Posts Tagged With: Opinion

Beware tech companies who tell you they don’t negotiate

Reddit and Duck Duck Go recently announced that they are eliminating salary negotiations, in part to help even the playing field for men and women, since men are more likely to negotiate salaries than women.

Men negotiate harder than women do and sometimes women get penalized when they do negotiate. So as part of our recruiting process, we don’t negotiate with candidates," Pao said in the interview. "We come up with an offer that we think is fair. If you want more equity, we’ll let you swap a little bit of your cash salary for equity, but we aren’t going to reward people who are better negotiators with more compensation."

I am a little skeptical. It's fine for a company to announce this, but they lose nothing from announcing "we don't negotiate offers". The person you really need to ask is the person who has 5 offers from different tech companies. If they go to Reddit or Duck Duck Go and say, "I'll come work for you for another $5k / $10k with the same equity", are they turned down 100% of the time? If yes, then I'll believe a company with a stated policy that says "we don't reward negotiators".

Announcing "We give fair offers" is a smart move on behalf of a negotiator; it lends better credibility to whatever offer is on the table. It's just not in their best interest to disclose that they negotiate.

In my last round of job interviews, one company made me an offer, told me in strong words that "this offer is non negotiable", then ended up offering me both more salary and more equity.

I would also like to remind everyone that, within the last decade, six of the largest tech companies in the USA conspired to depress wages for engineering employees. I will repeat that last sentence. SIX OF THE LARGEST TECH COMPANIES IN THE USA ACTIVELY COLLUDED TO KEEP ENGINEERING SALARIES DOWN FOR FIVE YEARS. Steve Jobs, a person who many tech CEO's admire and try to emulate, threatened Sergey Brin because Google was trying to recruit Safari engineers.

Yes, Reddit and Duck Duck Go are not those companies, but if half of the National League teams are found colluding, I'm going to have a little skepticism when the Rangers tell me "this is the best offer you're going to get". I almost forgot, that example doesn't even work, because all of the MLB owners recently colluded to depress salaries as well. Given the history, as a tech employee you are wise to take anything tech employers say with a grain of salt.

I applaud Reddit and DDG for taking policy steps to address the gaps between pay for men and women. They may find that starting with a high offer helps them close candidates - great! But I am skeptical that "we don't negotiate" is true, or at least, we're not hearing it from the right party in the negotiation.

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Companies Respond To Incentives, Too

A Google data center

The New York Times has a big new feature up explaining why data centers at Google, Facebook etc. waste tons of electricity. Diego Doval, a former CTO at a popular startup, skewers the NYT with a 5,000 word critique of the factual inaccuracies in the post.

Doval is right on with his critique, but there's a simpler problem with the piece, that I find tends to underlie lots of liberal thought. As the article points out, data centers use 2% of the electricity in the United States. The expense required to power these data centers represents a huge, huge incentive for all of these companies to cut down on their power use as much as possible. To do otherwise, with the amount of money they're spending, would be negligent.

Sadly, people who can write code, and understand the performance and reliability problems faced when running a large data center, are rare enough and highly paid enough that most of them work in the tech sector. When non-technical reporters try to report what's going on without understanding the fundamental issues, you get articles like this one.

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Energy policy isn’t about helping the environment

It’s worth remembering that lots of our environmental policy is wasteful or distortionary. Virginia Postrel writes about California’s new law banning incandescent light bulbs:

What matters, from a public policy perspective, isn’t any given choice but the total amount of electricity I use. If they’re really interested in environmental quality, policy makers shouldn’t care how households get to that total. They should just raise the price of electricity, through taxes or higher rates, to discourage using it.

Instead, the law raises the price of light bulbs, but not the price of using them. In fact, its supporters loudly proclaim that the new bulbs will cost less to use. If true, the savings could encourage people to keep the lights on longer. (via)

In 2009 I wrote about a similar California proposal to ban high-energy-use TV’s.

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Vaccinate your children

On many policy issues the evidence is mixed. Vaccination is not one of those issues. I used to read about parents not vaccinating their kids in rich areas like Marin County and think that the "trend" would stop when kids started dying. But now, they are dying. From a Boston Globe article on a measles outbreak in Massachusetts,
Measles continues to spread in Massachusetts, with two new cases confirmed this week, including one involving a 23-month-old boy from Boston who had received his first measles vaccination last year, according to the Boston Public Health Commission. The other was a teenage boy from outside the city who was treated at a Boston health care facility. That brings the state total to 17 this year — and counting. In each of the previous four years, Massachusetts has had one to three cases.
Not vaccinating your child makes every other vaccination less effective - in one case cited in the article, a boy who had been vaccinated contracted the measles. I'd like to think that if the state began to prosecute parents of deceased children for manslaughter, more parents would get their children vaccinated, but I doubt it. Normally you could profit from people's misunderstandings by betting against them - in this case betting that their unvaccinated children will contract pertussis or measles, or betting that their vaccinated child will *not* become autistic, or develop pertussis anyway. But in this case unvaccinated children are already losing their lives - it's hard to raise the stakes further than the life of a child. More from Megan McArdle:
It's hard to believe, but we're sliding backwards on two of the three public health achievements of the 20th century: vaccination, antibiotics, and clean water. Antibiotic resistance is a growing problem, one that we're partly inflicting on ourselves by rampant overuse. And now vaccine resistance is spreading among parents who want to free ride on the herd immunity of others. If these diseases were widespread, they'd be rushing to vaccinate their kids. But they can delay, or forgo the vaccines entirely, thanks to other parents who are willing to risk their kids in order to do the right thing. They're already killing little babies who catch pertussis before they can be vaccinated, and now measles has killed six people in France just since the start of the year.
Please, please, vaccinate your children.

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No, I won’t be friends with you on Facebook

I’m back on Facebook. I probably won’t approve your friend request, however. This tends to upset people and oddly the people who get the most upset are the people with 1000+ friends.

Here are some reasons why I won’t be friends with you on Facebook:

– I don’t want people that I don’t know very well seeing my Wall or photos. At some point in the future, people may have an incentive to make me look bad and reducing the number of people that can access my Wall, and photos, is a good way to help solve that problem. I also don’t want to be worrying all the time about managing what people are tagging and posting to my Wall.

– When I have a small group of friends, all of the updates in my News Feed are from people I care about. It’s easier to keep up with everyone in my social group.

So that’s that. The problem is that a lot of people I know only have Facebook accounts, and use them as their omnibus social media/Internet presence and for these people, adding on Facebook is their way of connecting with me. I don’t see a good way around this problem.

The good news is that if you want to keep up with me, it’s pretty easy – I have a Twitter account, this blog, a quarterly newsletter, a Bitbucket account for sharing code I’ve written recently, a Delicious account for sharing cool links I’ve read lately, and a LinkedIn.

Also, there’s a good chance I’ll add you on Facebook if we’ve spent more than an hour hanging out sometime over the last year. I don’t ever reject anyone, just keep their request pending, in the hopes that we’ll hang out more in the future.

John Graham-Cumming wrote a good post about the same topic over a year ago. I tried to find it, but it’s been swallowed by the Internet.

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  • My most productive time of the day to work is early in the morning. However if I have the choice to wake up early or sleep in, I will sleep in, so it's very rare that I'm up that early. If I am up that early, it's usually because of class or finishing an assignment, so I can't actually do the kind of work that would be great to do early in the morning.
  • I am very optimistic in setting my alarm. When I live by myself, I often just snooze through when I said I was going to wake up. When I live with a roommate I will wake up at the correct time, but I haven't ever got along with someone sleeping in the same room as me. So there's a tradeoff there.
  • I can't sleep in very late (past noon or so) so staying up late is a good way to maximize the time I'm awake. When I get up early after staying up late, I get really excited, that I'm competing or really getting after it (I still feel pretty awful and tired). Given the choice between staying up really late and not, I'll choose to sleep more however.
  • No matter how much sleep I get, I feel awful for the first thirty minutes I am awake. So it's best if there's something that I must do in the first thirty minutes.
I figure I could gain around 500 productive hours a year with an optimal sleeping scheme.

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The Robert Day School is hurting CMC’s leadership efforts

Note: I wrote this last year a few days after I was rejected from the Robert Day Scholars Program. This year’s Scholars were just announced, and I thought it was worth reposting.

Let’s say you had $360,000 to give away every year to undergraduates and you wanted to encourage future leaders, or increase the net amount of business success enjoyed by undergraduates at your school. What would be the best way to spend the money?

Observation #1: It’s difficult to predict who is going to be successful and who isn’t. Arguably, 2 of the top 3 earners that CMC has produced were C students when they were here. Robin Williams went to CMC and dropped out; so did Ben Casnocha. I have heard that Robert Day himself, and Henry Kravis, were C students; George Roberts would bet on horses at Santa Anita every day after class. Clearly, the Robert Day program wants to maximize the number of future Kravises and Robert Days, but Kravis and Day probably would not have had the grades to get into the program.

We can observe which students have taken leadership roles, and which students have high status, and we can give a work sample assessment, but these are merely rough indicators – the work sample assessment has only a 0.52 correlation with future job success.

One crucial factor is luck; people have to be at the right place at the right time, and it’s hard to predict which fields are going to be huge, or which person will start the right company or strike up the right conversation at a bar, or join the right startup. Maybe we can assign a percentage chance of wild success to every student, but I would guess that the difference between students in the top GPA decile and students in the bottom GPA decile is maybe 0.4.

Observation #2: If you want students to succeed, instead of telling students they are smart, tell them they are not working hard enough. There’s a reason successful coaches don’t tell their players, “You guys are so athletic and so good. You deserve your #1 ranking and you are all surefire lottery picks. Let me buy you some pizza.” Complacency is not a good leadership trait, and successful students/athletes hear “You’re so smart” more than enough as it is. It’s not clear that, even if you could identify successful students, that giving them a large chunk of cash is ideal, if it could make them complacent. While we give scholarship money to athletes, this is largely a prize so that they want to choose our program, and we take it away if they are unmotivated, or unsuccessful.

Indeed, the students who are rejected from the cash/status giveaway program might develop a chip on their shoulder and become more motivated than the students accepted to the program. I am reminded of Michael Jordan, who was cut from his high school JV team, or CMC trustee Augie Nieto, who was told by his thesis adviser that his plan to develop a series of exercise machines would not work, and he went on to turn the thesis into the multimillion dollar LifeFitness company. There is a selection bias at play here, but it would be good to study if the Robert Day program had a measurable effect, and if so, what that effect was.

Observation #3: Leadership skills, as well as skill at becoming exceptional, can be taught. Some high status students are natural leaders and others have the decision-making skills to become leaders but maybe not the body language, or ability to inspire others. Where should we focus our attention: on making the potential stars into superstars or on sharpening the diamonds in the rough? Given the luck-based nature of success, I would be tempted to focus at the margin but it depends on your estimates of the your ability to make a difference, as well as the goal of your program.

Recommendation: The key is to design your program to send different messages to different groups. To the group of super-bright, super-driven, super-body language, super-ability to inspire students, you want to send a message that says, Don’t get complacent, no one’s looking out for you, if you want to get anywhere you need to work harder. These students are probably going to out-earn their peers, and everyone knows it; if you gave this group money, you would probably get the least bang for your buck, as well as cause resentment among other students and professors.

To the group of marginal students, who maybe aren’t as driven as the top group, you want to send an encouraging message, and spend more attention, in the hopes of boosting their leadership skills and giving them confidence and a better chance of success in the workplace. In theory, you could achieve this by setting up a status and cash-conferring scholarship for a select group of students and then deliberately choosing the candidates you think are second-best.

Either way, you’re not touching the C students who might turn out to be brilliant, or lucky, businessmen. I’d probably want to arrange lectures for everyone on how they can increase their impressiveness, and on the importance of body language. I would purchase cameras for every teacher and instruct them to film students any time they present something, and also randomly during class discussion, and then give the tape to students so that they can see the effects themselves. Given that the group who will attend lectures will self-select to be the group that needs it least, I’d want to consistently emphasize the importance of these qualities, maybe give out a cash prize for attendance or include them in the core curriculum.

Conclusion: If I’m in a position to have $360,000 to give away every year, I’m probably interested in showing that I care about future leaders by giving away money, and less interested in actually increasing the number or success of future leaders, e.g. how the program is designed. At the margin, of course.

If I’m so negative about the effects of the Robert Day School on the student body, then why would I bother to apply? It’s usually easier to change organizations from within, and given that the opportunity exists, it would be silly to turn it down. I would like to see more CMC students become future leaders, as they are my peers, and it will make me feel prouder to affiliate with CMC. That said, being a rejected applicant, it will be difficult to suggest and implement any changes to the program, as most of my suggestions will be taken as sour grapes.

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Watson and Jeopardy

My roommates and I usually catch Jeopardy at least once a week, so we were of course excited to watch Watson, the IBM machine, take on Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in Jeopardy. So far, Watson's done extremely well, getting 13 straight answers right last night, and finishing way ahead of the competition at the end of the game yesterday. In particular I was intrigued by a few things:
  • In case you haven't watched football with me, I generally annoy everyone else in the room the entire game by urging the team with the ball to be more aggressive: pass more, go for it on 4th down, and stop kicking field goals. The data backs me up. Similarly when I watch Jeopardy, I get upset when players land on the Daily Double - the one chance they have to win a ton of money very quickly - and bet very conservatively, throwing away their chance to leave their competition in the dust. So I was intrigued by this comment from Ken Jennings on Watson's performance:
    Daily Doubles aren't distributed randomly...basically, it had thousands of old Jeopardy games in its head and knew where to look. And got very lucky. Most players go top-down, but some hunt for Daily Doubles like Watson. Brad Rutter calls this an arms race: if one player does it, you have to join in to keep up.
    Clearly Watson, as a computer that can compute expected value and forecast his expected winning percentage, has figured out that the Daily Doubles are valuable - he routinely picks questions in the $800 and $1000 row to start the game, and bets big - $6000 at one point - on the question. This play is forcing the other players in the game to improve their strategies. Hopefully this trend will extend to normal games of Jeopardy, as it increases the variance and makes the game more fun to watch. However, Jeopardy's normally a one-off game so it's possible player strategy won't improve.
  • Lots of people make the mistake of assuming a person is "smart" because they are good at Jeopardy. I don't think Jeopardy is a very good measure of intelligence; it measures your knowledge of obscure trivia, as well as your ability to recall it, but there's more to intelligence than an encyclopedia. It's possible this skill is correlated with intelligence (maybe intelligent people read widely, or have better recall), but Jeopardy skill doesn't prove intelligence per se. It's good to see people realizing Watson knows a lot but isn't "smart" - it can't recognize when another contestant gave the same answer, for example.
  • Watson's buzzer pressing mechanism is lightning fast, so it wins the buzzer on every question where it computes the answer by the time Trebek finishes reading the question. I thought this was unfair, but then realized putting an artificial damper on Watson's reaction time would be stupid - if it's a better Jeopardy player under the current rules, then great, and if it's unfair, they should change the rules so everyone gets an equal shot at the question, or use some other mechanism to award first crack at an answer.

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Martin Luther King Day

On Martin Luther King Day I like to think about how easy it is for people to discriminate against others based on the silliest of features. Humans evolved primarily in tribes, which were close-knit groups of under thirty families. It's fair to assume that most members of the tribe were extraordinarily similar: same language, similar genetic makeup, technological sophistication, skin color, etc. For this and other reasons, we've evolved to have a preference for things that remind us of us - for example, we prefer things that begin with the same letter as our own name. The flip side of our bias for things that are similar to us is that we are biased against unfamiliar things, and people. This bias has had truly tragic consequences over the course of history, and has required heroism from MLK, Rosa Parks, and countless other members of the civil rights movement, to formally overturn. To deal fairly with our colleagues, fellow students, direct reports, (and potential US immigrants) we need to be aware of our bias for similarity and correct for it constantly. If you are looking for excellent writing by MLK, check out his Letter from Birmingham Jail.

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The living funeral

A few months ago I left this comment on Robin Hanson's funeral post on Overcoming Bias:
I understand that the point of funerals is to help people grieve, and to affirm shared values, as you mention above, but my biggest wish for funerals is that more of them were held while people were still alive. They’re not too much different from comedy roasts.
For most people death is a scary event. As far as I know, the patient's mindset is also incredibly important; the tougher and happier the patient is the more likely that they are to throw off the disease. So I always thought it was a waste to wait until after someone dies to hold a funeral and cherish their life; aren't those complements something that the deceased person would like to hear, and would possibly help keep them alive longer? You would have to change the name and the tone; a living funeral would be an event designed to celebrate the fact that the person is still alive and has done so much good for everyone around them. You'd also need some idea of how long the person was going to live, or else people could selfishly arrange one and then continue to live for a long time. Also, because a funeral is mainly to help the surviving family and friends grieve, you would still need to have an event after the person passed away. Based on that comment a reporter from the Wall Street Journal emailed me asking if I knew of any living funerals. I said no, but I think it's an interesting idea. However, I can't think of any society that has an event similar to the one I describe above, which makes me think there's some good reason not to have one that I'm missing.

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