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Brian Sommer's Month in Review – December 2019

Brian Sommer Profile picture for user brianssommer December 23, 2019
​​​​​​​December had an abundance of stories involving executives behaving badly and writers making up lots of new words to add to our tech vocabulary. There were also a lot HR stories, too. Here’s my monthly recap of solid stories you might have missed.


Every year, Jon Reed and I produce our Un-Predictions article. One portion of it includes new words we can expect to see soon in the “technosphere”. Well, we’re not even into 2020 and the industry, social media and technology press are going nuts creating new tech words. Words like:

  • Splinternet – a concept where different sects/tribes/enclaves of people collect on their own little piece of the internet (thanks to Wired magazine for this)
  • Intersectionality – Actually, this is a real word but it’s now showing up in tech articles. It describes how social or human categorizations (e.g., race, gender, etc.) intersect. The rise in usage may correlate with new awareness around discrimination (e.g., #MeToo).
  • Hyperwoke – someone who is overly aware of and super-sensitive

I guess Enterprisewoke and ERPwoke aren’t far behind.

Bad tech behavior

Can small tech firms do anything about large firms? I frequently advise smaller tech companies that should their solution fall within the adjacent market space of a large tech company, that they should be: careful about becoming an alliance partner and/or open to a buy-out if such an offer appears. Too often the leaders of these firms rush into the alliances only to see the large firm learn everything about their products, how they successfully sell and what hasn’t worked. The large firm then makes a copycat product and guts the small firm’s chances for success. I also see firms spurn offers from large firms only to see the offers (and their competitive differentiation) disappear forever. A correct reading of the situation is key to maximizing shareholder value.

The New York Times has an extensive piece on Elastic and their Amazon AWS issues. That story (and other examples within the piece) illustrate the caution I expressed above. Every tech entrepreneur should read this.

Once more for WeWork – This Vanity Fair piece on Adam Neumann and his wife is an in-depth treatment of the rise and fall of both WeWork and its founders. It’s not a kind writeup but it is very interesting and fulsome. I recommend you read: The Boy Who Cried Work.

In that same vein, there’s AwayThe Verge did a piece on modern luggage maker Away and its CEO. It’s one of those oft-told stories of a CEO pushing their team too hard but the twist here is that much of the bad behavior is captured in Slack screenshots. Many of those are included in the article. There’s a pattern to these stories: leaders who describe their firm as a ‘movement’ and workers who initially want to believe that’s the case. It’s a business not a movement, folks!

2019 and Unicorns – Time reviewed the post-IPO performance of recent tech unicorn stocks. The story wasn’t too nice with consumer tech stocks taking the worst beatings. Check it out.

“Smart” tech?

When algorithms go awryBloomberg BusinessWeek reported that Apple’s new credit card was being given to husbands and wives but with one big twist: sometimes the wives got a lower credit limit. What makes the story even more interesting is in whose spouses got the unequal treatment. One affected couple was Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. The issuing bank, Goldman Sachs, said it did nothing wrong but apparently its lending software models may have. Bottom line: if you use an algorithm in your firm, you ARE responsible for its actions. Recruiters really need to heed this!

Human Resources

Diversity: a tech sales opportunity or a chance for real change? Time’s Pamela Newkirk explored the growing diversity consulting and software space against the paltry changes occurring in business. No surprise that hiring practices still aren’t changing, board membership is still heavily male-dominated, etc. For technologists, creating a tool that tracks diversity but does nothing to change the status quo is next to worthless. If your firm is thinking about getting some diversity training, maybe the bigger business problem is whether your firm has the stomach and stick-to-it-ness it needs to drive real change.

If the ATS doesn’t block you from being hired, what about Fake Applicants? Inc.’s, The Rise of the Fake Applicant, dives into the problem. I’ve seen this in real life: people who claimed degrees they didn’t possess, exaggerated tenures or position titles, etc. But today, folks are taking things further with fake employers and fake employer websites. If you want to avoid PUREs (i.e., previously undetected recruiting errors), read up on the current state of affairs. While you’re at it, read this piece, also on Inc. about the Australian woman who got a great CIO job while using supermodel Kate Upton’s photo (and other misrepresentations). She’s going to jail for her actions. (And, if you can find it, check out Jon Reed’s book “Resumes From Hell” – it proves this isn’t a new problem but one with new twists!).

This Recruiting piece, “Make Your Job Application Robot-Proof”, in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye because it tries to coach jobseekers on how to beat the insane, illogical inequities in many ATS and recruiting technologies. This bit speaks volumes:

High performers may share traits that have nothing to do with job performance, skewing outcomes, says Mark Girouard, a Minneapolis attorney who advises employers on pre-employment screening. One vendor built a résumé-screening tool that tagged being named Jared and playing high school lacrosse as factors predicting success. “The system didn’t have a very deep set of learning data,” he says. The employer didn’t put it to use.

Even if employers and vendors aren’t trying to reject female or minority applicants, they still risk doing so if they train algorithms on data gleaned from a current workforce that lacks diversity. An employer with mostly male employees, for example, might inadvertently train a screening tool to downgrade applicants who participated in sports played mostly by women, such as field hockey.

These stories rankle me as business people should take heed and NOT use such bad tech unless they really want lawsuits coming at them.

One last recommendation

If you’re flying anywhere soon, pick up a copy of the Winter 2020 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review. You can read a lot on Digital Transformation within its pages yet other articles should hold your interest, too.

Happy Holidays! 

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