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Hi, I’m Brad Feld, a managing director at the Foundry Group who lives in Boulder, Colorado. I invest in software and Internet companies around the US, run marathons and read a lot.

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Accelerating Technology Change and Continuous Learning

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At dinner last week, my long time friend Dave Jilk (we just celebrated our 30th friendship anniversary) tossed a hypothesis at me that as people age, they resist adopting new technologies. This was intended as a personal observation, not an ageist statement, and we devolved into a conversation about brain plasticity. Eventually we popped back up the stack to dealing with changing tech and at some point I challenged Dave to write an essay on this. 

The essay follows. I think he totally nails it. What do you think?

People working in information technology tend to take a producer perspective. Though the notion of a “lean startup” that uses both Agile and Customer Development approaches is ostensibly strongly customer focused, the purpose of these methodologies is for the company to find an maximize its market, not specifically to optimize the user experience. The following is an observation more purely from the perspective of the consumer of information technology.

On average, as people age they resist adopting new technologies, only doing so slowly and where the benefits compellingly outweigh the time cost and inevitable frustrations. This resistance is not necessarily irrational – after a number of cycles where the new technology proves to be a fad, or premature, or less than useful, we learn that it may behoove us to wait and see. We want to accomplish things, not spend time learning tools that may or may not help us accomplish something.

Consequently, for many decades the pattern has been that technology adoption is skewed toward younger people, not only because they have not yet built up this resistance, but also because they are immersed in the particular new technologies as they grow up.

But something new is happening today, and it is evidence of accelerating rather than merely progressive technology change. Discrete technology advances are giving way to continuous technology advances. Instead of making a one-time investment in learning a new technology, and then keeping up with the occasional updates, it is increasingly necessary to be investing in learning on a constant, ongoing basis.

I will provide three examples. First, application features and user interfaces are increasingly in a state of continuous flux. From a user perspective, on any given day you may connect to Facebook or Gmail or even a business application like Salesforce.com, and find that there are new features, new layout or organization of screen elements, new keystroke patterns, even new semantics associated with privacy, security, or data entered and displayed. This is most prominent in online systems, but increasingly software updates are automatic and frequent on mobile devices and even full computer systems. On any given day, one may need to spend a significant amount of time re-learning how to use the software before being productive or experiencing the desired entertainment.

My mother is 86 years old. For perspective, when she was 20, television was a new consumer technology, and room-sized digital computers had just been invented. She uses the web, Yahoo mail, and Facebook, impressive feats in themselves for someone her age. But every time Yahoo changes their UI, she gets frustrated, because from her perspective it simply no longer works. The changes neither make things better for her nor add capabilities she cares about. She wants to send email, not learn a new UI; but worse, she doesn’t really know that learning a new UI is what she is expected to do.

Middle-aged people like me are better prepared to cope with these changes, because we’ve gotten used to them, but we still find them frustrating. Perhaps it is in part because we are busy and we have things we need to get done, but it is interesting to see how much people complain about changes to the Facebook interface or iOS updates or what have you. We can figure it out, but it seems more like a waste of time.

Young people gobble up these changes. They seem to derive value from the learning itself, and keeping up with the changes even has a peer pressure or social esteem component. Yes, this is in part because they also have fewer responsibilities, but that cannot be the entire explanation. They have grown up in a world where technology changes rapidly. They didn’t just “grow up with social media,” they grew up with “social media that constantly changes.” In fact, not only do they keep up with the changes on a particular social media service, they are always exploring the latest new services. Several times a year, I hear about a new service that is all the rage with teens and tweens.

A second example that is more esoteric but perhaps a leading indicator, is the rise of continuous integration in software development, not just with one’s own development team but with third-party software and tools. No longer is it sufficient to learn a programming language, its idiosyncrasies, its libraries, and its associated development tools. Instead, all of these tools change frequently, and in some cases continuously. Every time you build your application, you are likely to have some new bugs or incompatibilities related to a change in the language or the libraries (especially open source libraries). Thus, learning about the changes and fixing your code to accommodate them are simply part of the job.

This situation has become sufficiently common that some language projects (Ruby on Rails and Python come to mind) have abandoned upward compatibility. That’s right, you can no longer assume that a new version of your programming language will run your existing applications. This is because you are expected to keep up with all the changes all the time. Continuous integration, continuous learning. Older coders like me view this as a tax on software development time, but younger coders accept it as a given and seem to not only take it in stride but revel in their evolving expertise.

My final example, a little different from the others, is the pace of client device change. From 1981, when the IBM PC was introduced, until about 2005, one could expect a personal computer system to have a lifespan of 3-5 years. You could get a new one sooner if you wanted, but it would have reasonable performance for three years and tolerable for five. By then, the faster speed of the new machine would be a treat, and make learning the latest version of DOS, and later Windows, almost tolerable. Today, five years is closer to the lifespan of a device category. Your recent smartphone purchase is more likely to be replaced in 2017 by a smart watch, or smart eyewear, as it is by another smartphone. You won’t just have to migrate your apps and data, and learn the new organization of the screen – you will have to learn a new way to physically interact with your device. Hand gestures, eye gestures, speaking – all of these are likely to be part of the interface. Another five years and it is highly likely that some element of the interface will take input from your brain signals, whether indirectly (skin or electromagnetic sensors) or directly (implants). When you say you are having trouble getting your mind around the new device, you will mean it literally.

The foregoing is primarily just an observation, but it will clearly have large effects on markets and on sociology. It suggests very large opportunities but also a great deal of disruption. And this transition from generational learning to continuous learning is not the last word. Technology will not just keep advancing, it will keep accelerating. As the youth of today, accustomed to continuous learning, reach their 40s and beyond, they will become laggards and slow to adopt in comparison with their children. Even continuous learning will no longer be sufficient. What will that look like?

Save UberDenver Rally On Monday

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UberDenver and Uber CEO Travis Kalanick are hosting a rally at Galvanize after the Colorado Public Utilities Commission holds a public hearing on proposed rules changes that could shut UberDenver down.

I’ve had a number of private conversations since I wrote my post The Colorado PUC Trying to Shut Down UberDenverI continue to think the whole situation is insane especially given our state government’s strong position on advancing innovation in Colorado. The PUC’s behavior is clearly protectionist, anti-innovation, and undermines many of the efforts of entrepreneurs in Colorado to advance and amplify innovation here.

Apparently, the FTC agrees. I just read the FTC comments on the proposed rule changes and they do a very direct job of addressing 6001(ff), 6301(a), and 6309(d) which are the things I called out in my original blog post on 1/30/13. The punch line from the FTC memo is “FTC staff is concerned that these three proposed changes may significantly impair competition in passenger vehicle transportation services, including innovative methods of competition enabled by new software applications (“applications”) that allow consumers to arrange and pay for services in new ways that they might prefer, and thus harm consumers.”

Given that the PUC’s stated mission (on their website) is to “serve the public interest by effectively regulating utilities and facilities so that the people of Colorado receive safe, reliable, and reasonably-priced services consistent with the economic, environmental and social values of our state” I’m hopeful the PUC comes to its senses and serves the public interest in this case, rather than try to create new rules that protect entrenched and incubent companies.

I’ve been told in the private conversations that I’ve had that this will be resolved soon in a way that makes sense. Until then, I continue to encourage anyone in Colorado who is pro-innovation to support Uber’s efforts here and, if you are around Monday, head down to Galvanize between 6pm and 9pm for an UberRally.

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The Colorado PUC Trying to Shut Down UberDenver

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In yet another insane move by government against entrepreneurs and job creators, the Colorado PUC is proposing a new set of rules that would shut down Uber in Colorado. This is protectionism and misuse of power in an egregious form. Government supporting powerful incubants (the taxi industry) that are threatened by disruptive innovators through regulation. Yuck.

As a Colorado entrepreneurial community, we shouldn’t stand for this. As citizens and tax payers in Colorado, we shouldn’t stand for this. And as innovators, looking forward, we shouldn’t stand for this. My call to action is at the end of this email – if you do nothing else, go sign the petition right now. And tell everyone you know.

I think our governor, John Hickenlooper, is awesome. I hope he focuses on this quickly and demonstrates his own background as an entrepreneur, as an innovator, and as a proponent of innovation. Given the launch of his new effort to rebrand Colorado for the next 20 years, I hope he focuses his brandCO effort on innovation, entrepreneurship, and the future, rather than protecting incumbents in regulated industries through the misuse of power, especially in areas – such as the taxi industry – where the service, at least in Colorado, is uniformly poor. Colorado’s new brand shouldn’t be “backwater protectionist state” – yeah – that doesn’t sound very good to me.

The Uber story has already played out in a number of other states. The regulators quickly back down from the powerful lobby / industry groups that are influencing the new regulations. In some cases, it’s a simple misuse of power. In others, it’s a lack of understanding of what is going on. And in others, it has been a backward looking regulator, or government, that momentarily forgets that it serves its citizens, not a small constituent of incumbents.

The PUC rule changes are extensive, but there are several cleverly woven in that effectively shut down Uber if implemented. Read the following examples and be appalled.

- Section 6301: Uber’s pricing model will be made illegal: Sedan companies will no longer be able to charge by distance (section 6301): This is akin to telling a hotel it is illegal to charge by the night.

- Section 6309: Uber’s partner-drivers will effectively be banned from Downtown — by making it illegal for an Uber car to be within 200 feet of a restaurant, bar, or hotel. This is TAXI protectionism at its finest. The intent is to make sure that only a TAXI can provide a quick pickup in Denver’s city center.

- Section 6001 (ff): Uber’s partner-drivers will be forced out of business — partnering with local sedan companies will be prohibited.

These rules are not designed to promote safety, nor improve quality of service. They are intended to stop innovation, protect incumbents, hurt independent drivers, and shut down Uber in Denver.

There are several things you can do right now.

1) Contact Gov. Hickenlooper and tell him, “Save Uber in Colorado! Withdraw PUC Rules Changes to sections 6001, 6301, & 6309.”

Email Gov. Hickenlooper

Write on Gov. Hickenlooper’s Facebook Wall

2)  Contact the Colorado PUC Directly:

Email Joshua Epel, Chairman

Email Doug Dean, Director

3)  Sign the petition that shows the PUC your #UberDENVERLove.

Disclosure: I am NOT a direct investor in Uber, although I have personal investments in several VC funds that are invested in Uber. However, my ownership is tiny and the amount I’ve spent on Uber services since they launched several years in the bay area dwarfs the amount of money I’d ever expect to see from my indirect investment. I’ve written this because I love the service, love the company, and love their innovation. Society improves when innovators like Uber are able to do their thing – it’s a deeply held belief of mine – that’s why I’ve written this post.

The Declaration of Internet Freedom

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I started off my morning by reading the Declaration of Independence. I never get tired of reading it or pondering what was going on at the time. It’s hard to transport myself back to July 4th, 1776 but it’s pretty remarkable to think about what was going on that caused 56 people to sign this brilliant document and in one moment start our country on amazing course over the next 236 years that have had a profound impact on the history of the world.

If you haven’t read it in a while – go read it. I’ll be here when you get back.

On Monday, a group of people including me and my partners at Foundry Group signed on to the Declaration of Internet Freedom. I found the preamble and the declaration itself to be powerful and profoundly important. Following is the preamble.

We believe that a free and open Internet can bring about a better world. To keep the Internet free and open, we call on communities, industries and countries to recognize these principles. We believe that they will help to bring about more creativity, more innovation and more open societies.

We are joining an international movement to defend our freedoms because we believe that they are worth fighting for.

Let’s discuss these principles — agree or disagree with them, debate them, translate them, make them your own and broaden the discussion with your community — as only the Internet can make possible.

Join us in keeping the Internet free and open.

Here is the Declaration of Internet Freedom. If you support this, either sign up your company or sign up as an individual. It’s open source so if you have comments or suggestions for improving it, please weigh in on GithubCheezburger, reddit, or TechDirt. The Internet needs you.

Compromise vs. Problem Solving

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I spent all day Sunday at Silicon Flatirons’ Digital Broadband Migration Conference. This is a key national conference held in Boulder at the intersection of technology and public policy with a particular focus on the Internet. This year’s conference subtitle was “The Challenges of Internet Law and Governance.”

I was pondering something all morning that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. My close friend Phil Weiser (who is now the Dean of the CU Law School and hosts the conference) kicked it off and then handed things over to Vint Cerf (now at Google and one of the original architects of the Internet). A great panel full of engineers titled Tech Tutorial Backdrop: An All IP Network and Its Policy Implications came next, followed by a talk from Colorado Senator Michael Bennet.

I’m a supporter of Michael’s and even though he originally co-sponsored PIPA, he eventually understood that it was flawed legislation and got behind the effort to oppose it. As a co-sponsor he had plenty of influence in the background on the process and I’m glad that he spent the time to listen to the tech community, understand why it was bad legislation, and take action. It was great to see him at this particular conference given its national perpective on a key intersection of technology and policy.

After Michael came a panel I was on titled The Digital Broadband Migration in Perspective. David Cohen (EVP of Comcast), Larissa Herda (CEO of tw telecom inc.), and I were the loud mouths on this one. David and I had very different perspectives on many things which reached a head when he asked what my reaction to all of the major TV and cable channels blacking out for three hours and putting up messages that said “this is what TV would be like without SOPA/PIPA” (basically – the opposite of the Internet blackout that occurred on January 18th). While he asserted this would be an abuse of corporate power and responsibility, implying that the Internet companies participating in the Internet blackout where behaving inappropriately, my response was that “it would be fucking awesome – they should do whatever they want – and better yet no college kid in the world would notice.”  There was plenty more in that vein, but this was tame compared to what came next.

The panel after lunch was a debrief on what just happened with SOPA/PIPA. Mark Lemley (Stanford Law Professor) and Gigi Sohn (President of Public Knowledge) explained things from an anti-SOPA/PIPA perspective; Jonathan Taplin (Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California) and Michael Fricklas (General Counsel of Viacom) took a pro-SOPA/PIPA perspective, and Michael Gallagher (CEO of Entertainment Software Association) and Judge Stephen Williams (U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit) took a third perspective that I couldn’t quite parse. After everyone got a chance to give a 7 – 13 minute presentation, the conversation degenerated quickly into a very polarized argument where, in my opinion, facts were left at the doorstep by several of the participants. As the fact vs. fiction dynamic escalated, emotions ran hot and the discourse degenerated to a point of near uselessness. With every moment, the conversation became even more polarized, even though the anti-SOPA/PIPA folks would say things like I’m not going to defend SOPA/PIPA as it was bad legislation, we need to solve the problem of … in reaction to the pro-SOPA/PIPA folks saying If you assert that there are only 50 bad sites that represent 80% of the illegal content in the world, and we already have tools too take those sites down, what exactly are you talking about.  While there were hugs and handshakes after the panel ended, it definitely felt like there was plenty of grinfucking going around.

After this panel I ducked out for an hour to go meet Julius Genachowski (chairman of the FCC). We’ve crossed paths a few times but never spent any thoughtful time together. We had a nice 30 minute meeting where we talked about the dynamics going on at the conference and in Washington DC. He gave me one phrase which caused me to stop, ponder it for a minute, and respond with “that’s exactly right.” He said:

“What you are observing is the difference between compromise and problem solving.”

My brain is an engineers brain. I’m focused on learning and solving problems. Over the past few years I’ve been completely baffled by my experience interacting with politicians and their staffers. When I present a solution to a problem (e.g. the Startup Visa) I immediately watch a negotiation begin to ensue. Three years later, even non-controversial, obviously beneficial things like Startup Visa are still stuck in a discussion.

When I talked to folks about how bad the SOPA/PIPA legislation was, they would respond “what’s the counter proposal?” My first response was usually “What do you mean? It’s horrifyingly bad legislation that shouldn’t even be considered.” The response to this was “Yes, but if I am going reject it, I need to come with a counter-proposal.”

Julius explained to me that Washington runs on a compromise mentality. You propose something and then begin negotiating from there. Innovative companies, where I spent almost all of my time, run on a problem solving mentality. You have a problem – you solve it. When I reflected on the panels during the day, the engineers and engineering heavy panels were problem solving and the policy / lawyer heavy panels were fighting over polarized positions which, if they converged, would be a convergence based on compromise rather than problem solving.

This generated a breakthrough insight for me. I’ve been increasing frustrated with politics and public policy discussions that I’ve been part of. It’s because I’m in a problem solving mode. While some of the folks I’m interacting with are also in this mode (which causes me to stay engaged), many are in a compromise mode. They don’t care whether or not we actually solve the root cause problem – they just have an agenda that they want to get into the mix legislatively and are negotiating for it with the goal of reaching a compromise.

We ended the day with a wonderful talk from Senator Mark Udall. I’m a huge fan of Mark’s – he’s one of the most thoughtful people in government I’ve gotten to interact with. Colorado is lucky to have him as he listens to his constituents here and acts on their behalf, rather than some other agenda. He discussed his views on innovation and PIPA (which he opposed early) and then made a strong appeal for the Startup Visa, increased STEM education, and a long term focus on innovation as the base for job creation. He then took another 90 minutes to meet with a smaller set of entrepreneurs and public policy folks from the conference to hear what was on their mind. Mark definitely was listening and trying to understand what issues he should be looking out for that had similar negative impacts like PIPA.

We need a lot more problem solvers like Mark in the mix, especially in positions of power in government. And, the problem solvers should insist that the path is problem solving, not compromise.

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