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Opinion Editorials

Are liberal arts majors about to dominate the next wave of tech entrepreneurship? Yup!

(OPINION EDITORIAL) What do Liberal Arts majors and tech innovators have in common? Everything.

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*This is a guest story from Austin author, Will Ruff*

Crossing lines

This is a purely speculative article coming from a liberal arts major, and I do have a dog in this fight. That is: I have a liberal arts background, and I want to tell you how we’re about to drive the next wave of tech entrepreneurship based on my own experience.

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Engineers have driven us forward at an incredible pace in the past few years, now it’s time for liberal arts majors to pick up the slack and tell everyone how incredible their work is. And that’s exactly what you can expect us to do: tell an incredible story.

Life comes at you fast

Let’s take a look at the past few years. Tech has moved fast. Unbelievably fast. Look at the smartphone’s evolution over the last ten years. Can you remember what kind of phone you had when an iPhone came out? I had a blackberry, and was doing door-to-door sales in college. I pine for that phone now, but they’re not really practical given how much screen I need.

In many cases, tech has moved so fast that the general population who buys a smartphone doesn’t really know what they’re getting out of a new upgrade and while they might adopt whatever new features are out there, their purchase is not driven by need.

Does a fingerprint scanner, or force touch really advance my productivity, or my security? No.

Whatever feature they’re selling you on this year will be equally underwhelming. And I would argue at best, because phones are all 99% the same, whether or not you want to admit this, that the companies behind them are struggling to differentiate themselves to their customer base, and they use features to do it. Features tell the story. The tech hasn’t really been revolutionary for years.

The big why

Think about the last time you had to buy a phone. We’ll assume that now you use one so much, you actually couldn’t imagine living without one. That’s me anyway. And we’ve all been there—the phone is locked up, or the screen’s cracked, the software upgrade shut it down, permanently, and now you have to get something new. But they should just replace it for free, I’ve been a customer for so long. Nice try. Maybe this time I’ll try an iPhone, or an Android. I’ve heard cool things about Pixel.

For whatever reason, we’ve decided to choose an operating system based on features we haven’t used yet, and this is driving up the cost of cell phones to be as expensive as a nice laptop. Well maybe they’re willing to spring an extra $200 for this new feature finally. Why wouldn’t I want this beautiful curved screen that has no edge?

For the record I’m an android user, but I could use any phone and be happy.

Now, I have nothing against advancing technology, despite my snarky tone, but the above illustrates a point of mine that is going to become more evident in the future.

Technology is only successful when you can tell its story to the audience who’s meant to use it.

It has to be clear, and it has to be on their terms. Engineers, and STEM workers absolutely drive all of the innovation, and it’s not a battle between the two, but we live in a world where billions of people have access to the Internet, and that means you have a lot more opportunity to build a business from anywhere. Not everyone is going to speak the language of engineers who build these incredible tools, and not every engineer is going to know their product can solve problems they didn’t even think of, because they can’t and shouldn’t spend most of their time talking to potential customers.

This is another area where liberal arts majors can excel.

They can look at these two groups: the engineers they work with, and the prospective customers who might use it, and they can figure out how the two are best introduced. What context they should meet under. This should always be how it works. Now, there is the rare breed of people who can be an engineer and a great sales rep, but the vast majority of people have to focus on one thing to do it well.

So, how do liberal arts majors climb into the driver’s seat in the future? I see two fundamental pieces that have to be in place.

Two steps

First, the ability to learn about technology and code is relatively cheap, and you can do it after school, and on the weekends. I did this myself after starting my career as a content strategist for a literary PR company who built sites in WordPress, and it led to designing/building/selling a website to a local business. I decided that wasn’t for me, but there’s probably some liberal arts majors out there who can do it much more efficiently than I did.

The more you know about how these things work, the more opportunity you’ll have to work for these growing companies.

The next piece is helping the next great tech company pitch their product to customers. It’s knowing how to find a potential market for something, and not being afraid to go up to anyone anywhere just to say hi, and to find out what they do. You can’t always be selling, but you can always ask questions, and maybe down the road you can help someone solve a problem because you connected with someone else who does that exact thing they need. Guess what, you’re their hero now.

Symbiosis

The shift between tech and humanities is cyclical and we absolutely will always need each other. That’s the point of this article. We’re not constantly aware of how to work with the other, but we’re getting to a point where it’s absolutely true that non-tech people have a role in spreading the reach of useful technology to people who didn’t have access a decade ago.

Things like WordPress, social media, and smartphones have made it easy to tell people how you’re about to change the world. And the next phase of this cycle is mass adoption, education, and communication among the crowds who haven’t quite figured out how to use all these cool tools yet. Strap yourself in, and hug a tech person, or a liberal arts major.

#LiberalArts

Will Ruff is the author of “The Tomb of the Primal Dragon: A Novel” which is available for Preorder on Amazon now. You can follow him on @twitter for crass and meaningless commentary, or sign up for his email newsletter and he might spam you with free books occasionally.

The American Genius is news, insights, tools, and inspiration for business owners and professionals. AG condenses information on technology, business, social media, startups, economics and more, so you don’t have to.

Opinion Editorials

The cringe inducing and lesson learning tale of Poor Jennifer

(EDITORIAL) Video conferencing is becoming the norm, so make sure you don’t end up like poor Jennifer. Take some extra time and precautions against exposure.

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poor Jennifer

Ever had that bad dream where you were giving a speech, but realized you were totally naked? If so, you’ll join us in cringing at the true life tale of “Poor Jennifer.”

We are all Poor Jennifer. We love Poor Jennifer. We stand with Poor Jennifer. Take a deep breath and prepare to relate far too well to a story this mortifying. You’ll want to tell her you feel for her and perhaps even offer up your own embarrassing anecdotes to let her know she’s not alone. Jennifer’s story serves as the ultimate cautionary tale for Zoom calls.

Working from home is a luxury/burden that was still surprisingly rare until the COVID-19 crisis sent office workers home in droves. IT departments across the country–and across the world–scrambled to ensure they had solid firewalls and valid VPNs locked and loaded on everyone’s computer. Everyone signed up for video conferencing tools. Zoom became a household name overnight, though other options are available, too.

Nearly everyone’s reality has drastically changed over the past several weeks due to the novel coronavirus–and in some cases overnight. With this global pandemic comes uncertainty, anxiety, and dread, meaning few of us are working at our own full mental capacity. Many professionals find themselves working at home, using new tools, and with new, often rambunctious, noisy, or needy coworkers, AKA children, pets, or life partners. It can be jarring, disconcerting.

If you’re used to participating in conference calls in an office environment, whether video or audio, you take them at your desk. Working from home can tempt one to mute the audio call and do some multi-tasking. Nobody can see you or hear you once you mute the phone, after all, and not every part of every call is important for your particular piece of the puzzle.

I’m not proud of it, but I’ve walked the dog or loaded the dishwasher while I muted a conference call during another department’s report. It’s not ideal, but I have to tell you…it happens. I am thanking my lucky stars today that we kept video conferences to a bare minimum at work.

What does this have to do with Poor Jennifer? Well, Poor Jennifer was on a team video conference call when she answered another call: nature’s. Yikes. Zoom caught it all, and her colleagues’ faces told the story. We see confusion, discomfort, then disbelief. By the time one of her colleagues tries to tell her, she obviously already caught a glimpse of herself on the porcelain throne and took care of the problem.

The whole scenario was over practically before it began, yet it’s a moment that will live on forever, because one of Poor Jennifer’s inconsiderate coworkers went ahead and posted the Zoom feed online. NOT COOL, BRO. As for Poor Jennifer, please know we get it. The world is coming to a standstill, and this weighs heavy on our heads. Your accident serves as a warning to all of us coping with a strange new world. And yes, we laughed a little, awkwardly, because we were taken by surprise and felt uncomfortable for you.

Please know, Poor Jennifer, that it could happen to anyone. Know that we’re on your side. Know that we think your coworker is in the wrong 100% for posting it. Most importantly, know that any minute now, some other unsuspecting soul will unseat you from your internet throne of ignominy. This is the beauty of the internet and our ridiculously short attention spans.

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Opinion Editorials

How to combat the viral spread of COVID-19 anxieties

(EDITORIAL) As if work stress wasn’t enough, no work, with a viral pandemic sweeping the globe can be way worse. Here’s some tips to deal with COVID-19 related anxiety.

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When the CDC has a page about managing anxiety and stress during the COVID-19 pandemic, you know there’s a serious problem. The uncertainty of the situation is enough to put anyone in a tailspin, but when you add financial issues, health problems and social distancing, the stress can be overwhelming.

Fear, anxiety and panic are contagions just as dangerous and damaging as the COVID-19 virus. When you see other people panic-buying, it increases your stress level. When you act on it by shopping and stockpiling groceries, it doesn’t absolve your stress. It simply makes you even more stressed.

Anxiety is hard enough to deal with during normal times. During times of crisis, we have to be even more aware of our response to stress. It’s not that you can take away the stress. It’s about how you cope with stress. Unhealthy coping mechanisms include drinking too much, smoking, overworking and poor sleep habits.

How can you deal with anxiety during this time?

I’ve dealt with anxiety for years. When it’s gotten real bad, I’ve taken medication to help me find balance, but currently, I’m relying on what I’ve learned in therapy. When I start to spiral, I try to find ways that help me shut down my unhealthy responses.

  • I take it one moment at a time. Sometimes, that means only thinking about one hour or even the next 10 minutes. I try to remember that I can only control so much. What do I need to do to get through the day?
  • I am sticking to my schedule. I get up and make my bed. At the end of the day, I try to put work away. I keep lunch easy, just as if I were going to my co-working office. I clean up the kitchen before I go to bed. A routine is comforting for me and reduces my anxiety.
  • I’ve muted people on FB who are panicking. I’m also limiting my time on social media and the news. I believe nothing unless it is verified against a reliable source.
  • I work crosswords, but any activity that takes your mind off what’s going on in the world works.
  • I’ve made sure to connect with others. With some people, I’ve talked about my concerns. With others, I’ve tried to be lighthearted and talk about other things. No matter what, I’ve tried to make sure that I only share accurate information.
  • Try to find ways to get out of your four walls without violating any recommendations. Go for a drive. Sit outside on your patio. Play with your dog in the backyard.

We don’t know how long this situation will last. You’re going to have to deal with some stressful problems. Finding your calm in the midst of the storm will help you move forward instead of feeling paralyzed with fear.

If you, or someone you care about, are feeling overwhelmed with emotions like sadness, depression, or anxiety, or feel like you want to harm yourself or others call:

  • 911
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA’s) Disaster Distress Helpline: 1-800-985-5990 or
  • Text TalkWithUs to 66746. (TTY 1-800-846-8517)

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Opinion Editorials

Sequoia ‘Black Swan’ memo could steer companies off of the COVID-19 cliff

(EDITORIAL) Venture capital firm, Sequoia sent out a memo to their companies, but also to the world. And the echoes are about to cause tech companies to make irresponsible layoffs that will cripple their brand when this crisis is over.

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sequoia black swan

Nearly two weeks ago, venture capital (VC) company, Sequoia Capital sent a note, “Coronavirus: The Black Swan of 2020” to all founders of companies currently in their portfolio to offer insight into how they should handle the new business environment in the midst of a global pandemic.

Much of the advice was fairly standard “hunker down” advice – plan, prepare, and perform. Move quickly and be decisive. Be “bold,” they say in the memo. Anyone who took an intro business course in college knows the drill.

There are the predictable anti-capitalism responses in comments on the original post and across social media, but simultaneously a realistically dark and recklessly invisible reaction spreading in the tech world.

In their actionable advice, one point was the shortest, but loudest statement: “5. Headcount. Given all of the above stress points on your finances, this might be a time to evaluate critically whether you can do more with less and raise productivity.”

We are now being told that boards are meeting behind closed doors and referencing the “Black Swan” memo, and they’re seeking to act “clinically realistic,” as Sequoia instructed. Even if they’re not in Sequoia’s portfolio, the weight of the VC firm’s influence has rippled across the nation and pushed companies to put real thought into mass layoffs. In the middle of a global pandemic.

Why is that the takeaway from the memo when so many other points were made? Because we’re all panicking, and it feels like one of the only immediately actionable moves. Hunker down, trim the fat, keep as much cash on hand, be brutal, keep the company afloat. It makes sense, but it’s wildly tone-deaf and instead of leading on the topic (offering insights into how NOT to lose the loyalty and “culture” brands have so heavily invested in), it is cold. Clinical.

“5. Headcount” is echoing in boardrooms across America.

Bret Starr, Founder & CEO of B2B marketing agency, The Starr Conspiracy wrote a scathing point-by-point takedown of the Black Swan memo, also taking issue with pressuring their portfolio to review their headcount. “There it is. This is Sequoia at its core. Why wait to fire people? Go ahead and fire them now! And while you’re at it, see if you can squeeze the people left behind to be more “productive.” (Remember that part at the beginning of the memo when they talked about how much they care about people? Come on. Sequoia doesn’t care about people. They care about money.)”

Just yesterday, we wrote an open letter to employers struggling with sending their teams home or not, noting, “now is not the time to shut down your hiring pipelines, in fact, right now is the exact time you need to fire up your efforts, because remote work is going to reveal a lot about your team, and some folks are going to shine more than you ever knew they could. But in this sink or swim scenario, some are going to sink and you need to have a deep roster to pull from. If you don’t keep that pipeline full, your sinkers could drag your whole company down.

Starr concluded, “Sequoia had an opportunity (like the rest of us) to reassure their portfolio companies and demonstrate their care for our people, our communities, and our country. Instead, they whipped up fear and uncertainty, gave bad marketing advice, recommended firing some people and making others work harder, told folks to hoard cash, said some stupid shit about Darwin, mansplained a bunch of stuff using jargon, and trotted out Alfred Lin so he could once again compare shit to Zappos. None of us are selling shoes, dude! And we wonder why people are pissed at Silicon Valley.”

This would be the time to confess that I personally believe capitalism is beautiful. Truly. But even “bold” leaders and “clinical” thinkers who also believe in capitalism have an opportunity to do the right thing here without losing their companies.

And maybe that’s the Austin tech geek inside of me raging at the idea of taking an axe to something that requires a scalpel and a steady hand. A native of the nation’s most philanthropic city, I’m surrounded by people that give as much time, talent, and treasure (money) as possible. We’re used to coming together and helping each other out.

And one defining characteristic of Austin tech companies is thinking creatively – something others look to us for. And a top reason firms like Sequoia flop their thick wallets around our town.

So here’s what I hope Austin tech companies will do instead of use an axe to blindly chop down headcount – pick up a scalpel, take a deep breath, and make small cuts.

As teams work remotely, some are going to sink while others swim, so do a productivity audit, do a leadership audit.

Look at how people are working right this very minute – are there managers going above and beyond to make sure the transition to remote is seamless? Keep ’em. Are there support staff spotting challenges and offering ideas on fixing them? Keep ’em. Is there anyone on the team looking at budgets without being asked and sending in suggestions for how to mitigate the pandemic onslaught? Keep ’em. Are there sales staff that are dragging their feet and offering excuses while others are digging in and thinking outside of the box? You know what to do.

Leaders that can’t take the time to pick up the scalpel are going to have a hard time recruiting QUALITY talent after this pandemic is under control.

Can companies afford to take that kind of hit? Can Sequoia companies take that hit? Did Sequoia just put their portfolio companies in a negative spotlight by association with their Black Swan memo?

When layoffs begin (and of course they will, it’s inevitable), how awful will the headlines about each company be? Will it be clear whether a compassionate scalpel was used, or if the Board pressured a CEO into indiscriminately flailing an axe around the corporate offices for two minutes then staring at the fallout?

Sequoia’s advice isn’t just in conflict with Austin tech culture, it is the worst kind of useless “business advice” that people are going to listen to, be they a 5-person graphic design shop in Dallas, or a 1,500-person SaaS company in San Francisco.

Because Sequoia is the source, the generic advice will be followed blindly.

It speaks volumes about Sequoia that the memo wasn’t their fund offering to chip in a bit to help mitigate the impact of layoffs and offer staff severance packages to make sure those impacted don’t literally starve during this pandemic. There was no mention of mental health. There were no whispers of mentoring their portfolio companies through this storm to make sure their long term brand name survives this potential PR hit. Nothing about doing the right thing or being American, or anything about a rising tide lifting all boats.

Instead, it was a list of platitudes that could have been written by a high schooler assigned a paper on “how to do business during a crisis.”

Of course it is prudent to prepare for the worst right now, because it’s looking like a serious possibility, but thinking more creatively (doing a productivity and leadership audit (scalpel) versus aimlessly cutting higher paid or underutilized staff (axe)) is the only way to protect the company’s reputation long-term.

Trust me, people won’t forget how EVERY company acted during the COVID-19 crisis. In this current environment, the world is news obsessed, they’re taking stock, and can you blame them?

News organizations like ours won’t be deleting stories about companies using the axe when they could have used the scalpel. Or not made cuts at all.

America is watching business leaders right now more than ever, and companies’ futures rely on the decisions they make right this minute.

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