Two Thoughts on Hiring

I’ve come across a couple of different thoughts about the hiring process this week which I thought were worth adding here. Broadly speaking, they focus on culture and capacity.

First up is this gem:

Anyone who’s ever been involved in a hiring process knows this subconsciously. But next time you’re involved in selecting someone new for the team, it’s worth reminding yourself about the multiplier effect.

If you’re successful, the people you hire in the early days will end up being the ones who do all the hiring to build up their teams. And given that people tend to hire people who are similar, you’d better think twice before hiring an asshole – unless you want to spend many future meetings locked in with many more just like them. Like everything, there’s a Shakespearean quote that fits perfectly, in this case it’s found in the Tempest:

“Would’t had been done! Thou didst prevent me. I had peopled else this isle with Calibans.”

Second thought: is rejecting a job applicant for being ‘over-qualified’ a fundamental error?

We all know why this is perceived as a normal response to a CV that’s packed with qualifications. From the FT:

“The glib rejection hides a range of concerns including the fear that such applicants will be too costly (even if they protest they are ready to work for below their market rate); too snooty (despite their grovelling displays of humility), or too hard to please (notwithstanding their desire for one thing and one thing only: that job).”

But there’s some evidence that if you get it right, these are precisely the sorts of individuals who have a little spare capacity to do some hugely valuable thinking – perhaps about the way that the daily process of the job or team. Or perhaps that element of spare time is now spent on considering strategy and the bigger picture, something that’s exceptionally difficult for many who have been chosen to grow into the role and are consequently stretched to the limit of their existing talents.

Clearly it depends on the individual. Many would take the opportunity to spend time in less productive pursuits (aka skiving…) or be increasingly deafened by creeping boredom over time. But get the right person and it seems that the potential may be huge for the organisation as a whole to win big out of the arrangement.

And as an aside, I wonder how many people also use this as an excuse. Many of the most successful entrepreneurs I’ve known have had one thing in common – an insistence on hiring people far more talented than they are. Part of this comes from a rare ability to be able to accurately assess one’s own level of skills whilst remaining laser-focused on increasing the overall output and efficiency of their baby.

But for the rest? It’s often a convenient card to play when you’re concerned that you’re hiring someone that could have the skills to replace you. Human nature being what it is, most are simply happy to hire those that won’t challenge their ability to put food on the table.


The History of the Internet

For something that every single person that stumbles across this blog uses many times a day, remarkably small numbers of people actually know very little about the history of the internet. Or even how it works today.

The younger you are, there’s less of a reason to question why something’s there and how it started working – and whether that infrastructure and those reasons have changed over the years. Of course, there’s little need to sit and think about such weighty issues as what the difference is between the Internet and the World Wide Web when most of your day is spent together alone within the walled gardens of Facebook….

But for anyone who wants to find out a bit more however, I’d recommend reading ‘Tubes’ by Andrew Blum, a travel book with a difference – as the author travels to visit the physical manifestations of the internet today around the world and explores some of the history.

Another useful source to check out is the Internet Society’s history which you can download here as a PDF.

And finally if you’re more visual, check out the quick summary here: ‘A Brief History of the Internet‘. It’s all just a starter but it feels like the sort of modern history that’s somewhat under-appreciated in the wider scheme of things.

Spaced Repetition

Twitter’s great for random rabbit holes just lying in wait for the permanently curious. And one of the more interesting discoveries for me in recent weeks has been the thread that introduced me to the concept of spaced repetition:-

Put simply, the concept is that you learn more effectively by creating a bunch of flashcards that you then test yourself on regularly. If you remember easily, you don’t need to test your memory about it for while. But if you struggle, however, you are forced to revisit that card much more quickly, and more frequently – until it ends up in the first category.

So it’s a dynamic system that has a number of solutions out there to create digital, as opposed to physical, flashcards. Which brings the benefit that you can carry them with you wherever you are – plus you can check analytics directly in order to see how you’re progressing.

I’ll caveat this by saying that I have no evidence as yet as to how effective it is for my brain in particular. But I’ve started experimenting with Anki (although there are a few different options out there).  And I’ve not spent any real time diving into the science, but this method seem to be  more suitable for our human brains which store memories in an emergent, as opposed to planned way.

It seems that memories are not kept in a nice tidy database in your head by your brain. Instead, each one is stored where the brain sees fit, in an emergent manner. The memory itself gets stronger if the brain encounters it regularly and frequently.

So spaced repetition seems to me to fall into that category of deliberate practice. It appears to work more effectively because you are forced to work hard at remembering things throughout the process.

I haven’t yet worked out how I’m going to test this in practice but I’m up for giving it a try for a while and check out the results.

(Provided I don’t forget that I was planning to do this in the first place….)


The Inevitable Craziness of Surveillance, AI and Social Credit

Jaywalking is a funny thing. It doesn’t exist in the UK – in this country, pedestrians are expected to make their own judgements about whether or not it’s safe to cross a road. That’s pretty different to the US where in some cities, you can end up getting fined or detained for the heinous crime of, er, trying to cross a road on foot.

China has a similar approach to such blatant evildoing in public. Although the response is slightly different – hose down the miscreant to teach him or her a lesson….

Whilst amusing, it pales into insignificance when placed alongside the general direction of travel across China as it continues its journey deeper into a far darker dystopian and authoritarian future. It’s estimated that the country now has in excess of 200 million surveillance cameras tracking every move of its citizens.

It’s not simply the death of privacy and the chilling effect that such a burgeoning all-seeing infrastructure has on the freedom of individuals that’s the concern here.  It’s that this is far from being simply an ideological battleground. Instead, it’s reality today – as China has already introduced the Social Credit System which means that people with low scores can be prevented from travelling on planes and trains.

In other words, we’re seeing technology being used for totally different reasons. Instead of helping individuals in the pursuit of freedom, technology is being deployed as a system of control.

It’s turning into a one-sided battle as the Chinese government strives to manage society in a completely new way by pursuing a form of algorithmic governance.

For a taster, read this from the New York Times:-

“Last summer, the police put up cameras linked to facial recognition technology and a big, outdoor screen. Photos of lawbreakers were displayed alongside their names and government I.D. numbers. People were initially excited to see their faces on the board, said Guan Yue, a spokeswoman, until propaganda outlets told them it was punishment.

“If you are captured by the system and you don’t see it, your neighbours or colleagues will, and they will gossip about it,” she said. “That’s too embarrassing for people to take.”

Now if that doesn’t remind you of 1984, then I don’t know what will. Just watch this video – is this a system that you would live in out of choice?

I originally started this post to talk about one story in particular – the fact that cameras in Ningbo incorrectly captured the face of a famous successful CEO pictured on the side of a passing bus and interpreted it as an act of illegal jaywalking by her.

Cue much hilarity.  Until you start to consider the consequences. AI is still a long way from being reliable when it comes to these type of tasks. And the potential damage caused by such mistakes accelerates with every day that passes .

It’s rare to find an issue where you honestly can’t see both sides. Where even if you can’t agree with the other point of view as such, you can still find some form of merit in the opposing position. But I’m afraid this issue is one of those for me. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how this develops over the next 5 to 10 years. But for all the wrong reasons.



The Personal Runway Metric

When I was out speaking at an event tonight, one of the questions posed to us as panellists was what advice we’d give to students who are currently thinking of moving into the crypto/blockchain/startup world.

It reminded me of something I heard Coinbase CTO Balaji Srinivasan say recently. It doesn’t answer the question as such but I do think it is relevant.

Balaji believes that arguably the single most important metric for life is something he calls your personal runway. As you can probably guess if you’ve spent any time in business, your personal runway is defined simply as the size of your savings divided by your burn rate (how fast your spend the money you earn).

Maybe it doesn’t sound that noteworthy. But it is – because it’s far easier today to reduce your burn rate by 5x than it is to increase your salary/net worth by 5x.

Reducing your burn rate is deterministic (i.e. it’s within your power and choice to do it immediately). Really want to reduce the money you spend by a factor of 5? Take that chance – and go move to a different country with a far cheaper standard of living.

So the combination of cryptocurrency and digital technology combined mean that it’s now becoming much easier to continue earning very high sums of money for your work despite basing yourself in a remote location that doesn’t require you to spend as much. The results? You can now do any or all of: save more money; start companies with less funds; and continue to work on the most interesting opportunities out there today.

Of course, human behaviour being as it is, many/most people won’t take that leap. But some will. And they’re the ones that will likely make the most of the opportunities that are out there.

SAFE Network Hits the Mainstream

A few months ago, we were able to announce that MaidSafe had been acting as official advisors to the hit HBO show ‘Silicon Valley‘. The fifth season revolved around the startup trying to build a new decentralised peer-to-peer internet – sound familiar to anyone?


Cory Doctorow interviews Mike Judge (creator of HBO’s Silicon Valley) at the Decentralized Web Summit 2018

And now today, thanks to the eagle eyes of our global community, we’ve just found out that the SAFE Network also gets a mention in Disney’s new US Number 1 hit film ‘Wreck It Ralph 2: Ralph Breaks the Internet’. Check out the hugely familiar blue snowflake at the top of the screen below:-

Pretty cool, huh? As I wrote on the MaidSafe blog back in March of this year, my view is that these kind of things are much more important than simply being a ‘claim to fame’ and something to boast about down the pub with your mates. No, they are powerful precisely because they are ideas embedded deep within the well-worn but understood clothing of stories:-

“Significant changes in society are the culmination of many different factors. And it’s important to remember that every great societal change is preceded by the stories that first get created, shared and adopted by individuals. Stories bring people together, creating natural networks of individuals. They create the foundations that allow networks to grow and ultimately enable us to pursue goals collectively that are far greater than any one person can achieve alone. The pattern has been repeated time and again throughout history. And it’s a sign of the times that we live in that the focus of our obsession with the SAFE Network has now become the subject of a top-ranked TV show.”

So it’s nice to hear that story continue to grow arms and legs – this time round from Disney (traditionally the finest of all story tellers), in the form of the second highest-grossing US Thanksgiving film release to boot.

Plus it gives me kudos with the real bosses: the kids. I joined MaidSafe originally to improve the world that they grow into. We’re not at the destination quite yet – but we’re now driving through some pretty neat scenery… 😉

Different Twitter Uses

It’s been ten years since I first started using Twitter. It remains one of the most useful platforms for information discovery that I’ve ever used. And it’s been fascinating over the last decade to watch how different people approach it – before either loving or leaving Twitter for good.

I really like this tweetstorm from Michael Nielsen about his approach to using Twitter:-

It’s worth reading through. But in short, given the fact that you have total freedom of choice of who you follow and engage with, you only really have yourself to blame if Twitter isn’t one of the most fascinating places on the web for you. Of course, you’re not necessarily going to get into the depths of a discussion whilst restricted to 280 characters (an issue that’s definitely been alleviated by tweetstorms).

As Nielsen puts it:

“Intellectually, it feels collectively like having Nobel laureates in all disciplines hanging out in the tea room just down the hall. I can pop in whenever I like, hear them noodling, occasionally contribute myself”

“99% of our cities are dark matter: we know almost nothing of what is happening. Most of the people, conversations, and events that I would most enjoy I will never even hear about. Twitter changes this, in a significant way.”

“There’s definitely a place in life for good argument, a favourite pastime of mine. But with rare exceptions, Twitter isn’t it!”

“Many people I follow are unapologetically optimistic and idealistic, always working to make the world better. I find that infectious and buoying.”

I couldn’t agree more.

More Opinions, Fewer Facts

Social media opens up a world of communication and enables collaboration, as we all know. I’ve been thinking about this point from a recent Robin Hanson blog post in which he talks about how we tend to use social platforms these days:

“We more often forward what others have said rather than saying things ourselves, the things we forward are more opinionated and less well vetted, and are more about politics, conflict, culture, and personalities.”

Does that sound like a world that’s using technology to improve?

Pivot or Head Shot?

Last week, I finally got around to reading Nick Bilton’s ‘Hatching Twitter‘. The book explores the history of Twitter, including its  early incarnation as Odeo, a directory and search destination website for RSS-syndicated video and audio.  When it gradually soon became clear that the prospects for the business were limited, the search was on for a new idea…and Twitter was born.

Now, anyone who’s spent time around startups during the last decade or so knows about the cult of the pivot. As Tyson (Mike, not Fury) once said “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”. And often it’s just a simple fact that the amazing idea that you dreamed up with your buddies just doesn’t cut it when you finally ask people to pay hard cash to use it and find out things aren’t as you dreamed they might be.

But, contrary to startup mythology, maybe that rush to find a new, viable alternative for the business isn’t actually sensible. Quite the opposite. A couple of days ago, Fred Wilson raised the idea that perhaps a hard pivot is one of the worst things you can do – not only for yourself as an entrepreneur, but also for the investor for whom you are probably striving to save the business out of a sense of loyalty.

If that resonates with you, think very carefully. Using money you already have and a ready-assembled team is tempting. It’s easier than starting a new business from zero.  But you’ve now strayed into territory where people don’t care or worse, aren’t interested but content to tread water.

  • Your investors originally chose a different company to invest their money in than the one you now want to build.
  • Hopefully your current employees were hired because they were the best for Idea A. Can you honestly say they have the perfect expertise to drive the success of Idea B?
  • As an entrepreneur, you may have money in the bank to build the business – but you also own less of the equity. This is a problem because if you do manage to achieve success by knocking your guts out working hard over the years, you now have a smaller proportion of the spoils to look forward to – with the rest of the rewards going to those employees and investors who are unlikely to be the best for Idea B, as we’ve just seen.

At the end of the day, startup investors expect to lose money most of the time. Their rewards come from the fact that they invest in a couple of very successful ideas that provide a disproportionate return that dwarves that more than cover those losses.

So why persist if the mutual interest and enthusiasm has disappeared? Life is short – and zombie companies serve nobody in the long run. The head shot’s the way forward.

Bitcoin Black Friday – But Does It Matter?

It’s been an interesting week so far in the cryptocurrency community. At least, if the price of cryptocurrencies counts as one of your interests.

Headlines proclaiming a ‘Bitcoin bloodbath‘ have proliferated and certain websites have been freely updated with tales of impending doom. Meanwhile, the older hands in the Bitcoin (and the wider cryptocurrency) community have taken the downturn in price in exactly the same way as every one of the many (many) previous times – with increasingly vocal exhortations to buckle up and HODL

I headed along to BBC Scotland this morning to give my thoughts on the business section of Good Morning Scotland over breakfast. I hadn’t been on the radio for quite a while and I’m not embarrassed to say that I still get a huge buzz from being on the radio. But, alas, 4 minutes is far too short a time to put across my thoughts coherently in any form of comprehensive response to the current price volatility.

Or at least: it may have sounded coherent – but I always end up thinking about just how many explanations I didn’t have time to go through that I would loved to have put out there to trigger a response (positive or negative) in those otherwise more focused on their daily consumption of cornflakes across the nation.

But let’s sum it up here. I remain hugely bullish about Bitcoin as a technology and as a rapidly accelerating (although not in any way guaranteed) store of value over the next couple of years in particular. It may, of course, fail. But if it does, it will return, in some way, shape or form – because the world now has a mental model for how an independent currency can bootstrap itself in an incredibly fast period of time outside the control of nation states.

As for the thousands of other cryptocurrencies: I’m convinced many of these will also be successful. However, at this early stage, I’m even more convinced that the signs are strong that many will not be.

And if you had to guess which ones fall into the latter camp, it doesn’t take a particularly sharp intellect to suggest that the group is probably going to have more than its fair share of representatives from projects that raised multiple millions of dollar in a 2017 ICO – a result of an almost perfect storm where we’re seeing:

  • a globally-distributed, 24-hour community of increasingly upset and abusive investors in the original ICO for whom delivery delays are unacceptable – with such delays being inevitable due to the vastly complex goals of many projects that in some cases were only imagined a couple of years ago (in which development is only now just starting in earnest);
  • inexperienced teams building crypto startups (traditionally a stage of company growth with a very high failure rate) that are also taking on far more regulatory and legal risk than is normal in the otherwise precarious startup world – (i.e. if you want to try raising the stakes, try messing around with other people’s concept of money before they’ve had the chance to apply their rules to raise any possible barriers to harmful competition against them);
  • founders for whom the incentive to slave away under extreme duress for the next decade or so has been removed – life-changing money has instead landed in their accounts at the start of the journey as opposed to at the end, so no more waiting until after a decade of hard slog to achieve a liquidity event (via an IPO or sale for example).


    Now, to be clear, I remain hugely positive about developments, a large number of projects and the general direction of travel. But it’s important that the public aren’t being misled by headlines here that do nothing to change the progress that is being made, by very many teams of individuals, all around the world.

My point here really is the same as it has been for a number of years now – that the money is not the story here. The focus remains as it has always been – on the technology and what it means to us all. The ability to coordinate human activity on a massive, global scale by the evolution of new incentivisation methods that spreads both knowledge and helps with the building of infrastructure that will push society towards a more equitable world of direct, peer-to-peer interactions.

It’s important that we all, each of us, gets involved so that we don’t inadvertently let others create a system in which we lose the power to innovate. And for those whose involvement goes no further than speculation on the price, so be it.

Because price is the best gateway drug there ever was to lead the masses on to the technology that really has a chance of changing many lives around the world – and for more than just those who dreamed they’d make a killing in a bear market.