Tag Archives: Bill Gates

The Future of Work

Some 20 years ago, I collaborated on a white paper with Bill Gates and other senior leaders at Microsoft on the future of work, to be the centerpiece of the annual gathering he held in those days for Fortune 500 CEOs at his home.

He framed a problem in a way that has stuck with me. It has yet to be solved — but that’s where you and your companies come in, as you take advantage of what we’ve all learned during the pandemic and map out new ways of working as we scope out a new normal.

The problem concerns focus — and how to get a lot more of it in our work lives.

Now, Gates is famous for his ability to focus and drive deeply into a problem. When I knew him, if he got curious about a topic he’d take a tall stack of thick books along with him on vacation and sit on the beach under an umbrella while working through them for a week. I once was at Gates’ table at a conference when the after-dinner speaker came by. The speaker had just published a technical book on nanotechnology that was a hit in Silicon Valley — and learned that nanotechnology had been the subject of one of Gates’ beach excursions. The two got into a heated debate about how quickly nanotechnology would develop, and it was clear to all of us listening that Gates carried the day as he acknowledged massive potential but said nanotechnology wouldn’t develop nearly as fast as the speaker predicted. The arc of nanotechnology in the 30 years since that debate confirmed the ability of Gates to focus on, absorb and process massive amounts of material.

The rest of us aren’t so fortunate. But Gates had an idea. He framed it around research that, he said, showed that someone takes 15 minutes to regain focus once interrupted.

He wanted software to protect us from interruptions except those that were truly urgent — from a key client, a boss, a spouse or child — and funnel routine interactions into certain stretches of the day, where they can all be dealt with at once.

Some of those capabilities are now possible in Microsoft Teams and other sorts of software, where you can specify how available you want to be. But the world has mostly moved in the other direction. We get notifications on our phones on the very latest in the saga of Antonio Brown running out on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and on all sorts of other trivia, and we check our email and our texts constantly to see what just arrived. (Someone once aptly described email as a way for others to put things on your to-do list.)

I want what Gates laid out, and I don’t see why I can’t get it. I don’t want to just set my status in Microsoft Teams. I want a software agent to help me structure my day and keep me focused by filtering out what’s not essential.

Being on the West Coast in an East Coast world, I always need to deal with some pressing emails when I start my day — but I don’t need to see all 150 that have accumulated overnight. I could train an intelligent agent pretty quickly about which I needed to see and which could wait — reducing my first pass through email to maybe 15 minutes or half an hour, rather than some stretch of wildly varying length. I’d then give myself a bit of time to catch up on the general news of the day — in various jobs at the Wall Street Journal, I sometimes had to be up to the moment on events, and old habits die hard; I get twitchy when I’m out of touch. But I could then train an agent to shut off all but the urgent, so I could tackle the main work of the day for two or three hours without interruption before getting to the less important tasks that have piled up. Afterward, the agent could protect me for another uninterrupted stretch.

Cal Newport, who wrote a book called “A World Without Email,” tells a fascinating story about the difference between George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola following their breakout successes — Lucas with “American Graffiti” and Coppola with the “Godfather” films. Coppola bought a huge home and, eventually, a winery. Lucas bought a modest home and built a tower where he could sequester himself and work uninterrupted several hours a day. It was in that tower that he figured out how to pull together a project he’d been noodling over for years. You’ve heard of it as the “Star Wars” franchise. (Along the way, for good measure, Lucas’ efforts spun off Pixar.)

I suggest that we all need some version of Lucas’ tower. I realize that many jobs require far more interaction than my work as a writer and editor in a remote locations does, but I still believe that we can create large pockets of focus for just about everyone that will make individuals and businesses much more productive. And now is the time to address the issue, as long as we have license to rethink so many things about what work should look like post-pandemic.

I think the vision laid out by Gates two decades ago is the right approach — a software agent that I train in the same sort of way that we all train our spam filters — even though even Microsoft has only produced an anemic version of its founder’s vision.

The way I see it, if you’ve read this far in the email, I’ve now put the problem on your to-do list. Good luck. Let me know how things work out.



Where Silicon Valley Is Wrong on Innovation

Silicon Valley exemplifies the saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Very little has changed over the past decade, with the Valley still mired in myth and stale stereotype. Ask any older entrepreneurs or women who have tried to get financing; they will tell you of the walls they keep hitting. Speak to VCs, and you will realize they still consider themselves kings and kingmakers.

With China’s innovation centers nipping at the Valley’s heels, and with the innovation centers that Steve Case calls “the rest” on the rise, it is time to dispel some of Silicon Valley’s myths.

Myth 1: Only the young can innovate

The words of one Silicon Valley VC will stay with me always. He said: “People under 35 are the people who make change happen, and those over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas.” VCs are still looking for the next Mark Zuckerberg.

The bias persists despite clear evidence that the stereotype is wrong. My research in 2008 documented that the average and median age of successful technology company founders in the U.S. is 40. And several subsequent studies have made the same findings. Twice as many of these founders are older than 50 as are younger than 25; twice as many are over 60 as are under 20. The older, experienced entrepreneurs have the greatest chances of success.

Don’t forget that Marc Benioff was 35 when he founded Salesforce.com; Reid Hoffman 36 when he founded LinkedIn. Steve Jobs’s most significant innovations at Apple — the iMac, iTunes, iPod, iPhone and iPad — came after he was 45. Qualcomm was founded by Irwin Jacobs when he was 52 and by Andrew Viterbi when he was 50. The greatest entrepreneur today, transforming industries including transportation, energy and space, is Elon Musk; he is 47.

See also: Innovation: ‘Where Do We Start?’  

Myth 2: Entrepreneurs are born, not made

There is a perennial debate about who can be an entrepreneur. Jason Calacanis proudly proclaimed that successful entrepreneurs come from entrepreneurial families and start off running lemonade stands as kids. Fred Wilson blogged about being shocked when a professor told him you could teach people to be entrepreneurs. “I’ve been working with entrepreneurs for almost 25 years now,” he wrote, “and it is ingrained in my mind that someone is either born an entrepreneur or is not.”

Yet my teams at Duke and Harvard had documented that the majority, 52%, of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs were the first in their immediate families to start a business. Only a quarter of the sample we surveyed had caught the entrepreneurial bug when in college. Half hadn’t even thought about entrepreneurship even then.

Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Larry Page, Sergey Brin and Jan Koum didn’t come from entrepreneurial families. Their parents were dentists, academics, lawyers, factory workers or priests.

Anyone can be an entrepreneur, especially in this era of exponentially advancing technologies, in which a knowledge of diverse technologies is the greatest asset.

Myth 3: Higher education provides no advantage

Thiel made headlines in 2011 with his announcement that he would pay teenagers $100,000 to quit college and start businesses. He made big claims about how these dropouts would solve the problems of the world. Yet his foundation failed in that mission and quietly refocused its efforts and objectives to providing education and networking. As Wired reported, “Most (Thiel fellows) are now older than 20, and some have even graduated college. Instead of supplying bright young minds with the space and tools to think for themselves, as Thiel had originally envisioned, the fellowship ended up providing something potentially more valuable. It has given its recipients the one thing they most lacked at their tender ages: a network.”

This came as no surprise. Education and connections are essential to success. As our research at Duke and Harvard had shown, companies founded by college graduates have twice the sales and twice the employment of companies founded by others. What matters is that the entrepreneur complete a baseline of education; the field of education and ranking of the college don’t play a significant role in entrepreneurial success. Founder education reduces business-failure rates and increases profits, sales and employment.

Myth 4: Women can’t succeed in tech

Women-founded firms receive hardly any venture-capital investments, and women still face blatant discrimination in the technology field. Tech companies have promised to narrow the gap, but there has been insignificant progress.

This is despite the fact that, according to 2017 Census Bureau data, women earn more than two-thirds of all master’s degrees, three-quarters of professional degrees and 80% of doctoral degrees. Not only do girls surpass boys on reading and writing in almost every U.S. school district, they often outdo boys in math — particularly in racially diverse districts.

Earlier research by my team revealed there are also no real differences in success factors between men and women company founders: both sexes have exactly the same motivations, are of the same age when founding their startups, have similar levels of experience and equally enjoy the startup culture.

Other research has shown that women actually have the advantage: that women-led companies are more capital-efficient, and venture-backed companies run by a woman have 12% higher revenues, than others. First Round Capital found that companies in its portfolio with a woman founder performed 63% better than did companies with entirely male founding teams.

See also: Innovation — or Just Innovative Thinking?  

Myth 5: Venture capital is a prerequisite for innovation

Many would-be entrepreneurs believe they can’t start a company without VC funding. That reflected reality a few years ago, when capital costs for technology were in the millions of dollars. But it is no longer the case.

A $500 laptop has more computing power today than a Cray 2 supercomputer, costing $17.5 million, did in 1985. For storage, back then, you needed server farms and racks of hard disks, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and required air-conditioned data centers. Today, one can use cloud computing and cloud storage, costing practically nothing.

With the advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and 3D printing, the technologies are becoming cheaper, no longer requiring major capital outlays for their development. And if entrepreneurs develop new technologies that customers need or love, money will come to them, because venture capital always follows innovation.

Venture capital has become less relevant than ever to startup founders.

Time to Rethink Silicon Valley?

The downfall of Travis Kalanick should show the world of would-be tech entrepreneurs that they need better role models, that they need to stop looking up to the spoiled brats who lead some of Silicon Valley’s most hyped companies and the investors who fund their misbehavior.

Travis Kalanick’s ouster from Uber is literally a watershed for the Valley, something that is capable of shaking up its entrepreneurs and venture capitalists alike. For too long, the elite have gotten away with sexism, ageism and, to coin a word, unethicalism. The cult of the entrepreneur idolized arrogant male founders who plundered money and even sank companies; the more money they raised (and often lost), the higher the valuations their companies received and the more respect they gained. Corporate governance and social responsibility were treated as foreign concepts.

Uber was not the worst offender in the tech industry; it was just the most visible and the one that got caught. Its investors have been rightly humiliated for having their heads in the sand. This is because it has for so long been clear that Uber needs management that is more responsible — to its employees, its drivers and its customers.

The trouble first surfaced in 2013, when complaints about male drivers’ assaulting female passengers met with denials of responsibility by the company. Then followed sexist “boober” comments by Kalanick; ads in France that pitched attractive female drivers; suggestions by an Uber executive that he would dig up dirt on a journalist; and the rape of a woman passenger in New Delhi partly caused by a lax screening of drivers.

See also: What to Learn From Uber’s Recent Troubles  

But through all of this, Uber investors supported the company and accepted the ethical lapses as if they hadn’t happened. All that seemed to matter was that valuations were rising; the business, expanding. Who cared that a top Uber executive had secured a copy of the medical report of the Delhi rape victim and shared it with other company executives, including Travis Kalanick, in an attempt to discredit her? The company was growing; investors were valuing it in the billions!

Things finally reached a boiling point with a series of allegations by a woman employee about rampant sexism and sexual assault at Uber headquarters. And, fortuitously, a board member illustrated the root of the problem by making a sexist remark at a meeting about eliminating sexism. The board was finally compelled to do something it should have done years ago: force Kalanick out and clean up its act.

To be fair, there are many technology companies that are, in this regard, exemplary, including Salesforce, Microsoft and Facebook. They are going to extremes to correct problems that they had found in their ranks. I know from discussions with executives such as Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella that they have been working hard and sincerely. But too many Silicon Valley stars are like Uber.

With the help of Arianna Huffington and Eric Holder, the company is at last working on reforming itself. And maybe the downfall of Kalanick will provide not only valuable but lasting lessons for the hotshots of Silicon Valley, and of tech cultures worldwide. If Uber can do it, so can the rest of the Boys Club. They have to realize that press releases won’t suffice, that real change is necessary.

Who are “they”? To begin with, the people who fund the offenders, the venture capitalists. They have not been held accountable, and they need to be.

The Diana Project at Babson College documented that, as of 2014, 85% of all venture capital-funded businesses had no women on the executive team, and only 2.7% had a woman CEO. The proportion of women partners in venture capital firms had also declined to 6% from 10% in 1999. And this is part of the problem for an obvious reason: Women don’t tolerate boys-will-be-boys behavior, because they aren’t boys. Moreover, as any number of studies have documented, diversity in companies yields a broader range of perspectives on the business itself and, often, better bottom-line results. And, as I have pointed out, high-tech women who are measurably better than men have been consistently discriminated against.

Venture capitalists are susceptible to business pressure. The money that they invest is not their own. It is raised from pension funds, universities and state governments. They must require venture capital firms to provide public disclosures about the diversity of the companies they invest in — including the gender and age of the executives. They must have a diverse set of investment partners, without sugarcoating the numbers using inflated titles for junior associates.

Next are the boards. Venture capitalists demand seats on boards as a condition for their investment but don’t usually fulfill their fiduciary duty to all shareholders and employees — they always put the interests of their own funds ahead of those of the company. They must take responsibility for the employees as well as for the success of the company, as board members are supposed to do. And startups must have diverse boards that provide balance and broad perspective, not chummy boys clubs dominated by venture capitalists.

Finally, all tech companies must take heed of the report that was put together by former Attorney General Eric Holder for Uber. There are obvious procedures to employ in making diversity a priority: such things as blind resume reviews; interviewing at least one woman and one minority candidate for each open position; limiting alcohol at work events and in the office and banning employee-manager relationships.

In most industries, discriminating on the basis of gender, race or age would be considered illegal. Yet, in the tech industry, venture capitalists brag about their “pattern recognition” capabilities. They say they can recognize a successful entrepreneur when they see one. The pattern always resembles Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos a nerdy male. Women, blacks and Latinos need not apply. Venture capitalists openly admit that they only fund young entrepreneurs because, they claim, older people can’t innovate.

See also: A Trip Through Silicon Valley  

Silicon Valley got a free pass when computers were just for nerds and hobbyists. Few cared about its arrogance and insularity, because its companies were building products for people who looked just like their founders. And these child geniuses inspired so much awe that their frat-boy behavior was a topic of amusement. But now technology is everywhere; it is the underpinning of our economic growth. What is more, the public is investing billions of dollars in tech companies and expects professionalism, maturity and corporate social responsibility.

There is no free pass for the tech industry anymore. It must grow up and clean house.

Change Accelerates in Core Systems

The core systems replacement cycle is speeding up. Twenty years ago, even if you spent your entire career working at the same insurance company, you might expect to go through the implementation of a new core system once, maybe twice. Technology – and the speed of business that it enables – is changing that.

Technology is advancing at an exponential rate, and that includes the technology underlying the business of insurance. Moore’s Law predicts that processing power will double every two years. Other technologies exhibit similar exponential advances. Before solid-state drives emerged, the cost of hard-drive storage dropped by half annually. In 1997, 1 GB of memory would set you back about $100. Ten years later, the price had dropped to less than $.50 per GB.

See also: Finding Success in Core Systems  

When processing power was limited and storage was expensive, we were constrained in how we used core systems. The exponential advancement of these and other technologies removes the obstacles that had previously restricted their use – which opens many, many new avenues of technological advancement and business innovation. In the next 10 years, we can expect similar advances in the technology that we are using today.

Ten years is a critical number in insurance technology. In 2007, new insurance core systems did not have a variety of capabilities that are necessary to deal with the challenges of today. Mobile and policyholder collaboration is now a mandate. Advanced use of data and analytics has become a base-level requirement. Insurers now need to be able to handle a wide variety of specialized lines of business such as cyber, as well as shared economy elements like hybrid products to provide coverage for UberX and Lyft drivers. Consequently, more insurers expect that a core system implemented today will be up for replacement in less than 10 years. In 2011, nine out of 10 insurers anticipated a new policy administration system would last for more than a decade. Today, only six out of 10 insurers agree.

This is a tremendous shift in the market’s perceptions among P&C and L&A insurers alike. It reflects the accelerating pace of change and the exponential advances in technology. Insurers looking to the future – at the changing business models and products in the market – are unsure that an older core system will be able to face the challenges brought by digital and greenfield insurers as well as other insurtech advances. At a minimum, the core systems of today must continue to improve in upgradability to keep up with the advancing capabilities insurers need to match the pace of market changes.

Shorter lifespans mean insurers are rethinking how they allocate resources for core systems modernization. When faced with obsolescence in less than 10 years, insurers are more attracted to options that require less up-front planning and capital. This has translated into a greater number of cloud-based core systems as well as a shift toward more subscription-based pricing models.

The speedy implementations and quick time to value possible with cloud-based core systems appeal to insurers for the same reasons. Quick time to value is essential for insurers to be able to take advantage of new market opportunities, and implementations that take months rather than years can increase insurers’ adaptability. These buying trend changes aren’t displacing insurers’ purchases and implementations of larger, enterprise-wide core systems. The new trends simply give insurers the quick wins they need while they continue to advance enterprise-wide core systems modernization projects.

See also: The Death of Core Systems  

My recent report, Bridging to the Future With Core Systems Modernization, explores that trend and other ways that insurers are using modern core systems to increase the adaptability of their businesses. Core systems replacement and modernization is one of the seven SMA Bridges to the Future – and is critical for insurers to prepare for the opportunities and challenges of insurance in the coming years.

When we look at how quickly our world is changing, 10 years doesn’t seem so long. It reminds me of a prescient quote from Bill Gates: “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.” And he said that more than 20 years ago.

Do We Face a Jobless Future?

In Amazon’s warehouses, there is a beehive of activity, and robots are increasingly doing more of the work. In less than five years, they will load self-driving trucks that transport goods to local distribution centers where drones will make last-mile deliveries.

Soon afterward, autonomous cars will begin to take the wheel from taxi drivers; artificial intelligence will exceed the ability of human doctors to understand complex medical data; industrial robots will do manufacturing; and supermarkets won’t need human cashiers.

The majority of jobs that require human labor and intellectual capability are likely to disappear over the next decade and a half. There will be many jobs created, but not for the people who have lost them — because they do not have those skills. And this will lead to major social disruption unless we develop sound policies to ease the transition.

See also: May the Forms Be With You!  

The industry behind these advances — and reaping huge financial rewards from them — has been in denial. Tech entrepreneur Marc Andreessen, for example, calls the jobless future “a Luddite fallacy”; he insists that people will be re-employed.

But now others, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk and Bill Gates, are acknowledging a skills mismatch, with the potential for mass unemployment. They advocate a universal basic income (UBI), a payment by the government that provides for the basic wants and needs of the population.

[Mark Zuckerberg tells Harvard grads that automation will take jobs, and it’s up to millennials to create more]

But these tech moguls are simply kicking the can down the road and shifting responsibility to Washington. UBI will not solve the social problems that come from loss of people’s purpose in life and of their social stature and identity — which jobs provide.  And the politicians in Washington who are working to curtail basic benefits such as healthcare and food stamps plainly won’t consider the value of spending trillions on a new social-welfare scheme.

In a paper titled “A New Deal for the Twenty-First Century,” Edward Alden and Bob Litan, of the Council on Foreign Relations, propose solutions for retraining the workforce. They believe that there will be many jobs created in technology and in caring for the elderly — because Western populations are aging.

The authors say that young people starting careers should be equipped with the education and skills needed to adapt to career changes and that older workers who become displaced should receive assistance in finding new jobs and retraining for new careers. Government shouldn’t provide the jobs or training but should, the authors say, offer tax incentives and insurance, facilitate job mobility and reform occupational licensing. To encourage employees to gain new skills, there should be “career loan accounts” from which they can fund their own education — with repayment being linked to future earnings.

[‘Coal country is a great place to be from.’ But does the future match Trump’s optimism?]

To minimize the effect of wage cuts resulting from changing professions, Alden and Litan advocate a generous wage-insurance scheme that tops up earnings; enhancements to the Earned Income Tax Credit; direct wage subsidies; and minimum wage increments. They believe, too, that a voluntary military and civilian national service program for young people would help alleviate the social disruption and teach important new skills and provide tutoring to disadvantaged students, help for the elderly and improvements of public spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

These ideas are a good start, but the focus was on maintaining a balance between Republicans and Democrats, on being politically palatable. The coming disruptions are likely be so cataclysmic that we need to go beyond politics.

See also: Outlook for Taxation in Insurance  

We have already seen the increasing anger of the electorate from both the right and the left in the U.S. elections. We are witnessing the same in Europe now. As technology advances and changes everything about the way we live and work, this will get much worse. We must understand the human issues — the trauma and suffering of affected people — and work to minimize the impacts.

As Harvard Law School’s Labor and Worklife Program Executive Director Sharon Block said to me in an email: “I don’t think we can be limited in our thinking by what can get through Congress now — nothing can. We need to be using this time to come up with the big new ideas to develop a bolder progressive vision for the future — and then work to create the conditions necessary to implement that vision.” The problem here is that with this future fast approaching, not even the inventors of the technologies have a real answer. This is why there is an urgent need to bring policymakers, academics and business leaders together to brainstorm on solutions and to do grand, global experiments.