Conference encounters

It is London Tech Week this week apparently. It was also CogX from Monday to Wednesday, which I think is unaffiliated. It all feels a little like a technology Valentine’s day, fabricated and promoted by conference organisers to extract money from startups and interested people.

I found myself in possession of some free CogX tickets, so went along to a couple of talks on Tuesday and had a bit of a wander about.

Being there with no specific agenda, I wondered what it was that my fellow attendees were hoping to get out of the conference.

As an attendee, a conference is ultimately about encounters, whether those encounters are with ideas, individuals or organisations. These encounters can be formal (i.e. part of the agenda of the conference), or they can be informal (enabled by the structure of the conference, but not part of the agenda). They can be anticipated and planned by attendees in advance (“I really want to go to that talk”, “I want to meet that person”), or they can be serendipitous (“I wonder what’s happening in that tent”, “what brings you to the conference?”). Then the outcome of those encounters can be learning, selling (yourself or your business), or just enjoyment (god forbid).

Reflecting on it, I was at CogX to encounter some new ideas via the formal talks, not really feeling like networking that day (shudders). There was one talk I wanted to attend as I knew all the speakers, but the others I picked as the mood took me, so I suppose I erred on the side of serendipity. And my intended outcome was somewhere between learning and enjoyment. By contrast, I had breakfast with someone who was there largely to meet individuals informally and serendipitously, to recruit people for their business (so a “selling” outcome).

Looking around the event and peering at some name badges, the attendees were a very diverse bunch, and no doubt had a wide range of goals (and therefore requirements for the conference). And even two attendees with the same generic goal might have very different requirements. For example if two people are there to learn about artificial intelligence, and one is a secondary school student while the other is a machine learning engineer, the same keynote presentation will struggle to serve them both.

I am therefore interested in how conference organisers think about maximising the utility for their attendees, as they run the risk of trying to please everyone, and ending up pleasing no one. And similarly how do conferences balance ambitions to grow attendance (and revenue) against the likely diminishing and potentially diluting returns as they expand beyond their initial audience.

Shut it down #001

I have a habit of keeping quite a lot of browser tabs open. I know I am not the only one.

On my laptop, my tabs tend to be related to what I am currently working on. I can deal with that. On my phone they tend to be a mixture of things I hope to read in the future, and some things which I have read already and thought were good, but which I didn’t know what to do with. That is a bit more bothersome, because it is accretive over time, so now I have loads.

The good news is I now have a place to find closure, right here on the internet. Thank you for witnessing my decluttering, where I Shut It Down to browser-tab-zero.

12 Things I learned from Chris Dixon about Startups

This has been in my tabs for a while; it’s an article I have re-read a couple of times. The toy / hobby / weekend metaphor for good startup ideas is pretty well-known by now, but it is always worth revisiting. I like the idea of a good startup idea being predicated on a secret, and of moving from uncertainty to value creation. I feel like the transition of technology from bits to atoms is still pretty nascent, which is exciting. Meanwhile the market-size narrative challenge for startups is evergreen. The importance of getting rejected often is hard to internalize, but I see the value (in setting ambitious goals). While the parting message for entrepreneurs (“get ready to feel sick to your stomach for the next five years”) can certainly be considered fair warning.

The Psychology of Human Misjudgement by Charles T. Munger

A long one but a good one, a chimera of several talks Munger made in the early 90s, where he highlights biases which lead to bad decision-making. Far from an academic study (as he himself acknowledges somewhat gleefully), it nonetheless (or perhaps as a result?) is very thought-provoking.

He starts with the always underappreciated power of incentives (“I think I’ve been in the top five percent of my age cohorts almost all my adult life in understanding the power of incentives, and yet I’ve always underestimated that power”), before making his way via the biases of loving and hating, through man’s dislike of inconsistency and doubt, touching on the dangers of optimism, and loss aversion (“Deprival Superreaction Tendency”), as well as ways in which “leaders … display followership akin to that of teenagers” due to Social Proof Tendency. The Twaddle tendency has an entertaining bee-based comparison, but it all comes together with the “Lollapalooza Tendency”, which considers the potential dangers when many different tendencies are brought to bear at once. An irreverent waltz, and worth a read on a long train ride or equivalent.

Do things that don’t scale by Paul Graham

Something of a classic, and certainly a phrase that is now part of Silicon Valley lore. People were presumably talking about Delight prior to 2013, but I like how it is described here (“You should take extraordinary measures not just to acquire users, but also to make them happy… existing conventions are not the upper bound on user experience”). Pithy warnings too, about relying on Big launches and partnerships

It’s interesting to see companies like Superhuman push the “do things that don’t scale” approach even further in 2019 (1 to 1 onboarding for a consumer internet product). Paul hasn’t written an essay since 2017, which is a shame (though he is alive and well on Twitter).

practicalAI

Not an article, but a collection of intro-to-AI notebooks. It recommends using Google Colab, which I had last used when it was very much an internal-only Google tool, so cool to see it in the wild. A few topics still waiting to be covered, but a nice starting point nonetheless.

The art of decision making

Much is made of the importance of good decision-making. In this piece Joshua Rothman breaks down the things that make that difficult, with his decision to become a parent as a case-study.

Decisions are often more gradual than they are discrete (“it’s a momentous choice, but I can’t pinpoint the making of it in space or time”), are often are limited by past choices (so-called “bounded rationality”), and can’t be understood on a single scale. There is certainly scope to improve decision-making (“scenario planning … seeking out diverse perspectives on the choice, challenging your assumptions, making an explicit effort to map the variables”), as we “ask ourselves what we value, then seek to maximize that value”. But it becomes more difficult once you realise that what we value might shift over time in a way that isn’t always predictable (“Why should today’s values determine tomorrow’s?”).

This is probably why people “are in fact more casual and cavalier in the way they handle their big decisions than in the way they handle their ordinary decisions”, in the words of Edna Ullmann-Margalit. Certainly food for thought as you think about your own decisions and those you observe others making, both before and after the fact.

MakerDAO Sponsor Bounties for ETHDenver

A bit rogue I suppose, but I am always interested by the sponsor-suggestions for hackathon-type projects, as it tends to capture what is top-of-mind in a given industry or companies. It’s been cool to see the evolution and growth of the MakerDAO stablecoin project, so I was interested to see their areas of focus – in this case wallets, lending and zero-knowledge proofs.

Heuristics to Generate Startup Ideas

A well trodden path, but some good thoughts in this one. I particularly like “Tools inside a big company” and “Revisit ideas that were too early”. “Understand how teens communicate” is sadly probably beyond me at this point (I am not sure I was that in touch when I was a teenager myself…).

What is Amazon by Zack Kanter

A tour de force. On the evolution of the retailer algorithm, from the “bounded” physical world of Walmart to the “unbounded” digital world of Amazon, and the importance of the third party-marketplace in the new world (vs the old world’s vendor selection model). On how Amazon’s need to grow at internet scale made it necessary for them to become a “platform; that is, an aggregation of resources made available through a series of interfaces“. On the edict from Jeff Bezos, for all teams to build as if for external customers, to enable the business to transform into, and scale as a platform (“Platforms became part of the algorithm”). A dissection of Ads, designated a misstep (but one that may be “impossibly addictive”, given the revenue). And a riff on the risks of its “Wild West for sellers”. I definitely share Zack’s parting sentiment: “I remain fascinated to see what will happen next.”

Open Jobs: Making labour markets smarter and more empowering for jobseekers

I have been thinking quite a lot recently about the future of work and closing supply-demand gaps in labour markets. Nesta have a bunch of interesting articles on the topic, and this one is right on:

“although 75.3 per cent of adults in the UK are in jobs, this headline figure masks some deep inefficiencies and problems of stagnant pay, social mobility and productivity and major failures in the transition to work”

The sell is for their Open Jobs project, which aims to address issues with data, policy and pilots.

How not to fail by Jessica Livingston

Taken from a talk given to the Female Founders Conference, it’s all good stuff. Make something people want, know if you are default alive, keep expenses low, and more. YC content is pretty pervasive these days in startup-article-land, but that’s probably because they know what they are doing.

How the UK lost Brexit

Fascinating dissection of the negotiations between the UK and the EU in the aftermath of the EU referendum, and how the UK were outmanoeuvred time and time again. Bloody red lines, cherry-picking and Barnier.

Holloway About Page

I don’t know much about them, but I like what they are doing (“We publish fully digital Guides to high-stakes, complex subjects”). One to keep an eye on.

The Rawlsian Diagnosis of Donald Trump by Samuel Scheffler

On Rawls and the importance of reciprocity in liberal societies: a proposal that American society has in recent decades seen “the failure to achieve—or even to strive seriously to achieve—an ideal of reciprocity”. A suggestion that this failure has contributed to the rise of Trump in a manner predicted by rather than contradicting Rawlsian liberalism, as “U.S. institutions have come closer to maximizing the position of the best-off group than to maximizing the position of the worst-off group”. Interesting, but definitely on the academic end of the spectrum.

Invisible Asymptotes by Eugene Wei

I first came across Eugene’s Status-as-a-Service article in February, which I also recommend. This piece introduces Invisible Asymptotes, where a single factor limits growth beyond a certain point unless addressed appropriately (if it can be), starting with Amazon’s first: shipping cost (which people hate to “to literally an irrational degree”) . A whistle-stop tour through tech Royalty’s varied and different invisible asymptotes, some more practical words of advice, plus some reflections on the asymptotes in all of our lives (“In my experience, the most successful people I know are much more conscious of their own personal asymptotes at a much earlier age than others”). An interesting way to think about potential and future growth in all walks.

And that is that. My phone feels lighter already, thanks for closing down my tabs with me. Until next time.