Being Messy

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Chanel Miller said her New Year’s resolution for 2020 was to fail as much as possible.

“Making things that are really crappy and undeveloped until maybe they can be good. I’m way too young to confine myself to one lane and lose the ability to openly experiment.”

This is exactly how a the first draft of a film script develops. Characters and ideas float around in your head, and one day, they’re done with the floating and demand to live on the page. The script gets written, and when you’re done… it’s shitty. It’s embarrassing, you don’t want to show it to anyone, and you wonder how on earth your magical characters and ideas amounted to this pile of doodoo on the page.

But, it’s really important to have this first draft. Because as Miller said, yes, it’s crappy and undeveloped, but you need the crappy and undeveloped to have hope for the good and the great.

Struggling, wrangling, failing, crying, working, pushing forward allows your characters and your story to breathe, thrive, and for the bones to slowly emerge from the pile. Experimenting openly, taking the story in unexpected directions, adding or removing key characters, and messing around with no pressure allows the sparks of creativity that makes the script sing.

Every creator needs that messy time.

The same is true for startup creators. Ideas for a product form in your head over time, sometimes over years. Then one day, you’re ready to put it on the “page” — to code something, to craft something. And it may be a sloppy, messy ball of hair, mud, and hope. Don’t clean it up, polish, and shine it in order to raise money too early.

Love your messy stage, because it is so important to relish that stage. You can only do it once for each startup, and it’s when experimentation, ideation, hanging out, and trying weird things is entirely possible. It’s where ugly is awesome.

At some point, a screenwriter will have to share the script with producers. At some point, you have to share your startup with users and, if you want, with investors. If things go well, they love it, and you build an amazing company. Fantastic.

If you’ve grown your company into a wonderfully world-changing one, it’s worth finding ways to go back to being messy. Get into small groups. Make room for experimentation with ugly, creative things that may fail, because that can lead to new lines of growth. If you have the urge to start again, you could start another company and embrace the new ugly ball of mess. Whatever path you follow, the messy part of creation can be the the best part of creation, and the challenge of it makes your ideas and your company better.

Who are you?

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Every August, US filmmakers rush to make the Sundance Film Festival deadline. And in early December, Sundance announces its lineup. The day before, everyone is equal—all aspiring filmmakers. But the moment Sundance announces, the wheat is separated from the chaff. There are those who will have a film that “premiered at Sundance,” and… there are the other mere mortals. Both groups will now be treated differently as expectations start to diverge.

While companies are less of a lemming-like march to the cliff than film festival applicants, similar rules apply. After a company goes down in flames, or after you get fired, the same thing happens. The very next day, there’s a sense that you’re a different person.

In both cases, I see a similar pattern: people define themselves (and each other) in terms of their successes and failures. But both success and failure are transient and ephemeral. They can both be taken away, forgotten, or overcome. Successes and failures aren’t who you are.

Perhaps, instead of letting successes and failures define you, define yourself according to something no one can take away, something you cannot lose.

If you can lose your job, you are not your job or your job title. If you can lose company, you are not your company. If you always need permission to create or make a film, you are not a creator or filmmaker.

A couple of years ago, someone asked me if I would view myself as a failure if I failed at my job as a venture investor. My answer was yes. I explained that my job is a huge part of who I am, and if I fail at it, yes, I would be a failure.

Since that conversation, I’ve come to a more nuanced view of the world. I wouldn’t say to a founder, “If your company fails, you are a failure.” Quite the opposite. You are not your company, and regardless of whether you took it public or closed it down, you are separate from the entity that is your company.

So, if not by those ephemeral things, how can you define yourself?

  • Instead of defining yourself according to your job description, you can think about characteristics like persistence, compassion, and thoughtfulness.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to successes and failures, you can look at the chances you choose to take. There are second chances, there are third chances—but they only exist if you don’t give up on yourself, and if you actually take them.
  • Instead of defining yourself according to your ego, you can think of yourself as someone who’s always learning.
  • External validation is the bane of humanity. Fuck external validation.

Despite the transience, we let success and failure have such a huge impact on us. Depending on how we deal with it, they can change our life trajectories. But these things still aren’t who we are. Who you are is the amalgam of personal characteristics that make you up. It’s what you learn from success and failure. It’s how you deal with it, and what you go on to do with it. That’s what no one can take away from you, and that’s what makes you who you are.

Momentum vs Conviction

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Among the many reasons why it is challenging to be a founder, there is this quirk of the venture business — there are a lot of investors, and it is tough to figure out who is the right one.

One axis of the decision-making model is what I think of as Momentum vs. Conviction.

One way you can identify the momentum species is if they ask the magic question: “Who else is in the deal/round?”

Momentum investors are driven by the trend du jour. They often show up when:

  • The round is oversubscribed and the company operates in a “hot” space
  • Participating in the round will allow the investor to be part of an “in group” of “top tier” VCs
  • The investor missed the last hot company in this space and is prepared to do anything to get into the next one (this is one sad reason VC bubbles form)
  • There’s a great/famous VC leading the round
  • A great/famous VC led the last round

It seems obvious that this isn’t the kind of investor a founder wants. But in the moment, it is really difficult to say no to someone who is persistent, especially when you’ve been laboring away at your product on starvation wages for years. The attention can also be fun. For the moment, everything’s great, you’re hot, and dollars are flying at you. 

The question in your mind may be: So what? What if they’re in the company for the wrong reasons?

The answers unfortunately only emerge over time:

  1. In future rounds, they will be unable to come to a decision on whether or not to fund you based on how you’re actually doing. They seek external validation from the market and cannot think through the nuances to figure out where the market is going and how you can play a role in the market
  2. Their term sheets can often cause trouble. If the deal is hot, they may overprice it (and then later yank or revise it if the deal cools). High prices driven by the perception of being “hot” can often lead to downstream issues in future rounds (but that’s a whole different post).

Momentum isn’t the only way to make investing decisions. Someone could also invest in your startup based on the conviction that your company represents the best approach in a space they understand and care about. Here are some of the signals of conviction investing:

  • They want to learn about the company and the space
  • They admit when they are learning and how much time they need
  • Rounds can move fast, but these investors will want to do the work to get to comfort regarding the industry, the company, the founder, and all open issues
  • They almost never ask the dreaded question “who else is in the round”, because they’re basing their decision on their work.

It’s fantastic to be a hot company, but if the music stops, and if you cease being the next hot thing — you want a conviction investor at the table with you. 

On Picking Tough Challenges

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No one would call Maynard Webb a pussycat. He joined eBay when the technical infrastructure was failing. He was critical to fixing it and making downtime a thing of the past. Anyone who has worked for him would say he was their toughest boss. He was full of pithy Maynardisms that all basically meant, “Stop whining and get back to work.” He was a force to be reckoned with.

Many years ago, in one of our ongoing mentoring sessions, Maynard said something like, “Whenever you’re faced with a career choice, pick the toughest challenge.”

He explained that if you choose an easy problem, you know you can fix it. But, many other people in the world can fix the same problem—there’s nothing unique about the accomplishment. If you choose a really tough problem, you may fail, but if you succeed, then you’ve done something pretty darn hard. That would be rare air.

This is one of those pieces of advice that sounds great. It’s aspirational; it’s the hero’s journey; it’s inspirational. From afar, it all looks and sounds glorious, but the daily reality can be painful. And the chance of failure is extremely high. You’ll work long, hard hours for years, put your lifeblood into something, and likely fail. Not easy.

Founders have self-selected into the toughest path in front of them. The alternatives abound. It would be so much easier to go work somewhere else—somewhere where you’re a member of a team, where many hands make light work, where a decision will not fundamentally affect the success or failure of the company, where the buck doesn’t stop with you.

But the small chance of success is alluring. What if you’re the one to pull it off? You crush that job, or you create that unique company. The highs of that are incredible.

And that is why we are all in tech.

Investing in Founders is like Casting Actors

On the set of “Waking Jed”, directing Jessica Chastain. Photo Credit: Anna Kooris

One of my early lessons in screenwriting was to focus on the character—motivations, personality, drives—and not external characteristics. It’s tempting to specify that the leading lady is blonde, petite, or whatever. And it’s okay to envision the character while writing, but we’re taught to avoid specifying detailed external appearance in casting.

The reason is that sometimes, the best casting decision is the one that’s least expected. You might have an image in your head of the character, but the best actor—the person who is most convincing and does an incredible job—might look very different from your mental image. Let’s say your character is written as a seductress, but the best actor for that role could be more of a plain Jane. That adds a lot to the nuance and depth to the story. A more regular-looking person being a seductress is so much more interesting than the hottest person on earth being a seductress. The film Snowpiercer was written for a mild-mannered man in a suit, but Tilda Swinton rocked the role.

During casting sessions, screenwriters and directors need to learn to set aside their mental picture, look at the actors in front of them, and reimagine the story with each person auditioning. That’s the way to cast the best actors.

Similarly, investors sometimes have a mental picture of who will be a good entrepreneur. It’s not based on looks (one hopes), but on the profile — the experiences a person “should” have had to be a great entrepreneur. VCs can sometimes be biased toward someone who’s worked at a hot company that went public, or is an engineer who can build it all, or a name-dropper who seems very connected in the ecosystem.

If investors carry around these biases in our heads, we will miss the best people. Like great actors, great entrepreneurs can come in all shapes and sizes, and from all backgrounds, all levels of work experience, ages, nationalities, and genders.

When casting an actor, the most important things to look for include:

  • Ability to live the character. Do you believe the actor is the character
  • Willingness to take direction. A director should never tell an actor “how” to play the scene, but the director can and should give her guidance on the mood of the scene, how the audience should feel, or the character’s motivation for a certain action. And the actor should be able to take that input and give the director a range of options.

    I remember when I had the chance to direct Jessica Chastain and James Franco. They gave me such a spectacular performance on the first take and then turned around, asked how it was, and whether I wanted to see it another way. My jaw was on the floor — I was blown away by their talent and their humility in asking for input from a student director.
  • Ability to go with the flow. Film production (especially in the indie world) needs to be flexible. Sometimes, a much-desired location might suddenly become available (for free!), and the crew might have to shoot there tomorrow instead of three weeks from now. This means the actor has to be ready for scene 56 instead of scene 18.

Many of those same characteristics apply to ideal founders:

  • Ability to fully inhabit the role of the CEO. This is about vision, tactical capability, ability to hire, and the ability to sell their vision and themselves.
  • Willingness to take input. An investor should never tell a CEO how to do their job, but a big part of the investor’s role is to see around corners, anticipate challenges based on their experience, and give the CEO input and feedback.
  • Ability to go with the flow. Startups need to be flexible. Sometimes, a new competitor might emerge, you might lose a key person on your team, a pandemic might unexpectedly sweep the globe. The best CEOs are those who can adapt and find a way to thrive in the new world.

Just like the success of a film depends on casting the person who is the best actor, the success of an investment depends on casting the best founder. It requires putting aside the mental preconceptions and focusing on the person in the room (or on Zoom). Despite her youth, can she be an amazing CEO? What gives you that confidence? Her knowledge of the space? Ability to be compelling? Authenticity?

The best casting decisions happen when we are open to allowing incredible actors to show us how much better the character can be. In the same way, I try to approach every meeting with a founder with a willingness to be blown away by their vision of the world.

Hoarding, Investing, and Diversifying Time

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When I was a child, I’d get a monthly allowance. In order to get the next month’s allowance, I would have to account for how I spent or saved what was given to me, down to the paisa (the Indian version of a cent). I had a pink spiral notebook that I would show to my father in order to get a fresh infusion.

Whether our parents teach us about money or we learn it elsewhere, the overarching message is all around us: “Be careful with your money.” What if we thought about time the same way?

Let’s take some of the concepts of money and try to apply them to time.

Hoard: When a resource is precious, we hoard it. This is to give us a sense of comfort that it is there when we need it most. Hoarding started off as a synonym for saving, but has now come to be viewed as excessive, with a negative connotation. Still, when I saw this quote on a writing blog, it resonated with me:

“In order to excel at anything, and this includes writing, you must hoard the time needed to accomplish that excellence.” DL Black obviously hoards that time. Just like Michael Jordan hoarded his practice time, Mother Teresa hoarded her humanitarian time, Neil Armstrong hoarded his preparation time for the moon landing, etc. I vote you hoard that time needed for your writing Franklin. Protect it. Coddle it. Savor it. It’s yours and you need it to finish your screenplay.

Unlike money, time exists mostly in the present. What does it mean to hoard time? Here’s how I try to do it – working backwards from my goals for the year, I block off time on my calendar to move the related projects forward. It’s working with some success (for example, writing is one of the goals for this year). When it is not working, you could look at your priorities and determine whether you are giving your most important ones the time they need.

Invest/compound: The goal here is for $x today to become $5x or $100x tomorrow. What can you do with your time to create more value later? If you’re a founder, it is worth thinking of what will give you that 5x return. Build those things that will make it harder for your competition to catch up and for your lead to expand exponentially. Here are some other areas that are an investment in yourself that could compound:
Writing from your unique pov makes you findable, and by creating value for others, helps you form connections with like-minded people around the world.
Learning and pursuing your curiosity in areas that may not be popular enriches your life, just because it’s worth spending time on things that pique your interest.
Thinking about things that may seem unrelated so that when the next idea come up, you can draw connections you might not have known existed.
Forming genuine connections with people who stretch your ideas, expand your horizons, and leave you energized.

Diversification: By holding different kinds of monetary assets, when one asset class suffers, you do not end up at a zero. Other asset classes can carry you through. There are many ways to look at diversification from the perspective of your time: You could choose to look at it from just the perspective of your career — the whole anti-fragile career movement is big right now, and rightfully so given the year we’ve had so far. You could also look at it from the different ways that you currently spend time — work, family, friends, exercise and health. Let’s say, for example that you’re going through a rough patch on the personal front. Having your work go well can help carry you through by giving you something positive to focus on during that time. Much like money, diversification could mean not letting one aspect of your life dominate.

Opportunity cost: With money, putting your money in opportunity X means you may have to turn down opportunity Y. If you think great opportunities are ahead of you, the rational person would wait for the better investments. Unlike money, you can’t create more time in the present, and there isn’t really “saved” time you can draw from. So the opportunity cost of time is much higher than money. Doing X right now means you cannot do Y. Time is the most finite resource. Consistently asking what the opportunity cost of a choice is may help in crystalizing what really matters and what the areas of investment should be.

Giving and gifting: This is important for many people with their money, and not just for the tax break. It’s important because they want to support worthy causes. But when the dollars get higher, most people research the chosen charities to make sure that the money is being put to good use. On this one, it’s very similar with time. Apply the same principles.

IRA: In most parts of the world, the government and businesses enable people to save for their retirement by taking some money from today and investing in for the future. This money, either in 401Ks or IRAs, is money you can’t really access, but you can choose how to invest it so that it fits your risk profile and can cover your needs once you stop working. With money, you can starting saving for retirement early, but with time, what’s the right time to start thinking about when you stop working? Is it in your 50s or 60s or 70s? Is it investing a bit of time to learn a new skill you might want to use? Is it thinking through what you enjoy and starting early? I have more questions than answers for this one.

Creating optionality: One of the biggest reasons people value money is that it gives them flexibility and optionality. Having money can create more money (through investing). One would think that time would be different, but this can be true for time, too. While we can’t create time in the present, you can create high value time (and therefore options) in the future. You can add healthy years to your life by making the right decisions in the present. I don’t do this well (yet), so it’s time to make it a priority.

None of these are easy and I struggle with them on a daily basis. But this lens helps me get over FOMO, say no even when I feel some guilt, and have chunks of time to work towards the goals that matter.

I’m sure there are some other great analogies out there. I’d love to hear which ones you use in your life.

Hardware as a Moat

Photo credit: Peloton

When investors look at companies, one of the things we try to understand is whether the company can build a moat. In tech, a moat is a conscious business design choice that allows a company to develop and maintain a sustained competitive advantage over other players in the space.

Economies of scale and network effects are two of the best-known moats. But there are others—like deep tech, etc. Today, I want to propose a new moat: hardware. I’m talking about products like Peloton, where the hardware is central to having the full experience.

In the wellness space, software solves real problems, and the app ecosystem in these spaces is thriving. These apps help with things like meditation, period tracking, sleep tracking, and exercise of all kinds. But in a crowded market like that, investors ask, “How does a company win?”

Now, when you have “just” apps in these spaces, with no connected hardware, they are fungible. To move from one app to another, you just… click. If you have paid an annual subscription, you might wait until it expires, or you might just eat the cost and try a new app regardless. With these apps, there may be UI differences or instructor differences, but the experience is largely similar. The customer choice is being made based off of relatively small differences.

As my colleagues and I have written, in a software-only space where differences are minimal, a product-led community can be a great moat. Another moat could be sales to enterprises, where a company buys the app/service as a benefit for employees. If you lock up as many companies as possible, very quickly, the employees of those companies become your customers. But this kind of lockup, while valuable, may not be driven by passion or love for the product.

So, a moat that could be longer lasting is hardware. Yes, hardware often scares VCs, because it can be complicated. You need to create processes around mailing things out, dealing with returns, production challenges, and more. There seems to be an endless list of issues.

However, hardware has changed over the past few years, becoming easier to manage than it was 10 years ago. A whole ecosystem of companies has emerged to support hardware companies with many of the logistical issues. And engineers, product people, designers, and marketers who have built and shipped multiple versions of good consumer hardware are available in the market.

In a crowded software market, hardware can be your moat.

The most successful of these companies is Peloton. If you buy a bike (or presumably a Tread), to just get your hardware to turn on, you have to pay Peloton $39 a month for a subscription. And while your parents’ generation ended up using exercise equipment mainly as a clothes horse, these new devices are a joy. They are well-designed, they are connected, they often have community elements, and they have a rich user experience that’s compelling and powerful. So, sure, much like your parents, you could turn your Peloton into a dumping ground for your shorts and t-shirts, but once you’ve bought a device that costs several thousand dollars, the additional monthly pinch of $39 is likely making sure that you are using the device. Their numbers back this up: their S1 claims 95% 12-month retention for those who buy their hardware. Even if it is a bit lower, like some analysts debate, it’s still incredibly strong. Also, just yesterday, agreeing with this point of view, Lululemon bought Mirror, a connected hardware exercise mirror, for $500M.

Photo Credit: Core

It is even better when the hardware gives you unique data. For example, our portfolio company Core provides your Heart Rate, your HRV, your minutes of calm, and your minutes of focus for each session. Because you are holding a device that vibrates to give you a point of focus, and that same device gives you all this data, once you’ve bought a Core, you’re unlikely to want to use anything else to meditate. Same goes for Peloton.

In addition, unlike another apps on your phone, which are all behind the black glass screen, hardware is visible. You can see your Peloton bike in your house, your Core trainer on your desk or bedside table. And by being visible, and by being well-designed, they beckon to you to use them and experience the tactile, live user experience with them. They exist in the real world.

These are still the early days of connected hardware, but between the physical presence, the cost paid to acquire the device (which could be a proxy of customer commitment), the tactile experience, and the data generated, these devices can serve as a moat in crowded software markets. Over the next few years, companies will evolve their model and create fantastic new experiences for consumers. Both as a user and as an investor, I am excited to see where this world goes, and I’m excited to use these beautifully designed products and apps to achieve my goals.

Ignore the Requirements, Check the Proxies

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This past week, I talked to 10 candidates for our first round of summer intern interviews. It was awesome to see the enthusiasm and energy in the applicants, as well as the range of people who applied. On the job listing, we stated that “experience is preferred, but not required”—so we got a lot of MBA students, young professionals, recent graduates… and, to my surprise, one rising sophomore.

This young man, let’s call him Carl, realized there was no downside to having a conversation about the role. Because if he got picked to have a conversation, he could pitch why, despite how young he is, he’s qualified for the role. And if he impressed (which he did), he could put himself in a position to land future roles or be referred to other opportunities. He would also make a connection in the venture industry that he wouldn’t otherwise have had. Having spoken to him, I can put a face to the name, and I have a positive impression.

Because we had such fantastic candidates, Carl didn’t move on to the next round. But, he stands out in my mind for having the chutzpah and confidence to put himself out there. At Spero, we are giving some serious consideration to having ongoing, in-term interns, and Carl will be on the very short list of people I’d call if that opportunity opens up.

This story connects to the broader issue of how requirements are written and what they actually mean. Most of the time, a requirement is a proxy for a skill that people want to see so you can be successful in the role.

For example, in a job description:

An MBA is a proxy for analytical skills, basic financial skills, modeling basics, and an ability to evaluate businesses.

Experience in a specific role/industry is a proxy for the ability to hit the ground running versus needing people to spend time explaining how the industry works.

Years of experience is a proxy for maturity, the ability to collaborate with people, and the ability to handle the kinds of decisions the role will require.

And when raising venture investment, $1M revenue is often a proxy for product-market fit. There may be other ways to show PMF without being at exactly $1M.

This is not to say that every prerequisite is a proxy, or that you should fudge the facts. If you’re 2 credits short of your MBA, don’t say you have an MBA — but don’t automatically assume you’ll be rejected, either.

In our summer intern posting, we didn’t specify a single hard requirement, not even a college degree. I believe the whole professional world is moving towards tours of duty, which don’t depend on credentials like that. One of the smartest product designers I know doesn’t have an undergraduate degree. He is awesome and has accomplished a lot at some of the very best tech companies in Silicon Valley.

Next time you see one of those proxies, if you feel you‘ve demonstrated what the proxy is asking for, don’t hesitate to apply. I‘m fairly confident that Carl will do something interesting with his life. He recognizes that he is the asset and despite his youth, he understands the concept of proxies. He took the chance to put himself out there, and in nearly every situation, that’s better than not applying.

What We Can Learn from the First Women in Tech

A child’s drawing of a scientist, from a Draw-a-Scientist study (VASILIA CHRISTIDOU)

We’ve all seen the experiment where children are asked to draw scientists, right? 75% of 16-year old girls draw scientists as men. And while this has improved markedly over the decades, it saddens me that certain professions seem to still have a default gender.

“Programmer” is one of the professions that is default male. But those who are aware of tech history know that in the 1940s, many of the first programmers were women. So why do we now think of programmers as male by default?

As I recently discovered in Marie Hicks’ book Programmed Inequality, this was not by happenstance—at least not in Britain. There, during and after WWII, authorities made deliberate decisions to put women at the bottom of the technological totem pole.

Here’s a representative anecdote that starts the book and made me wince at its unfairness:

In 1959, a computer operator embarked on an extremely hectic year, tasked with programming and testing several of the new electronic computers on which the British government was becoming increasingly reliant. In addition, this operator had to train two new hires with no computing experience for a critical long-term project in the government’s central computing installation. After being trained, the new hires quickly stepped into management roles, while their trainer, who was described as having “a good brain and a special flair” for computer work, was demoted to an assistantship below them. This situation seems to make little sense until you learn that the trainer was a woman, and the newly hired trainees were men.

To understand what happened, rewind to the 1940s, when women were actively recruited to help with the war, and in particular, to staff the code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park, which was critical to the Allies in World War II.

Women were responsible for setting up and running the machines. In addition, the women also took charge of the significant amount of manual operation in order to make the system work, which included reading the codes, transferring them to punched tape and operating the machines. Over time, as the war progressed, the workload increased, and the women worked around the clock, in three shifts, to ensure the machine was always in operation. All of this significant and important work relied entirely on women.

At the end of the war, the women were forbidden to talk about what they were doing at Bletchley because the work was top-secret codebreaking stuff. This led to women being effectively erased from the earliest association with computers.

Post the war, between 1946 and 1955, Britain deployed computers to enable the country to process vast quantities of data. Women were used to keep the computers operational, but both the private and public sectors took advantage of sexist policies and laws to keep women at the lowest tier of the emerging industry. For example, companies used the “marriage bar” (which was still on the books but had been unenforced during the war) to fire a woman once she got married. This policy had no benefit to the employer, who lost a valuable and trained worker, but it kept women’s salaries low, and ensured the cultural norm of keeping women dependent. It also led to a number of professional women keeping their marriages secret. The Civil Service actually created a whole new job grade to ensure that women were not allowed to rise past a certain tier and they were denied promotions. The contortions went so far as to designate certain (lower) roles as women-exclusive, where men could not even apply

Mary Lee Berners-Lee, the mother of Tim Berners-Lee, worked at Ferranti in the 1950s. She recalled that women programmers performing the same work as men were paid less because “Ferranti was a paternal firm” that believed “men would have to support a wife and children so they needed more money.”

On top of all that, all these women were considered menial workers, which was not true. In the media and recruiting ads, they were portrayed as being part of the machine, just contributing to the machine performing well. So, a lot of the “programmer” roles were made to look unappealing on purpose.

What the authorities did not anticipate was the fact that computing was going to be the most revolutionary sector, and by making it so unattractive, they would shoot themselves in the foot by repelling male candidates. The continued suppression of women, at times to the detriment to the industry and country, would mean that there was a belief that anything involving machines didn’t require real intellect. And men would not want these jobs. The narrative designed to keep women down was about to backfire.

In the mid-sixties, the field started becoming exciting with the support of the government. The income potential of the industry increased. In order to appeal to men, while still keeping women boxed into the lower tiers, the language started to change, to indicate a segregation between feminine and masculine, menial and intellectual, programmers and operators. Advertising suggested that the computers were “operated by a typist, not highly paid programmers and controllers.” The typists, were, of course women.

In 1970, Britain passed the equal pay act, which eliminated different salaries for men and women. But the decades of structural inequality would still take their toll. While male employment in the industry expanded in the higher-paid tiers, women’s employment only increased in the lower tiers.

Britain, which was the most technologically advanced nation during the Second World War, did a number of things to shackle itself and fritter this advantage away. Instead of espousing free market policies, they chose socialist and protectionist ones. Instead of letting private enterprises thrive, the government formed International Computers Limited (ICL), a computer company that was intended to compete with the best in the world. And instead of letting the best programmers have successful and unshackled careers, Britain let decades of gender discrimination mire it in constant labor shortages and high turnover.

It might soothe our nerves to think all of this is history. However, in 2012, the London Science Museum held an exhibit on wartime codebreaking where the women operators were erased, yet again. The exhibit stated that Bletchley’s “machines operated around the clock,” but never mentioned that it operated completely because of women who worked three shifts. And “the two [females] in the only surviving picture of a Colossus being operated are not named in any of the exhibits at the UK’s Bletchley Park Historical Site and National Computing Museum, although their identities are known.”

In 2012!

I read Programmed Inequality by Marie Hicks in order to understand what we could learn from it and how we could identify this kind of systemic, cultural, and biased decision making when we see it.

The biggest takeaway is captured by Hicks:

These women’s experiences also elucidate the power dynamics behind how technology often heightens existing power differences.

Technology is built within the existing legal and cultural norms of society. We must pay attention to this, because even as the tech industry makes progress, it can reinforce unfair prevailing norms instead of alleviating them. It can strengthen the disparity instead of ensuring a level playing field.

Tech alone cannot cure all of society’s ills, but it can play an important role. To do so, tech leaders need to think about how technology can enable access rather than reinforce existing power dynamics.

Because while opportunity is not equally distributed, talent certainly is. And in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past, we must learn from history and from the first women in tech.