The summary of Web Summit 2021

The Internet, Fintech, Building Tech, and Climate

Mirek Stanek
Nov 12 · 14 min read

This year I had a chance to visit Lisbon for Web Summit 2021 - one of the biggest tech conferences across the globe. Here I’m outlining the most prominent themes from this year’s edition — The Internet, Fintech & Crypto, Building Technology, Climate.

The Internet

Ben Evans (if you don’t know who this person is, you should read some of his newsletters on www.ben-evans.com) presented some slides from his “The Great Unbundling” deck (link to the full presentation).

In the last 20 years of its existence, the Internet (in the context of e-commerce) changed from price comparison to recommendations and expertise. Best matching restaurants on Google Maps, best-selling books on Amazon, best TV shows for you on Netflix, best alternative software on Product Hunt and others. Moreover — these are not the best for everyone, but thanks to some artificial intelligence, the recommendations are best for you (here you can find an example of how Netflix does it — link)

If we split the Internet evolution into steps, its first 20 years of existence were all about data (price comparisons, selling tickets, listings, just presenting and delivering data — news, articles). Now, the next 20 years are about transforming entire (very often non-tech) industries — TV Shows (Netflix), Commuting (Uber), Travelling (Booking, Airbnb), Science (Alphafold), Remote work (Slack, Miro, Zoom, Google Docs).

Finally, the adoption of hi-tech and the Internet is massive. While the last 50 years of tech were about building it and delivering it to big companies, then all companies, and then to the middle-class, today, smartphones are owned by almost everyone. By 2025 it is estimated that more than 7 billion people will own one (link).

Internet will soon be the second electricity and will become part of everyone’s life. For < 100$ (device cost), you will get access to everything — Taxi (Uber), Hotels (Airbnb/Booking), Financial services (fintech & crypto — including your digital money wallet), global communication (Facebook/Metaverse), learning (online classes and entire universities). And it won’t matter if you live in a big city or in a deep forest (where access to the Internet can be provided via SpaceX Starlink (link)). Even the poorest countries and regions will soon be covered by the Internet — thanks to Facebook (link) or Google Balloons (link). Why? Because tech giants need your data and free Internet access is also a great source of it.

Internet — the new electricity brings unlimited possibilities, but also risks and challenges on a global scale. Hate speech, threatened democracy are among them. With billions of users spread across the world, Facebook is one of the biggest internet controversies nowadays. Whatsapp, Facebook (friends lists, groups, fan pages), Instagram — they all transformed our lives and social connections. But with its massive scale (including the scale of the data they own), it’s tough (if not impossible) to keep all of it under control. We learned how powerful and dangerous it could be multiple times — impact on Trump’s election, Brexit (link) on one side, and driving the largest movement in US history — #BlackLivesMatter on the other side.

These are just examples of an engagement-based ranking system, called out by Frances Haugen, Facebook’s Whistleblower. On Web Summit, during her first public appearance, she asked Zuckerberg to step down, pointing out some of the biggest mistakes the company made. According to Haugen, FB’s ranking system algorithms serve company profits and its appetite for further expansion (Metaverse), promoting the most extremist and polarising content.

Some references can be found in my Twitter thread:

At the conference, we could also hear from Meta (Facebook) employees. Both — Nick Clegg (VP Global Affairs at Meta) and Chris Cox (CPO at Meta), next to commenting on Frances Haugen’s allegations, shed some light on Metaverse (btw, good coverage on what is Metaverse can be found here: link).

So what’s behind $10bln/yr worth, silly cartoons which try to mimic ourselves in a virtual world?

Think about how ridiculous the Nokia 3510i was with its 96x65 px color-screen and polyphonic ringtones compared to today’s iPhone.

There is a famous quote from Reid Hoffman — “If You’re Not Embarrassed By The First Version Of Your Product, You’ve Launched Too Late”. And this is what Facebook/Meta executives want us to think about the first version of their Metaverse. Imagine how it would be if you could see a 3D version of a person you talk to and who is sitting thousands of kilometers away. You would have gestures, eye contact — a fully immersive feeling that you are sitting next to each other. Earlier this year, Google presented the project Starline (link), which can also hint at how the future of communication may look. Google’s experience is way more mature, but the cost of hardware is high — tens of thousands of dollars.

So what Meta (Facebook) is trying to do is to give an immersive experience of communication for “free” (cost of mobile device + access to the Internet).

My comment on Twitter:

Is Metaverse something new? Not really. Just see similar projects from Google (project Starline, but also Google Glasses), Microsoft (Hololens), Snapchat (Lens Studio), Apple with their rumored glasses. Of course, those are just devices, and Metaverse tries to be more than that. But it shows that not only Facebook tries to dominate the world of Augmented Reality or Virtual Reality.

According to Peggy Johnson, the CEO of Magic Leap, who had her interview on WebSummit, consumer-ready augmented reality headset is not ten years away from us but less. Just take a look at Magic Leap 2 — new AR glasses coming to the market soon (link).

Fintech & Crypto

Let’s come back to the mobile devices in everyone’s hands and the Internet being the second electricity. Thanks to this trend, Azimo and hundreds of other online financial services are growing fast. For some customers, online is about convenience — you don’t have to leave home, talk to real people, pay huge fees, but instead, you can do whatever you want with your money — faster, cheaper, and more global, directly from your coach.

On Web Summit, we could hear interviews with many people in the Fintech world — Guillaume Pousaz (Checkout.com CEO), Maximilian Tayenthal (co-CEO of N26 Bank), Arik Shtilman (CEO of Rapyd), and a few others. This is what they said:

The Internet of 2000 started a global trend of unbundling financial services. Before, we had got banks with bundled offers — saving accounts, loans, investing, multi-currency, etc. — all at once. With the rise of global specialized services like PayPal, later Degiro, Wise, or Azimo, customers got access to one service per platform (payments, money transfer, loans, or trading, etc.). Recently we can see that the trend of bundling started again. With the growth of super apps like Revolut or N26, we have a single application that gives us access to multiple financial services at once, online.

Thanks to rapidly growing access to the Internet, the market for online financial services is so big that, according to Maximilian Tayenthal (N26), it’s not a time where fintechs have to compete with each other. It is still more about the transition from offline to online and growing product presence across the globe, with offerings adjusted for each market. Example from N26 — only 10% of Germans is investing in the public market. Just think how big the opportunity is if you launch your product in Germany, have stock trading in your portfolio, and know how to teach customers how to use it. Now multiply it by the number of countries and their uncovered demand for financial services.

According to Guillaume Pousaz (Checkout.com), the pandemic accelerated digital money services adoption by five years. Growth potential in fintech is so big that the term Unicorn (start-up with valuation > $1bln) is not enough anymore. Now the fastest-growing players compete for the “Decacorn” title (valuation over $10bln). Interestingly, hi-tech is not the only Silicon Valley domain anymore — more than 50% of Decacorns are based outside of the US.

Is Decacorns a bubble? It seems it is not. Take a look at “classic” online players — PayPal and Visa have $20bln revenue, Stripe — $7bln. With the Internet growing so fast, the sky indeed can be the limit, and soon we can see even more Decacorns on the market.

Online financial services aren’t only about increasing convenience for existing customers but also about giving access to those excluded from the system. Among tens of talks and classes from blockchain-related companies, one particular worth summing up is masterclass from CELO Foundation.

According to the World Bank Group, % of unbanked people goes from 49% of unbanked adults in 2011 to 31% in 2017 (source). The progress seems impressive, but there is still much to do, especially for those living in extreme poverty. Poverty alleviation is one of the use cases for the CELO Platform — the mobile-first blockchain financial system whose mission is to “create the conditions for prosperity — for everyone.

ImpactMarket is a decentralized poverty alleviation protocol built on top of CELO. It serves to distribute Universal Basic Income to communities living in extreme poverty. This is how it works: Digital money (CELO coin or CELO stablecoins — cUSD and cEUR) can be claimed every week by those who use Valora — CELO mobile wallet. One of the biggest challenges in crypto is the process of cashing it out (so you can get physical Dollars for your digital coins). What ImpactMarket does is focus on “heating up the local economy while enabling beneficiaries to spend their unconditional basic income (UBI) without the need to cash out in local currency”.

In countries like Brazil, Bangladesh, or Venezuela, you can buy fruits, veggies, and farm animals only with your mobile phone and Valora app. It works like a snowball — the more merchants accept CELO, the more people use it to buy goods, and more merchants join the system. A detailed story about fighting extreme poverty with CELO is available under this link:

More about ImpactMarket: https://docs.impactmarket.com/

CELO is a good example showing that crypto is not only about making rich people richer, meme coins, or enigmatic hi-tech use cases. CELO was backed by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), Reid Hoffman, Jack Dorsey, Coinbase Ventures, and others earlier this year.

Building technology

The Internet adoption and growth of digital products — all accelerated by pandemics, lead to new challenges around keeping up with the demand. At Web Summit, we could hear a lot about building technology from software and hardware perspectives.

Chips manufacturing at scale is hard. Simon Segars (CEO of ARM Holdings) covered this process during his presentation on Web Summit. Supply chain with components traveling across the globe, billions of dollars-worth manufacturers, process planning, and chip architecting take months. When the pandemic hit us, the first reaction of manufacturers was to slow down production. But later on, it turned out that demand for electronics was the opposite. Lockdown and remote work increased sales of gaming consoles, computers, and accessories. Data centers started expanding to cover a new wave of online products customers. But it isn’t only a pandemic that grows demand for chips. For example, ten years ago, cars had about 100 chips (HUD, brakes control, A/C, engine). Today this number is 10–100x bigger (from AI chips to touch screens, voice control, cameras, etc.). And chips are everywhere else — from our phones to dishwashers to light bulbs and smart home controls. Chip manufacturers have already noticed their mistake in predictions. Still, this business is so hard that even tens of billions of dollars invested by each of the big players (Intel, TSMC, Qualcomm) will result in 50% of increased manufacturing capacity within… next five years. In the meantime, the chip shortage is predicted to last for at least a few quarters (link), so if you are planning to buy some electronics for this holiday season — better do it earlier. For sure, there won’t be enough PS5 or XBoxes for everyone. 🎮

Another theme on Web Summit was about building software engineering teams at scale. With a growing demand for online products and not enough talent on the market (there is a 40mlns skilled workers shortage already — link), you need to invest in making your engineering processes the best.

During the interview with (ex-)engineers — Quinn Slack (CEO of Sourcegraph) and Wesley Chan (Felicis Ventures, prev. product innovator at Google), we could hear about the importance of engineers’ flow state. It’s the mental state in which a person performing activities is fully focused and absorbed in what one does. And the bigger the company is, the more critical it becomes.

Many of the problems of a growing company cannot be only solved with money and hiring. It’s because growing teams lead to more complexity — either in code or processes, which leads to increased overhead. That’s why together with building your product (its business value), you need to invest in the tech stack. It can be surprising, but engineers don’t spend most of their time coding but instead reading the documentation, understanding the code, and maintaining existing solutions. So while automation, testing, and stability are essential, you also need to invest in reducing overhead as much as possible — technical debt, tech simplicity (managed solutions, limited number of technologies and languages), well-written documentation.

When remote/hybrid work dominated the IT sector, it became even more critical. One of the most prominent devs’ frustrations is the inability to start or move on with the project. In the office, you could approach your teammates or ask questions out loud. When working from home, you rely much more on documentation and self-explaining code, as it’s not always obvious who you should ask from the list of hundreds of contacts on Slack.

All things tech must be super easy and super fast to acknowledge. Entry-level should be as low as possible, platform modules as simple as possible, and the communication between them should be simplified and standardized.

There are some techniques and good practices to follow, either in building high-performing engineering teams, measuring development, or building systems at scale. Just to name a few of them — Developer Velocity (deeply researched by Microsoft and Github among the others — link), State of DevOps (Google — link, Puppet — link; or well explained in a book “Accelerate”), Domain-Driven Design (our recent highly circulated article — link).

The subject is far too broad for this article, so you can expect a separate article dedicated only to maintaining the velocity of engineering teams.

Fortunately, with the growing demand for online services, more and more solutions can be bought, not just built. Take AWS or Google Cloud as an example — they already have a set of products in their portfolio — data storages, API execution environments (like Lambda or Cloud Functions), Auth solutions, and more. All optimized for their data centers, ready for scalability, tested with other companies worldwide. In 2021 you need to have a really good reason to build any piece of tech stack on your own. And it’s a good thing — engineers should focus on building business value for the company, not reinventing the wheel.

Today, building the MVP of your product is easier than ever before. The fun fact is that with the growing complexity of technology, some things can be built (prototyped) with less technical skills. One of the good examples from Web Summit was AWS Amplify, which simplifies the initial setup of Auth, UI, Analytics, Datastore, API, Pub-Sub, Notifications, and many others into a few hours of coding. The infrastructure part, CI/CD, some of the automation, and readiness for global scalability are done for us.

More about AWS Amplify: https://aws.amazon.com/amplify/

Climate

The world’s unprecedented growth doesn’t come for free. Environmental damage is probably the highest price we pay for it. During his talk, Brad Smith (President of Microsoft) showed how closely correlated are growing prosperity and energy consumption. The good thing is that 1500 companies with combined net revenue of $11.4 trillion have already pledged to become carbon neutral or net zero. Yet, there is still a long way ahead of us, like — what does it even mean to be carbon net-zero. Do we have reliable metrics and standards for that? One of the reasonable solutions would be governments requiring “carbon accounting” in the same way they require traditional accounting for publicly traded companies. You can read more about Smith’s talk under this link.

How about the hi-tech sector? IT giants already have comprehensive plans to reduce their carbon footprint or even to become carbon net-zero. Just take a look at some public announcements from Google (link), Amazon AWS (link), or Microsoft (link). It shouldn’t surprise us — imagine how much these companies can save when being energy self-sufficient. But this is also good news for companies like Azimo. If data centers operate on renewable energy, we do it as well. One of the researches shows that AWS’s infrastructure is 3.6 times more energy-efficient than the median of U.S. enterprise data centers surveyed. We likely became a much more environmentally-friendly company only by migrating our platform to Amazon Web Services.

Fighting the climate crisis isn’t only the domain of the biggest companies. Every single person must care about the planet. If you think you are too small to have an impact, the United Nations created campaign DontChooseExtinction.com explaining how each of us should behave to… not extinct as a species. Don’t choose extinction and visit the UN’s website. Game of Thrones fan? Listen to dino in Danish — his voice is coming from no one else than Jaime Lannister or Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, one of the UN’s ambassadors fighting the climate crisis.

If you think about the first thing you could do to fight the climate crisis, maybe you will try to become vegetarian? Is soy sausage a sausage? A lot of controversy around that for sure. But nowadays, it is possible to create regular meat (with meat’s taste, structure, and look) without animals involved — directly from plants. During Web Summit, you could even taste plant-based filet mignon which recently can cost around $100 but soon come to a few bucks for a cut of meat. It’s all thanks to the start-up called Juicy Marbles.

But why should we even bother? There are many reasons. Cows are a massive contributor to global warming due to the methane they produce. Or because 80% of food extracted from earth (cereal, corn, soy) is used to feed not humans but farm animals. Or because of not-needed cruelty and simplifications of the process of producing food for everyone. You can pick yours.

So this is it when it comes to Web Summit 2021. These highlights cover maybe 10% of the entire content presented during the conference. I hope at least some of them inspired you the same as me. It is heartwarming to see so many deeply motivated people who devote their lives or professional careers to making the world progress. It’s even better to know that we can proudly say we are among them. As Azimo employees, thanks to the company’s mission of making financial services affordable and available to all, we all do something significant for society. Isn’t this amazing?

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Mirek Stanek

Written by

Head of Client-Side Engineering at @Azimo. I dream big 🌌 🔭 and build technology for people 💻 💚 👫. PrzywodztwowIT.pl (🇵🇱 PL newsletter for fresh leaders)

AzimoLabs

We’re the tech team behind Azimo — the faster, cheaper way to send money internationally.