Interview: can tech and education solve social inequality?

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?

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I’m leaving Microsoft after 9 years. This is what I learned.

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.

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Unboxing Google’s 7 new principles on Artificial Intelligence

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:

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.

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Fixing Facebook’s privacy problem

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.”

Regardless, Facebook never committed to fully lock down users’ data, and their business model was in fact built around the value that data can have for advertisers through interest relevance and demographic targeting. Google and Facebook accounted for 73% of all US digital ad revenue in the second quarter of FY18, up from 63% two years before.

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.

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4 lessons I learned losing money on Bitcoin

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.

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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.

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I experienced the future of retail: Amazon Go

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:

The ceiling of the Amazon Go store

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.

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Are you rude to your virtual assistant?

2017 has been the year of the smart speaker. Amazon’s Echo Dot and Google’s Home Mini are currently selling for around $30, which makes them a popular Christmas gift. Using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) has never been cheaper and it’s finally reaching critical mass.

Companies are investing on AI more than ever: natural language recognition still has to improve a lot, but the current algorithms are already impressive. My favorite example: it’s now possible to ask “how long would it take me to get to Starbucks on 15th Ave?” and get an accurate response with the right assumptions. What a time to be alive!

All of this progress comes with side effects: having to learn how to talk to a machine. Often, people start talking without the wake-up keyword, and sometimes they forget to check if the device is actually listening, getting confused when there is no response to their inquiry. Talking to a machine is not easy and usually, very unsatisfactory.

Perhaps that dissatisfaction is what makes us be less aware about our manners when addressing an AI. What would you think if someone interrupted you mid-sentence with a sudden “STOP”? What if someone kept giving you orders relentlessly, never pausing to thank you? That’s how most of us talk to AI’s like Alexa or Siri, never saying “please” or “thank you”.

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Why is Net Neutrality important?

In a few days, on December 14th, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to change how the internet is regulated in the United States. The impact on how regular users like you and me access information online could be massive, and here’s why.

Currently, there is policy around open communications, mandating that the treatment of traffic should be non-discriminatory: broadband providers cannot get in the way, they cannot censor or make deals that benefit certain types of content over others. For example, Comcast is not allowed today to treat Netflix differently than any other new video streaming startup.

The FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai (who worked as Associate General Counsel at Verizon), is proposing to vote to remove these rules in favor of a less regulated internet. Fewer regulations means, according to their main argument, that the amount of investments made by telecommunication companies will stop decreasing. However, the same data that the FCC used shows that investments have been flat at worse (or actually increased at best) since 2013.

The FCC also argues that if any corporation starts misbehaving, consumers can take their business elsewhere. Nonetheless, more than 50% of the US population only has access to one single internet provider, so they cannot even vote with their wallets. The only way to defend consumers rights will be through litigation and class action lawsuits.

Is everything bad in the new proposed plan? No, there is one important point that will be critical to detect future abuses: broadband providers are obligated to be transparent about their traffic practices; in other words, if Comcast made a deal to promote Netflix over any other streaming service, or if they started blocking or throttling certain sites, it would have to be public knowledge (even if that just means one more line in the fine print at the end of a contract).

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What’s in my phone’s home screen?

2017 is almost over, so I wanted talk about the apps that have taken the most important space on my phone during this year, and whether or not I think they’ll still be there next year.

Let’s start with a screenshot of my home screen:

I place apps in my home screen based on the frequency in which I use them. I try to minimize the amount of times I have to go to other pages of the home screen, so these are truly the apps that keep me going. But are all of these apps equally important for my daily tech routine? Will they stay in such a prominent position next year? Let’s break them into categories.

Connecting with friends & family

Messages, WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Mail are absolutely critical to stay connected with family and friends, especially those in other countries. I’m convinced that I’ll keep these around since they are literally the first thing I check every morning.

Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat have been part of an interesting migration during 2017: most of my friends stopped posting on Facebook and became more active on apps where their posts have a 24 hour expiration date. So far, most of my friends are choosing Instagram, probably due to the fact that it has a classic profile of everlasting posts; Snapchat will have a hard time recovering after the aggressive takeover from Instagram, so I would not be surprised if Snapchat didn’t make it on my phone through the next year.

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Would you give up your privacy for unlimited movies? interview with René Sánchez from CineSinFronteras.com

MoviePass is a subscription-based service that allows users to watch almost any movie in theaters for a flat monthly rate. In August, the company announced a surprisingly low price of $9.95, leaving many scratching their heads. I interviewed René Sánchez, cinema expert and movie critic at CineSinFronteras.com, and we discussed the privacy implications and the potential impact to the online streaming industry.

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Even though I’ve been using it for a month already, it still feels too good to be true. Were you surprised by the MoviePass announcement?

Yes, I was surprised by their announcement to reduce the monthly subscription price to just $9.95. It is such an amazing deal, especially when you consider that a regular, 2D movie here in the Seattle metro area costs between $12-15. So even if you only watch one movie every month, you will be saving some dollars with MoviePass! What shocked me the most was to know that the major exhibitors and theater chains were onboard with this change. I expected a lot of pushback from them, considering their old-school ways to operate. So far, only AMC has tried (and failed) to restrict the use of MoviePass in their theaters.

What’s the problem that MoviePass is trying to solve?

People don’t go to the movie theaters anymore. Studios and exhibitors keep blaming Netflix and other rival streaming platforms for their audience loss, instead of recognizing the real root cause: the movie-going experience has become very expensive and obsolete. Ticket prices rise every year (the same goes for concessions), studios keep releasing sequels and remakes no one asked for, and most multiplexes scream for renovations (uncomfortable seats, run-down interiors, and poor image and sound quality). To top it off, patrons can sometimes be rude and annoying.

Again, it’s really not Netflix’s fault that people want to stay at home, rather than going out to watch a movie. Who wants to pay more than $60 (including tickets, food and parking/Uber) to enjoy a mediocre movie in a rickety auditorium, while everyone else is either talking or staring at their phones?

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