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Silicon Valley’s Image Problem

And what it needs to do about it

One of the most frequent questions I get, especially when I travel outside the Valley, is simply: “Why did you leave Google?” It’s a simple question with a complex answer but it actually misses a bigger point, one which after 5 years of soul searching I think I’m finally ready to share: “Why am I leaving Tech?”
To understand this better let’s go back in time. The year was 2012 and I was head of marketing for Google Play – Google’s content store. It was the fall and we were nearing the end of a marathon sprint of insane product launches, long nights, weekends and probably one of the most grueling and intense periods I’d ever worked through. My team was exhausted but proud. What we had accomplished and the speed at which it happened as part of the broader Android / Google play organization – was nothing short of amazing particularly for a company as large as Google. In just two quarters we had
introduced an entirely new brand across the globe and launched several new products including Google play music, Google play Movies / TV shows and Google play Books. In the eyes of consumers and developers we had finally started to put Google on par with Apple when it came to content for mobile devices.
So you can imagine my surprise when one Monday morning one of the folks at the team looked at me and half seriously asked: “Patrick, why are we not going on the Android ski trip?”
I sat there dumbfounded for a second. The Android ski trip was an annual trip the entire Android team made each year to celebrate all the hard work the team had done and allow the team some time to bond, decompress and enjoy the slopes. My team reasoned, as was only fair, that as the marketing arm of Play, it was only fair that they should be included in this trip. We were part of the team. We had put in incredible effort, long days and nights and worked side by side with product, engineering and other teams to help Play get where it was.
So I went and talked to the VP of the team and various other folks to try and find out what had happened. In the end, it was all a simple administrative mistake. The marketing team wasn’t officially part of the Android business unit (Andy Rubin’s org). We were part of marketing and sales org (the org that at the time reported to Nikesh Arora). So the marketing teams’ names had simply never made it onto the list. We weren’t officially part of the team. There was nothing that could be done.
The point of the story isn’t that we didn’t make the ski trip and not going to the ski trip was definitively not the reason I would leave the company 8-9 months later. It also wasn’t the reason more than 50% of my team would churn less than a year after my departure. The point was that people didn’t even seem to shrug or care that we weren’t invited. The Ski trip incident was part of a wider trend on the Android team where marketing was often asked to turn around videos and other marketing collateral with little notice, product updates were shipped without notifying the team at all and in other cases material we’d been working on for weeks was suddenly cancelled because someone “higher up” believed the keynote for which they were meant was already too long. No further explanation was given though the team had worked day and night getting that video ready.
For any company to be successful and for individuals to be happy at work they need to work together and learn to value and appreciate each other’s contributions to the business. The fact that the marketing team was often ignored bothered people because we felt it devalued our work and that we weren’t considered part of the team. As per Mazlow’s hierarchy of needs (see below), appreciation is a fundamental human need and nowhere is this more important than at work, where we spend more than 70% of our lives (more like 90% in the Valley). Most of us didn’t really care about going on the ski trip. What bothered us was the complete lack of human empathy about “why” something like that even mattered in the first place.

​​SMXLL

However, the lack of appreciation for non product / non engineering roles in the Valley is something that for me is symptomatic of a much bigger problem we are facing in technology: A general lack of emotional intelligence or human empathy among senior leaders and entrepreneurs. (click to Tweet).

While at the micro level, a lack of emotional intelligence can result in frustrated employees and the occasional loss of key personnel, at the macro level the lack of empathy we have in tech lately directly affects how people view our industry and even their willingness to use our products. A recent example was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s tasteless VR video where he and the head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, tour the devastation of Puerto Rico following the recent hurricanes that ravaged the region. I vividly remember watching this video and as a marketing / PR guy my first thought was: “OMG, this is going to cause a PR shitstorm of epic proportions.” Less than 24 hours later it was all over the news. Although a lot of the content that Zuckerberg discussed was relevant and although Facebook’s response to the crisis itself was commendable, the way in which the avatars appear in the video, the type of conversation and the “high-fiving” that he and Rachel engage in during the demo came across as tone deaf in the context of the tragedy and resulted in immediate backlash on social media. Zuckerberg was quick to apologize but the damage was done. The story was covered widely in popular press such as this article in People.
Zuckerberg’s PR missteps aren’t the first ones the press has been seizing on this year either. 2017 has seen us get clobbered in the media given gender discrimination issues at Uber, allegations of sexual misconduct in venture capital and accusations of fake news running amok at both Google and Facebook. To be fair, companies make mistakes as do the human beings who run them. However, in each of these cases another disturbing thing seems apparent: We’re taking too long to tackle some of these issues because we simply don’t see the problem. Why? Because we don’t even see them as a problem until they begin to blow up and become a PR issue. We don’t see beyond the bubble that has become Silicon Valley. At Uber, the allegations of gender discrimination went on for months until they finally became an issue. The allegations of sexual misconduct in venture capital apparently had been going on for years, in some cases without any action being taken. The debacle on fake news left us shaking our heads in disbelief following the elections in November but it doesn’t seem like Facebook and Google took decisive enough action to take fake news seriously until months after the fact. As a matter of fact, when you look at some of the fake news that continued to be promoted following the recent Vegas shootings as seen in this article in the LA Times, you can still question whether Google and Facebook are doing enough to combat fake news.
But where we really should be concerned isn’t so much the condemnation of the individual articles themselves but the fact that reporters looking for a story are now now trying to tie the pieces together to paint a broader picture of Silicon Valley which actually portrays us as an enemy of the people we claim to be serving. In his recent article in the New York Times: Silicon Valley is Not your Friend, Noam Cohen, states: “Now that Google, Amazon and Facebook have become world dominators, the question of the hour is, can the public be convinced to see Silicon Valley as the wrecking ball that it is?”

Reading between the lines: “It’s time to regulate dominant tech companies.” or am I missing something?

Feeding this frenzy isn’t just the fact that the PR miscues come from tech titans. They’re also being made by startups. In September, a few x Googlers launched what Vanity Fair came to call “Silicon Valley’s Most Hated New Product.” The product, a portable vending machine that claims to sell all the key items typically found in your local convenience store sparked an outrage on social media not only because of the choice of its name, Bodega, but also due to the fact that, if successful, this type of product would put countless city immigrants out of business. The response by the company was the now tried and true mea culpa post on Medium. In it, Paul Mcdonald, the company’s founder states “…it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people.”
The fact that an “emotional vacuum” exists in the valley isn’t actually anything new. Om Malik coined the term in an article he contributed to the New Yorker last year. In it he makes a striking point which seems to be all the more relevant today: “The lack of empathy in technology design doesn’t exist because the people who write algorithms are heartless but perhaps because they lack the texture of reality outside the technology bubble.”
So if we’re not heartless human beings how do we help the next generation of tech entrepreneurs and the senior management of our existing tech darlings get a grip on the reality outside the Valley?

Here’s where we should start:

1. Broaden and deepen the diversity of the people running our companies. This has been discussed at length in numerous posts and articles but I don’t think this is simply a question of gender and racial diversity. It’s also about cultural, industry and socio-demographic diversity. I can hire a great female VP of marketing who graduated from Stanford and worked at Google but will she really think that differently from the rest of the guys running my startup? Maybe. But diversity isn’t just a function of gender, it’s also a function of experience (click to Tweet). We need to look more aggressively at hiring people from outside of tech, from outside the Bay Area, from outside California and from outside the US. Perhaps if Bodega had had an engineer who came from the Bronx and whose parents worked in a real Bodega to pay for his way through school they would have known better. Perhaps not. One of the best hires I made while at Glu (a mobile games company) was a Spanish woman who worked Universal Pictures in Madrid. She had no idea about mobile or about video games but brought really interesting perspectives on how studios packaged and marketed movies and actually helped us land our first few partnerships with movie studios to do co-marketing together. But it was a conscious decision on my part to hire her knowing it would take more time for her to ramp up. The result: within 18 months we were the #2 mobile games publisher in Spain after being ranked 7-8th for years. Her experience also helped the other marketing managers on the team re-think what could be done in terms of marketing programs.

2. Push our recruiters to hire great people, not just people who fit in. One of the biggest frustrations for people trying to get into tech is their lack of experience in tech often doesn’t even get them through the door for an interview. This has created a catch 22 where we don’t hire a person because they don’t have the relevant skill set but we don’t give them the chance to get the skillset so they can get into our industry. Bigger companies like Google and Facebook can give themselves the luxury of hiring and training people from non tech industries but the rest of us play it safe. We look for people who have exactly the right skill set so that they an “ramp up” more quickly and we look for people who “fit in” so that they work “collaboratively” with the rest of us. Hiring people who think just like us and “fit right in” isn’t a recipe for success, it’s a recipe for groupthink (click to Tweet). If we’re surrounded constantly by those people we don’t get into heated debates about things as often. We don’t stretch or challenge ourselves enough. We cease to grow. We need to push our recruiters to think more broadly and look for outstanding people – regardless of what industry they come from.

3. Hire great PR and communications people: Then listen to them. Time and again I’ve seen successful startups fail to understand how PR works or appreciate how reporters think. PR can have a huge impact for any company, whether it’s Google or the next great startup as I discussed at length in my post on Why PR Matters. But if we hire expensive agencies and ignore their council or hire a great VP of communications but don’t include him / her in our executive meetings, we’re inviting problems like the ones Google, Facebook and Bodega have experienced. Zuckerberg clearly isn’t a fool and it obvious that Facebook has an army of great PR people so when you see a fiasco like the one the VR demo generated you can only come to a couple of conclusions 1) He ignored the advice of his PR team 2) His PR team suffers from “groupthink” and didn’t see this is an issue or 3) PR was never consulted (unlikely).

​​SMLXL

4. Rethink the importance of Soft Skills training. When I did my MBA at Insead one of our courses was Organizational Behavior. The course was focused on developing “soft skills” around management. It helped us think about how to manage others, deal with the feelings of unhappy employees, manage difficult situations and how to let people go. Most of my classmates laughed it off and many didn’t even bother showing up for that class at all. Last week, I spoke with a recent Insead grad that said that although the school has added several more similar classes and now has a mandatory series of classes on leadership development, many students still didn’t take these classes seriously. Human resource teams, boards and management need to seriously rethink the imp0rtance of these skills and the priority around getting new managers trained in soft skills. The other day I was visiting a friend who is a director of engineering at Google. He claims he spends 70% of his time on people issues. Another friend of mine who runs a startup of 10 people said he spends at least 50% of his time on people issues ranging from hiring, to keeping his team motivated or helping unblock issues between team members. In the Valley it’s too easy to laugh off these courses and training seminars to focus on harder, more measurable skills but we’re kidding ourselves if think we’re going to increase tech’s clout in society without them. Our schools need to include more courses in the curriculum, even among CS graduates, and give them the importance they deserve. In our companies, management teams and boards need to ensure that younger executives get the training and coaching they need to effectively handle and manage these situations. If VC’s are going to give a young founder with limited management experience $20M for their startup they can throw in $20k for coaching (click to Tweet) to ensure the founder has access to someone who can train him / her to manage some of these issues. To not do it becomes downright irresponsible when you look at some of the PR fiascos we’ve seen lately.

5. Rethink how we define “user data.” When I ran marketing at Course Hero one of the first things we did was to leverage our campus ambassador team to run quarterly focus groups on campuses and invite our product managers to attend these focus groups. The result was a sea change in how we thought about how users used our product, which features really mattered and where consumers were struggling. We would not have gotten this input simply by looking at data logs and excel sheets. Sometimes you simply need to sit down with consumers and observe them in the real world: In their world. In my article on Why Product Marketing Matters and What it Does, I talked extensively about product marketing and its role in tech companies. Tech companies need to develop their product marketing expertise much earlier than they currently do and ensure those product marketers are working with product to get real world user feedback beyond what the data is telling them. With additional insights we’ll make better products, fewer mistakes and delight our users. We may even make a bit more money for our investors along the way and avoid some PR clusterf**cks.

I’ve always admired Silicon Valley’s ability to reshape the world and tackle some of our most pressing problems. It’s time we addressed the issue of emotional intelligence head on and recognized it for what it is: A real problem with serious implications for how people see our role in society and their willingness to embrace technology as a way to improve their lives. Let’s put our thinking caps on and start to address this issue. The longer we let it fester and the more we see these articles appear in the popular press, the more “real” this issue becomes. Perceptions have a way of becoming reality when repeated often enough (Make America Great Again – Ring a bell?). The sooner we start to change this dialogue and re engage with the people we originally sought to serve: our users and our so society – the better off we’ll all be.

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Now where’s that book on Emotional Intelligence?…

Mad Mork
Chief Storyteller
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