Bad Blood

Rating: Buy this book today!

Bad Blood tells the story of Theranos, a Silicon Valley startup worth billions that turned into perhaps the biggest fraud since Bernie Madoff. John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the Theranos story, provides a very well researched and yet digestible look into what can go wrong when a companies leadership is, shall we say, less than honorable.

As is pointed out in the book, Silicon Valley companies are often just dealing with data so failures or fraud may have financial implications but rarely have life or death impacts. For investors in tech startups, the assumption is that the vast majority of investments will return nothing, it is part of the game. In the case of medical companies, the implications of fraud can be life or death – even if the investors are willing to take a loss.

Theranos was pushing the boundaries of medical science — at least that’s what they said. Much is made of Elizabeth Holmes vision for blood testing, a small pinprick of the finger to provide hundreds of tests. Making this process cheap and easy would help people monitor their health much more closely and with much less pain. You can’t fault a founder trying to push the boundaries to help make lives better – after all, that is practically the motto of Silicon Valley.

I saw a different motivation, the motivation of a narcissist. The story borders on the unbelievable but the more I think about it, the more I know I’ve seen this type of person before. Or should I say, I see this type of person, today, in business. I’ve worked with people much like Holmes who seemed so intent on winning at any costs that they left destruction their wake. People who spend a great deal of time defining the narrative and destroying any adversary to ensure their success. In business we call this “managing up,” but it’s just a confidence game played by someone trying to manipulate the situation in their favor. They play by the only rule that counts, do whatever it takes to win. I’ve seen these people and continue to see them every day.

The sad part about the Thernos story is that the underlying dysfunction isn’t unique. You probably have this problem at the company you work at. It may not end in a federal indictment, but it surely is harming your companies ability to grow and adapt.

More of a visual effect

This Motherboard article is a fascinating look at Uber.

I know this seems a misleading to you but it is meant as more of a visual effect more than an accurate location of drivers in the area. It would be better of you to think of this as a screen saver on a computer. Once a rider request a trip there will be actual information about the partners [sic] location showing up in the app.

Uber makes no distinction, visually, between the little black sedans that are available to passengers, and those that may be part of a visual effect.

The way to deal with controversy with a very interested crowd

In what I believe is an extremely rare event, a very senior Apple executive appeared on a podcast in front a live audience.  The podcast, The Talk Show with John Gruber, was a very friendly audience, made up of folks attending the 2015 WWDC in San Francisco, so Apple developers and fans all.  On the other hand it’s an opinionated bunch when it comes to Apple, an opinionated bunch with very high standards for their favorite computer company.  

What I found so interesting in this discussion was how Phil Schiller, the SVP of Marketing for Apple, handled the difficult topics.  Areas such as software quality, which many Apple faithful will say has declined recently (I agree), were dealt with by reciting facts, the data Apple uses to judge software quality in the wild.   Even though the host took issue with the baseline (some of the most annoying issues wouldn’t necessarily show up on standard crash reports for example) Phil dealt with the controversy very calmly.   Most critically he didn’t apologize for the way Apple runs the show.  Mistakes will be made, but ultimately Apple is looking for the best options and priorities.  Sometimes it will work out well, other times improvements can be made.  

This interaction stands in stark contrast to many companies that fall all over themselves apologizing for the opinions they have or options they’ve taken.  You have to respect a company that has an opinion about how things should be and stands by that over the long term.  

Design for the human

In episode 467 of HBR Ideacast Evernote CEO Phil Libin discusses how the increasingly personal devices such as the phone or smart watch are changing how work gets done.  He makes many interesting points in this podcast, but one that stood out was how these new devices are reducing the session length of each interaction.  Where time spent on a computer can be often measured in hours, time spent on each interaction with a smart watch can be measured in seconds.   This difference, a drastic reduction in session length while at the same time dramatically increasing the number of sessions per day, means that software design must take this into account by designing not for the device but the human.  

Already in the consumer space users are requiring software that seamlessly operates from device to device depending on the context (such as Apple’s continuity).  Enterprise software, or business process within business, hasn’t caught up with this phenomena.

Oh Myyy! I’m surprised I liked this book

George Takei, Mr. Sulu to most of us, has become a real internet celeb.  I recently read his new book Oh Myyy! There Goes the Internet.  I don’t spend any time on Facebook but the detail he provides on building an audience is fascinating. He spends a good bit of the book outlining how the Facebook systems work from his vantage point. I think it sounds like a creepy addiction machine but whatever. It’s a super short read, well worth the time even if you’re not interested in social media. He’s just a funny guy.

 Buy the Book

Using endless latinate language

Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London appeared on BBC Newsnight. At about the 5min mark the interviewer asked the Mayor to review three clips of other British politicians of various parties. It’s interesting to watch Johnson as he views these clips, his reaction is priceless.

More importantly his message about what was wrong with all three clips is a critical lesson. Simple language is more effective. In the words of Boris Johnson, using endless latinate words is a clue to the intent of the speaker and that intent isn’t positive.

Speak simply. Use plain English.