving distributed systems, I live perpetually outside my comfort zone.

Photo: Dianne Villarreal

At this point, my tendency to leap into foreign territory is practically a reflex. On the final evening of the conference, when Mike Davidson asked me to come to the mic and share some thoughts on diversity, I didn’t hesitate. I made a few points that I feel like I’ve made a thousand times — points that seem so intuitive and uncontroversial to me that I’m exhausted by having to articulate them again here. Yet, as I spoke, I watched audience members cross their arms, look increasingly sober, get preternaturally quiet. The discomfort was palpable.

And that’s when I realized that talking wasn’t enough. I needed to write some of them down. (If you’ve made it this far and are about to dismiss this piece as an insufferable life hack, now is when your persistence, I hope, pays off: rant below.)

Points About Diversity That No One Wants to Hear

Always the exception, never the trend (aka, Can’t everyone, if they really want to and work really hard, become a Marissa Mayer?)

As we’re fond of pointing out to each other in discussions of diversity, Barack Obama is president! Hillary Clinton is a front-runner! A version of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, this argument understands the diversity problem through the lens of exceptionalism, with a hearty dose of meritocratic assumption thrown in.

But our favorite exceptions to the rule do not mean that we live in a post-race and post-sex world.

Why not? Because, to be perfectly frank, we live in a world informed by centuries of deeply entrenched discrimination. That’s not up to us: We exist in a culture that has finely tuned, barely perceptible ways of imagining proper behavior — or anticipating expected behavior — based on sex and skin color. And unless we’re willing to have uncomfortable yet civilized conversations about those underlying expectations and their ramifications, we will always approach one another with the baggage of our cultural legacy.

Rather than swapping anecdotes, we need to look at data and trends. Rather than crowing about the exceptional cases of women and people of color who wield power in the tech industry, we need to think about the systemic issues that prevent us from building an industry in which those cases are the norm.

The I’m-cool-it’s-cool-everything-is-really-basically-OK trap

Diversity isn’t yet the norm, of course, but a big part of the I’m-cool-it’s-cool-everything-is-really-basically-OK trap (see also: the Cool Girl Trap) is acting like it is.

Being cool involves making everyone around you as comfortable as possible. It’s a way of being simultaneously exceptional and non-threatening. It can mean offering yourself as proof that ladies are totally happy fitting in with the guys, or disavowing feminism because, Who needs equal rights for men and women? No need for labels, we’re all cool here.

There are compelling reasons for women and people of color to shy away from talking about sexism and racism. We want to be appreciated for our craft. We want to be taken seriously on the terms that the industry sets for people who build things, to have careers unfettered by the side-eye that you often get for speaking up or even imagining that there’s something to speak up about.

So, you know, it’s cool.

Men are like this and women are like that. What are you gonna do?

Ah, the “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” line of thinking. Before that book likened the differences between the sexes to living on completely separate planets, we called this argument gender essentialism — the belief that the sexes are naturally, biologically, essentially tuned for different purposes. Historically, the world has used it and its compatriot, racial essentialism, to justify lots of restrictions on pastimes and occupations and socially sanctioned behavior for women and people of color.

Untangle this assumption. Ask yourself why we still generalize that, for example, women are good listeners or better multitaskers or care more about communication. What kind of behavior is subtly rewarded or implicitly discouraged in young women? What seemingly innocuous words do we use to describe them, and in what tones of voice? And if we value assertiveness in leaders but sweetness and cuteness and kindness in girls, is it surprising that we end up with fewer women in positions of leadership?

Let’s not forget that if tech industry culture is a paean to anything, it is environmentalism — the belief that our environments, the objects and circumstances that surround us, contribute to who we are and what we do. Diversity initiatives are based in the idea that diverse teams develop more inclusive, creative strategies and, in the end, build better products that work for more people.

But if we feel the need to espouse core, irreconcilable differences between the sexes or races, claiming that these differences predetermine our behavior and strengths, then we don’t actually believe we can cultivate an environment that empowers all contributors. In that case, we should give up on our fancy offices and transparency policies and coffee walks and mentoring programs, and all just go home.

Ending On an Up Note

And then the conference ended. I felt exhilarated, like I was coming off a wave, but I was also deeply aware that I had just brought up a bunch of things that people often don’t want to talk about. The reactions fell along a spectrum:

Bummed out: I kind of feel like we ended on a down note.
Neutral, attempting disinterest: You could tell that a lot of people in the audience disagreed with you.
Surprised: I actually basically agreed with everything you said.
Supportive: Amen.
Photo: Rico Castillero

For my part, I fretted that my tendency to leap into an uncomfortable subject meant that I was closing (slamming?) doors. Simultaneously, I worried that taking a measured, diplomatic tone—as I continue to do in this post—conveyed its own form of conservatism.

After all, discomfort tends to come along with things that aren’t familiar. Embracing discomfort without reserve means opening up to things that we don’t understand, things that aren’t just like us. And that effort translates into a more diverse environment. When we’re talking diversity, getting out of our comfort zone is not just a source of inspiration but a catalyst for change. In other words, maybe it wasn’t that I was too loud—maybe I wasn’t loud enough.

Next Story — Tess Rinearson Wants To Do It All
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Tess Rinearson Wants To Do It All

Engineer at Medium, taking a step back to move forward

Tess Rinearson, an engineer at Medium, got an early start in the tech industry. For one thing, she grew up amidst the idiosyncrasies of startup culture.

Says the Seattle native, “When I was a kid, I used to tell people that my parents were entrepreneurs, and no one knew what I meant. My dad was a journalist writing about Microsoft and Boeing, and then he had a company that built tools for Microsoft Word, and he’s had several other startups. When I was in college, startups became the hot thing. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about entrepreneurship.”

Early lessons in the startup world aside, Rinearson has always been prolific, coding and attending hackathons and blogging cogently about it all while still in high school. Valve hired her as a seventeen-year-old intern to do “grunt web development, HTML and CSS stuff. It was work that would have been really tedious for someone with more experience but was perfectly challenging for me.” When Rinearson arrived in San Francisco as a rising college junior last summer to begin an internship at Medium, she had already interned at CloudMine and Microsoft as well.

A week into her Medium internship, Rinearson shipped the Top 100, a list of the most-read posts on the site each month. A couple of months later, she joined the company’s Reading and Discovery team full time. Of the transition, she notes, “I had a very love-hate relationship with college. Medium is very explicitly not a company that will pull someone out of school, but I decided that, no matter what, I wasn’t going back.”

Rinearson launched her undergraduate career as a computer science student at the University of Pennsylvania, where, she freely admits, “I spent more time interning and traveling to hackathons than going to class. That was the culture there—serious computer science students weren’t serious about school.” After her freshman year, she transferred to Carnegie Mellon, “which is a very school-school, especially for CS. I prefer to build stuff and meet people than to be heads-down on CS theory, so I still wasn’t happy. I wanted to take a step back and think about what I’m doing with my life.”

Rinearson, who has written on gender issues in the tech industry, often finds herself identified as a young, female engineer rather than simply a young, talented engineer. She actively supports initiatives aimed at young women in tech:

No one wants their gender to be their key identifier, but the tech community needs to talk about it. People like to say that creating mentorship programs for women in tech isn’t helpful because it divides us more than it unites us. I disagree. You can’t close your eyes and say that we’ll inevitably move forward. You have to work to make things better. I’m not afraid to speak up and do whatever I can do to make female engineers feel like they have a community.

Rinearson also notes, “Part of the reason I’m at Medium is the strong presence of female engineers, people like Jean and Elizabeth. I don’t like being identified as the female engineer, and I knew that wouldn’t happen to me here.”

Photo by Misty Xicum

Until recently, Rinearson documented her observations on gender, hackathons, and interning on her well-trafficked blog. “Maintaining it is kind of a drag, for all of the reasons we talk about at Medium: updating the software, making sure your site stays up when you write a popular post, building an audience in the first place when you’re really just a silo on the Internet.”

Rinearson has considered shutting down her blog altogether. She now publishes mostly on Medium, which she calls “a better writing experience. Writing matters to me, and I was dissatisfied with the tools I was using.” And it’s not just about blogs—the future of writing, she observes, is unclear:

“People talk about how the Internet is changing art of all kinds. It’s changed how the music industry works, but I don’t think it’s yet forced a shift in publishing in the same way. Something big is going to happen, and it’s very plausible that Medium’s going to be part of that.”

Since joining Medium permanently, Rinearson has contributed to the read next feature, as well as to scroll tracking, which saves a user’s position so they can return to the piece later. “It’s a chance to make the experience of finding content and reading online really exciting,” she says of her contributions to the platform’s reading features. “Our vision is a balance between being a place where you can find good writing on whatever it is that you’re interested in, and being a place where you can learn by exploring stuff you wouldn’t otherwise be drawn to.”

Currently on leave from CMU, Rinearson is unsure whether she’ll eventually return to finish her degree. As an engineer with both front- and back-end development experience—“I’m the emergency designer,” she jokes—the twenty-year-old also refuses to be pigeon-holed in her career ambitions: “I don’t want to be stuck just doing front- or back-end. I want to do it all.”

Next Story — This is Your Life in Silicon Valley
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Silicon Valley — Photo Credit — Vadim Kurland

This is Your Life in Silicon Valley

You wake up at 6:30am after an Ambien-induced sleep. It’s Friday. Last night at The Rosewood was pretty intense — you had to check out Madera and see if there is any truth to the long running Silicon Valley rumors. You were disappointed, but at least you did get to see a few GPs from prominent VC firms at the bar. Did they notice you? Did you make eye contact? You remind yourself they are not real celebrities — only well known in a 15-mile radius to the Techcrunch-reading crowd.

Your non-English-speaking nanny shows up at 7:30am on the nose. You are paying her $24/hour and entrusting her (and Daniel the Tiger) with raising your child. You tell yourself that it’s ok for now — when he’s old enough he’ll (someday) be in public school in the Palo Alto school district.

You commit to being a better parent this weekend and spending more quality time with him as you browse through the latest headlines on Flipboard. You recently realized he may not be the next Mark Zuckerberg after all — still you send him to a music school even though he’s only 3. You swear he’s a genius because he can say a few 4-syllable words and can clap perfectly to the beat of “Call me Maybe”. He’s special. He is destined for greatness and you’ll make sure he achieves every ounce of it. After all, both of you are so smart and accomplished.

Cal Academy of Sciences — Photo Credit: Brook Peterson

You ask your nanny if she has any availability to watch your son this weekend. Bummer — you wish Cal Academy of Sciences hadn’t sold you on the annual pass 11 months ago. You figured you’d be going there every weekend, but only ended up going the one time. Not a break even proposition for you.

Your wifi enabled coffee maker downloads the perfect instructions to brew a cup of Blue Bottle — and you don’t have to do anything. The Roomba purrs in the background while you continue to read from your smartphone. You see a few articles about Trump and how crazy he is — somehow this comforts you.

You decide to share an article about Brexit from “The Atlantic”, which will somehow shed light to all your friends as to why it happened. The article is 1,000 words long — you only read half of it, but that’s good enough. It captures all the arguments you’ve been wanting to make for the past two months to your friends. Will this be the Facebook post that finally spurns your friends into action? You realize your Facebook friends all agree with your political views and social views already.

Fifteen minutes — only 3 likes — better luck next time. The Facebook Newsfeed algorithm totally fucked you — you should have shared from your browser, not your phone, and perhaps at a more optimal time.

But then you realize another friend already shared the article. You feel stupid.

Youtube office in San Bruno — photo credit Travis Wise

Your spouse hurriedly gets ready for work — you are a two income family and you have to be one for now. The spreadsheet shows that with only three more years’ savings, you can finally afford that 2 bedroom condo in San Bruno. So what if the weather is shitty 340 days out of the year? At least you’ll be homeowner in the Bay Area — and nothing says you’ve “made it” like being able to afford a down payment. Besides, San Bruno is “up and coming” — and Youtube has an office there.

Your commute to work sucks, but at least its an opportunity to catch up on Podcasts so you can have great conversations over cocktails with your friends. Should you listen to “Serial Season 2” today? Or should you listen to that amazing “Startup” podcast? So many choices, so little time. You instead decide to expand your horizons by trying a new playlist on Spotify — something about Indian-infused-jazz music. It sounds great. It makes you feel cultured.

You decide to park your car using “Luxe” today. You justify it to yourself by saying that parking garages are only $10 less expensive. And you have to spend all of that time walking back and forth. And besides — today you are meeting some friends after work for dinner and you’ll be on the other end of town. You can’t decide whether you’ll take Uber or Lyft to the dinner from your office — decisions, decisions.

You are the Director of Business Development at your startup. You aren’t even sure what that means, but the startup seems to be doing well. Your company recently raised a round and was featured in Techcrunch. You have 5,000 stock options. You aren’t exactly sure what that means, but that must be good. If you exit, maybe that will mean money toward a down payment.

Your day starts in Salesforce. You have to email a bunch of people. You briefly contemplate a business idea you have that will totally kill Salesforce and Facebook at the same time. But you need a technical co-founder. Eventually you’ll get to it — after all, you’re smart and destined for greatness yourself. And your friends all tell you how you should start something someday.

Your 27-year-old CEO calls an ad-hoc all-hands meeting and regales about company culture and how your mission is to “kill email because it’s broken”. He wants to make every enterprise company in the world switch to your product. He’s never worked for an enterprise company, or any other company at all.

The sales team got rowdy the night before. They missed their quota, but it was not their fault — it was implementation’s fault for fucking up a major deal. Also — marketing didn’t send them enough inbound leads for them to hit quota. Maybe next quarter. You trade emails with your college buddies on Gmail about how ridiculous Kevin Durant is for joining the Warriors. You come to realize email is working just fine for you. You feel depressed for a moment. Your summer intern is trying to figure out a Snapchat strategy.

Philz Coffee — photo credt: Rick.

It’s time for that afternoon coffee to keep you going through the day. You head over to Philz with some co-workers. You order a vegan donut and very clearly ask the barista for 3 Splendas. He was clearly a Splenda short, but the line is long and you want to be civil. You are above mentioning something like this to the barista — you let it pass and feel a “micro aggression” bubbling inside.

You have to decide where to go for dinner tonight. You look at Yelp for a place that’s within 1 mile and is rated at least 3.5 stars. But really you’re looking for something 4 stars plus and at least $$$. What will your friends think of you if you pick a place that’s too cheap? But you also don’t want to go $$$$ because that’s too expensive. You have good taste. This comforts you.

You realize your reservation with your spouse at the French Laundry is coming up this weekend. Your calendar app reminds you of this. You’ve been looking forward to it for months. You can’t wait to take perfectly Instagrammed photos of the meal to go along with your perfectly Instagrammed life.

#San Francisco is trending on Twitter. You realize the San Francisco journalism community is angry about something — they are full of rage at the way a homeless person is being treated. The reporters all share photos and videos of the homeless person, but no one talks to him.

It’s time for some afternoon Facebook browsing. Your friends are all doing SO well. You are secretly jealous of your friend who just bought a house in the Noe. You speculate as to how rich they must be after their exit from LinkedIn. Even though they were only employee #500 they must have done well. You briefly try to do the math in your head. Maybe that can be you at your current startup. It’s only a matter of time.

More browsing. One friend was employee #5 at a company that just sold to Twitter. They must have made so much money, you think. You like the status, but you are jealous. Another friend’s kid seems to be more advanced than your kid based on the Vine they just shared of them playing the piano. Damnit, need to be a better parent.

You go to Redfin to see how much they paid for their house.

You briefly daydream about how you once had an opportunity to work at Google pre-IPO. And that you could have joined Facebook right after IPO — and imagine that — the stock price has tripled in a short amount of time. Would that have been the big break you needed?

Your CEO grabs you in a panic and asks you to do a quick analysis for a board member. The board member was base jumping in Mexico and panicked about something related to burn rate and strategy. The CEO’s job is at risk.

Microsoft Excel — photo credit Collin Anderson.

You do the grunt work and analysis, and finish it just in time for him to breathe a sigh of relief and tell you what an “Excel Ninja” you are. Your analysis makes you realize the company maybe should have saved money on office space, and perhaps the rock climbing wall and Segways. You realize your CEO knows nothing about your business.

Your mind briefly drifts off and you think — “is this all really worth it? should I move to Seattle, Austin, or maybe even Florida?” After all there is no state tax and you could live a great quality of life there with an actual house with your beautiful family.

You browse Redfin again. Hmmm. Maybe not Austin — what about something less ambitious like Fremont, Morgan Hill or Milpitas? That wouldn’t solve your commute problems, you think. It would be more affordable though.

Delicious looking cupcakes — photo credit Frederic Bisson.

You know what? If you move to Austin you could somehow get by. After all your spouse is so amazing at baking. She could easily make a living selling her cupcakes — she has so much talent as a cook and you could afford culinary school. Worst case, she also has an amazing knack for craft jewelry. The three pieces she sold on Etsy last month are evidence of that. How talented both of you are.

And hey — if you move to Austin, you can finally build that home with a “Zen minimalist” theme you’ve been dreaming of. You go to Bluhome’s website — their design aesthetic perfectly matches yours. You just need to save the money to make it happen. You browse Pinterest and Houzz for ideas on how to decorate the interior. Is Red or Navy Blue TOO bold of a color? You don’t know. Maybe you should use an on-demand service for that.

You forgot to order groceries and the nanny needs milk for your kid ASAP. She texts you frantically in broken English. Thank goodness for Instacart — you spend $10 in delivery costs, but you need to add a bunch of items to your cart to hit the minimum threshold. You add a few squeezies, some bananas and a few artisan cheeses to hit the mark. You realize you haven’t stepped into a grocery store for months — but don’t worry — your opportunity cost of time is way too high at the moment. Especially if you factor in those stock options.

Almost time for dinner. You are having dinner tonight with the “Chief Hacking Officer” at the company and the “VP of Awesomeness”. You arrive at the restaurant, and they marvel at your taste — nice job surfing Yelp.

Your dinner conversation centers around how autonomous vehicles are going to be better in the long run than ordinary cars for a variety of reasons. And something about how Elon Musk handles meetings. You are all too busy making your own points and citing articles to really listen to each other. You order the $17 dollar Risotto and the $9 glass of Pleasanton-brewed IPA.

On your ride home you find the time to catch up on the Malcolm Gladwell podcast. What an interesting guy he is — he’s so smart and he makes you think about things.

After coming home you briefly use that “7 minute workout” app, which scientists have proven is way more effective than a one-hour cardio workout. You got your exercise in for the day — nice work.

You and your spouse get ready for bed. What’s in your Netflix queue? Well, you have to catch up on “Making a Murderer” since it’s been all over the news lately. And let’s not get too far behind on “Mr. Robot” since it’s so critically acclaimed. For lighter fare, and if you have time, you can always try “Last Week Tonight” — John Oliver always says exactly what you’re thinking in your head — just funnier than you would have said it.

You quietly shuffle to bed, tired from the long, hard day. You check your email, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat one last time before bedtime. You don’t think you’ll have enough energy to check LinkedIn today — and besides — their mobile UI is not very good. Maybe you can start a company that will disrupt LinkedIn? They did just sell for a bunch of money after all.

Your last thought before bed — should you switch to the Android ecosystem? You are on the “S” iPhone replacement cycle and you are getting impatient. But then you realize you are so heavily invested in the Apple ecosystem that it may not make sense.

Vipassana Retreat — photo credit kinnla.

You briefly use mobile Safari to browse for Vipassana retreats — you hear a 10 day retreat in Soquel may be the ticket to shake things up. You realize it’s not going to be possible. You download a meditation app. You turn it off. You don’t have time.

You briefly recall your ride home on the 280 tonight. The sun was setting. It was beautiful. You realize you live in paradise.

Next Story — Eleven Reasons To Be Excited About The Future of Technology
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Eleven Reasons To Be Excited About The Future of Technology

“The strongest force propelling human progress has been the swift advance and wide diffusion of technology.” — The Economist

In the year 1820, a person could expect to live less than 35 years, 94% of the global population lived in extreme poverty, and less that 20% of the population was literate. Today, human life expectancy is over 70 years, less that 10% of the global population lives in extreme poverty, and over 80% of people are literate. These improvements are due mainly to advances in technology, beginning in the industrial age and continuing today in the information age.

There are many exciting new technologies that will continue to transform the world and improve human welfare. Here are eleven of them.

1. Self-Driving Cars

Self-driving cars exist today that are safer than human-driven cars in most driving conditions. Over the next 3–5 years they‘ll get even safer, and will begin to go mainstream.

The World Health Organization estimates that 1.25 million people die from car-related injuries per year. Half of the deaths are pedestrians, bicyclists, and motorcyclists hit by cars. Cars are the leading cause of death for people ages 15–29 years old.

Just as cars reshaped the world in the 20th century, so will self-driving cars in the 21st century. In most cities, between 20–30% of usable space is taken up by parking spaces, and most cars are parked about 95% of the time. Self-driving cars will be in almost continuous use (most likely hailed from a smartphone app), thereby dramatically reducing the need for parking. Cars will communicate with one another to avoid accidents and traffic jams, and riders will be able to spend commuting time on other activities like work, education, and socializing.

Source: Tech Insider

2. Clean Energy

Attempts to fight climate change by reducing the demand for energy haven’t worked. Fortunately, scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs have been working hard on the supply side to make clean energy convenient and cost-effective.

Due to steady technological and manufacturing advances, the price of solar cells has dropped 99.5% since 1977. Solar will soon be more cost efficient than fossil fuels. The cost of wind energy has also dropped to an all-time low, and in the last decade represented about a third of newly installed US energy capacity.

Forward thinking organizations are taking advantage of this. For example, in India there is an initiative to convert airports to self-sustaining clean energy.

Airport in Kochi, India (source: Clean Technica)

Tesla is making high-performance, affordable electric cars, and installing electric charging stations worldwide.

Tesla Model 3 and US supercharger locations

There are hopeful signs that clean energy could soon be reaching a tipping point. For example, in Japan, there are now more electric charging stations than gas stations.

Source: The Guardian

And Germany produces so much renewable energy, it sometimes produces even more than it can use.

Source: Time Magazine

3. Virtual and Augmented Reality

Computer processors only recently became fast enough to power comfortable and convincing virtual and augmented reality experiences. Companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are investing billions of dollars to make VR and AR more immersive, comfortable, and affordable.

Toybox demo from Oculus

People sometimes think VR and AR will be used only for gaming, but over time they will be used for all sorts of activities. For example, we’ll use them to manipulate 3-D objects:

Augmented reality computer interface (from Iron Man)

To meet with friends and colleagues from around the world:

Augmented reality teleconference (from The Kingsman)

And even for medical applications, like treating phobias or helping rehabilitate paralysis victims:

Source: New Scientist

VR and AR have been dreamed about by science fiction fans for decades. In the next few years, they’ll finally become a mainstream reality.

4. Drones and Flying Cars

“Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need… roads.” — Dr. Emmet Brown

GPS started out as a military technology but is now used to hail taxis, get mapping directions, and hunt Pokémon. Likewise, drones started out as a military technology, but are increasingly being used for a wide range of consumer and commercial applications.

For example, drones are being used to inspect critical infrastructure like bridges and power lines, to survey areas struck by natural disasters, and many other creative uses like fighting animal poaching.

Source: NBC News

Amazon and Google are building drones to deliver household items.

Amazon delivery drone

The startup Zipline uses drones to deliver medical supplies to remote villages that can’t be accessed by roads.

Source: The Verge

There is also a new wave of startups working on flying cars (including two funded by the cofounder of Google, Larry Page).

The Terrafugia TF-X flying car (source)

Flying cars use the same advanced technology used in drones but are large enough to carry people. Due to advances in materials, batteries, and software, flying cars will be significantly more affordable and convenient than today’s planes and helicopters.

5. Artificial Intelligence

‘’It may be a hundred years before a computer beats humans at Go — maybe even longer.” — New York Times, 1997
“Master of Go Board Game Is Walloped by Google Computer Program” — New York Times, 2016

Artificial intelligence has made rapid advances in the last decade, due to new algorithms and massive increases in data collection and computing power.

AI can be applied to almost any field. For example, in photography an AI technique called artistic style transfer transforms photographs into the style of a given painter:


Google built an AI system that controls its datacenter power systems, saving hundreds of millions of dollars in energy costs.

Source: Bloomberg

The broad promise of AI is to liberate people from repetitive mental tasks the same way the industrial revolution liberated people from repetitive physical tasks.

“If AI can help humans become better chess players, it stands to reason that it can help us become better pilots, better doctors, better judges, better teachers.” — Kevin Kelly

Some people worry that AI will destroy jobs. History has shown that while new technology does indeed eliminate jobs, it also creates new and better jobs to replace them. For example, with advent of the personal computer, the number of typographer jobs dropped, but the increase in graphic designer jobs more than made up for it.

Source: Harvard Business Review

It is much easier to imagine jobs that will go away than new jobs that will be created. Today millions of people work as app developers, ride-sharing drivers, drone operators, and social media marketers— jobs that didn’t exist and would have been difficult to even imagine ten years ago.

6. Pocket Supercomputers for Everyone

By 2020, 80% of adults on earth will have an internet-connected smartphone. An iPhone 6 has about 2 billion transistors, roughly 625 times more transistors than a 1995 Intel Pentium computer. Today’s smartphones are what used to be considered supercomputers.

Visitors to the pope (source: Business Insider)

Internet-connected smartphones give ordinary people abilities that, just a short time ago, were only available to an elite few:

“Right now, a Masai warrior on a mobile phone in the middle of Kenya has better mobile communications than the president did 25 years ago. If he’s on a smart phone using Google, he has access to more information than the U.S. president did just 15 years ago.” — Peter Diamandis

7. Cryptocurrencies and Blockchains

“If you asked people in 1989 what they needed to make their life better, it was unlikely that they would have said a decentralized network of information nodes that are linked using hypertext.” — Farmer & Farmer

Protocols are the plumbing of the internet. Most of the protocols we use today were developed decades ago by academia and government. Since then, protocol development mostly stopped as energy shifted to developing proprietary systems like social networks and messaging apps.

Cryptocurrency and blockchain technologies are changing this by providing a new business model for internet protocols. This year alone, hundreds of millions of dollars were raised for a broad range of innovative blockchain-based protocols.

Protocols based on blockchains also have capabilities that previous protocols didn’t. For example, Ethereum is a new blockchain-based protocol that can be used to create smart contracts and trusted databases that are immune to corruption and censorship.

8. High-Quality Online Education

While college tuition skyrockets, anyone with a smartphone can study almost any topic online, accessing educational content that is mostly free and increasingly high-quality.

Encyclopedia Britannica used to cost $1,400. Now anyone with a smartphone can instantly access Wikipedia. You used to have to go to school or buy programming books to learn computer programming. Now you can learn from a community of over 40 million programmers at Stack Overflow. YouTube has millions of hours of free tutorials and lectures, many of which are produced by top professors and universities.

UC Berkeley Physics on Youtube

The quality of online education is getting better all the time. For the last 15 years, MIT has been recording lectures and compiling materials that cover over 2000 courses.

“The idea is simple: to publish all of our course materials online and make them widely available to everyone.” — Dick K.P. Yue, Professor, MIT School of Engineering

As perhaps the greatest research university in the world, MIT has always been ahead of the trends. Over the next decade, expect many other schools to follow MIT’s lead.

Source: Futurism

9. Better Food through Science

Source: National Geographic

Earth is running out of farmable land and fresh water. This is partly because our food production systems are incredibly inefficient. It takes an astounding 1799 gallons of water to produce 1 pound of beef.

Fortunately, a variety of new technologies are being developed to improve our food system.

For example, entrepreneurs are developing new food products that are tasty and nutritious substitutes for traditional foods but far more environmentally friendly. The startup Impossible Foods invented meat products that look and taste like the real thing but are actually made of plants.

Impossible Food’s plant-based burger (source: Tech Insider)

Their burger uses 95% less land, 74% less water, and produces 87% less greenhouse gas emissions than traditional burgers. Other startups are creating plant-based replacements for milk, eggs, and other common foods. Soylent is a healthy, inexpensive meal replacement that uses advanced engineered ingredients that are much friendlier to the environment than traditional ingredients.

Some of these products are developed using genetic modification, a powerful scientific technique that has been widely mischaracterized as dangerous. According to a study by the Pew Organization, 88% of scientists think genetically modified foods are safe.

Another exciting development in food production is automated indoor farming. Due to advances in solar energy, sensors, lighting, robotics, and artificial intelligence, indoor farms have become viable alternatives to traditional outdoor farms.

Aerofarms indoor farm (Source: New York Times)

Compared to traditional farms, automated indoor farms use roughly 10 times less water and land. Crops are harvested many more times per year, there is no dependency on weather, and no need to use pesticides.

10. Computerized Medicine

Until recently, computers have only been at the periphery of medicine, used primarily for research and record keeping. Today, the combination of computer science and medicine is leading to a variety of breakthroughs.

For example, just fifteen years ago, it cost $3B to sequence a human genome. Today, the cost is about a thousand dollars and continues to drop. Genetic sequencing will soon be a routine part of medicine.

Genetic sequencing generates massive amounts of data that can be analyzed using powerful data analysis software. One application is analyzing blood samples for early detection of cancer. Further genetic analysis can help determine the best course of treatment.

Another application of computers to medicine is in prosthetic limbs. Here a young girl is using prosthetic hands she controls using her upper-arm muscles:

Source: Open Bionics

Soon we’ll have the technology to control prothetic limbs with just our thoughts using brain-to-machine interfaces.

Computers are also becoming increasingly effective at diagnosing diseases. An artificial intelligence system recently diagnosed a rare disease that human doctors failed to diagnose by finding hidden patterns in 20 million cancer records.

Source: International Business Times

11. A New Space Age

Since the beginning of the space age in the 1950s, the vast majority of space funding has come from governments. But that funding has been in decline: for example, NASA’s budget dropped from about 4.5% of the federal budget in the 1960s to about 0.5% of the federal budget today.

Source: Fortune

The good news is that private space companies have started filling the void. These companies provide a wide range of products and services, including rocket launches, scientific research, communications and imaging satellites, and emerging speculative business models like asteroid mining.

The most famous private space company is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which successfully sent rockets into space that can return home to be reused.

SpaceX Falcon 9 landing

Perhaps the most intriguing private space company is Planetary Resources, which is trying to pioneer a new industry: mining minerals from asteroids.

Asteroid mining

If successful, asteroid mining could lead to a new gold rush in outer space. Like previous gold rushes, this could lead to speculative excess, but also dramatically increased funding for new technologies and infrastructure.

These are just a few of the amazing technologies we’ll see developed in the coming decades. 2016 is just the beginning of a new age of wonders. As futurist Kevin Kelly says:

If we could climb into a time machine, journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2050 were not invented until after 2016. People in the future will look at their holodecks and wearable virtual reality contact lenses and downloadable avatars and AI interfaces and say, “Oh, you didn’t really have the internet” — or whatever they’ll call it — “back then.”
So, the truth: Right now, today, in 2016 is the best time to start up. There has never been a better day in the whole history of the world to invent something. There has never been a better time with more opportunities, more openings, lower barriers, higher benefit/ risk ratios, better returns, greater upside than now. Right now, this minute. This is the moment that folks in the future will look back at and say, “Oh, to have been alive and well back then!”

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