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Engineer, startup founder, investor, and writer

benwerd

benwerd

benwerd

ben.werdmuller

ben.werdmuller.blog

ben@benwerd.com

 

Realizing that my superpower is writing, and my un-superpower is showing up well in the moment in meetings, I need to spend more time reflecting and writing my thoughts down about how to progress.

 

Fairness Friday: Harmony Health Clinic

‌‌I’m posting Fairness Fridays: a new community social justice organization each week. I donate to each featured organization. If you feel so inclined, please join me.

This week I’m donating to Harmony Health Clinic. Based in Little Rock, Arkansas, Harmony Health Clinic “seeks to understand and serve the health and wellness needs of the medically uninsured and underserved who live in Pulaski County, by providing access to quality medical care at no cost to these patients in a private, community-based clinic, staffed by medical professional volunteers and marked by a unique atmosphere of caring, compassion, respect, dignity, and diversity.”

It describes its mission as follows:

[…] The Clinic’s founders are committed to advancing social justice through the provision of quality health care to those who are denied it by virtue of barriers such as socioeconomic status. We believe that universal access to decent health care is integral to the sanctity, development and enjoyment of life, and vital to an individual’s ability to fully realize one’s dignity and potential. Virtually every religious faith and major Christian denomination takes the position that access to decent health care is and should be recognized as a basic human right, and that the prevailing health care system in this country utterly fails to protect that right when it does not ensure adequate coverage for all Americans. Indeed, the United States of America stands virtually alone among all industrialized nations as the only country which does not provide health care coverage to all of its citizens.

As the pandemic progresses and health needs compound, I’m concerned about the impact on the most vulnerable, particularly in some of the most impoverished and unequal parts of the country. Harmony Health Clinic is one organization that is helping to alleviate these inequities.

I donated. If you have the means, I encourage you to join me here.

I found Harmony Health Clinic through the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, which provides support for the uninsured and underinsured nationwide. I donated to them, too, and I encourage you to do the same.

 

What decisions would you make differently if you thought we were in the foothills of the pandemic - with the worst still to come, maybe for decades?

 

Who is the best wartime engineering lead of a small to medium sized startup you know?

 

Settling

Something I’ve learned over the last decade is that I have a very different relationship to place than many - perhaps even most - people.

I come by it honestly. In my nuclear family growing up, each of us had a slightly different accent, shaped by our respective journeys. My dad’s is Dutch; my mother’s was American; my sister and I sit in different places along the British-to-American spectrum, and have fluctuated along that axis throughout our lives.

Parts of my family ancestry moved by force: concentration camps in Indonesia and pogroms in Ukraine. But even on the theoretically more stable sides of my family, my forebears typically decided to move around a bunch. Even within the bounds of my own history, my childhood was spent in the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Austria, and the United States.

When I came along, a tiny zygote interrupting a life among the political activists of 1970s Berkeley, my parents decided to move to Europe. I’m sure it wasn’t exactly a no-brainer for them, but they were clear on their decision: they would prefer to have a child in Europe than the United States. That pattern continued throughout my childhood: we traveled for educational opportunities, and for work. It was a privileged existence in the sense that experiencing different cultures and living in different places is privileged; we didn’t have much money, and scraped to get by.

I’ve inherited that wanderlust, and I guess a sense of willingness to be somewhere new. There’s nothing wrong with its opposite - a desire to stay and grow roots, to be deeply settled - but that understanding didn’t come easily to me. There’s something almost genetic about not wanting to be in one place forever. There’s so much world out there!

I’m not at all jealous of the folks whose families have been in the same spot for generations. Again, there’s nothing wrong with it, but it feels like so much more might be possible. And I have to acknowledge that it’s a ridiculous stance, because so much of the traveling in my family history comes from trauma: it’s not so much that people just wanted to roam. They were forced out; their homes burned; their communities tortured and murdered. Perhaps there’s a virtue to be found in the resilience that’s a required outcome of that, but not so much in the act itself. These were atrocities.

And yet. I like to move.

Evan Prodromou wrote about this internal conflict on his blog yesterday. He’s wondering about his geographic legacy, and considering lessons from Melody Warnick’s book This is Where You Belong.

The book covers a lot of the reasons that staying put is more healthy physically and psychologically than constantly moving. It also has a number of commonsense recommendations for establishing connections to the place you’re living. Like: walk or bike more, so you see things up close. Volunteer. Meet people. Learn the history. Do what people who live there do.

To me, settling has always felt like settling: coming to a compromise agreement with the world. I feel like I need to erase that chip in my brain, and I haven’t quite found the way to do it.

I would love to settle in the sense of finding a comfortable place to rest, and in the sense of putting down real roots. I have not yet found a way to feel okay with it.

 

In support of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act

I’d like to informally join the list of technologists who support the American Innovation and Choice Online Act. Here’s the full text of the bill.

Specifically, the bill would prevent “covered platforms” from prioritizing their products and services over those provided by other vendors in a way that would harm competition on that platform.

That could be interpreted to mean app stores and search engines: a “covered platform” is one that has at least 50M US-based monthly active users, at least 100K monthly active “business users”, and has either a market cap or revenues of at least $550B. It also needs to have the potential to “materially impede” access from a business to its users / customers, or to tools a business needs to service its users or customers.

It’s a good law. Neither search engine or marketplace vendors should have the ability to preference services made by that vendor over equivalent services made by others. Apple shouldn’t be able to promote Apple’s services over a startup’s on the App Store; Google shouldn’t be able to promote Google’s services on its store or in its search engine results. The result will be a better ecosystem for startups, independent projects, and software produced by co-operatives and collectives.

Similarly, the Open App Markets Act would prevent App Store providers from forcing app vendors to use the provider’s payments technology. Apple wouldn’t be able to require that subscriptions go through iTunes, for example. That’s a big change that, again, creates better terms for startups and helps to establish a more competitive ecosystem.

This is the kind of thing legislation should be doing: helping to enforce fairer markets that allow newcomers to compete with incumbents on a level playing field. I’m hopeful that these bills pass, and that they’re a precursor to real antitrust reform. In the light of today’s announcement around an overhauled merger approval process, we may be in luck.

A more competitive landscape is one where consumers have more choices and protections, and ecosystems are more open and innovative. These active steps to get there represent a change that’s been a long time coming.

 

We should just accept work is remote for now

I’m 90% convinced that most tech workers are going to be working remotely for the duration of 2022. Omicron has pushed out much-fanfare returns to the office, and there’s nothing to say that there won’t be another wave after that. It’s simply not safe, and it won’t be safe for some time.

Rather than playing that by ear and seeing how we go, which has resulted in an announcement about returning to the office followed by a retraction roughly every quarter, I think companies should go ahead and make the assumption. It’ll help the companies themselves make better financial decisions. For example, Google can save the $6.3M it spends on food each year and direct it elsewhere (for example, to help parents, carers, and other people who need it). But more importantly, the certainty will help employees plan their lives.

There’s a lot to be gained from being remote. Within certain parameters, I vastly prefer it: I do better work, I waste less time traveling, I eat better food and do more exercise, and feel less tired at the end of each day. Those parameters and boundaries are important, though: if work bleeds into every hour of the day because there’s no set home-time from the office, it’s a much worse experience (and everyone does worse work because they’re wiped out).

But more than that, there’s a lot to be gained from not being wishy-washy about it. Burnout happens, in part, when you work really hard but feel like you don’t have control. Left unchecked, the uncertainty and powerlessness of our covid situation can be a huge contributor to it. Removing that psychic overhead could, I think, reduce one of the most important stressful overheads of this era.

There’s a lot to work out. The pandemic has disproportionately affected people from vulnerable communities, and remote working can exacerbate those effects. We can’t ignore the equity issues with remote working - but that means leaning into them and finding real solutions that make for more equitable workplaces, rather than pretending that remote work is going away any time soon.

The best workplaces are kind, inclusive, empathetic, and responsive to their workers’ needs. That doesn’t have to mean in-person - particularly when being in-person carries the risk of contracting a disease that could affect your entire life. Let’s take that out of the equation and focus on how to make things better in our new reality. There’s no going back to normal. Not for a long time yet.

 

Prime Minister mishandles deadly pandemic, resulting in the excess death of many thousands: basically crickets

Prime Minister breaks a rule about having parties: absolute armageddon

Whatever it takes for him to go, I guess

 

The startupification of tech

Over the last decade or two tech has become dominated by the startup: a small, new business that rapidly reinvents itself in an iterative process. Once upon a time, the aim of that process was - or at least, seemed like it was - to be as useful as possible to a well-defined target group of users. These days it feels like the aim is mostly to gain as high a valuation as possible by moving from venture capital funding round to funding round, eventually making bank through an exit event.

That startupification has had an interesting effect on tech communities. I’m from the utopian era of the web, when we all thought we could build something to connect that world, and by doing so that we would make it more peaceful. These days, it seems like people are mostly in it to make millions of dollars - which feels like an emptier, less exciting goal, to say the least. The possibilities for social change used to seem endless; now the conversation is mostly about funding rounds or financial yield. In itself, it’s boring, but it also changes who is attracted to the space: we’ve gone from a loose group of weird social idealists to being overwhelmed by a bolus of the most boring possible people. The tech workforce is becoming Wall Street in hoodies, far more concerned with the performance of their RSUs than the impact they’re having in the world.

Of course, there are still idealists: people who believe in making the world more equal and democratic, and that technology has a part to play in making it happen. The indieweb movement remains one great example of this; there are also plenty of people working on tech for good, or mission-driven endeavors where the social impact comes first. Even in companies that are a part of this financialization of tech, there are people doing great work on inclusivity, unionization, and advocacy for social responsibility. Nonetheless, at this point, these groups are in the minority.

I find that personally demotivating - it’s not why I got into the space, or why I’m excited about it - but it’s also kind of counterproductive. If you’re laser focused on helping a defined group of people, you’re more likely to build a valuable company, because you’re literally generating value. Conversely, if you’re focused on making money as a goal rather than a means to an end, you’re more likely to make shallower decisions that undermine your value. Being focused on helping your user means you’re aligned with them; being primarily focused on your financial goals means you’re primarily aligned with yourself. To put it another way, if the aim is to raise a round or make a bunch of money personally, you’re more likely to make decisions that screw your users and undermine that goal to begin with. It’s also just a selfish, stupid way to look at the world.

Remember this Apple campaign?

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

It doesn’t say here’s to the stockbrokers, is all I’m saying. Tech could use a little more crazy, a little more outside thinking, a little more equity-mindedness, and a little less greed. That’s how the world gets changed: by focusing on people, not on dollar bills.

 

Photo by Israel Andrade on Unsplash

 

 

Fairness Friday: Project HOME

‌‌I’m posting Fairness Fridays: a new community social justice organization each week. I donate to each featured organization. If you feel so inclined, please join me.

This week I’m donating to Project HOME. Based in Philadelphia, Project HOME aims to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty in the Philly area.

It describes its mission as follows:

The mission of the Project HOME community is to empower adults, children, and families to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty, to alleviate the underlying causes of poverty, and to enable all of us to attain our fullest potential as individuals and as members of the broader society. We strive to create a safe and respectful environment where we support each other in our struggles for self-esteem, recovery, and the confidence to move toward self-actualization.

Its work includes permanent, subsidized housing for individuals and families who had been homeless; learning, training, and employment; affordable healthcare services for the underserved; and K12 education for vulnerable children and teens. Its work is holistic, addressing underlying causes as well as immediate needs.

I donated. If you have the means, please join me here.