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    I love the Lighthouse Office, by L.A.-based design and build studio Knowhow Shop. It’s a microbuilding that looks like it was plucked from a mine.

    Everything was designed and handmade by Kagan Taylor and Justin Rice, who founded the studio back in 2010 because they loved traditional craft, architecture, and digital design. They tell me via email that they could have never given this project to a regular contractor, so they had to build it themselves.

    [Photo: Stephen Schauer/courtesy Know How Shop]

    Made with structural insulated panels (SIPs) and joined with hardware borrowed from the film industry, the Lighthouse Office feels more like a high-end sailboat than a building.

    The Lighthouse Office was a case study of sorts. Now, Taylor and Rice can develop similar designs for others–especially since many cities have relaxed laws around building backyard cottages, called accessory dwelling units, to ease the housing crisis. “We absolutely intend to build more of these for clients,” they say. They won’t look exactly the same, but they’ll hew to the same design language: a faceted form with the barest elements of architecture–a door, a window, and a skylight–each occupying full facades. “Within that language, there is room for a lot of different permutations,” they say.

    I only know that I want one for myself, to work and even to sleep, as a peaceful cabin within a house. If you want one too, you can find Taylor and Rice here.


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    As the unemployment rate continues to drop and the labor market turns into a seller’s game, employees are getting pickier about what they will tolerate. And, increasingly, the rush hour blues are getting the better of them.

    A new survey by staffing firm Robert Half found that nearly one-quarter of workers have left a job due to a bad commute. While roughly 4 in 10 workers have said the commuting has gotten better, nearly one-quarter say their trips to and from work have gotten worse. And 60% say their companies have done nothing to help.

    Paul McDonald, senior executive director at Robert Half, which is based in Menlo Park, California, says that, as he’s watched the unemployment rate drop over the past five years to its current 3.7% rate, he’s surprised that more people aren’t leaving for a better commute. “It has created so much stress in their lives to have a long commute,” he says.

    Helping to shoulder the burden

    Some companies have, perhaps spurred by altruism or tax incentives, created suites of commuter benefits. For example, real estate platform Zillow Group, which is headquartered in Seattle, tries to accommodate the various ways people get to work. The company covers the cost of public transit getting to and from work up to a monthly maximum of $300. It also offers a flexible spending account (FSA) for employees who pay for parking, allowing them to save up to $260 per month in pretax dollars. In New York and Cincinnati, the company covers annual memberships to CitiBike and Cincinnati Red Bike bike share services, and many of its offices also offer secure bike storage areas. Sixty percent of the company’s employees take advantage of these benefits.

    Adobe, based in San Jose, California, contributes the first $100 to a commuter FSA that can be used for qualified commuting costs and lists other commuter benefits for eight U.S. locations on its website. It also encourages employees to use Scoop, which helps people find opportunities to carpool. The company reimburses employees for emergency taxi rides home, such as when they need to pick up a sick child from school, or when they work late and can’t or prefer not to use public transportation.

    “We want to make sure employees have convenient, inexpensive, and sustainable ways to get to and from work. Adobe’s Commuter Program is designed to help employees manage and ease their commutes, while providing commute options, such as carpooling, public transit, and bicycling, that help reduce pollution,” says Scott Ekman, senior director, workplace strategies & solutions at Adobe.

    San Francisco healthcare technology company Grand Rounds also offers a commuter FSA. Employees report making the most of commuting time by learning new languages, catching up on phone calls to family and friends, and listening to audio books and podcasts. And flexible work benefits can also help. Doximity, a San Francisco-based social network for doctors, offers an employee stipend that can be used for public transportation, ride shares like Uber and Lyft pools, and parking, but also has a company-wide “Work from Home Wednesdays” policy, allowing employees to skip their commute midweek.

    A new challenge

    And while companies may be seeking ways to mitigate the impact of a tough commute on turnover, offering such benefits has gotten more complicated. Historically, companies have been able to deduct the cost of fringe benefits like those for commuting, but the Tax and Jobs Act of 2017 eliminated those deductions, says Aaron Schwartz, CPA, a tax consultant with Melville, New York-based Nussbaum, Yates, Berg, Klein & Wolpow. “Technically, by pure reading of the new tax laws, you would not be able to deduct [these expenses],” he says.

    However, more guidance may be forthcoming from the Internal Revenue Service, he adds, emphasizing the need for companies to work with a good payroll service or employee benefits provider to ensure that they’re complying with all federal, state, and local commuter benefits laws and requirements. Some cities, such as San Francisco, New York, and Washington, D.C., require companies meeting certain criteria to provide pre-tax commuter benefits.

    Even if it gets more expensive, McDonald says that helping employees better manage difficult commutes is part of a bigger retention picture–at least until flying, autonomous cars are the norm. Leaders need to stay in touch with employees and have regular conversations with them to identify stressors and problems before it’s too late, he says. “In the offensive rather than the defensive, it’s better to have that relationship with your worker, knowing what the stress level is, rather than having the resignation happen and find out that [it was because] the commute’s too long,” he says.


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    The cookware industry thrives on making you feel like you need hundreds of highly specialized tools to make your dinner. This is perhaps why, in the decade and a half since I graduated from college, I have accumulated heaps of kitchen tools, most of which are poorly made and don’t get much use. I recently took a glance at my utensil drawer and found: 12 different knives, five spatulas (some metal, some silicone), slotted spoons, regular spoons, a pasta spoon, a ladle, a pizza cutter, a garlic smasher, metal tongs, and plastic tongs. As someone who likes clean, minimal spaces, opening this drawer often puts me on the verge of a minor heart attack.

    Material Kitchen is here to help. This direct-to-consumer startup, which launched earlier this year, creates a grand total of nine tools (plus a base to hold them in). Material sells the products entirely through its website, cutting out middleman costs and brick-and-mortar overhead, which means products are less expensive than others on the market of comparable quality. Material’s founders–Eunice Byun and David Nguyen–focus on design and functionality in equal measure.

    “We both love to cook for our families,” Byun says. “After years of working at hard-charging corporate jobs, we now want to spend more time at home. We set out to create the tools that we wished we had as home cooks.”

    Eunice Byun and David Nguyen [Photo: Material Kitchen]
    The average home cook can find plenty of inexpensive kitchenware from Target and Amazon. On the higher end of the market, at retailers like Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table, brands tend to create specialized gadgets and gizmos for professional chefs, or at least amateurs that aspire to create complex, gourmet meals. This is why a utensil set from one of these high-end stores might have separate spatulas for burgers and fish, plus a separate classic and slotted spatula. Material has a different approach: It creates a few simple and versatile tools specifically for the everyday cook, who is more likely to whip up a simple meal of pasta and roast salmon than duck a l’orange.

    Material’s focus on fewer but more functional tools can be partly attributed to the fact that its founders don’t come from the kitchen or restaurant industries. Nguyen spent years at Chanel and Valentino, leading business planning, and Byun was most recently a VP of digital marketing at Revlon. “Being outsiders in this industry can sometimes be helpful,” says Byun. “We don’t feel pressure to keep selling customers more and more products. We’d rather they own a few Material products that they really need and love.”

    [Photo: Material Kitchen]
    Nguyen’s background in the luxury industry means that he sometimes thinks of creating a knife or a pair of tongs like he would a high-end handbag. Material’s emphasis, as its name suggests, is on what its design is made out of. The knives, for instance, are made from three layers of Japanese stainless steel. All of the wood is sourced from the U.S. The founders scoured the globe to find the right factory to make these goods, and settled on one located in the Yangjiang Province in Southern China where artisans have been making knives, scissors, and other cooking utensils for 1,400 years. It’s been called the knife capital of China and is home to more than 1,500 different manufacturers. “Many people don’t realize that China has deep expertise in making kitchenware,” Byun says.

    [Photo: Material Kitchen]
    Material thinks of its product selection as a harmonious collection, much like a designer might create a set of looks for a season. It launched with only seven products, all of which are made from wood and stainless steel. There were two knives, one large and one small, a wooden spoon, a metal spoon, a slotted spatula, and tongs. If you’re looking for a beautiful way to store your utensils, Material has created a wooden “base” for them, with one side that is magnetic, so you can attach your knives to it without dulling them. This week, the brand rolled out three new items: a slotted spoon, a whisk, and a serrated knife.

    You can buy the entire set for $245, or buy individual items piecemeal; a knife, for instance, costs $75. This is more expensive than the average Target set, and is on par with entry-level sets from Williams-Sonoma. It’s significantly cheaper than the higher end of the market, where a knife can cost upwards of $200. And importantly, Materials’ founders believe these tools will allow you to do more with less, meaning you won’t need as many products. “And we believe that these nine tools can cover almost all your bases,” Byun says. “And we worked to make these items as functional as possible.”

    [Photo: Material Kitchen]
    Some of that functionality only comes to light when you’ve used the products for a little while. For instance, the metal spoon happens to hold a quarter of a cup, which means that you can use it to measure ingredients as you’re cooking. The metal tongs can be locked shut with one hand by holding them with the pincers facing up, and opened again, when the pincers face down.

    While the founders have emphasized a less-is-more approach in their design, they still give you the ability to customize your utensil set to fit your kitchen. You can choose either white or black handles, and you can choose a darker or lighter wood for the base. And there are tiny aesthetic details on the utensils that people may not notice on first glance, like the “M” engraved in the stainless steel tip of every tool, or the delicate asymmetrical pattern on the spatula.

    Ultimately, Byun and Nguyen believe that while beautiful tools don’t necessarily result in more delicious food, they may make the cooking experience more pleasurable, especially when you look at your tools every single day. “Our goal is to make cooking a more delightful experience,” says Byun. “We think that if you love your tools, you’ll be more likely to cook more.”


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    If you’ve heard about Australian software giant Atlassian lately–and you’re not a programmer–it may have been over the death of its group messaging app, HipChat. After years of trying to keep up with hot new rival Slack, Atlassian announced in July that it would close down HipChat and Stride, a year-old collaboration app it envisioned as the next step beyond HipChat.

    But chat was never the core of Atlassian’s business, and certainly not what’s driven it to a valuation of about $19.5 billion. From its founding in 2002, the company, co-headquartered in Sydney and San Francisco, has focused on project management tools–especially for software developers.

    Atlassian’s biggest product line, Jira, dates to the company’s 2002 founding. It’s a de facto standard for coordinating software projects, with anywhere from a handful of coders to hundreds of them assigned to discrete parts. “It’s like writing a book with a different writer on every paragraph,” says Sean Regan, head of growth for software teams at Atlassian, of the challenge that programs like Jira take on.

    Atlassian cofounder and co-CEO Scott-Farquhar [Photo: courtesy of Atlassian]
    But being an industry standard—with over 50,000 customers—isn’t the same thing as being loved. Jira “is generally perceived as being absolutely the worst, except for everything else,” says Adam Crossland, a Boston-area software engineer (and, full disclosure, an old friend of mine).

    Others are gentler in their assessment. “Even given that there are pros and cons, I’m yet to see another system . . . that is so flexible,” writes Marat Kiniabulatov, a product manager for warehouse management software developer SkuVault. He was one of over a half dozen people who responded to a request for input that I posted on Twitter. Kiniabulatov may be more patient than others, however. He also leads an Atlassian user group in Russia.


    Related:How unsexy collaboration apps made Atlassian a quiet powerhouse


    One thing that everyone—including Atlassian’s leadership—agrees on is that Jira needs a refresh. “If you look at the companies that have succeeded over the long-term, they’re the companies that have disrupted themselves,” says cofounder and co-CEO Scott Farquhar.

    To stave off disruptive rivals, Atlassian is formally rolling out a suite of changes today to make the interface more flexible and user friendly. (Different pieces of the revamp have been rolling out to groups of users for testing over the past year.)

    The updates introduce basic interface features–drop-down menus, checkboxes, drag and drop–that are taken for granted in modern software design. Yet they had been lacking in some key parts of the very planning tool that programmers use to create modern software.

    Atlassian is also responding to a fundamental–and not exactly new–change to how software is created, known as agile development. Instead of going heads-down on programming from start to product launch, companies are making steady fixes and improvements. We all experience the phenomenon in the unceasing flow of software update reminders that pervade our lives.

    The drag-and-drop method of arranging boards resembles Trello. [Animation: courtesy of Atlassian]
    Jira was built at the turn of the century in an era of big, tightly controlled projects, running on servers inside a company. “When I wrote version one of Jira . . . back then there was a software team,” says Farquhar. “Then they shipped some code . . . then it got pressed on a CD.” On and on he goes, describing distinct, barely coordinated phases and teams. “It would be a year before any bug fixes came out,” he adds. Now all those phases of writing, servicing, and updating software are happening simultaneously and deployed via the cloud.

    While Jira has had many big upgrades over the years, it also faces a mind-numbing roster of project- and task-management competitors, such as Asana, GitLab, Microsoft Azure DevOps, Pivotal Tracker, and Rally. Many rivals are newer, built with agile development in mind, and designed to run as subscription-based cloud services rather than on-premises software.

    Atlassian launched its first cloud-based version of Jira in 2007, but the current version dates to 2016. That’s when Atlassian decided to fork its code base, resulting in independent, ultimately incompatible versions of Jira–one for in-house servers and one as a cloud offering. Today’s upgrades apply only to the cloud-based version.

    The Trello lesson

    In 2017, Atlassian bought one popular Jira alternative, Trello, for $425 million. Jira’s new upgrade shows the influence of the acquired service, which lives on under Atlassian ownership.

    “Trello has been very instructive for us,” says Farquhar. “It starts with very little structure and control, and you build up and add those things.” Jira has been the opposite, rigidly controlled by an administrator with special access rights to make updates and customizations.

    In Jira in its classic form, “as an administrator, some things are easy and other things are unnecessarily complicated,” says Victoria Guido, an engineer at consulting company Blackstone Federal who replied to me on Twitter. “It’s easy to see how people can quickly make it into something ugly and cumbersome.” Guido leads an Atlassian user group in Washington, D.C.

    Jira’s old boards didn’t have drag-and-drop features. [Image: courtesy of Atlassian]
    Trello’s influence shows especially in the new board–a bright, clean planning interface of columns stacked with discrete tasks, called issues. As in Trello, the updated Jira board allows you to click a plus icon to create a new column. You can drag it into position among the other columns, which typically progress from left (things to do) to right (things completed), with as many interim columns as needed. As with cards in Trello, you can drag and drop Jira issues from column to column, if you want to address an issue sooner or later in the process.

    It’s the kind of drag-and-drop flexibility you’d expect in software today, but a big upgrade for Jira. Until now, changes to the board required going into a separate interface, called the workflow editor—a flowchart rat’s nest of rectangles and arrows defining the order for every step in a process.

    Changing old Jira boards required delving into the Workflow Editors, which often only administrators could do. [Image: courtesy of Atlassian]
    “Not only would you have to jump to workflow editor,” says Regan. “But you had to find the [person] in charge of Jira, and in a lot of companies you might not know who that person is.” It was hardly an agile process.

    Unlike Trello, which starts from a blank slate, Jira lays out basic board templates for different project styles. In the past, users would have to commit to a style at the beginning, such as the popular scrum or kanban organizational methods. Now Jira allows users to turn different elements on or off rather than being locked into one method.

    Scrum, for instance, is based on a time-defined unit of work called a sprint, typically running for two weeks. With the new upgrades, even teams that didn’t start with a scrum system can activate sprint scheduling at any time if they want to change their workflow.

    Atlassian also made it radically easier to filter views of the boards–for example, to see just the issues that a particular developer had worked on in the past week. Previously, users had to code a custom query in JQL (Jira Query Language) even to get basic information, such as viewing all the projects they were working on. Now they just click an icon with their photo. (Writing custom queries is still available for more complex searches, though.)

    Mike Solomon, VP of people operations at Group Nine Media, the publisher of sites such as Thrillist, is a Jira user. After chatting with him on Twitter, I asked Atlassian to give him access to the new features. “This is a huge improvement for the look and feel of Jira,” says Solomon, who works with nontechnical teams and found the new design much friendlier.

    Preconfigured filters require simple clicks to use. [Image: courtesy of Atlassian]
    At my request, Atlassian also unlocked the new Jira for Theresa Fiddler, an account manager at mobile data company Twine. “Having more structure and detail to the display boards will definitely increase efficiency,” she says.

    Twine is currently split between Jira for its technical teams and Trello for the others, but now it might be easier for everyone to use Jira. That’s a key part of Atlassian’s plans for expansion. “Software is the center of work for most companies these days,” says Farquhar, making the case for integrating all company planning into Jira.

    Filtering boards used to require typing in hand-coded queries–still an option for power users. [Image: courtesy of Atlassian]
    Atlassian took a step to encourage that back in 2015 when it released a version of the software, called Jira Core, as strictly a business-planning tool. Core lacks developer-specific components, such as access to code repositories stored in Atlassian’s Bitbucket or its rival GitHub. Nontechnical users of Core can still track the work of development teams, though, and developers can track other teams.


    Related: How GitHub employees use GitHub for projects beyond coding


    But Atlassian may have a lot of convincing to do–especially as it competes with rivals designed with more mainstream use in mind. “It’s a difficult task manager for non-engineers to follow,” says Ryan Bednar, an engineer and CEO of search engine optimizing service RankScience. “We switched from Jira to Asana and experienced a major productivity boost.”

    And all the new interface upgrades are currently only in the version of Jira for developers, called “Jira Software.” The company hasn’t confirmed if the upgrades will come to Jira Core and other specialized versions of the service.

    Playing nicer with others

    Along with the big changes to Jira’s design is the ongoing process of improving integration with many other pieces of software. It has to work closely with outside code repositories like GitHub, for example, as well as other Atlassian products like Confluence–a kind of wiki for developers to keep notes on their work. (Jira and Confluence account for more than two-thirds of the company’s revenue, which was $874 million for the fiscal year ending in June.) Atlassian also runs a marketplace with about 3,000 third-party apps that plug into its products.

    Jira has long had some integration with Slack, as well. The companies may have been rivals in the group-messaging market, but they also had to work together for the many users they had in common. Jira can currently post updates on projects to Slack channels, for instance. Regan says to expect tighter integration in the near future, though he doesn’t provide details.

    Slack actually purchased the intellectual property for HipChat and Stride, to aid migration of users to Slack after the Atlassian services shut down in February 2019. And Atlassian made what Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield called a “small but symbolically important investment” in his company in a series of tweets in July. The former rivals now talk about a partnership.

    I press Farquhar on any takeaways from the HipChat experience but don’t get an indication it will change much. HipChat was just one of about two dozen acquisitions that Atlassian has made over years, he says, most of them successful. The company will make more acquisitions when it makes sense, he says. It will build new products, and it will do partnerships.

    “We pride ourselves as a company on making the tough, right decisions,” says Farquhar. “We want to be around here in 50 years’ time.”


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    We’re now more than a week out from when the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change dropped its terrifying report detailing the urgency to dramatically reduce emissions and stop global warming in the next three decades or so. Meat eaters, we are sorry to report that we have bad news for you: You’re a big part of the problem.

    New research from the World Resources Institute finds that, taking into account trends in population growth and meat consumption, agriculture alone could eat through the majority of our emissions budget for keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius–the point at which climate-change effects would create wide-scale devastation. Under these circumstances, the real aim–limiting global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius–would be impossible to attain.

    The global population is expected to grow to 10 billion people by 2050, and if current trends hold, meat and dairy consumption is expected to boom right along with it: WRI mapped trends in animal-based food consumption from 1961 and extrapolated them out to 2050, and found people in 2050 will probably eat 70% more meat and dairy, and 80% more beef.

    [Image: courtesy World Resources Institute]

    There’s no getting around it: For us to avoid a total climate disaster in the next few decades, we have to collectively alter our diets. Beef, for instance, creates 220 tons of CO2 emissions for every million calories consumed. That’s around 30 times the amount of emissions required to produce the same caloric quantity of beans. And that’s not even considering land-use implications–because producing beef requires both land to grow feed, and land upon which cows can graze or pasture, it’s radically less efficient than just using that land to grow produce that humans can consume. The same logic applies to all animal-derived products.

    [Image: courtesy World Resources Institute]

    Given this knowledge, doing anything other than dramatically reducing our animal-product consumption would be, frankly, insane. Fortunately for the meat and dairy lovers out there, plant-based alternatives are gaining momentum: You can now order the Impossible Burger everywhere from White Castle to Air New Zealand flights; Memphis Meat makes plant-based chicken that tastes like the real thing; Sonic is offering a half-beef, half-mushroom burger; Ripple Foods is making eerily convincing milk from peas. This is just scratching the surface, and startups like Bolt Threads and Modern Meadow are also delving into ways to create leather substitutes in the lab, to tackle our animal consumption problem in the fashion world.

    WRI, too, is not sitting on this problem: The organization, in partnership with the UN Environment, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, and others, launched a new initiative to get restaurants, companies, and hospitals to up their share of plant-based food offerings with a goal of reducing food emissions by 25% by 2030. The Cool Food Pledge officially launched at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this year with 10 signatories including Genentech, Morgan Stanley, WeWork, and the Swedish restaurant chain Max Burger. They’ll take steps from redesigning menus and cafeterias to promote plant-based options, to tweaking recipes to ensure that those options taste good enough to tempt people away from meat.

    And if you’re looking for a way to begin reducing your meat consumption at home, start with this: Researchers have found that if everyone in the U.S. immediately swapped out beef for beans, we could hit 50% to 75% of our greenhouse-gas-reductions targets for the year 2020. It may not be glamorous, but it’s certainly easy and effective.


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    When your boss is a jerk and ends up leaving suddenly, it’s a cause for celebration. Losing a great boss, on the other hand, can be a major blow, especially when you don’t expect it. But while it’s always hard to say goodbye to a strong manager, one of the most challenging situations you can be in as an employee is having your boss leave without knowing who the replacement will be. Here are some steps to take if this happens to you.

    1. Don’t panic

    There’s something naturally unsettling about change, and losing a boss no doubt falls into that category. Throw in an absent replacement, and it’s an unquestionable recipe for self-doubt.

    But rather than let yourself fall victim to it, convince yourself not to panic–because there’s really no need to. Sure, you might end up with an ogre of a boss who makes your life miserable, but there’s no reason to assume that will happen. Similarly, losing your boss doesn’t mean your job is now on the line. Quite the contrary: You might find that you’re even more valuable now that your manager has moved on.

    2. Speak up

    You probably have a number of concerns now that you’re boss-less. Rather than keep them bottled up, sit down with your manager’s old boss, or whoever the appropriate contact is at your company, and voice them. If the person in charge of replacing your boss is able to reassure you that only candidates with a similar background, outlook, and management style are being sought, that might set your mind at ease. Similarly, if you’re hoping to have a say in identifying the right replacement, speak up about that as well. Employee input often plays a huge role in hiring decisions, so express your willingness to help in any way you can.

    3. Stay in touch

    When your boss leaves, the best person to help you and your company find a new manager could end up being none other than–wait for it–your boss. That’s why it pays to stay in touch with managers after they move on. Your old boss will be more than familiar with the role, and therefore might be in a position to recommend a suitable replacement, thereby expediting the hiring process and limiting the limbo period you and your colleagues might get stuck in.

    4. Seize the opportunity to take charge yourself

    It’s easy to let major projects crumble in the absence of a boss, but if you do the opposite, you’ll be furthering your career in a very big way. While the rest of your team is reeling from your boss’s departure, focus your energy on moving existing projects forward, even if that means stepping up and managing some of them yourself. It’s a great way to show your company’s higher-ups that you’re a strong leader. And who knows: You might impress them so much that you’re offered the chance to become the boss yourself.

    Losing a terrific boss is hard, especially when there’s no replacement in sight. Just remember that the situation is only temporary. Until it’s resolved, the best you can do is focus on your own performance while doing your part to help keep up your team’s morale.


    This article originally appeared on The Motley Fool and is reprinted with permission. 

    More from The Motley Fool:


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    What happens when a robotic arm goes crazy on the job? That’s the idea behind Out of Order, a hanging LED lamp designed by Dutch studio BCXSY and Atelier Robotiq, a Rotterdam-based collective that uses industrial robotics to make lighting fixtures and furniture. Out of Order is meant to evoke the product of a computer mind gone haywire.

    Robots, the designers say, are usually perceived as “flawless workers.” Obviously, robots are neither flawless nor workers–they’re machines that are programmed to carry out tasks. But if we’re going to anthropomorphize machines, we can also imagine that they’ll get eventually get tired of following our commands. “But what would happen once the flawless worker becomes less impeccable?” BCXSY founders Boaz Cohen and Sayaka Yamamoto tell Dezeen. “What if it would grow tired of its daily routine, or becomes absent-minded while daydreaming?”

    Maybe the repetition would grow maddening–enough so that the machine would revolt, and start doing whatever it wanted.

    [Photo: Marta Musial/courtesy Atelier Robotiq]
    In the case of the Out of Order lamp, the studio instructs a robotic arm to weave a perfectly repeating spiral pattern using epoxy-reinforced yarn around a solid cylinder. Midway through the spinning process, though, pattern begins to warp in unexpected, increasingly random ways. “The warped lines are caused by a specially developed ‘randomizing’ algorithm that instructs the fibers to deviate from their course,” the studio writes. “The seeming randomness of these interwoven patterns suggests that the robot has developed a mind of its own. As the distortions in the linework are never the same, this makes each and every lamp truly unique.”

    [Photo: Marta Musial/courtesy Atelier Robotiq]
    Once the cylinder is covered with the yarn and the resin has solidified, a not-so-drunk human worker removes the mesh from the cylinder and adds the LED light rod and hardware. You can check out the lamp in person at the Rosanna Orlandi gallery in Milan or at Gallery Oode in Amsterdam.


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    Gmail users can now work with online services like Box, Dropbox, and Atlassian’s Jira without ever leaving their inboxes.

    With a new feature called “compose actions,” users can save files directly to Dropbox, attach Jira or Bitbucket links with comments included, and attach files from Dropbox, Box, or Egnyte. (The Dropbox actions actually launched over the summer, but the others are new.) Google says more compose actions are coming soon, and they’ll be available through the G Suite marketplace.

    Compose actions are an extension of Gmail add-ons, which launched last year. They also make use of Google’s recent Gmail redesign that added lots of new features and a fresh look. It’ll be interesting to see what other actions emerge as more developers get on board.


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    With a few taps on the color touchscreen of Square’s new mobile payment terminal, the bike salesperson selects a BMX helmet and chain. Then he hands the terminal over to his bearded customer, who checks the total cost of the transaction and taps his Apple Watch to complete the sale.

    Okay, full disclosure: We’re in a conference room at Square’s San Francisco headquarters; the “salesperson” is the company’s head of hardware, Jesse Dorogusker. And his “customer” is Jack Dorsey, the cofounder and CEO of both Square and its neighbor on the next block, Twitter. The two have been engaging in a little play-acting to demonstrate the new Square Terminal to me.

    It was probably inevitable that the company–which has been on a roll–would get around to building something along these lines. “Payment terminals have been around for longer than Square has been around,” says Dorsey. “So it’s never not been on our mind. There are entire companies that just make these things.”

    Square Terminal fills a distinctly different niche than Square’s existing hardware: Its tiny original smartphone reader, larger Bluetooth-enabled reader for chip cards and mobile payments, and big-screen Square Register. Unlike the readers, the terminal is an all-in-one gadget that doesn’t require a smartphone or tablet for brains and connectivity. And unlike Square Register, it’s ultraportable, designed for passing-around scenarios such as the one Dorogusker and Dorsey acted out. It sells for $399, with a $300 processing credit for new Square merchants, and is available starting today on Square’s website.

    Since Square’s 2009 launch, the company–and, once spurred to respond, its competitors–have done much to modernize the act of accepting credit cards. But the situation with payment terminals remains messy. Many of the terminals out there are clunky and outmoded, difficult to update with new capabilities, and provided to merchants as part of a payment-processing service agreement–assuming that a merchant gets approved, which is still not always the case with small businesses in 2018.

    “Even if you do get accepted by a traditional terminal provider to accept payments, you typically sign up for a contract that is at best opaque and probably not so fair,” says Dorogusker. “There’s a teaser rate, there are monthly fees, there’s a variety of other fees, different cards cost different amounts.”

    “Square Terminal is our way to fix basically all of those things,” he declares. Rather than sporting a plasticky keypad and a tiny display, the device has a 5.5″ color touchscreen which, along with its Android-based software, makes it feel like a smartphone embedded in an angled base sculpted out of Square’s signature white plastic. Customers can insert a chip cart into the front of the terminal, swipe a mag-stripe card along its right edge, or tap a smartphone or smartwatch to make a mobile payment. A built-in printer spits receipts out of the back, the battery is designed to last for a day on a charge, and Wi-Fi and Ethernet compatibility allow for both wireless and wired connections to the internet.

    [Photo: courtesy of Square]
    The touchscreen interface lets the terminal provide a numeric keypad when it’s necessary but also offer other functionality such as the ability to select products and prices from a list. Customers can see an itemized list of what they’re paying for, which is not the case with the garden-variety terminals used by small businesses. There will be more to come. “It’s the beauty of software-driven hardware,” says Dorogusker. “We can control the experience, we can identify simple changes in user interface, we can identify really big trends and features that people want.”

    As with other methods of accepting Square payments, the company charges a flat rate of 2.6% plus 10¢ for Square Terminal transactions and doesn’t make anyone sign a contract. The goal is to get new users up, running, and back to operating their businesses within minutes. “It’s not even in the category of things they want to think about,” says Dorsey. “They want to think about things like like hiring people and introducing new ingredients.”

    “We’ll probably be surprised at how people use it”

    Square says that its new terminal will appeal to everyone “from dentists to bowling alleys.” Though the company has recently been successful getting larger companies to embrace its services and says there’s no upper limit to the sort of outfits that might use the terminal, small businesses are an obvious focus, including both ones upgrading from older terminals and those that are taking credit cards for the first time.

    But Dorsey emphasizes that Square isn’t sure where the terminal will go, and that’s part of the point. “What’s exciting to me about it is that it kind of resonates back to when we first started the company and we built the reader,” he says. “We had some idea of who would use it, but really no idea how it would end up being used. This has very similar properties where we’ll probably be surprised at how people use it.”

    [Photo: courtesy of Square]
    So far, as Square has tested the terminal in the field, and restaurants have had waitstaffers tote the terminal to diners’ tables for on-the-spot payment; two salon operators were able to hand it to customers while they were still in the chair. “We also had a plastic surgeon in the beta, and we learned that they are taking the terminal to the treatment room,” Dorogusker says. “So that they can, in private, go through the bill and charge the person and not have to do that in the lobby. You can imagine that would be uncomfortable.”

    With any luck, once merchants get the terminal in their hands they’ll instinctively figure out how to make it work for them. When I ask Dorsey about the new device’s competition, however, he returns to the theme that it’s a challenge to get small businesses to think about payments at all.

    “The biggest thing we’re competing with, honestly, is that sellers tend to develop systems of doing things and it’s the adage of ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,’ he says. “We experienced that when we first came on the scene, especially around the merchant account. And then they actually saw how broke it was in terms of how much extra they were paying and how much math they had to do just to understand that basic fact.”

    Square may still be associated, above all, with its well-designed payments hardware. But along with its potential to expand Square’s payment-processing business, Square Terminal certainly looks like a good way for the company to find new prospects for its expanding range of offerings. According to Dorsey, each item in the portfolio helps buttress the others. And that does get busy owners of small businesses to pay attention.

    “Our approach has been to not just stop at the device, but the connection to the broader ecosystem of tools,” he says. “We can handle your payroll, we can give you a loan, we can handle your appointments if you’re a salon, in addition to the walk-ins who come in to buy product and use [the terminal] to swipe a card. If we can tell a story that is bigger than one piece of hardware that is visible, then we tend to shift minds.”


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    George Clooney is back with a Nespresso coffee in hand in a new commercial costarring Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer. It starts with him dressed as an American-accented knight, then veers into a breaking-the-fourth-wall fantasy. Before we go any further, it’s just best that you watch it in all its unabashed dorkiness.

    Created by agency McCann, this follow up to last year’s “Comin’ Home” sure looks great. It clearly didn’t skimp on talent, production design, or music licensing. But the sum total of those investments is what I imagine might pop up if you typed “bloated budget celebrity commercial” into McCann’s AI creative director. I mean, Peter Gabriel’s “Solsbury Hill”?

    Watching this makes me feel like Bobby Moynihan’s Danny DeVito when SNL spoofed an earlier entry in the Clooney Nespresso canon. Just that feeling of, this is coffee, right? We’re talking about coffee? WHAT IS HAPPENING? I mean, at least “Comin’ Home” had Clooney bouncing around through different classic movie sets. Sure, nobody on the planet ever–besides Andy Garcia in this ad–has ever said or will ever say, “It’s a perfect Nespresso morning here,” but it was all cute enough, and hey, there were Muppets. But this new one is full-on Mugatu territory.

    I have a theory, though. You guys, I think we’re all getting pranked. Clooney is a notorious prankster. He’d put buckets of water over Julia Roberts’s doorway. He found a painting in the garbage, framed, signed it, and gave it to his buddy Richard Kind for his 40th birthday. He put a bumper sticker on Brad Pitt’s car that was a pot leaf and the words, “Fuck cops.” But over the years, he’s developed more long-tail pranks that take months, even years, to reveal themselves. Back in 2015, Clooney told Graham Norton that he wrote many, many letters to many celebrities on fake Brad Pitt stationary and would wait up to a year to tell either party about it.

    These Nespresso ads hark back to the secret foreign commercial days, when celebrities would go to Japan or elsewhere to cash in on ads largely unseen by North American audiences. The only explanation can be that it’s part of some grand prank on either all of us, Nespresso’s marketing budget, or both. If not, to quote SNL’s spoof tagline, “Nespresso: What?


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    The disappearance of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi has led to a number of tech companies, as well as Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, pulling out of a Saudi Public Investment Fund conference scheduled for later this month. And several (including Sam Altman, president of Y Combinator, and Dan Doctoroff, CEO of Alphabet unit Sidewalk Labs) have cut ties to the Saudi Arabia’s Neom smart city project after being named as advisors, CNBC reports.

    But so far, Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos has been silent on the matter, which is curious when you consider some of the especially gruesome details emerging around the story. Turkish officials have reportedly said they have recordings indicating that Khashoggi was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul when he traveled there on routine business.

    Asked about Bezos’s silence on the matter, a Washington Post spokesperson told Fast Company that, “Publisher and CEO Fred Ryan and Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt are the two speaking on behalf of the company at this time.”

    Bezos was among a number of tech executives who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when he visited the United States in March. What’s more, Amazon has reportedly been in talks to open data centers in Saudi Arabia, according to the Wall Street Journal. The company didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry from Fast Company.

    Saudi Arabia has become a major tech backer in recent years, investing significant funds in companies like Uber, Tesla, and WeWork and contributing billions of dollars to SoftBank’s Vision Fund as it looks to move its economy beyond oil. That puts Silicon Valley in a sensitive position in responding to Khashoggi’s disappearance. And Bezos, who owns the newspaper where Khashoggi wrote, is in a doubly sensitive position.


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    Not to be more of a downer in these already downer times, but the late Stephen Hawking said there is “no possibility” of God in our universe. In other words, we’re on our own, and we only have ourselves to blame for atrocities like this and this and this.

    In Hawking’s final book, Brief Answers to Big Questions, published Tuesday, the theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who was smart enough to be played by Eddie Redmayne in the movie of his life, tackled one of life’s oldest and most difficult questions—Is there a God? His answer: A resounding no.

    “There is no God. No one directs the universe,” he wrote, per CNN.

    While that answer is undoubtedly unsettling for people of faith, they may take some comfort knowing that Hawking doesn’t think we’re entirely alone in the universe. He wrote that there are “forms of intelligent life out there.” They’re just not “God” in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim sense of the word.

    The famed author died earlier this year at the age of 76, leaving his final book unfinished. Hawking’s family and colleagues worked, er, religiously to complete the manuscript with help from his archives. The book was intended to collect Hawking’s answers to the questions he received most frequently from answer seekers.


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    How companies advertise to you says a lot about how they see you.

    It was a couple of years ago now that I realized Netflix saw me as a real man’s man. Why else would the company try capturing my attention with a harpoon of dude-bros?

    My viewing history decreed these shows the ones I’d be most interested in, and furthermore, that they should be displayed thusly–with nary a woman in sight. (God forbid I be reminded of my ex or, like, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and close out the tab in a blind rage.) This centering of testosterone went beyond recommending new shows; it crept into the display art for shows I’d already seen. Perhaps it was my predilection for Scorsese movies that led to the erasure of Tina Fey.

    As one writer pointed out on Twitter this week, though, the personalization of artwork in Netflix’s title recommendations does not merely break down along gender lines. Netflix’s art algorithm may also have a racial component, too.

    Stacia L. Brown tweeted on Thursday about the poster art Netflix customized on her behalf for the film, Like Father. On her account, caucasian costars Kristen Bell and Kelsey Grammar are nowhere to be seen, replaced instead by a pair of POC side-characters who barely figure into the movie at all.

    Brown put the question out to her 11,500 followers to see whether they’d had similar experiences. Several of them wrote back confirming her suspicion.

    Further exploration revealed even more instances of relatively marginal black characters in movies and shows sharing the spotlight in order to catch her discerning eye.

    What was going on here?

    Netflix would be the first to admit it does indeed personalize artwork based on user histories. In fact, the company put out an extensive Medium post last December describing its techniques.

    This is yet another way Netflix differs from traditional media offerings: We don’t have one product but over 100 million different products with one for each of our members with personalized recommendations and personalized visuals,” the writer crows at one point. (Emphasis theirs.)

    However, the post says nothing about whether race is a determinant factor. The criteria it does offer makes a lot of sense. If your usual fare is straight-up comedy, the artwork for Good Will Hunting will feature legendary funnyman Robin Williams smiling slyly. If your viewing habits skew more toward hopeless romanticism, the same film entices you with Matt Damon and Minnie Driver mid-makeout.

    The post goes on to explain in very dry language why and how Netflix personalizes its art, and it all sounds perfectly reasonable. Manipulative, sure, but not in an offensive or misleading way. Good Will Hunting does in fact costar Robin Williams, even though it’s not him at his most hilarious, exactly. Matt Damon and Minnie Driver do share a courtship in the movie, even if it’s a tad overwrought at times. Perhaps fans of movies about South Boston see Ben Affleck in a tracksuit, and fans of inexplicableness get an image of the scene where Casey Affleck jacks off into a baseball glove in his friend’s mom’s room. (Seriously, how did that scene not get edited out? It’s inexplicable.)

    All of those options are truth in advertising, even if they’re not 1000% accurate.

    What the company did on Brown’s account with Like Father, though, seems like a more malevolent manipulation. Not only does it reduce her entertainment preferences–and by extension, part of her personality–down to “black-people movies” the way it did “dude movies” for me, but it also manufactures the appearance of greater diversity than actually exists. If advertising reveals what companies think of you, Netflix seems to think its users don’t mind being cynically misled based on identity. The more important question is what this all says about Netflix.

    UPDATED: Below is a statement from Netflix, addressing personalized title art.

    “We don’t ask members for their race, gender or ethnicity so we cannot use this information to personalize their individual Netflix experience. The only information we use is a member’s viewing history. In terms of thumbnails, these do differ and regularly change. This is to ensure that the images we show people are useful in deciding which shows to watch.”


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    The next time you head outdoors, imagine that the tube of sunscreen in your bag urged you to slap some of it on your skin, or that the pack of pills the doctor prescribed reminded you to take your medication. Or that you could subscribe to your favorite laundry detergent, which would monitor the supply on your shelf and replenish it automatically.

    Such prompts will soon become part of the products we purchase via companies like Water.io, which has pioneered a plastic cap with a sensor embedded in it that measures the volume of a liquid, solid or powder in a container. The cap relays the data via Bluetooth technology to an app, which filters it through your preferences and funnels it to the manufacturer.

    Software hosted by Water.io allows manufacturers to learn from the data, which displays on a dashboard and flows to their marketing and ordering systems. There it can enable the manufacturer to suggest, for example, a shampoo or skin care, or to offer subscriptions to the products that sit on shelves throughout our homes.

    [Photo: courtesy of Water.io]
    The tightening of ties with consumers that the technology enables holds the potential to reorder relationships between makers of consumer packaged goods and retailers like Amazon or Walmart that also have become rivals who tout brands of their own.

    “We are enabling the brands of consumer packaged goods to get data from their products,” Kobi Bentkovski, Water.io’s CEO and co-founder, tells Fast Company. “The moment they know who their customers are, how customers are using a product, and when the product is going to run out is the moment they can compete with Amazon and the private brands of the retailers.”

    Bentkovski started Water.io in 2015 with co-founders Yoav Hoshen, an entrepreneur and friend from their service in Unit 8200, the Israeli military’s elite intelligence unit, and Nimrod Kaplan, a fellow tech executive and neighbor, after Bentkovski’s daughter, then 7, was plagued by a urinary tract infection that finally cleared as she drank extra water.

    Fast forward to last January, when Mey Eden, an Israeli bottler of mineral water, included a connected cap from Water.io in each of several hundred thousand six-packs. The supply sold out in six weeks – less than half the time the companies anticipated – and boosted sales 60 percent compared with packs that did not include a smart bottle, according to Bentkovski.

    [Image: courtesy of Water.io]
    (A recent test of a Water.io-capped bottle nudged this reporter to drink 1800 milliliters of water a day, a target the system set after I entered my sex, age, weight and height into the company’s app.)

    Though it’s not the first bottle that can remind you to drink, the platform that Water.io is developing foretells a future in which manufacturers help you to plan your meals for the week, protect your family from risks such as allergic reactions, achieve your nutritional goals, and reduce waste via containers built for reuse.

    The market for so-called intelligent packaging in the food, personal care, and health care industries is expected to reach $31.7 billion by 2022, nearly double what it was four years ago, according to data compiled last year by Allied Market Research.

    The data the packages throw off also promises to speed innovation by lowering the cost of developing, designing and testing products. “We started to meet with companies in consumer packaged goods and realized there’s a much larger problem we can solve,” says Bentkovski.

    More broadly, innovations such as those being pioneered by Water.io and others highlight an evolution in packaging from a container to protect the product and medium to communicate what it says on the package, to part of a connected ecosystem of our lives, explains Brian Doyle, managing director of product and service innovation at Accenture.

    According to Doyle, the combination of smart sensors that allow manufacturers to learn the behaviors, preferences and emotions of consumers, together with autonomous vehicles and robots for delivery, will demand that manufacturers pay attention to the results that consumers are trying to achieve.

    “We are seeing an explosion in new digital touchpoints, where artificial intelligence and machine learning will help consumer brands get even closer to being able to sense, respond to, and even predict changing behavior,” he says. “Most consumer packaged goods companies have been very product centered. The new world is understanding the person and then reimagining and reinventing what we can do for them.”

    Bentkovski reports that Water.io, whose investors include the family that founded Teva Pharmaceuticals, has inked agreements with a dozen companies in the food, beverage, pharmaceutical and personal care industries, including the German chemicals giant Bayer.

    He analogizes Water.io’s platform to the business built by the customer relationship management software provider Salesforce, which derives the bulk of its revenue from subscriptions and fees for its services. “The world is changing every day,” says Bentkovski. “A few years from now, the passive packaging of today will look like an old Nokia smartphone.”


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    Bill Gates has coined a new way to think about climate change, and is leading a team of investors to help solve it. The concept is called “the 75% problem”–a nod to the idea many people think investing in clean energy alternatives like solar panels and wind turbines will curb greenhouse gas emissions. In reality, offsetting electricity generation only covers 25% of the issue.

    According to a post on his blog GatesNotes, the other main offenders include agriculture (cow burps, deforestation), manufacturing (making plastic, steel, and cement costs energy), transportation (the fuel-intensive way we move stuff), and buildings (air conditioning). So in recent years, Gates and other investors have put more than $1 billion into companies working across all of these categories through Breakthrough Energy Ventures, a private fund.

    This week BEV expects to sign an agreement with the European Commission to create Breakthrough Energy Europe, which Gates calls “a pilot fund investing in European companies working on the grand challenges” that’s worth about $115 million.

    BEV and the EC will split the costs, although Gates points out there’s even more value in how they’ll be able to dole out cash. “We’re creating a new way of putting that money to work,” he adds. “Because energy research can take years–even decades–to come to fruition, companies need patient investors who are willing to work with them over the long term. Governments could in theory provide that kind of investing, but in reality, they aren’t great at identifying promising companies and staying nimble to help those companies grow.”

    BEV has experience with what kinds of solutions will gain traction or not. It can boost the European Commission’s learning curve on how to build strong companies, and avoid “some of the bureaucracy” that might otherwise slow that process. “We’ll have the resources to make a meaningful difference, and the flexibility to move quickly,” Gates says. “That’s a rare combination.”

    [Image: GatesNotes LLC]

    Obviously clean energy research remains crucially important. Governments have been thinking creatively about how to make faster progress in that realm, too. Gates points out that more than 20 countries have joined Mission Innovation, a program to double public investment in such technologies, and has boosted funding by more than $3 billion annually.

    To help people learn how various worldwide factors contribute to the problem, he’s also made a surprisingly fun multiple-choice quiz. There are only five questions. One example: “If cattle were a country, where would they rank on emissions?” Gates initially had to guess on two of those five questions, and only got four out of five right. You can test your own knowledge here.


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    Halloween is coming, and in some offices, that means the office Halloween party is fast approaching, too. While you may think your sexy Handmaid’s costume or Steve Jobs costume is hilarious, you don’t want to be the kind of person who alienates all the women and Apple fans in your office by your insensitive attire. And let’s not forget that, every year, someone seems to go viral after wearing an ill-conceived costume, only to face enormous social media backlash—and sometimes even get fired.

    To help avoid that happening to you, here are a few work-appropriate Halloween costume ideas that won’t earn you a scolding from the HR department:

    • Microsoft’s Clippy
    • Zombie MySpace
    • A Herman Miller Aeron Chair
    • A No. 2 pencil
    • Facebook’s new community standards
    • Beige
    • The Houston Astros left field
    • A giant rabbit
    • Ghosts
    • Non-Twilight vampires
    • Harry Potter
    • Elon Musk on a podcast
    • A carrot
    • Gary Vaynerchuk
    • A full office watercooler (JK, that doesn’t exist!)
    • The ghost of Friendster
    • A Seamless delivery driver (you’ll be really popular!)
    • An Instagram influencer
    • An anonymous corporate drone
    • A regular drone
    • A fax machine
    • Anything that is not “slutty,” misogynistic, racially insensitive, culturally appropriative, or involves mocking the HR department to their faces

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    Bill Gates knows a lot about climate change.

    The Microsoft cofounder launched the Breakthrough Energy Coalition two years ago, and they just signed a $115 million clean energy investment fund in the EU. Plus, Gates has joined an international coalition determined to figure out how to protect people from heat waves, floods, and storms as the temperatures rise and the climate shifts. The Global Center on Adaptation will advance “bold actions to help societies across the world become more resilient to climate-related threats” and hopefully help the human race survive extreme weather.

    “We are at a moment of high risk and great promise,” Gates said in a press release. “We need policies to help vulnerable populations adapt, and we need to ensure that governments and other stakeholders are supporting innovation and helping deliver those breakthroughs to the people and places that need them most.”

    For the effort, Gates has teamed up with former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva, and 17 countries, including China, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Canada, and the U.K. (but not the U.S., natch).

    So yeah, Gates knows a lot about climate change. But perhaps you know more? If so, Gates is challenging you to test your knowledge and try to beat his scoreTake this quiz and find out if you have what it takes.


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    Bryan Cranston has a job for you. The acclaimed actor is starring in a stage adaptation of the 1976 movie Network, which is moving to Broadway this month after a successful run on the West End. Cranston stars as Howard Beale, the cantankerous fictional news anchor whose famous “mad as hell” speech never seems to go out of fashion.

    In a video posted to YouTube today, he asked viewers to film themselves screaming Beale’s timeless tirade. Then he wants them to post it on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter with the hashtag #MadAsHellBway.

    “Do it as enthusiastically as possible,” Cranston implores, “even angry!”

    What’s the point of this exercise? Well, you will be screaming for your chance to (sort of) appear alongside Cranston in the show. The play, Cranston says, needs “all kinds of videos from all walks of life,” presumably as accompaniment for the immersive, screen-laden set, which won praise from critics in the London version.

    Sure, this all sounds a little gimmicky, but having seen Cranston’s amazing performance as LBJ in 2012’s All the Way, I can tell you that appearing on stage with him—even in a video—would be its own reward. Plus, are we not all truly mad as hell in 2018? How hard will it be to channel some of that anger for this once-in-a-lifetime chance?

    Forgive me for the mixed ’70s-movie reference, but that’s an offer we can’t refuse.


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    When you think about it, the history of productivity software is surprisingly short on disruptive moments. Google Sheets, for instance, may be web-based and collaborative, but its conceptual bones are the same as those of Microsoft Excel (established 1985), which itself followed the lead of Lotus 1-2-3 (1983) and VisiCalc (1979). That’s not a knock on Google; it’s just proof that the spreadsheet has remarkable staying power as a workplace tool. The same is true of the word processor, presentation package, database, email client, and a few other eternal verities of business productivity.

    Popping out an improved variant on a decades-old software theme isn’t that tough. What’s daunting is building something new that doesn’t fit neatly into an existing category. If people don’t see immediate benefit in adopting it, they won’t try it in the first place. And even if they do give it a shot, they may quickly abandon it if it doesn’t have plenty of headroom for more advanced users.

    All of which makes for an intriguing challenge for a startup, with offices in San Francisco and Seattle, called Coda. Launch its web service, and you might mistake it for a word processor: You’ll see a toolbar at the top, a field of empty white space, and a flashing cursor. Like a spreadsheet or database, it’s dedicated to wrangling business data. But instead of just storing it away and then retrieving it, the service provides rich tools for doing stuff with it.

    Coda is the brainchild of Shishir Mehrotra and Alex DeNeui, two old friends who met at MIT and then worked together at both Microsoft and YouTube before starting the company. As they were formulating ideas for their startup, they considered the state of productivity tools and then asked themselves, “What if we started from scratch?” explains Mehrotra, now the company’s CEO. “We’re going to build a new type of doc that blends the best parts of all the docs you know: documents, spreadsheets, presentations, applications. The core thesis is that you can build a doc that’s as powerful as an app.” (Though the name “Coda” is “a doc” spelled backward, they only noticed that after they were already considering it.)

    Quentin Clark, Dropbox’s senior VP of engineering, product, and design, met Mehrotra and DeNeui years ago when they all worked at Microsoft and is now on Coda’s board. Even at Microsoft, he remembers, they tossed around ideas that are now reflected in the startup’s service. But it would have been difficult to implement them in an existing, familiar product such as Office or Google’s G Suite. “The incumbent tools are really anchored in physical constructs,” he says. “The word processors are anchored in the sheet of paper that could fit in the Gutenberg press. Excel and Google Sheets are really constructs that have been developed out of the ledger books that sat underneath the counter at the very first taverns and inns.” The fact that Coda started out with no users and no fear of discombobulating them was liberating.

    [Image: courtesy of Coda]
    Coda does, however, have a clear vision of the sort of people it wants to please. When the service formally announced itself a year ago, Mehrotra wrote a blog post that referenced one user’s description of the service as “Minecraft for docs.” Like the block-building game phenom, Coda is less about what it does right out of the box than what people can build atop it; it’s a tapestry for ambitious creativity. The company calls its users “makers,” held a “block party” event in September to cultivate the community, and has even commissioned caricatures of some of its biggest superfans as blobby little characters who look like they could have stepped out of a video game.

    Describing your product as the Minecraft of anything is setting the bar high. For now, Coda remains a work in progress, widely used by beta testers but not due for general release until 2019. As if to remind itself daily of the enormity of the work ahead, the company has named the conference rooms in its San Francisco office after products it admires: VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Harvard Graphics, Apple’s Hypercard, and even Microsoft’s obscure first spreadsheet, Multiplan. All once important; all defunct. Like I said, many of the disruptive moments in productivity software happened a long time ago.

    Everything in one place

    Coda is not exactly without competition. QuickBase (founded in 1999), Smartsheet (2006), and Airtable (2012), for instance, are all web-based services that allow a company to devise rich, custom app-like experiences based on its own data. But while those offerings feel like extensions of spreadsheets and databases as we’ve known them, a Coda document’s more free-form shell makes for a different environment. You can embed multiple spreadsheet-style tables within a Coda doc, bridge them with explanatory text, insert elements such as calendars and images, and add app-like controls like buttons and sliders. The idea is to let teams keep multiple pieces of data and related functionality in one place that everybody can access all at once–a Coda doc–rather than scatter them through discrete files stored somewhere like Google Drive.

    Along with its spreadsheet- and word processor-like elements, Coda even throws in a dash of presentation package: A “present” button flips into a full-screen mode and lets you step through your doc as if it were a PowerPoint.

    If all you’re doing is accomplishing tasks that would be equally achievable in a word processor, spreadsheet, or presentation app, there isn’t much reason to consider Coda. It starts to get interesting when you use all its features to assemble something that looks like an app—one built precisely for the needs of your business.

    “In every company, the secret sauce doesn’t fit in packaged software that the company uses for its workflows,” says Coda board member Hemant Taneja, a managing director at venture firm General Catalyst. “It’s in one or two people that have been there a long time that have a unique way of doing business. What Coda does is to let you institutionalize that secret sauce.”

    At Uber, it was indeed just a couple of employees who spearheaded the creation of an internal project manager system in Coda; it worked so well that it’s now in use by hundreds of their colleagues. Similarly, Box used Coda to create its own system for managing job candidates.

    Box manages its hiring process using Coda. [Image: courtesy of Coda]
    You’d expect tech-centric companies such as Uber and Box to bond with Coda, but other beta testers, far outside the Silicon Valley bubble, are also finding it useful. Hudson Henry Baking Co., a maker of small-batch granola, is based in a one-stoplight town in Virginia. Founder Hope Lawrence had begun experimenting with Coda when she hired Michele Durst as packing and shipping manager. Durst happened to have a past life as a Wall Street tech executive, which helped her dive into Coda to build useful tools tailored specifically to the business of baking and selling granola.

    “We have a bake sheet, we say, ‘Here’s what we’re making today, here’s the ingredients that you’re supposed to use with the associated lot numbers,'” says Lawrence. “It’s a one-pager, and I print that out and give it to the bake team.” Another bit of Coda functionality allows the company to track when it’s time to ping a retailer to solicit a new order based on its past purchases. “We’re in Coda all day long, every day,” Lawrence says.

    Turning people into programmers

    For all the ways in which Coda attempts to break free of productivity software’s past, some of its overarching ideas have a long history. A quarter-century ago, Microsoft built the Visual Basic for Applications programming language into Office; even before that, it offered automation tools such as WordBASIC. Many companies have leveraged Office’s programmability to create bespoke tools for their particular line of business. But though well over a billion people now use Microsoft’s suite, the percentage that has written code must be tiny. That work is typically undertaken by specialists or even outside consultants.

    By contrast, Coda sees the ability to make a doc do almost anything as having a democratizing aspect—and certainly not something that necessitates dependence on IT experts to do the heavy lifting. “We think that the people most equipped to build their own tools are the people that are actually doing the work,” says Mehrotra.

    Composing formulas in a spreadsheet is not a particularly exotic skill, and building simple functionality into a Coda document isn’t a dramatically more advanced task. (In at least one respect, it’s easier: You can give cells meaningful names rather than trying to remember rows and columns.) But the more ambitious you get in Coda, the more it starts to feel like coding. The service has copious amounts of documentation, and needs it.

    Still, Mehrotra says that he’s confident that learning to make Coda creations is not overly intimidating. Each Thursday, Coda’s team reviews video of interviews with users. “When you ask them, ‘How hard was it to build it?’ ‘Hard’ isn’t quite the way they think about it, because for them it’s kind of fun,” he says.

    By talking to services such as Figma, GitHub, and Slack, Coda can leverage a company’s other essential tools rather than competing with them. [Image: courtesy of Coda]
    As Coda beta testers have explored the service’s possibilities, he adds, they’ve frequently asked questions about integrating it with other services: “I work in all these other tools. How do I make sense of when I should use Coda, when I should use the other tools, how do they work together?” Coda is responding to such queries with Packs, an ambitious new series of features that tie the service together with other web-based tools. For starters, there are more than 15 Packs, including ones for GitHub, Gmail, Google Natural Language, Greenhouse, Intercom, Slack, Twilio, and others, with more on the way.

    Packs–which you add from an app store-like installer–dramatically expand Coda’s power without requiring a user to know arcana such as API calls. A Pack can pull in information relating to stocks, weather, or products available from Walmart; grab Instagram images or YouTube videos; or push out emails, text messages, or calendar appointments. And because you can mix and match Pack capabilities with all of Coda’s other features and apply logic to them, you can perform feats such as automatically scheduling a meeting if a project has failed to meet a milestone.

    Coda’s Intercom Pack lets you wrangle customer feedback from an app. [Image: courtesy of Coda]
    By connecting a company’s workaday tools in new ways, Coda has the potential to become a sort of collaborative glue. “We all know that teams rely on a variety of different tools and services,” says Matt Hodges, VP of commercial product strategy at Intercom, whose Pack allows a doc to retrieve customer-feedback conversations and add new messages to them. “For a product team, that might be Coda, it might be GitHub, it might be Slack, it might be Intercom.” With Packs, “Without any coding ability, you can stitch all those tools together and create the workflows that map to how your team operates.”

    In it for the long haul

    Many startups wear their impatience as a badge of honor. Coda’s history to date, however, has been strikingly unhurried. Mehrotra and DeNeui founded their startup in June 2014. They had a working prototype by December, began asking friends and family to test it in May 2015, and invited a larger group of testers to experiment with an alpha version a year later. The company officially unveiled itself in October 2017 and launched a wider—though closed—beta program. At that time, it also disclosed that it had raised $60 million in funding.

    Coda’s testers started employing the service to perform actual useful tasks at their companies early on. But the sheer enormity of what Coda is trying to do explains why it remains in private beta. The company is still rolling out core features such as Packs, as well as its approach to making Coda docs behave properly on mobile devices. (You need a desktop browser to create them, but on a smartphone, they automatically assume a card-style interface that, if anything, is more app-like than on a PC.)

    In early 2019, if Mehrotra’s current timetable holds up, Coda will reach general availability. Even then, the company won’t charge for the service while it ponders its eventual business model. “For me, it’s philosophical,” he explains. A startup should “get the basics of the product right first, figure out which parts resonate, then segment your audience to figure out which features to make free versus pay.”

    Using the Twilio Pack, you can make sending a text from Coda as easy as pushing a button. [Image: courtesy of Coda]
    Venture capitalist and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman famously declared that “if you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late”—an argument in favor of speed to market. All evidence suggests that the first open-to-all-comers’ version of Coda won’t be embarrassing. It might even feel more like Coda 2.0 or 3.0 than 1.0. Should the company have shipped something more rudimentary more quickly?

    At Coda’s Block Party user event, I posed that question to Hoffman, who led the company’s Series A funding as a partner at Greylock and now sits on its board. “Like any heuristic, my little maxim is not 100%,” he told me. It applied to his own LinkedIn in its earliest days, to Airbnb, to Zynga games such as FarmVille. But “when you’re developing a platform for people to develop on top of, you have to give them enough that they can build interesting things, which means you have to be relatively deep.” Speed still matters—but it’s the speed with which users can accomplish productive work with the tools you’ve created.

    The fact that Coda has been chipping away at the challenge it set for itself since 2014 may sound slow going by startup standards. Then again, the necessary ingredients for success—approachability, plus depth—are one of software’s most sought-after, least-achieved qualities. Some products that have been around for decades still haven’t nailed it.

    “We think that the blinking cursor is pretty critical,” says Mehrotra. “But if you pick up and use Coda, you should be able to use it for anything.”