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Working at the intersection of technology, media, and democracy. He / him.


Socialism as a Service

I've often remarked that the extravagent benefits often enjoyed by workers at Silicon Valley companies are roughly equivalent to what everyone receives in a social democracy. Full healthcare benefits? Check. Commuter benefits for people who need them? Check. Childcare? Check. Etc. People need those benefits, but they've mostly been the preserve of the wealthy - despite them being perfectly possible for everyone.

Similarly, the response to Covid-19 in the US has been equivalent to how many social democracies operate as a matter of course. Decent unemployment insurance, stronger support for the homeless, an eradication of the predatory bail system, and so on - these are things that we've needed to do for years. That they're now happening in the midst of a global pandemic only demonstrates that the barriers to doing so were always illusory.

I'm Head of Engineering at a startup that provides 401(k) retirement benefits. Our mission is to help everyone build a stronger financial future - and in particular to support people who are on lower incomes, working for the vast majority of American businesses. My personal opinion is that I would prefer to see a fair pension system; 401(k)s have some fundamental flaws that adversely affect both the financial markets and individual employees. In some ways, they're a forcing function to keep workers in their jobs. But it's highly unlikely that we'll see a public pension system, so building an equitable, accessible 401(k) platform is the pragmatic thing to do - it will provide a benefit to many people that fills a gap where government has fallen short.

There are many places in American society where government should provide benefits or safety nets but isn't. It's a more libertarian, individualistic society; community care is far less a part of the culture. One can debate the merits of that (I think you know where I stand), but there are ways startups and other organizations can fill in the gaps.

For example: what would it take to disrupt the health insurance market? Yes, we need to continue fighting for Medicare for All, and hopefully we'll get it soon, but let's assume that we continue to have an obstructionist in power. Forget the current system and its inefficient brutality: what would a genuinely better alternative look like?

What would it take to disrupt unemployment insurance? Or disability benefits? How can a startup empower people to own their own homes in a non-predatory way?

I believe that government should be solving these problems. I believe in a social contract and that we all need to take care of each other as a community. But while that dynamic has so badly failed in America, how can mission-driven businesses undermine and disrupt the worst tendencies of American capitalism so that it once again works for ordinary people? What do real businesses that empower ordinary people look like? If we can't embrace real social democracy in the way most developed countries do, how can we offer Socialism as a Service?



Yesterday, while going for a walk, I saw someone dressed in bin liners torn to form a kind of full-body plastic balaclava. Underneath, she was wearing a mask and sunglasses. She wore gloves so that she had virtually no exposed skin. As we passed by each other on the street, over six feet between us, she looked at me nervously.

"That," I thought to myself, "is a really good idea." 2020 is wild.

Today Bandcamp is forgoeing its share of revenue from all sales. (Its usual fee is 15%.) Independent artists are struggling in the current climate, so it's a great time to buy music from them. This post will have links to some of my favorites.

To begin with, I love Ariel Wang's EP Cat Faze. Moontide is a hauntingly beautiful song.

People continue to go outside. Couples are out walking together; people are exercising; families are walking their dogs, who all seem to be living their best lives. People are traveling to help each other. Everyone is practicing social distancing, but nonetheless, the streets are full of the best parts of humanity. What's missing is the rush of people on their way to and from work. The bustle of commuters and the stench of evening cars.

I wonder how all of this is going to remake how we work. I'm very anxious for the people who have lost their jobs; so many that the government doesn't want to release the official figures. There's talk of 20% unemployment, up from 3.5%. All those people need jobs; many of them may find themselves hired for remote work in place of their in-person positions.

But I don't know how realistic that is on a broad scale. I've got the privilege of a knowledge worker job: all I need is a laptop and an internet connection. Not every job can be converted in this way. We need our in-person workers. While there is probably going to be some kind of transformation, what we really need is a support package.

Gaelynn Lea's album Learning How to Stay is gorgeous. Her Tiny Desk Concert is worth watching, too, if you've never seen it.

It's been interesting to see reforms people have been fighting to see for years suddenly enacted. Non-violent offenders are being released from prison pre-trial; empty hotels and motels are being used to house the homeless; Republicans are proposing a universal basic income. Dogs and cats living together; mass hysteria. I love it. I don't love the context, at all, but I love that we've demonstrated that all these things are possible.

People are likely to fall through the cracks. I've been wondering about sex workers, which is a vulnerable population that nobody really talks about at times like these. How are they staying safe and well? I don't think they exactly have a benefits package to draw on. Do they have to continue working and risk exposure for both themselves and their clients? Do they go online and stream?

Meanwhile, Gamestop has self-classified as an essential service and told its employees to continue to come to work. Gaming is not essential. Companies like this need to face serious legal penalties - and we all need to boycott them. Luckily, for gamers, many better options are available.

Sapphire Lung's Chamber Slime is offbeat and full of life. They're worth seeing live, but if you can't, this album is the next best thing.

In some ways, I'm eating healthier and living a better lifestyle than I did when we weren't under quarantine. I've been eating a lot of beet and lentil soups; I've been taking solid exercise after work; I'm starting to drop and do push-ups between meetings. I used to do this a long time ago, and worked up to 150 push-ups a day. I'm nowhere near that number now, but maybe I can get there again?

But I miss hanging out with friends. I held a Zoom happy hour and posted it opportunistically on Facebook; the mix of people who turned up was a lovely cross-section of my life, and I was delighted to be able to introduce people to each other. Based on that, I'm sure I'll hold more. Life was so different less than a month ago. And it will be different again.

I realized last night that I was scared of getting the virus. Yes, I don't want to pass it on, but I'm genuinely afraid of contracting it myself. It's not to be messed with, and in a world where I had it and doctors had to choose between respirating me and saving someone else, I would want them to pick the other person. I don't want to live with the idea that my life was chosen over someone else's. Those are the decisions being made in many places right now. And at the same time, I don't want to go.

Thomas Truax builds his own instruments and plays incredible, avant-garde music. I'd love to see him collaborate with Sapphire Lung. His Bandcamp subscription supports him in lieu of live gigs.


Dispatches from a shelter in place

How are you holding up? Do you need something? Let me know.

The Bay Area is like a zombie movie. Particularly at around 8am, when the smells and sounds of commuter traffic should dominate, the quiet feels supernatural. Was I whisked away in the dead of night? Is this the Upside-Down?

For some reason, construction continues unabated. I feel bad for those workers, although they're far apart from each other, so I imagine the risk of infection is minimal. I also worry about the supermarket cashiers, the kitchen staff, the food delivery people, and above all, our medical and emergency workers. Although we're under a shelter in place order, venturing outside is not banned, and going for a walk is sometimes a good idea; every time I do, I see few people, but at least one ambulance.

I've started to feel a pain in my chest when I cough, as if I can feel my lungs, but I'm almost certain it's psychosomatic. My anxiety is getting the better of me, despite my best intentions, so it's almost certainly that. Nonetheless, I'm trying to be careful.

Work continues unabated. We actually might be more productive, which suggests some uncomfortable truths about our open office layout and the number of ad hoc meetings. I've been going through videoconferencing solutions like shampoo brands: Hangouts is choppy, and GoToMeeting is annoying to use. I put my own money down for a paid Zoom account, which is by far the best. Ideologically, I'd love to use an open source, peer to peer web-based product like Jitsi, but in our real world situation, they unfortunately haven't held up. I'm sure they'll get there.

18% of American workers have lost their jobs or had their hours slashed during this crisis. I feel very privileged to not be one of them, and I want to help where I can.

I've really appreciated texting with friends, some of whom I haven't heard from in a while. I've been appreciating the photos of peoples' lockdown spots, and of people making their own fun. There are dolphins in the Venice canals. Southern California has unimaginably good air right now. If you squint, there are silver linings.

I want to stay healthy. I want to stay happy. I'm finding small ways to exercise, and to keep myself finding beauty in small things. It helps - a lot - to know that my family and friends are out there. The internet is, right now, a very clear force for good. We're all connected. All one world. All getting through this together.

PS: my matching fundraiser for Doctors Without Borders is up to $908. Please consider joining us if you have the means. I'll double your money for the first $1,000 in donations.


A small way to help

I'm raising money for Doctors Without Borders, which is on the front lines of the fight against Covid-19 in vulnerable communities. I'll match the first $1,000 in donations, so your money is worth twice as much. The money is directly received by the organization (which gets four out of four stars from Charity Navigator).

For what it's worth, the first people to donate $50 or more will also have a 1,000 word short story dedicated to them.

Donate here.


The new normal

I'm writing this from Santa Rosa, where my parents live. I've just sequestered myself in my bedroom / home office here, ready to start the workday. But this is an unprecedented period, and I wanted to record what life is actually like under this particular quarantine. We should be blogging now more than ever, to create a historican record beyond the politicians and the numbers reported in the newspapers. Those records are important, too, both in the moment and afterwards, but they miss the intimacies of everyday life. Here are some of the details from mine; I'd love to read yours.

I always spend Sundays, at the very least, with my parents. My mother had a double lung transplant in 2013 to escape the effects of pulmonary fibrosis, a set of symptoms that progressively scar up your lungs, that were caused by dyskeratosis congenita, a genetic condition. I moved to California two years prior. It took me five seconds to make the decision: all I needed to hear was that she had to use supplementary oxygen. I'm grateful that we've had all this extra time, although the side effects of the transplant have made this a difficult seven years for her. (The median post-transplant survival rate, by the way, is 5.8 years.)

My dad spent the first years of his life in a concentration camp in Indonesia, run by the Japanese. He moved to America as a teenager, built a life up completely from scratch, was drafted into the US Army, and discovered higher education through the GI Bill. He has a PhD in Economics and advanced law degrees.

They're both fighters, obviously. But because of my dad's age and my mother's condition, they are both considered high risk individuals. Yesterday, while we were discussing how we might adjust our lifestyles to cope with the current situation, over glasses of wine for me and my dad, Governor Newsom announced that everyone aged 65+ and with a sensitive condition should stay inside. My parents have still been largely self-sufficient, mostly because my dad's full-time job is taking care of my mother. This is the first formal indication that this dynamic needs to change.

My mother took herself off for a nap, which she does every afternoon, and I begrudgingly accommpanied my dad to Home Depot for bags of concrete (a retaining wall needs some support). The roads are relatively clear, and we didn't encounter another soul in the aisles of the store. I lifted the concrete, of course, and lifted it into the garage. I was glad for the workman's gloves that my dad keeps in the back of his car.

Driving up here on Sunday morning was easy. I keep a container of Clorox bleach wipes in the car with me. I wiped down the steering wheel and the controls, and then the handles on each of the doors. When I get gas, I wipe down the pump and its buttons. If I need to go to a store, I wipe myself down with Purell first, then get the groceries or whatever it is I need, and wipe myself down afterwards. I wash my hands for 20+ seconds as soon as I enter the house (and as soon as I got here, I wiped down the front door handle). I wash my hands regularly. They feel really clean, so at least there's that. Because my mother also uses the downstairs bathroom, we wipe it down with alcohol when we're finished with it. And then more hand-washing.

She hasn't been feeling well. It's nothing to do with Covid-19 - just a part of the rollercoaster of drug interactions and microbiome changes that affect her life - but I worry about the availability of ICU beds in the months ahead. Last year, she spent over a fifth of the year in hospital, some of it in intensive care. In Italy, nurses have needed to make decisions about who receives care and who doesn't. I don't want to think too hard about it.

I have cousins who still believe that all this is overblown, and that it's some kind of media conspiracy. I worry about their safety, but I also worry about the people who think like that around us. It's not just about the virus itself; it's about idiots. I don't want somebody to kill my parents because they were cavalier. I don't want someone to accidentally make me a vector, complicit in something terrible happening to them.

It's beautiful here. The sky is clear, and the air is peaceful. If I look to my right, I see deer grazing in a field across the road from the house. I'm eating well. The company is good, and we've been keeping ourselves entertained. But I haven't been sleeping well at all.


How I work remotely

It's getting real. If you're not convinced that COVID-19 is a big deal, this FAQ is a useful resource. You should care; as the close relative of someone with a suppressed immune system, anyone who isn't taking the outbreak seriously is a risk to me - and particularly, to my mother.

Not everyone can work from home, but if you can, it's one of the best ways to avoid infection for yourself and others. For a lot of companies, working from home has upturned existing policies. Microsoft has shown the way here: as well as telling its team to work from home, it's continuing to pay its hourly workers the same wage. While some economic fallout is inevitable, this has lessened the financial impact on the most vulnerable members of its community.

I'm the Head of Engineering for a Series B startup. Almost all of my team has been working remotely for the past week. During this time, a frequently-used cafe around the corner was closed because an employee was positively tested for coronavirus. At our team meeting yesterday, I was asked how long this situation was likely to last; of course, I have no idea. We need to proceed as if we'll be working remotely indefinitely.

I've spent over a decade of my career working remotely, including leading technology teams. In some ways, I'm more productive from home. In particular, because meetings are just that little bit harder to organize and run, there are fewer of them. That's good for everyone. And I get access to my own kitchen and food, which is good for me.

Here are some best practices and tool recommendations, based on experience across three startups.

Building a routine

Particularly for people who aren't used to working from home, building a solid routine is really important. It's shockingly easy to get distracted by your home environment, and to drift off into relaxation mode. It's similarly easy to let work take over everything and never quite end. Both are bad.

I always leave the house in the morning and at the end of the workday; I always shower and exercise as if I was going for work. I never, ever work from the bedroom. And when I'm at work, I shut out outside distractions as much as possible. I've become a heavy user of it makes some dubious claims about its underlying brain science, but I've found that it really does help me focus. (The sleep mode is the best way I've found to fall asleep on planes, too, although I'm not planning to fly any time soon.)

We use Range to check in every day. It asks us what we got done, and what we plan to do; it also checks in on how we're doing. I love it as a central rallying point for the day. We've also added a daily standup over Google Hangouts. I've found that people will often bring up issues there that they haven't listed on Range, and it's a good way to hear everyone's voice. For a remote engineer with no other meetings, it might be the only time they hear their team that day.

Finally, I have regular 1:1 meetings with each member of my team. While I prefer in person, remote is fine.

Communicating effectively (and securely)

All crucial information should be easily accessible without asking, and that the barrier to sharing information needs to be as low as possible. And honestly, I want to know how my team is feeling; my job is to create the conditions for them to do their best work, and that's as much an empathetic role as it is one about engineering progress.

Slack has become a necessity. Not only is it the best way to host non-interruptive realtime communication across the team, but it's a useful way to surface important notifications. Every production system that can output notifications to a Slack channel does; I've also written Lambda functions to output a few more via CloudWatch.

We use Jira and Confluence to manage issues and documents across teams. I've used a range of tools in the past, but as much as I hate to admit it, Jira's worked the best. Again, I have updates piped into Slack channels, and some production systems automatically turn major issues into Jira tickets. We use Pull Reminders to alert members of the team when they've been marked as a reviewer on a Pull Request. The result is that I - and everyone - can use Slack as my monitoring station, and keep on top of what needs to be dealt with urgently.

Every piece of work must be represented in Jira. Every major decision must be represented in Confluence (alongside meeting notes, technical specs, post-mortems, etc). Anything out of the ordinary - blockers, out of band deploys, etc - must be discussed in Slack. And I ask everyone to err on the side of chattiness on Slack. Particularly when people aren't in earshot of each other, it helps ensure that everyone knows what's going on.

When we do have meetings, it's been Hangouts. Zoom is probably the best videoconferencing software, but requires a download; GoToMeeting was designed in enterprise hell. I've also tried decentralized, WebRTC-based solutions in the past, but they tend to break down if someone's internet connection isn't strong. Hangouts has the benefit of just being a link, and working reasonably well across browsers.

It should go without saying that we require use of pasword managers, and we don't allow sensitive information to be transmitted via any of the above tools. If sensitive information must be shared, it's done over an encrypted channel, and destroyed when work is complete.

Finally, I send a message across the entire company every Friday that breaks down what we shipped that week, and what we plan to work on next. It's written at a fairly high level, for a non technical audience. The idea is to keep us accountable as an engineering team, and make sure everyone in the company has the product information they need.


Matt Mullenweg wrote up his setup. Automattic was a remote-first team, and he knows what he's talking about.

Mine isn't the perfect setup, but it's worked reasonably well for me. I'd really love to hear about other experiences and recommendations. What's worked for you? Or maybe you're trying remote for the very first time and struggling? I'd love to hear from you.


Photo by CDC on Unsplash


Reading, watching, playing, using: February 2020

Here's the media I consumed and found interesting in February.


Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, by Ruha Benjamin. Recommended to me by my friend Roxann Stafford, who used quotes from it in our session on designing for equity. It makes clear how automation can deepen discrimination, and how the appearance of algorithmic neutrality is superficial. An important read for anyone who makes software - and anyone who uses it, too.


Coda. I'm a die-hard AirTable user, and live in Google Docs. I'm not sure if I'm ready for this to replace them yet, but it's nice to have something else to experiment with, and a document platform that isn't tied into Google.

Notion. I'm not a new Notion user, but this month I doubled down as using it as my personal organizer both for work and my personal life. Its sync-everywhere design and very loose approach to structure are really working for me.

Withings Health Mate. Again, not a new app for me - but this month I bought a BPM Connect blood pressure monitor, which has already been game-changing for me. The short story is that my blood pressure is much higher than I thought it was. Knowing this and being able to easily track the trend allows me to do something about it.


American Factory. An Oscar-winning documentary about a Chinese auto glass plant that opened in Dayton, Ohio. A deeply stressful but compelling watch.

Notable Articles


“Far and away the most disorganized place I’ve ever been a part of”: Inside Acronym’s disastrous foray into the Iowa caucuses. The Iowa caucuses were an unmitigated disaster. It sounds like this is a symptom of systemic issues at Acronym, the group that created the app at the heart of the problem.

Inside the closed-door campaigns to rewrite California privacy law, again. A fascinating glimpse into how legislation is made. We're going to see privacy legislation rolled out nationwide; tech companies are going to want a big say in how it's written.

Russia Doesn't Want Bernie Sanders. It Wants Chaos. "US officials warned Bernie Sanders that Russia is “attempting to help” his presidential campaign" - but that doesn't mean they're endorsing Bernie. It's all about finding ways to sew discord.

The Bernie Bro Narrative Erases Women Like Me. "Sanders’ base is more diverse than the angry online mob of white men people love to complain about." I wonder how many of the so-called Bernie bros are actually bots - and not from the Bernie campaign. It would be a great way to discredit him. My observation is that on the ground, it really is a diverse movement.

JP Morgan economists warn climate crisis is threat to human race. So can we do something about it, already? The irony that JP Morgan is one of the most prominent backers of fossil fuels businesses shouldn't be lost on anyone.

Trump's "Deep State" hit list. "The Trump White House and its allies, over the past 18 months, assembled detailed lists of disloyal government officials to oust — and trusted pro-Trump people to replace them — according to more than a dozen sources familiar with the effort who spoke to Axios."

Bernie Sanders isn’t a democratic socialist. He is a social democrat. While I'm an Elizabeth Warren supporter, I would be very grateful to see the social democracy model I enjoyed in Europe take hold here. It's better for everyone.

A third of Poland has now been declared an ‘LGBT-free zone’, making intolerance official. And yet, we haven't said a word about it. I'm worried that worse is to come.

Swinging the Vote? "Google’s black box algorithm controls which political emails land in your main inbox. For 2020 presidential candidates, the differences are stark."

No Email. No WhatsApp. No Internet. This Is Now Normal Life In Kashmir. "On August 5, India’s government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir a measure of autonomy. The government split the state, a region disputed between India and Pakistan, into two territories. Supporters of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party hailed the move, while Kashmiris, many of whom want to see Kashmir join Pakistan or become independent, were angered. To prevent public opposition from turning into open rebellion, India’s government detained Kashmiri politicians, arrested thousands of activists and academics, and imposed a complete communications blackout. Overnight, mobile phones and landlines stopped working, broadband lines were frozen, and text messaging stopped."

Media & Society

Grantland and the (Surprising) Future of Publishing. An old Stratechery piece that's new to me: how the future of media may be in building an audience via the web and monetizing it through alternative media forms.

The Original Renegade. "A 14-year-old in Atlanta created one of the biggest dances on the internet. But nobody really knows that."

My boyfriend’s wedding dress unveiled my own shortcomings over masculinity. "My boyfriend’s wedding dress pushed me to perform a scrupulous inventory of my deepest ideas about masculinity and helped me identify my shortfalls as a woman who wants to help rewrite gender norms. As I went through this exercise, I chatted with a handful of girlfriends about it, who could all identify their own small hang-ups with masculinity: their need for men who are bigger and taller than they are, or who are better than them at sports, or who don’t cry in front of them."

How America developed two sign languages — one white, one black. "In black sign language, a relic of segregation has become a sign of solidarity."

She Coined the Term ‘Intersectionality’ Over 30 Years Ago. Here’s What It Means to Her Today. "These days, I start with what it’s not, because there has been distortion. It’s not identity politics on steroids. It is not a mechanism to turn white men into the new pariahs. It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other."


Servant: Your role as a leader in the modern workforce. A fun article for me because Xiao Ma (Medium's Chief Architect) and Dan Pupius (CEO of Range) are both friends. But the wisdom here is real and applicable. "Range’s co-founder Dan had a very big impact on me. He used to be my manager at Medium for several years and introduced me to the concept of servant leadership. It helped me get comfortable being a leader; I didn’t want to tell people what to do, I just wanted to help and empower other people. Servant leadership helped me to see “leading” from a different perspective. In my opinion, there is no better approach to leadership. Leadership should always be servant leadership." I agree.

Founder of Bob’s Red Mill Natural Foods transfers business to employees. "Moore, whose mutual loves of healthy eating and old-world technologies spawned an internationally distributed line of products, responded with a gift of his own -- the whole company. The Employee Stock Ownership Plan Moore unveiled means that his 209 employees now own the place and its 400 offerings of stone-ground flours, cereals and bread mixes." I couldn't love this more.


Could this plan make Facebook obsolete? Kaliya Young is one of my favorite people in tech. And yes: the work she does will be a big part of the future of tech.

How Big Companies Spy on Your Emails. Connecting to your inbox to provide some superficial benefit (unsubscribing from newsletters, say) and then selling information about the emails you receive is a surprisingly big business.

I stumbled across a huge Airbnb scam that’s taking over London. And everywhere. I still remember finding myself in an illegal Airbnb hotel in New York for Matter Demo Day, which wasn't up to code and was both dangerous socially and physically.

Signal Is Finally Bringing Its Secure Messaging to the Masses. Everyone should be using Signal, the open source, encrypted messaging app. Highly technical users complain about a few missing features, but for most people, it's their best chance of privacy for their messaging. Bringing this to a wider audience is really good news.

WordPress’s role in a changing web. "And that’s why open source is becoming “Animal Farm”. A movement which began to fight corporate dominance is now being co-opted by corporate dominance, because projects like ours sneer at the concept, the process, and the thought of involvement."

How Legal Weed Disrupted This Flower Startup’s Supply Chain. "After the legalization vote, many of the local suppliers she’d once leaned on to provide the flowers that made up her bouquets were suddenly turning to a new crop." Fascinating to me.

A Balanced Approach to Growth: How startups can optimize and innovate their way to more growth. "To put it plainly, growing through data analysis and A/B testing isn’t the only path to future growth. While it seems obvious, I see very few startups designed for innovation, which may be the biggest driver to new growth for your business."

General Catalyst leads $6 million investment in team productivity startup Range. I'm a huge Range fan (both the people and the software). We use it every day on the ForUsAll engineering team.

Kickstarter Employees Win Historic Union Election. This is a first in tech, but I hope many more follow.

Many Tech Experts Say Digital Disruption Will Hurt Democracy. "About half predict that humans’ use of technology will weaken democracy between now and 2030 due to the speed and scope of reality distortion, the decline of journalism and the impact of surveillance capitalism. A third expect technology to strengthen democracy as reformers find ways to fight back against info-warriors and chaos."

As the Start-Up Boom Deflates, Tech Is Humbled. "Layoffs. Shutdowns. Uncertainty. After a decade of prosperity, many hot young companies are facing a reckoning." I will be delighted to not be in an industry that throws tens of millions of dollars at pizza robots anymore.

Suckers List: How Allstate’s Secret Auto Insurance Algorithm Squeezes Big Spenders. "Insurers are supposed to price based on risk, but Allstate’s algorithm put a thumb on the scale."

Y Combinator's Series A Guide. A useful resource if you're raising a Series A; an insightful look at how Silicon Valley works if you're not.

What is 802.11ay and what could it mean for the iPhone. Think fast transfers, augmented reality glasses, and an ecosystem of peripherals working together.

Inside a Secretive $250 Million Private Transit System Just for Techies. It's hardly secret: the buses are everywhere here. I wish big tech companies would underwrite a public transport system for all instead.


The entrepreneur's mindset

I've spent most of my career in or alongside relatively early-stage startups. I co-founded two; was the first employee at two more; I sourced and invested in 24; I supported a portfolio of 75. ForUsAll, where I'm currently Head of Engineering, has raised a Series B funding round and is still finding its feet.

What I've learned is that, more than a set of skills, entrepreneurship is a mindset. As Harvard Business Review has noted, it's about an ability to thrive in uncertainty, and an openness to new experiences:

Openness to new experiences is about having a restless need to explore and learn. It entails not just a willingness to proceed in unpredictable environments but a heightened state of motivation that occurs at the edge of the unknown and the untried. For individuals who score high on this dimension, the unknown is a source of excitement rather than anxiety.

I'm convinced that this mindset is learned, not innate. Anyone can be entrepreneurial, but if you've been surrounded by adverse uncertainty, you're more likely to find it stressful. If, on the other hand, you have plenty of examples of uncertainty working out well, you're more likely to see it as an opportunity. Like so many things, it's all about your personal context and history. It could be that you grew up at a level of privilege where nothing bad can really happen; it could also be that your family history is one of uprooting and reinvention by necessity. There's a reason why immigrants are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs.

But it's not just about that ability to embrace uncertainty. While I was the west coast Director of Investments at Matter Ventures, it became obvious that the founders who stood out were additionally able to identify their assumptions, and validate whether they were true or not. The people who were relentlessly positive and stuck to their ideas even in the face of all opposition - the ones who ran tests but always said that the tests validated their initial ideas - were far more likely to fail.

Every startup has a mission, a vision, and a strategy, in increasing order of concreteness. The mission - what the company exists to do - is unlikely to change. The vision - a short encapsulation of where the company is heading, and the world it seeks to create - is similarly unchanging. The strategy - how you achieve the vision using the mission - is likely to change frequently in the face of new information. If you're not able to clearly see if your strategy is failing, and correct it early, you're very unlikely to achieve your vision or fulfill your mission.

Whether it's a startup or a product in a larger company, having the right tools to derisk your entrepreneurial endeavor in an environment of uncertainty is important. Frameworks to perform rapid tests and make progress based on imperfect results can make you feel more comfortable with uncertainty, and make smarter decisions in adverse conditions. That's important not just for CEOs, but for every member of an early-stage startup team.

At ForUsAll, I'm going to be teaching entrepreneurial skills as part of a six month long course for employees that are interested. Participants will work on a made-up venture, and the cuorse will take participants through the basics of human-centered design, to validating their user, business, and technology risks, and then to telling a story about their venture (incorporating a real demo day). Finally, our CEO will lead a discussion on how these ideas apply to this startup. It's open to everybody - not everyone has opted in, but I've been pleased that the participants have come from across the company.

I started last week by facilitating a version of the Wallet Project for everyone in the company. Here, we start by asking everyone to design the perfect wallet. It's a typical solution-first approach, and it's really hard: there's not enough context to know whether or not what you're designing meets anyone's needs. Then we move on to a human-centered approach, based on interviews with a real person, who literally takes you through the contents of their wallet. Over several iterations, participants find themselves designing and prototyping (using paper, glue, modeling clay, etc) a genuinely meaningful solution. It's a great introduction to design thinking; I'd facilitated it many times before, but seeing it work across the whole company was powerful.

I'm excited to embark on the course, which draws on my experience both mentoring startups and running them. The hope is that it helps a wider set of people to be advocates for a user-centered approach with a bias towards action, which can only help the company. I believe it will help the participants throughout their careers, too.

I'd love to talk to people in other companies who are interested in running this kind of course. Accelerators don't just need to be for founders; everyone in an early-stage startup is an entrepreneur. Helping them achieve these mindsets will help the whole company succeed.


Photo by DISRUPTIVO on Unsplash


On engineering

I've been a product and engineering lead more often than any other role in my career, including when I co-founded my first startup over 15 years ago. Back then, I'm the first to admit that I had no idea what I was doing, and had to learn on the go. These days, a few things have become clear.

"Engineer" and "programmer" are not interchangable terms. The purpose of an engineer is not so much to write code as to engineer a solution with the time, team, and resources at your disposal. In most situations, that probably does mean writing code. But it might not. And it certainly also means architecting systems, considering the user's context, some degree of training and documentation, and having a user-centered product eye as well as a technical point of view.

For that reason, engineers don't just need to be technically skilled. They need to be empathetic and highly communicative. And they need to be able to tease their way to a solution even when none is readily apparent, using creativity and curiosity in combination with the breadth of their experience.

In fact, I would say that empathy, curiosity, and communication are the three most important engineering skills. An engineer who can't put themselves in someone else's shoes is never going to create a satisfactory solution for them. An incurious engineer will stop when the going gets tough. And an engineer who can't communicate won't be able to build a system that others can use or maintain.

The role of an engineering lead is to assemble a high-functioning team, and then create the conditions for them to do their best work in the context of the company's mission, vision, and strategy. It's not about delivering tasks from on high and monitoring their progress; nor is it about churning out code; nor is it about merely consulting with them at key strategic moments. It's about finding and nurturing people who can be first-class contributors, and collaborating them on the why, what and when of what needs to be done. And then being in service to your team, ensuring they have what they need (even - and especially - when they themselves can't quite put their finger on what, specifically, that is).

There are obvious best practices. Well-defined sprints with detailed user stories are important. So are automated tests and continuous deployment. But it's even more important to create the right frameworks for people to be autonomous. Style guides - for designs as well as for code - allow people to build features with fewer bottlenecks. Well-written specs (communication again!) and post-mortems allow an engineering team to review an idea before a single line of code is written. And I've become a big believer in checklists and playbooks. All of which should be living documents, evolving as the team and the company evolve together.

There are less-obvious best practices, too. When I joined Medium after a few years at a small startup, I was shocked at how slow everything was moving. The product was being built more deliberately, in a considered, unhurried way. It was the opposite of hustling. Radical collaboration was at the core of the company: everyone was collaborating with everyone, cross-functionally. Nobody was siloed away. And the result was a markedly better product.

Finally, of course, I believe in a prototype-driven, human-centered, radically collaborative company culture. Rather than hiding yourself away for six months and building something in the hope that people like it, I believe in an iterative process where you test your ideas with the real people you're trying to help. (Quantitative testing only gets you so far, and made-up personas don't allow you to derive surprising insights.) A high-performing engineering team must be human-centered and ready to collaborate across the whole company.

And that comes down to culture. It all does. Once again, that's the real role of leadership: to assemble a high-functioning team, and then create the conditions for them to do their best work in the context of the company's mission, vision, and strategy. It's a community-building job more than anything else.

I'm constantly learning. I can't pretend to be the leader I aspire to be. Nor will I ever be: it's an ongoing, life-long process. But concentrating on empathy, curiosity, and communication is a north star that I believe is worth following closely.


Photo by NESA by Makers on Unsplash


Another progressive win

I'll be voting for Elizabeth Warren in the California Primary, and I will vote for whoever the Democratic candidate turns out to be, but I'm very excited by Bernie's three caucus wins. These are wins for real, genuinely progressive politics.

I want an inclusive, equal society.

I want real, universal healthcare.

I want a real social safety net.

I want real educational options for everyone, regardless of income.

I want the Green New Deal.

I want corporate power to be balanced by worker power.

I want a real, safe, comfortable future for everyone.

I want to put the myth of trickle-down economics and veneration of the rich to bed.

I'm convinced that the progressive agenda is the best way to achieve these things. And I'm hopeful that we're seeing a signal that America is moving away from the toxic conservatism that has dominated our discourse.

Fingers crossed.


Designing for Equity

I was delighted to be a part of the Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms bootcamp organized by NewsCatalyst and the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, in partnership with the Google News Initiative. I was even more delighted to be working and presenting with Roxann Stafford, my former colleague at Matter. Her expertise and empathy made a huge impact on me then, and her ideas on designing for equity continue to be transformative for me.

By now, we know that human-centered design for products, services, and ventures is a good idea. Putting empathy at the center of our process, rather than naïve solutionizing based on our own experiences and whims, brings us to places where we're more deeply suppporting people. It's not about scratching our own itches and being the smartest people in the room; it's about talking to the people we're trying to help and letting our deepening understanding of their needs guide us. It's about listening and humility.

Obviously, who you choose to listen to matters. Roxann's observation is that to really serve your community, the people who get to design the process also matter. If a design thinking process is architected by people of privilege, the derived insights will be filtered through that privilege. If only a narrow demographic is performing human-centered tests, only that demographic gets to design hypotheses, and only their questions will be answered. The only way to achieve real equity is to invite people to be co-designers and co-owners of the process, and of the outcomes.

The workshop we co-facilitated was a first taste of these ideas, for an invite-only audience of practitioners from small newsrooms around the world. I'm hoping I'll get to do more of these. And while I was a contributor, these ideas are Roxann's instigation: I hope she'll have a suitable platform to share them more widely.



I've been drawing a lot again lately. They're just for me - time that's completely my own to make something without any expectation of productivity. It feels really good, and completely different to my tech work or other writing. In some ways, more me.

I've been posting to my Instagram, but it feels wrong to not keep a record on my own site, too.


What can we do?

I saw the footage of fascists marching in Washington DC yesterday, chanting "reclaim America". I'm sure I wasn't alone in feeling helpless. What can we do, really?

We can do a lot. And we must.

Indivisible has a good page about how to stand against white supremacy. It's a kind of primer for how one might begin to think about the topic. I think one document - Tools for White Guys who are Working for Social Change … and other people socialized in a society based on domination - is particularly strong.

As I write this, I'm in Philadelphia to co-facilitate a workshop on designing for equity with the great Roxann Stafford, who taught me a great deal when we were both working at Matter. Our audience is local newsrooms from around the world. In a world where democracy is threatened by authoritarians who wield xenophobia and nationalism as weapons, we need journalism that addresses the needs, and amplifies the voices, of vulnerable communities more than ever. I'm excited to listen and learn.

The biggest thing we need to do is listen to the people who are affected most - not just in the current moment, but by generations of institutional discrimination. And then we need to stand alongside them, make space for their leadership, and ensure they are heard and empowered everywhere, in every aspect of life.

It sickens me to see racists and nationalists marching on our streets. But if we sit back and do nothing, we're complicit. We've all got to do something.


Reading, watching, playing, using: January 2020

Every month in 2019, I rounded up the books and notable articles I'd read. This year, I'm expanding that to include the streaming media and apps that I meaningfully engaged with.

As ever, none of the links below are affiliate programs or were added for payment. I just want to recommend stuff I found interesting.


Loving Day, by Mat Johnson. Ruthlessly honest; sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking. A wonderful novel about race, identity, and family, delivered with incredible wit and insight. I couldn't recommend it more.

White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo. I found this a difficult read, but was immediately kind of ashamed that I hadn't read it earlier. I think all white people should consider picking it up, and really thinking not just about the substance of its arguments, but the way it feels to read them. Powerful, important, but just one step on what has to be a much longer journey.


Duolingo. We have a league at work, which I fell into accidentally. When I was seven years old, we lived in Austria for a year, and I almost became fluent in German. I've always felt guilty about dropping that ability. Duolingo genuinely makes it easy to learn something new every day, and I've found those language skills coming back. It's a little buggy, but it does the job.

Blinkist. I love reading, but I find business books in particular to be kind of padded out and interminable. Often they could have quite happily been a long-form article. So for those books, I'm experimenting with using these Sparks Notes instead. So far so good. (And I can happily spend more time reading the novels and non-fiction books I want to read, instead of the ones I feel I should. No shame here.)


Doctor Who Season 12. Jodie Whitaker is brilliant, and the whole season so far has been one of the best in years. Yes, I'm a lifelong, die-hard Whovian, but this year's stories have made me very very happy. Side note: I'm loving that a bug in Rotten Tomatoes means their description for this season reads as follows: "Alongside Sarah and Harry Sullivan, the Fourth Doctor tries to avert the genesis of the Daleks and in deep space he faces Cybermen, Vogans and the deadly Wirrn!" That Doctor Who Season 12 started its run in 1974. This one is right up there.

Star Trek: Picard. As someone who really hated the JJ Abrams Kelvin timeline movies, I'm pretty excited about Star Trek's renaissance on CBS All Access. (Some fans hated Discovery; I was emphatically not one of them.) This isn't at all Star Trek: The Next Generation, despite sharing some characters. It's something new, very much for adults, that (so far) touches on identity, personal meaning, and tolerance.

The Good Place. The first season was fine; it then evolved into the kind of show that feels comfortable discussing philosophical constructs within the bounds of a 30 minute comedy - and is smart enough to. The finale was outstanding.

Dark: Season 2. If you haven't encountered Dark yet, I'm jealous. This is intricate and literary science fiction. Just don't watch the dubbed version.

Fleabag: Season 2. I finally finished watching it in January. Season 1 was great, but honestly a bit like a smarter Peep Show (which, hey, I also love); the second season is like watching theater, in the best possible way.

The Heart. Revamped and beautiful, the new iteration of this podcast describes itself as "an audio art project about intimacy and humanity". It's edgier and more overtly queer, with a more experimental sound. And its pulse is racing. I'm really glad I kept my subscription, even when the old podcast went dead.

Notable Articles


Exclusive: Unredacted Ukraine Documents Reveal Extent of Pentagon’s Legal Concerns. “Clear direction from POTUS to continue to hold.” Just one of the many sets of documents Republicans didn't want the public to see.

Fresh Cambridge Analytica leak ‘shows global manipulation is out of control’.  They worked in 68 countries. “I’m very fearful about what is going to happen in the US election later this year, and I think one of the few ways of protecting ourselves is to get as much information out there as possible.”

Report: Trump Cited GOP Senate Impeachment Pressure As Reason to Kill Soleimani. "This would not mean Trump ordered the strike entirely, or even primarily, in order to placate Senate Republicans. But it does constitute an admission that domestic political considerations influenced his decision. That would, of course, constitute a grave dereliction of duty."

American history textbooks can differ across the country, in ways that are shaded by partisan politics. We're living in different worlds - and the way we teach perpetuates this. The  differences are shocking.

Not a Joke: Trump Is Looking Into Making Bribery Legal. It's hard to know where to look anymore.

Meet the Boy Scouts of the Border Patrol. No unsettling historical analogues here; none at all.

Andrew Yang and the New American Tories. "Yang seems to uniquely attract this kind of person — the recently established and self-regarding. His supporters include Tesla founder Elon Musk, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, rapper and actor Donald Glover, who threw an impromptu concert for Yang in December, Weezer lead singer Rivers Cuomo, and actor Nicolas Cage. They all in one way or another belong to a previous age, in which the pretensions of wealth and talent were given more deference."

Culture & Society

I’ve Talked With Teenage Boys About Sexual Assault for 20 Years. This Is What They Still Don’t Know. "Teenage boys are hungry for practical conversations about sex. They want to know the rules. They want to be the good guy, the stand-up, honorable dude. Their intentions might be good, but their ignorance is dangerous. Our society has begun talking a bit more openly about these issues, but that doesn’t mean teenage boys suddenly have all the information they need."

Installing air filters in classrooms has surprisingly large educational benefits. A $1,000 air filter "can raise a class’s test scores by as much as cutting class size by a third." So we should do this everywhere.

Read all about it – the truth about British colonialism. Britain is really bad at talking about the  horrors of the Empire. I love that these students set out to do something about it, Yes Men style.

The Anti-War, Pro-Animal Rights, Colonialist History of Doctor Dolittle's Creation. "Even though Lofting’s work espoused revolutionary views toward animal rights, it was regressive when it came to issues of race. The original Doctor Dolittle books are rife with racist tropes and colonialism, both in the writing and illustrations. (The Story of Doctor Dolittle features a storyline about a black prince who begs Dolittle to turn him white.)"

The Amish Keep to Themselves. And They’re Hiding a Horrifying Secret. "Over the past year, I’ve interviewed nearly three dozen Amish people, in addition to law enforcement, judges, attorneys, outreach workers, and scholars. I’ve learned that sexual abuse in their communities is an open secret spanning generations."

People are seeing ‘Cats’ while high out of their minds. These are their stories. Honestly, getting high isn't usually my thing, but I wish I'd done this.

Study: Men are more emotional than women at work. Not shocked.

How the Bay Was Built. I'm new to this: "a community archive of documents about the Bay Area, focused on race and housing" that Alexis Madrigal published last year. It's a fascinating look at the history of the Bay Area.

How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town. The amazing, very human story of an art project that celebrated inclusion, and how it affected the residents in a small, Trump-leaning town.

Higher minimum wages are linked to lower suicide rates. People need more support, end of story.


Citizen journalism platform uses Bluetooth to bring news to media dark villages in India. This is a super-cool project in every way. I wish there was more funding and support available for these kinds of endeavors.

Students Are Campaigning to Ban Facial Recognition From College Campuses. "Students should not have to trade their right to privacy for an education, and no one should be forced to unwittingly participate in a surveillance program which will likely include problematic elements of law enforcement." Power to them. This kind of use of face recognition should be heavily regulated at the very least.

Meet The Viral Icons Of Twitter. Joke Twitter (and its close cousin, Weird Twitter) is a pretty  wonderful internet subculture that reminds me of the old-school web.

Helen Leigh: “Art shouldn’t be only for those who can afford to make it”. I'm so proud of my friend Helen. Completely inspiring.

The Basecamp Guide to Internal Communication. "How do we keep everyone in the loop without everyone getting tangled in everyone else's business? It's all in here." Some really great principles for intra-company communication. I'm in too many meetings; I don't believe that it's the same as being productive. This list appeals to me a lot.

Opera: Phantom of the Turnaround – 70% Downside. Opera (the browser company) has started making money through predatory lending. A surreal and sad result of a bad acquisition.

The Secretive Company That Might End Privacy as We Know It. Dystopian but inevitable. Everyone who works on this kind of software should be ashamed. And our legislature needs to catch up to our technological reality.

The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure. I very strongly think this needs to happen. Public service digital media is an important counterbalance to the exponential capitalism we see dominating the internet today.

Exclusive: Apple dropped plan for encrypting backups after FBI complained - sources. When I posted this on Twitter I got some backlash, but no, this is a silent change to their stated policy. And it makes me trust Apple significantly less.

United States of Surveillance. "The patchwork of U.S. surveillance laws has proven ineffective at countering terrorism, instead turning citizens into suspects." A really great, in-depth overview of its history and implications.

You Are Now Remotely Controlled. "In the absence of new declarations of epistemic rights and legislation, surveillance capitalism threatens to remake society as it unmakes democracy. From below, it undermines human agency, usurping privacy, diminishing autonomy and depriving individuals of the right to combat. From above, epistemic inequality and injustice are fundamentally incompatible with the aspirations of a democratic people."

Health-Records Company Pushed Opioids to Doctors in Secret Deal With Drugmaker. Practice Fusion made a deal with a company that looks like Purdue to push a drug that looks like it was OxyContin. Imagine being the entrepreneurs or the coders who built this. They need to go to jail.

Rich people can't build social networks. Bad headline (they can and do), but an important story about a really dumb-looking new network called Column, from some Thiel associates, and a guy who is chummy with the founder of the Proud Boys. With its focus on celebrities, it's like an online Fyre Festival. MIT Technology Review has a more journalistic take on the story.


Brexit and me

This will probably be my last post about Brexit.

I'll lose the ability to live in the country I grew up in three hours from the moment I'm sat at my desk writing this. You'll probably read this after it has happened. I'm doing fine and have the privilege of being able to live in a lot of places. But I can’t say it doesn't feel like a tragedy. I feel great sadness at the loss.

Brexit is a misguided act of self-sabotage. It was fueled by xenophobia and nationalism. It’s infuriating. But for right now, I miss my friends just a little bit more.

Could I have become a British citizen? Yes, but not without losing a nationality. I chose not to do that. I accept that I had that ability, and didn't use it. But in my defense, during my decades in the UK I honestly didn't think a referendum like 2016's was possible, or that a day like today would come to pass.

I'm sad, too, for the idea of a multicultural society with global horizons. I do think that's where the world is going. We're all becoming a bit more mixed; steadily a bit more diverse. I think that's to everyone's benefit. But today is undeniably a setback, and the rise of nationalism worldwide is also a setback.

I don't think there is any merit in nationalism, or the bigotry that inevitably accompanies it. There are no saving graces in small island mentalities. We're all citizens of the world, whether we like it or not. And I believe - strongly - in a world where everyone gets to feel the benefit of that.

We'll get there. But not today.


The worst mistake startups make

I co-founded two startups (once as CTO, and once as CEO). I was the first employee at two more (CTO and VP of Product Development). I’ve helped to source and invest in 24 more startups, and have advised 75. Right now I’m the Head of Engineering at ForUsAll, a Series B fintech company. Throughout this journey, I’ve made the same mistake multiple times - and seen far more founders follow suit.

Unlock to read more ...


Trying something new

I'm running an experiment with Julien Genestoux, CEO of Unlock. You might remember that I was the VP of Product Development there until last August - I'm very proud of the technology we worked on, and I'm excited about what the team has worked on since.

Starting with my next post, one long-form piece a week will be locked for members. It will always be a piece about the intersection of technology and democracy, breaking down a part of the market and discussing the implications. Meanwhile, Julien is locking his posts too - so by unlocking membership on one site, you'll have access to both. Access to all locked posts on both sites, as well as locked posts on anyone else's site who joins the bundle in the future, will cost $5 a year.

Unlock is a decentralized protocol that allows anyone to monetize their site without going through a third-party platform. It's as distributed as the web itself. And it's more flexible than most solutions - which is why it's incredibly easy for Julien and I to bundle our content together, even though we're running completely independent sites on two different platforms. You can either pay using a credit card or with cryptocurrency (using either Ethereum or something called a stablecoin, which is equivalent to a stable dollar value).

We're using it as a paywall, but you can use it to build any kind of monetization strategy or test, including patronage, mailing lists, tickets to real-world or virtual events, and more. It's worth taking a closer look.

Or just wait for my next post to see how easy it is.


After the debate

I'm still hopeful for a progressive candidate. There are two to choose from. I'm still planning on voting for Warren in the primary.

America is a fundamentally conservative country by policy, but I don't believe this is the case by population. There's a reason why Bernie Sanders is America's most popular serving politician (according to 11 polls in a row). The electoral college and our weird post-civil-war systems of representation have created a tyranny of the minority.

Beyond the obviousness of the Trump administration's deficiencies, I find American conservative values to be completely unacceptable. I'd love to find someone on the Republican side who I share any ground at all with, but I haven't been able to. Consistently, it's the party of corruption, racism, bigotry, fundamentalist religion, and abusing the poor. There's nothing there for me.

Similarly, the center path. Centrists in America are far to the right of centrists in most countries. Perhaps they're more balanced between the two ends of the spectrum, but those two ends are not equally weighted. The systemic injustices in this country are so pronounced and ingrained that accepting their continued existence is bigotry in itself. And American nationalism is so rancid that it demands a strong rejection.

Anyone who's lived in any other developed nation for any length of time - and if you have the means, everyone should - can see through the common lies. I know what living with universal healthcare looks and feels like, and I know that it enabled my entrepreneurial career. (I could not care less about turfing people off their existing plans; a universal plan will be better.) I know what free university looks and feels like, and I know that living without significant student debt allowed me to make riskier decisions that created millions of dollars in value. And I know that America is not the only, or even the most, democratically free country in the world.

We don't lose freedoms by having stronger social infrastructure: we make the majority of Americans more free. These protections will create jobs, enable entrepreneurship, and build a stronger economy. The only thing we curtail is the right of the very wealthy to build their wealth in a way that harms the majority. As Warren rightly puts it: capitalism without rules is theft. And it's time we built an environment where the rules serve the people of this country. We don't have that today - but it's within our grasp.

I roll my eyes at flag-waving bullshit, but I believe that a truly progressive America really would be the best country in the world. But we have to build it. And we can.


On the Plaid acquisition

Yesterday, Plaid announced it was being acquired by Visa for $5.3 billion ($4.9 billion in cash, and $400 million in retention equity). It took me by surprise: I expected Plaid to continue to grow as an independent platform. Still, given that its Series C put it at roughly a $2.65 billion valuation, it represents a decent (if not spectacular) return for its investors.

Plaid is an integration platform for fintech: it makes it significantly easier for platforms to connect to banking institutions. As Ben Thompson wrote in Stratechery, this is a really big deal:

Many banks in the U.S. do not have APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that offer a programmatic means of accessing a particular account; those that do are not consistent with each other in either implementation or in features. Plaid gets around this by effectively acting as a deputy for consumers: the latter give Plaid their username and password for their bank account, and Plaid utilizes that to basically log in to a bank’s website on the user’s behalf.

Nearly 25% of US banking customers have stored their banking credentials with Plaid, whether they realize it or not. It's what powers banking connections for Venmo, Coinbase, Acorns, and other major fintech apps.

The mechanism that Ben described is literally scraping: Plaid uses a programmable "headless" browser to pretend to be a user, log in, and perform actions on the Plaid user's behalf. These connections are inherently flaky and tricky to keep up to date: if a bank's user interface changes, the integration is likely to need to be rewritten. Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of institutions that don't have APIs, and it's a significant, full-time undertaking. Rather them than me.

"Rather them than me" for valuable tasks is a pretty good basis for a platform business.

These institutions often, for very good security reasons, do their best to block scrapers, usig services like Distil Networks. That means that anyone who wants to build a scraping integration will need to be whitelisted. And it's far less likely for Joe Schmo and his new, unknown fintech startup to get whitelisted than Plaid. When I spoke to Plaid on the phone recently, they told me that around 85% of its integrations had underlying relationships. Which implies that up to around 15% don't - an incredible statistic in itself, which is indicative of the technological state of the US financial industry.

As Ben points out, that inertia is possibly understandable from the point of view of the banks:

As long as it is hard to move money around, the more likely it is that that money will stay in the bank, collecting minuscule interest; or, if customers need value-added services, the path of lowest resistance will be simply getting them from their bank.

An API-based world where data sharing is possible changes that situation dramatically, and allows for a new wave of innovation in financial technology, where anyone can build services around anyone's bank account. And at the center will be Visa, taking a cut and doubtless learning from everyone's financial connections.

By lowering the friction to integrating with existing institutions, Plaid also entrenches the legacy banking system. The easier it is for fintech startups to work with traditional banking, the less likely they are to move to truly alternative systems. In a way, it allows them to protect against any threat posed by peer to peer currencies and the emerging decentralized ecosystem. In a world where Visa controls connectivity to fintech applications, any crypto network or alternative network who wants to reach those apps will need to make a deal with them and abide by their rules.

It's a good buy for them, although I wish we could see a world where Plaid continued to run as a completely independent company, free from the strings associated with legacy financial institutions.

If you're interested, the whole Visa / Plaid deck is worth a read.


41 Things

One. Today is my birthday. I’m forty-one years old. That one’s for free, phishers.

Two. My first memory is walking down a street in Amsterdam with my parents. A cobbler’s sign with wooden clogs hangs high above us. On street level, I loop and soar my red plastic aeroplane. A bigger kid with round, Dutch cheeks snatches it out of my hands and runs off with it. I haven’t yet begun to speak, and I watch as he disappears, unable to tell my parents what has happened.

Three. I like “two truths and a lie”. It’s a party game. You declare three “facts” about you, two of which are true, and the other people playing the game have to guess the lie. I always include this: when I was a small child, Albanian seamstresses lined up to pinch my cheeks, while my parents stood helplessly despite my tears, unwilling to cause an international incident. That one’s true.

Four. When I was eleven years old, my family spent the year in Durham, North Carolina. We house-swapped with an abortion doctor - a beautiful home, which would sometimes be egged, backing onto a lake full of catfish. We weren’t allowed to hang out in the front rooms of the house, just in case.

Five. We lived in Vienna when I was seven, which was also the year that Chernobyl blew. The weather forecast included rain and fallout numbers. Austria’s radioactivity was always mysteriously lower than the countries around it. We ate a lot of food imported from countries that were further away, like canned tuna and kiwi juice.

Six. I realized the other day that I’ve lived in the United States continuously for longer than I’ve continuously lived anywhere at any other time in my life. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Seven. I’m lying. I know exactly how I feel about that. It’s weird.

Eight. I don’t want to feel tethered down. But not wanting to feel tethered down is its own kind of ideological prison. Does that make sense?

Nine. I’ve learned to hate the question “where are you from?”. I always hedge and say something like: “it’s complicated, but I grew up in England.” Even that isn’t completely true. I used to say “I’m from the internet” as both a joke and a deflection, but the internet is tainted now. There’s no accepted answer because I don’t fit into any of those boxes.

Ten. Where am I from? I’m from the experiences that made me. The relationships and joy and struggle of being human. I’m not from a place. The place is irrelevant. You might as well ask me where I last bought a sandwich.

Eleven. I have a piece of paper that tells me I’m an American, among other things. Administratively, that’s true.

Twelve. I don’t know if I qualify as a real third culture kid. TCKs are people who grew up in a culture that was not theirs nor either of their parents. The definition technically fits. But often, third culture kids grew up in military families or were the children of international businesspeople, moving throughout their entire childhoods. My parents were perpetual students, but we didn’t move all that much in comparison.

Thirteen. Still, the culture I grew up in was my family’s, not my country’s (or any country’s). I don’t know how different that is to everyone else. Maybe it’s not really any different at all. But some people seem to feel rooted in what they consider to be their country of origin. They’re proud of it, even.

Fourteen. For me, home is people. It’s not a place.

Fifteen. I last bought a sandwich in downtown San Francisco, near where I work, in the pouring rain. I took it back and ate it at my desk, against all my own advice, scooping crumbs from my desk as my jeans slowly dried.

Sixteen. I’ve decided not to celebrate my birthday this year. Last year I threw a big party: live bands and an open bar in downtown Oakland. A lot more people came than I was expecting. It carried me through most of the year. I realized I have a lot of people in my life who I care about, and who care about me. That’s a good feeling: a deep affirmation. But it’s also deeply vulnerable, in a way.

Seventeen. My sandwich was the same order I used to get in Oxford, and in Edinburgh, and in Berkeley. Roast turkey with salad, mayo, mustard. It’s not the same sandwich, but it is. The idea of the sandwich is the same, even if the ingredients are drawn from different places and assembled in different ways. It’s identifiably the same turkey sandwich I always get, but my order has been reflected through the context of my current location and the experiences of the person making it. It’s an expression of my memory, sculpted through my present, and it’s an expression of the constellation of people who made the ingredients and assembled it.

Eighteen. I may be overthinking my lunch. Bear with me.

Nineteen. People are home, but life is a journey. The people you meet and know change as your life changes. The intersection of context and experience is in flux. Home isn’t a static idea. It’s always moving.

Twenty. They say that the human body refreshes itself roughly every seven years. Old cells die; new cells replace them. In reality, every part of your body is on a different cycle. In some parts of the body, it’s a day or two. Others last as long as a decade. And some cells stay with you your entire life. You’re a changing combination of old and new cells every living moment of every day, but your old body is never completely gone.

Twenty-one. The chromosomes in a cell are protected by their tips, which are called telomeres. Every time a cell divides, your telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell enters a state called senescence, in which it can no longer divide. Eventually it stops functioning. 

Twenty-two. The ribonucleoprotein telomerase helps to protect your telomeres as your cells divide. In people with conditions that affect production of telomerase, their telomeres aren’t protected, and parts of their body where the cells refresh faster enter senescence sooner.

Twenty-three. Like, for example, my mother’s lungs.

Twenty-four. Most of my cells were made since I moved to California. Most of the body I had when I lived my life in England, and in Scotland, is gone.

Twenty-five. But some of it was with me when that boy stole my plane on the streets of Amsterdam, and when Chernobyl melted down, and when I had my first meaningful kiss, and when I thought I was going to die young.

Twenty-six. I’d say I’m not going to die young, but who really knows? The medical science today doesn’t think so. They have a theory about a genetic variant, which I was tested for, and don’t have. But the medical science tomorrow might disagree. 

Twenty-seven. And at any rate, there’s nothing to say that I won’t be hit by a bus, or contract a different terminal disease, or be caught in a freak accident. These things happen all the time. It would be wrong to cower in fear worrying about them, but it would also be wrong to put off all the joy and beauty of living until later. What I’ve learned is: you don’t know what’s going to happen. So while you can, live.

Twenty-eight. Deciding how to live is hard. There is more than one kind of sandwich.

Twenty-nine. What does it mean to live? People talk about living up to your potential, but how do you know what your potential is? Why do you have just one potential, instead of a galaxy of parallel potentials, or none? And who says you have to live up to any of them? It seems like a kind of trap: try and realize an externally-imposed vision of your life, in the process ignoring your own happiness and the beautiful serendipity of being human.

Thirty. I don’t want to adhere to someone else’s expectations of who I should be. I don’t want to put those same kinds of expectations on anyone else.

Thirty-one. I was never good at joining things. My friends were part of the Sea Scouts, and I didn’t want to be a part of it because they all wore a uniform, literally and figuratively. Another friend’s dad ran a children’s theater group, which I should have loved, but I was scared of it. In retrospect, I think I was scared of not fitting in, and of people laughing at me because I was different. There was precedent.

Thirty-two. Sometimes we do terrible things to each other, whether we want to or not. The best we can do is to be mindful, and to resist.

Thirty-three. I wish I could be braver, sometimes. I’m trying.

Thirty-four. Someone once told me that not wanting to be like everybody else was arrogance. By rejecting conformity, I was saying that those values weren’t good enough for me, and that I was saying I was better than people who chose to assimilate. I think about that a lot. I think about it differently: I just don’t think I’m very good at assimilation. And I don’t think anyone should have to be.

Thirty-five. I’m drawn to people who are unafraid to be themselves. Often they’re LGBTQIA+ and conformity would mean denying a fundamental truth about who they are. Or they’re a third culture kid who’s trying to find their own way. There are many other boxes to not fit into. It always takes bravery. It shouldn’t have to. But like I said, sometimes we do terrible things to each other.

Thirty-six. I value allyship more than anything. Home is people. Safe spaces are people, too. Not all people. But the right ones.

Thirty-seven. Just as cells divide, our lives and the essence of who we are are driven by change and flux. Just as my cells from a decade ago have been replaced, I’m a different person. My experiences, fears, loves, and values have refreshed, even if the core of me has been there my entire life.

Thirty-eight. We’re asked to make money, to collect material goods, to assimilate. Who is that in the interests of?

Thirty-nine. Home and safety are love are not to be found in your potential, or in conformity to what other people say you should aspire to. And we are not the same as the people in our memories. Telomerase protects cells as they refresh. Community - your family, your friends, your allies - protect the essence of who you are. 

Forty. Condos and Teslas and conspicuous consumption aren’t success. Wealth isn’t success. Safety is success, but more than that, success is happiness in your own skin, embracing life’s constant change and flux, and having a community that inspires and encourages you even when times are hard. As I turn forty-one, I’m grateful to have those things.

Forty-one. I love life. I love you. Onwards.