The past couple of weeks have been a big roller coaster for MoviePass. I got to experience the Thursday July 26 outage when I was going to see a movie with a friend. We were upset but decided to go for happy hour instead which turned out to be great. The next day we found out it was because they had run out of money which indicated that the end was near. MoviePass was able to get their emergency loan and service was restored. On Friday my friends wanted to see Mission Impossible but the option was grayed out however, after refreshing several times, I was able to get a ticket with an outrageous $6 surcharge. This grayed option turned out to be a change in plans where new movies were not going to be offered anymore. This was a breaking moment for me. I had to make a decision to stay or not before I would be charged the next month.
The tech industry has created millions of jobs and an unprecedented level of wealth. It allows people across the whole planet to solve a wide variety of problems and improve the communities around them. Coding is one of the most valuable skills of our time and students around the world are beginning to learn it earlier in their lives than ever before.
The problem? Education affordability, social and racial disparities and gender discrimination. Many kids in low income families have never touched a computer, never given the opportunity to learn computer science, or what’s worse, they don’t believe they can ever become software engineers, thinking of the job as something reserved for privileged people.
The good news is that there are a bunch of amazing engineers out there focused on mitigating these problems, and today I’m interviewing Fernando Sanchez, Software Engineering Manager at Microsoft and Co-Founder of ‘Geeking Out Kids of Color‘ (GOKiC), a nonprofit focused on empowering kids of color with education in computer science so they can use technology to help make a positive impact in their communities. His story is not only inspiring, but also one that I hope reaches any kid out there thinking that they are not allowed to be part of the tech industry.
How did you get started in tech and how did you prepare yourself to land a job at Microsoft?
I joined Microsoft right after college, and during these 9 years I’ve learnt a great deal about technology, the tech industry and about myself. I worked on several iterations of Windows and Bing, using a myriad of frameworks and languages. Nonetheless, the people who I worked with are the highlight of this almost-a-decade, and today I want to share the biggest takeaways I got from them.
Don’t be scared of the Kool-Aid
At Microsoft, the mission of empowering everyone on the planet to achieve more is a powerful motivator; at Google, saying someone is ‘googley’ is the equivalent of measuring them against a high bar; at Amazon, their leadership principles are frequently used as jargon in meetings or documents. You might be tempted to mock or dismiss these culture bits as stupid or superficial, but in reality, a strong culture can help propel the company forward, in a single direction.
Every company has a source of Kool-Aid, and “drinking” from it consciously can help you become a more engaged employee. Analyze the culture objectively, extract its benefits and internalize them. It will motivate you and your team.
How many times have you heard that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is humanity’s biggest threat? Some people think that Google brought us a step closer to a dark future when Duplex was announced last month, a new capability of Google’s digital Assistant that enables it to make phone calls on your behalf to book appointments with small businesses. You can see it in action here:
No joke. Google Assistant will start making phone calls to small businesses to make appointments on you behalf. It's called Google Duplex. The AI caller even adds uhmms and hmms #io18pic.twitter.com/r5Ie33YFEc
The root of the controversy lied on the fact that the Assistant successfully pretended to be a real human, never disclosing its true identity to the other side of the call. Many tech experts wondered if this is an ethical practice or if it’s necessary to hide the digital nature of the voice.
Last April I decided to take a big jump from building enterprise software to building consumer products. I am very grateful to have found a place that would allow me to learn the ropes of the consumer business without sacrificing any of the internal goals. This past year has been a great learning experience with big learnings and here are my key takeaways.
Enterprise vs Consumer? What’s the big deal?
Building enterprise software is a different beast than building it for consumers. They share several core components such as requiring a secure, reliable infrastructure and following best software practices including sprint models. However, I see three key differences.
Difference 1: Knowing what your customers want
In the enterprise world you go out and talk to your customers and it’s fairly clear what they need. Even building roadmaps is fairly easy. In the consumer world it’s not as easy. Because you are building software for millions of customers you can’t talk to all of them, so you have to find proxies to it. Unfortunately, many times these proxies are not perfect hence you require to test a lot (and I do mean a lot). On the good side, because consumer software is used right away you get instant feedback and know if you have a success or a fail.
Facebook has been receiving criticism once again for how they handled users’ personal data. Here is a quick summary: in 2013, a 3rd party developer acquired large amounts of data from about 50 million users through an old platform capability (which was removed by Facebook itself one year later to prevent abuse); this data was then used to target US voters during the 2016 Presidential Election. The issue is complex in depth and it highlights a bigger underlying problem: users’ privacy expectations are not aligned with the commitment from most tech companies.
Zuckerberg said in a recent interview with Wired, “early on […] we had this very idealistic vision around how data portability would allow all these different new experiences, and I think the feedback that we’ve gotten from our community and from the world is that privacy and having the data locked down is more important to people.”
I can nonetheless relate to that idealistic vision between privacy and technology. The more information the Google Assistant knows about the music I like, the better it can personalize my listening experience. Richer actions become available too, like allowing me to control the Nest thermostat or the lights by voice. At the end of the day, I’m trusting Google with my music taste and the devices installed in my house, and I get the benefit of convenience in return.
I looked at the “Buy Bitcoin” button and paused, was I ready to do it? had I read enough articles explaining what is blockchain? 2017 had just closed after an all-time high for cryptocurrencies, and according to many enthusiasts, it was just the beginning. I felt like I was missing out, so I pushed the button and sat back. I felt confident, but in reality, I had no idea what I was doing.
I passively consumed news about Bitcoin for years, but I never went deep enough to properly understand the technology behind it and its potential. Even though I followed the ultimate rule of “investing only what you can afford losing”, the truth is that I only began to comprehend blockchain technology after I already got my feet wet. I started losing money shortly after my first order completed, these are the 4 lessons I learned since then.
1. A big Bitcoin dive can drag the rest of the crypto market with it
There is so much speculation around cryptocurrencies and so many people investing in them without having a clue, that a moment of panic can snowball into a sudden market crash. A Bitcoin crash can affect many investors’ confidence in other cryptocurrencies (or altcoins), dragging their price down as well.
Many altcoins are variants of Bitcoin with small code differences, making their prices change practically in parallel to Bitcoin’s.
I have been waiting since college on RFID’s failed promise to deliver a walk-away checkout experience, and Amazon finally made it possible. After reading my co-blog writer’s experience in the Amazon Go store I had to check it out for myself and was excited for it. All my friend’s pictures were of long lines, but thankfully I am a morning person and there was no line when I got there. My goal was to pretend I had no idea what it was or how it worked. My experience overall was good, with the exception of the on-boarding process. I was greeted with a condescending “oh, you don’t have the app?” and was asked to stay aside. My T-Mobile reception was very poor so it took me a bit to get started. Once I downloaded the app and signed into my Amazon account everything was smooth. Mission accomplished! In this post, I’m not going to talk about the actual store (Ivan did a great job already) but about the implications of the first tangible and successful AI automated store.
Automation has always been part of our history. Automation has helped us evolve into the society we have now. Such as, automating how we grow and crop food so we can have a good food supply, the industrial revolution to make things faster and cheaper, the assembly line to make them even faster and cheaper, and finally computers to automate processes and tasks. Now, AI is here and it will automate all of our productivity.
“The craziest thing I’ve seen is someone who came in dressed in a Pikachu costume“, said an Amazon employee while she handed me a promotional bag with the Amazon Go logo on one side and the text ‘good food fast’ on the other.
I arrived at the new store in downtown Seattle around 7:20 pm and was surprised to see the line of people still reached the end of the block. It had been a cold day in Seattle but that didn’t discourage the hundreds of people who came to see the ‘magical’ store on day 0. I didn’t use the term ‘magical’ lightly here: the experience was truly unique and it felt too good to be true. Amazon Go is probably the store with more sensors on the planet right now, and it is intimidating:
Each of those boxes on the ceiling are cameras connected to deep learning algorithms that analyze every move you make: which aisle you walk through, what items you grab to read and then return to the shelf, what items you put in your pockets or bag… everything to ensure you only get charged for what you take home. But also, everything to ensure your shopping pattern is studied and well understood. Maybe not today, but it’s the inevitable next step and the ultimate dream for any retail store: to know what their customers like and the type of advertisements that will work best on them.
When Nintendo released the Switch last year I was very surprised by what they had been able to achieve, take the gaming industry on a spin (again). Once again they proved that they can innovate in a crowded space with deep pocket rivals. They were able to achieve something fun, flexible and that meets our new lifestyle not by thinking of specs but thinking of use cases. They understand people still want to play but they don’t do it just in a living room, so they would meet them where they are by providing play flexibility (great article about that here). Now, with Labo they have done something I consider priceless: enable kids to imagine, play and dream by connecting both the physical world and the digital one.
I have to be honest, I did not buy the Switch right away and when I did I played it and then returned it. Sometimes there is a price for innovation. To me, the Switch has two big drawbacks. First it is the lack of games. I could care less for Zelda (yeah yeah hate me) and some of the other games are just “meh”. However, it was the release of Mario Odyssey that finally made me get it. I loved it, it was fun, I could play at home and take it with me. I bought my Switch just before my holiday trip and took it on the road with me. This meant playing with the Joy-Cons inserted to make a huge Gameboy. I’m a big guy and I am very jumpy and move around when playing. Towards the end of the trip my Switch started to break. My gameplay would stop every minute because they would get disconnected (guess I can’t be that excited while playing). Turned out that the price to pay for the hardware flexibility was ruggedness. So when it was time to return, I could exchange or return and decided for the former due to lack of games.
I thought that would be the end of my Switch journey but this week Nintendo announced Labo. Nintendo has always been great at thinking outside the box. Some of these product work (Wii, Amiibos) and some don’t (VirtualBoy, Wii U) and that is the price to pay to try new things. What amazes me is Nintendo’s relentless pursuit of not thinking about what is the next big technology push they can do, but how to enable new ways to bring playfulness into our lives.