Tag Archives: technology

“You Can Always Go to a Startup”

“You can always go to a startup.” Job seekers in the Bay Area hear this refrain, especially from people with no experience of startups (or tech, or the Bay Area). Startups are seen as the sexy option. Some startup employees even dismiss those who stay in “safe” jobs at bigcos: “You must lack the guts Read More…

“You can always go to a startup.” Job seekers in the Bay Area hear this refrain, especially from people with no experience of startups (or tech, or the Bay Area). Startups are seen as the sexy option. Some startup employees even dismiss those who stay in “safe” jobs at bigcos: “You must lack the guts or the talent to be out on the tech frontier, boldly disrupting the establishment!”

Easy for you to say. For many of us, working for a startup is not a realistic option. Not because we lack guts or talent (many of us have worked at startups before) but because most startup jobs are – by design – suited only to a very particular demographic. This limits employment prospects for the many who are not part of that group, but it also hurts the startups themselves.

If you’re a startup founder, you may think you don’t care about this particular problem, but you should.

The Lifecycle Barrier

I am not (for the moment) talking about the sexism and racism rampant in tech today. These are real problems and I in no way dismiss them, but there’s another barrier to job mobility, one that sooner or later everyone may face. I’m referring to the human lifecycle which, for many of us, looks like this:

  1. childhood
  2. college
  3. relationships / marriage
  4. babies
  5. kids growing up
  6. kids in college/empty nest
  7. retirement

For the first phase or two of this cycle, we usually have others providing for us. From phase three, we start providing for others, including our future retired selves.

The financial onus of a traditional middle-class family lifestyle today is staggering, more so in real estate markets like the Bay Area. People with families need decent salaries, good benefits, and humane hours: basic working conditions that are not met by most startup jobs.

The Trouble with Startups

Startups tend to offer lower salaries and skimpier benefits*,  while expecting long working weeks. As an employee, you are asked to invest a lot of time and brainpower in a venture which is extremely unlikely to pay off for you. The bait is lottery odds of getting rich on stock options, or a (usually illusive) sense of participation in “changing the world”.

It’s tempting to believe that startups and the VCs who fund them rely on the naïveté of young techies to fill these jobs. Regardless, most older employees can’t follow a startup dream even if we’d like to: we simply can’t afford the financial risk while we have responsibilities to provide for others. This is what I call the lifecycle barrier.

The lifecycle barrier is not exactly the same as ageism. It is possible to be older and less encumbered – e.g. divorced, kids grown, retirement funds safely socked away. But then ageism does come into play: many startups and VCs won’t even look at older people anyway.

Why You Need Lifecycle Diversity in Your Startup

The lifecycle problem harms startups in at least two critical ways.

First, it reduces the pool of candidates available for hire by startups. There’s huge demand for young people willing to work (and be compensated) startup-style, and every company is competing for a limited pool of such. Hence the increasingly strained attempts to stand out in cheap perks like free lunches, designer coffee, and employee drinkups.

Even if you manage to hire all the bright young things you want, you’ll still be missing something: your team will lack the perspective that diversity brings. The kind of perspective that comes with different cultures and experiences, sexes and sexualities, and just plain years of life and work. If the intended users of your products include any demographic other than young techies, you’re at far greater risk of failing (with a company, a product, or a feature) through lack of life experience and the broader empathy that such experience brings. You risk death by groupthink.

And then… young employees do get older, and eventually start to care about mortgages and school districts. If your financial model relies on your staff working 80 hours a week for relatively low wages, you may be sitting on a time bomb: can you cash out before key employees leave because they can no longer afford to work on your terms?

Fixing the Problem

If you’re a founder or investor, what could you change? What could you do to attract the diverse range of employees that your startup needs?

It probably requires rethinking your financial model and compensation structure, and thinking about what it means to be a desirable employer to a broad range of people. It requires thinking about company culture and how it is expressed, and whether yours is welcoming to more people than the stereotypical [young, male] startup employee. Myself and various middle-aged friends have had the experience of walking into a startup office and thinking: “I would not fit in here. Nor would I even want to.” Does this describe your company? Fix that.

So here’s a challenge: Think you’re a disruptor? Prove it. Start by disrupting the startup employment model. A whole bunch of smart, capable potential employees will be watching. And you might even persuade some of us to come work for you.


PS

As for me, I now work for Ericsson, arguably the most multinational company in the world, which keeps the long-term welfare of its employees very much in mind. People who join Ericsson tend not to leave.

People with families do, of course, sometimes found and work for startups. But those who can afford to do so often have already achieved sufficient financial security (perhaps having been winners in an earlier startup lottery) to take the risk. To be a serial entrepreneur, you have to have had a success somewhere along the line.

For more reasons and ways startup culture needs to change, read Shanley Kane’s YOUR STARTUP IS BROKEN: INSIDE THE TOXIC HEART OF TECH CULTURE. It’s uncomfortable reading. I highly recommend it.

Thanks to Melinda Byerly for very useful comments on this piece!

* The original article “Benefits matter, or why I won’t work for your Y Combinator startup” appears to have been completely removed from the Internet by its author. Which is a pity. It made some good and true points, and generated some useful discussion, you can see examples at the link above.

GHC09: Women in the Flat Connected World

^ Panelists (L->R): Kristin Rozier (NASA); Sumitha Prashanth (Sun Microsystems-India); Radha Ratnaparkhi (IBM); Claudia Galvan (Microsoft); Bev Crair (Quantum, formerly Sun); Meenakshi Kaul-Basu (Sun Microsystems); Lydia Ash (Google) – photo from Meena “Globalization has forced companies to create new processes to empower distributed teams to collaborate. It could mean that individuals have to travel for Read More…

^ Panelists (L->R): Kristin Rozier (NASA); Sumitha Prashanth (Sun Microsystems-India); Radha Ratnaparkhi (IBM); Claudia Galvan (Microsoft); Bev Crair (Quantum, formerly Sun); Meenakshi Kaul-Basu (Sun Microsystems); Lydia Ash (Google) – photo from Meena

Globalization has forced companies to create new processes to empower distributed teams to collaborate. It could mean that individuals have to travel for longer periods of time across the globe, work at odd hours, and work from home or make other adjustments to accommodate a new working lifestyle.

Panelists will discuss and give their perspective on the topic, impact on women, and the technologies and strategies they use to maintain balance.”

This panel at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing 2009, run by my colleague Meena, was one of the few sessions at GHC09 that I felt addressed the  practical needs of women currently in technology management: all of the panelists manage geographically-dispersed teams (which are increasingly the norm in high tech).

One theme that came up over and over was the importance of face-to-face interaction, especially for the managers, who therefore end up traveling a lot. Phone conferences, email, and instant messaging simply can’t build relationships in the same way. As Bev Crair said, even for teams that know each other and have worked together for a long time, “Trust breaks down after six weeks of not seeing someone.” I’ve seen this in my own experience of working remotely.

Bev added that relationships can be supported by video conferencing: “We use WebEx a lot.”

But she and others also felt strongly enough about the importance of in-person interaction that (during her time at Sun) she created a rotation program for Sun’s engineering office in China. US-based test engineers visited for three weeks at a time (the company had rented four apartments) and did their regular jobs from Beijing while also mentoring/training Chinese colleagues.

This taught the local engineers Sun standards for engineering, but it also helped the US-based engineers understand local problems so they could better represent their Chinese counterparts when they got back to US.

Kristin Rozier, NASA: “We put a lot of emphasis on face to face” within her small US reearch group. They host an annual symposium where everyone can get together.

Lydia Ash, Google: “As a manager I had to realize that bad news travels much faster than good news.” Solution: over-commuicate rather than under-.

Claudia Galvan, Microsoft: “You need to let go of driving everything from HQ and let the remote sites drive, too.”

Work-Life Balance

Bev Crair: “Working globally means there’s not a hard line between work and home life. I take time for myself and my daughter n the middle of the day. I have to set aside that time.”

Women are about connectedness, so why try to separate work from life?

Sumitha lives with her in-laws (a traditional arrangement in India), who are very supportive of her family and career. She says: “There’s no such thing as work-life balance. You figure it out as you go along. There’s no perfect situation. You have to prioritize. And don’t feel guilty about anything.”

Radha agrees that work-life balance is a myth. But there can be harmony if you have control and a support system (family, friends, community).

Two of the panelists’ daughters wouldn’t want their mothers’ jobs: “Too many phone calls.” One thinks that being an engineer is cool because you get to go to all these exotic places.

Women often end up taking care of family stuff (babies, aging parents), which leads to breaks in their career histories. Being able to “integrate” the personal with the professional is critical. Remote work allows people to deal with things e.g. cultural observations (such as the rituals around a death in the family) while still working. We need to have the tools and processes in place for this to happen.

Question from the audience: All this flexibility needs company support. How real is that?

Answer: Even the [US] federal government offers time off for family situations, e.g. up to 12 weeks to help a parent after surgery.

Tools and Pitfalls

It was mentioned that video conferencing can feel weird because of lag times (at long distance) and the fact that it doesn’t provide a sense of eye contact, because the webcam lens is not where you direct your eyes when you’re looking at the video you’re receiving. “Everyone looks stupid in a videoconference.”

Bev said they have extra monitors which display video streams from other offices, to maintain a sense of presence even when not actively participating in video conferences.

Lacking funding or tools for any of this, one manager said that her group put up photographs of their remote colleagues to enhance a feeling of connectedness. Every little thing can help.

Virtual environments (such as Google Lively and Second Life) can become informal and unprofessional very quickly. It’s important to remember that professional presence matters even in these virtual worlds. In video conferencing, watch out for bedhead and undone laundry in the background; what is the message you are sending by your video presence?

Use tool such as Writely to collaborate in real time on documents.

On the whole, a very useful panel, and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to learn from these women.

Transitioning Your Online Identity

7 Steps to Take Before the Axe Falls Though I have no idea what’s in store for me personally, the impending acquistion gives me ample reason to reflect upon the fact that I’ve been through this before. And to wish that someone had given me the advice I’m about to give you. When you’ve been Read More…

7 Steps to Take Before the Axe Falls

Though I have no idea what’s in store for me personally, the impending acquistion gives me ample reason to reflect upon the fact that I’ve been through this before. And to wish that someone had given me the advice I’m about to give you.

When you’ve been with a company for a long time – and the last ten years, in Internet time, have been very long indeed – most or all of your professional digital identity is likely wrapped up in that company. You may not have an email address outside your work one. You may have a company blog, but probably not a personal website. What happens when you suddenly no longer have access to your old company resources? What if all the online evidence of your hard work for the company… just disappears?

Any work of yours that is stored or referenced online is part of your digital footprint, and a vital part of your professional history. But (even without an acquistion) websites change over time, webmasters forget or lose track of things, and whole swathes of your professional life can vanish overnight (whereas that photo of you doing tequila shots in your underwear will live online forever).

When your future with a company is uncertain (and, these days, whose isn’t?), it’s wise to establish an independent online identity. As soon as possible. Like, now.

Here’s how:

1. Get your own domain name. Some variant on “yourfirstnameyourlastname.com” is good, if available.

Tip: Do NOT look up the availability of a domain name until you have your credit card in hand and are ready to pay for it. I’ve heard of cases where someone checked on an extremely-unlikely-to-occur-to-anyone-else domain name, saw that it was available at the time, came back later to buy it – and found it had been mysteriously purchased by a domain squatter who now wanted a lot of money for it. This isn’t supposed to happen, but… why take chances? Domain registration costs about $10 a year, so it’s worth grabbing a domain even if you’re not sure you’re going to use it.

2. Get it hosted. I’ve been using Dreamhost for years and am happy with them (disclaimer: if you sign up with them after clicking that link, I’ll get a kickback), but I’m sure there are plenty of similar. Unless you’re prepared to be your own sysadmin, look for a service that offers something like Dreamhosts’s one-click installs of WordPress – that’s the easiest route to your own website.

NB: Dreamhost and its ilk can also do domain registration for you, and often include one or more free registrations in your sign-up package, so you might want to explore hosting options before you buy a domain name.

3. Set up a new, professional email address using your new domain name. This is one of the major reasons to have your own domain. Frankly, using a gmail or hotmail address for professional email looks amateurish.

Most web hosts will let you set up unlimited mailboxes, so you can create separate email accounts for personal and professional use. Most web hosts also offer server-side spam filtering as well. Get that set up, because you will want your professional contact email address to be widely available online, and that means it’s going to get spammed. (Then you’ll realize how spoiled you’ve been with corporate email; grit your teeth and deal with it – the important thing it to be accessible.)

4. Get your resumé up, both on your own site and on Linkedin. Make sure it’s easy to contact you from either.

5. Copy to your new blog any content from your company site that you are directly responsible for – and have sufficient rights to. Sun blogs explicitly state that their contents are copyrighted by the individuals who wrote them, but I suspect this is unusual for corporate blogs, so be sure of your rights before you start republishing material en masse. The large body of writing I did for Adaptec/Roxio was under a “work for hire” agreement, so I had no copyrights in it. Unfortunately, most of that has vanished (even from the Wayback Machine) and is now untraceable.

I should have created an electronic clippings file (just as I keep paper copies of magazine articles I wrote years ago), and I advise you to do so now. I don’t know what fair use laws would apply to making such widely available on your site, but at least you could send samples if anyone asked.

If you’re a big enough wig to have had your name included in company press releases, grab copies of those as well. Don’t assume that the world will always remember all your triumphs.

6. Create an index of links from your resumé to the most important of your content and any other mentions of you on the company site. As long as that content is still available, it’s a useful record of what you’ve accomplished, and it’s right there on the official website with the old company cachet. But check those links periodically; when and if they die, replace your links with “available on request” or similar wording.

7. Also keep copies of any photographic and video “evidence” of your professional skills and activities, e.g. you might have been filmed speaking at a conference (especially if I was around). Think of such videos as your demo reel, showing off both your industry knowledge and your speaking skills.

If you do all this now, if and when the chop eventually comes you’ll be prepared. You can then leave a graceful farewell message pointing to your new online home, and start receiving callers there right away.

Got any tips, thoughts, or experiences to add? I’d love to hear them!

Update: Also see Katy Dickinson’s very useful post, After the RIF

The First Colorado Front Range Girl Geek Dinner: Jai Ho!

The first Colorado Front Range Girl Geek Dinner was held on Thursday, March 5th, on Sun’s Broomfield campus. More than 80 people attended, only one of whom was (a very brave) male. Sun sponsored this first one with food, drink, and venue. There was plenty of interest from other individuals and businesses in helping with Read More…

The first Colorado Front Range Girl Geek Dinner was held on Thursday, March 5th, on Sun’s Broomfield campus. More than 80 people attended, only one of whom was (a very brave) male.

Sun sponsored this first one with food, drink, and venue. There was plenty of interest from other individuals and businesses in helping with the next (contact me to be put in touch with the now-being-formed committee). Thanks to the many who helped spread the news (including Jeremy Tanner, who helped get the word out to startups and other smaller businesses). We had at least 80 attendees (probably more – I don’t think we caught quite everybody at the registration desk), and were in touch with several dozen more who couldn’t attend on this particular date but definitely want to participate.

With this kind of momentum, I think the next CO FR GGD can take place in about two months (but I’ll be leaving it up to others to organize that one as I expect to travel heavily from now through July).

The atmosphere in the room was electric and inspiring, and I hope was encouraging for those who had recently lost their jobs (or fear they might soon). Women helping women can be a powerful resource in the workplace, and that’s what Girl Geek Dinners are about.

Colorado GGD

^ listening to Linda, the “voice from on high”

Linda Skrocki put together a presentation which I ended up delivering (with her participating by phone) because she was home with a flu and didn’t want to infect the rest of us.

Our aim was to showcase Sun’s many activities in social media, in order to illustrate how other companies and individuals can use social media to enhance their own brands, win friends and clients, and influence people. Social media is important in just about any job these days, so I hope the information was useful to other women wanting to add to their work skills.

I noted a lot of interest in the room at the idea of managing one’s personal brand and identity online; that might be a topic for a future talk. One attendee wanted to talk more with us about Sun’s “radical transparency” in relation to a project she’s working on. And it seems that people want to hear more about videoblogging, which of course I’m happy to discuss anytime.

Colorado GGD

My only (personal) disappointment was that I was so busy running the show, I had very little time to talk with anybody – and there was a roomful of fascinating women I’d love to know more about. I look forward to making up for that next time!

Thanks to Kristin Tulp of Level3, we had TV coverage, with a segment by Jodi Brooks of CBS4 news (Denver) on Friday night. As part of a series on “Beating the Recession,” the piece talked about how we “Geek Girls” are rallying together to help ourselves and each other in a hard job market. I don’t know whether the segment will be posted on their site. Perhaps if enough of us ask them…? Here’s the transcript: ‘Geek Girls’ Gather In Broomfield For Networking

other coverage:

In case you’re wondering about the title: Jai Ho is the Oscar-winning song from the end titles of  Slumdog Millionaire. The song’s composer, A.R. Rahman, says that Jai Ho translates as “May victory be yours.” Which seems to me a fitting benediction for my fellow girl geeks.

Thrilled in Boulder

Last Saturday I attended a podCamp in Boulder, similar to camps I’ve attended in Italy. The topics were mostly techie (of course), and it was stimulating to talk with other folks doing social media et al, and get a fresh perspective. But the most fun part was at the end, when we learned part of Read More…

Last Saturday I attended a podCamp in Boulder, similar to camps I’ve attended in Italy. The topics were mostly techie (of course), and it was stimulating to talk with other folks doing social media et al, and get a fresh perspective.

But the most fun part was at the end, when we learned part of the dance moves to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. (I was participating at first – you can find footage of me if you look hard – but had to duck out to meet a friend and bring her back.)