Eat mistakes, not jobs

Photo by Garretc

Andy Kessler's talk yesterday got me thinking hard about why I found his argument so unconvincing. He focused on how innovation will destroy jobs, the way container ships put all the stevedores out of work. I think he's missing a completely different outcome of innovation, and one that excites me a lot more.

Stevedores were performing a process that achieved the results we were after, they weren't dropping half the boxes into the ocean as they unloaded, so containerization just made the process more efficient.

Where Andy went off the rails is when he applied that model to worlds like education. We are really, really bad at teaching our kids, enormous numbers of them don't even make it through high school. It's as if we're losing half the cargo every time we unload a ship. Innovation in education gives us the chance to achieve better results with the existing resources, giving our teachers tools so they leave fewer kids behind. It's about effectiveness not efficiency, because we're falling so far short of our goals right now.

Would we expect a school district that increased its students' overall GPA to then fire some teachers to save money and return to the old GPA, since we lived with that before? Of course not, we'd celebrate the achievement and try to replicate it elsewhere.

What really excites me about technology innovation is that we can help people do important things that weren't possible before. MIT's opencourseware is an awesome example, the lectures and materials work as an accelerator and multiplier to traditional learning methods, helping students all over the world get better results. There's no wave of professors being fired, if anything it's taking pressure off them to do mundane and routine introductory lectures and focus on the value-added personal teaching instead.

I love increasing productivity because it lets people do tricky jobs much better, which I find a lot more satisfying than automating people out of a job. I'm much happier preventing screw-ups than eating people!

Andy Kessler’s keynote at Defrag stunk

Andy Kessler

Andy Kessler just gave the opening keynote speech at Defrag '09, and I really hated it. The title was Be Solyent, Eat People, and since I'm fascinated by the topic of productivity and job replacement I was looking forward to a thoughtful analysis of a complex topic. Instead it felt like a rant by an undergraduate who'd just read Atlas Shrugged for the first time. He laid out a taxonomy of 'unproductive' jobs, which he generally classified as servers as opposed to creators, and then split those servers into 'sloppers', 'sponges', 'slimers' and 'thieves'.

What gobsmacked me was his seeming contention that basically anyone who wasn't a programmer was a parasite. He mentioned a lot of jobs that should be largely automated, from the uncontentious idea of stevedores being replaced by container ships, to the eyebrow-raising example of librarians and finally to the gob-smacking idea that teachers are on the way out!

He seemed to be taking an uncontroversial idea, that there are buggy-whip making jobs that will be replaced by new processes, and taking it to ridiculous and offensive extremes.He used doctors as an example of a 'sponge' profession where artificial barriers to entry kept the incumbents charging high fees and gouging their customers. I'm extremely sympathetic to Adam Smith's quote 'People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and
diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the
public, or in some contrivance to raise prices
', but we tried unregulated doctors for most of the nineteenth century here in the US, and it didn't work so well.

All of Andy's ideas are controversial extrapolations of accepted ideas, but he gave no evidence that any of his assertions actually hold. All it did was annoy me without offering any enlightenment, I'd love to engage with his ideas but there was nothing to hang a debate on, just pure opinion.

Never trust a hippy


This is a tricky post to write, because some of my best friends are hippies, I've been accused of being a hippy myself and I live in Boulder, but after reading this article about a first-time entrepreneur's messy breakup with a business partner I couldn't resist.

When it comes to business, pay no attention to what a potential partner says. Judge them on what they do. This is especially important if they're charismatic and overtly spiritual because what they say will be both flattering and very appealing, you'll be tempted to bend over backwards for them. I'm speaking from painful personal experience; my two worst business outcomes were situations where I really liked a partner and stopped thinking critically about what they were offering.

I followed a charismatic hippy manager into his new startup for no equity and worked like a dog for a year. He replaced my friends (he'd needed all our resumes to get the initial contract) with cheap college interns, compressed the schedule and played a lot of other nasty tricks until I finally snapped when a colleague was reprimanded for being late on a Sunday. I'd spent many evenings with the guy and his wife and kids before 'our' startup launched, I really liked him, and he'd painted a beautiful vision of a family-friendly workplace with a great culture. My mistake was that I'd failed to push for any tangible evidence he was serious about his promises. Trust but verify.

The sad thing is, I don't think he was faking the beliefs that he kept talking about, but he was able to use them to convince himself that they justified whatever the most convenient thing for himself was. During the nightmare he often invoked providing for his family as a reason to cut salaries and hoard the benefits of success, which sounds great until you saw it meant a second home for him while employees struggled to afford healthcare for their kids.

Since then I've been much more comfortable with 'coin-operated machines', as a former partner described himself. I find someone who's up-front and honest about their motivations is a lot easier to deal with than anyone who claims they're acting in your best interests.

On Hacker News, a commenter pointed out that Steve Jobs is a hippy, which is true, but I don't think it's possible to find someone who's more blunt and straightforward in his reactions than Steve! All I want is honesty and trust, and I find that's a lot easier to achieve with someone who's unafraid to admit selfish behavior than anyone who's worried about preserving a virtuous self-image.

This is one of the hardest posts I've had to write, I'm admitted a strong prejudice based on a small sample size, and I got a lot of flak when I posted my original comment on HN. In the spirit of openness I'm trying to be honest about what my biases are and how I got to them, even if they aren't particularly flattering. I look forward to the comments!