Estrin on Innovation – A Change of Heart?

Judy Estrin and I have both been around in Silicon Valley. I was at Symmetric Computer Systems soldering the first five motherboards for the 375 while she was at Zilog with Bill Carrico (who was the product manager for the Z80). Paul Baran, a great influence on my work in layer-4 switching using dataflow techniques (InterProphet patents) was a student of her father’s at UCLA (where my son is off to in a couple weeks, but in physics, not computing). 386BSD Release 1.0 was launched about the same time Precept was launched (based on multicast, not TCP, using video streaming as a demo platform for the technology). Like Judy, I didn’t get to the Ph.D. stage, because I was impatient to get into the big start-up boom of the 1980’s. Judy worked with Vint Cerf at Stanford (where she got her master’s) on TCP, while Vint vetted my work on SiliconTCP and was on the Board of Directors of InterProphet. We’re both moms who juggled diapers and meetings, and suffered a lot of “can you do this” incredulity. Judy and I both received the coveted and unusual Geek of the Week award, but they spelled her name correctly on the nameplate (it’s Lynne with an “e”).

Judy and I have had our differences. Packet Design, now Judy-Lab (JLAB) was launched as a rival to InterProphet in 2000 (we’d already done our first patent, prototype and product by that time), and while it was far more successful in fundraising than InterProphet ever was, it didn’t get nearly as far. Perhaps there is something to be said about running lean. Egos cost big.

But all that said, I salute her for daring to write a book that indicts Silicon Valley’s disregard for investing in innovative or risky technology. This cult of “renovation, not innovation” as espoused by Ray Lane has, as Judy puts it “created a kind of root rot in the valley and the nation as a whole.” Judy herself I am sure has suffered from this bottom-feeder mentality. It is impossible to run a small research lab like Judy does when the ideas developed are ignored. Think it was tough in 1998 when InterProphet was launched? At least we got a million on a handshake then to develop the concept. In 2008 it is literally impossible to finance any semiconductor company for any reason unless you have an inside deal with Intel – something innovators just don’t tend to cultivate in the rush to actually build something.

So bravo, Judy, for writing how this “non-strategic time” (remember when you warned everyone about this in response to one of my questions way back in 2001?) is merely catabolizing Silicon Valley and not giving back. I’ve been discussing this for years, and put my life on the line for this cause (in open source), just as you do now. Who would of thought that the two of us would be fighting side-by-side?

What are they saying about you, girl?

Stanley Fish of the NYTimes today explored the “hate Hillary” movement, something that he said he was reluctant to do “because of a fear that it would advance the agenda that is its target”, in other words, embolden Hillary haters into sending him more trash email of the type where “the Swift Boat campaign against John Kerry was a model of objectivity” in comparison. He was not arguing with people who genuinely prefer other candidates on the issues. Instead he was examining those for whom “the level of personal vituperation unconnected to, and often unconcerned with, the facts” has become an all-consuming hatred that he felt was akin to that vehemence expressed by anti-Semites.

What I found interesting was a thoughtful comment from “J” (number 176):

Thank you for this piece. As a woman working an a male dominant field, I’d like to think I am equal to my fellow co-workers and am a welcomed member. But with the development of this campaign you can not imagine the vitriol I hear in my office. In my professional office I hear men talk about the size of her thighs, how grotesque they find her, stating that they would never “allow” their wives to wear pantsuits, that a woman will never make a good president and continually pick her apart physically. This is in loud voices as though I am expected to join in, not a private conversation by any means. It often makes me wonder what they think of me in this office and what would be the effects of my being promoted.

“J’s” note reminded me of something a very wise older male African-American executive once told me in assessing your standing and value to a company. He said that it was very important to listen to your co-workers when they talked about others without managers present. If it was disrespectful and unfair, than he said that’s exactly how they talk about you behind your back. If they spoke about others with respect and fairness, then that’s how you were spoken of.

So “J” is right in her concern about how she is perceived of and spoken of when she’s not around, because this vulgar conversation could indicate she’s not considered part of the team. If she were, then her co-workers would be much more aware of how a fellow member of the team feels about their vulgarity (and believe me, a lot of men loathe this kind of stuff too). Professional men and women are quite capable of self-control if they believe it is demanded by the team to get the job done.

Silicon Valley attracts the best and brightest in innovation of all religions, creeds and colors. The thing that unites us is our dedication to the creation of new technologies, products and businesses — workstations, operating systems, networking, enterprise software, and Internet. The key to success with such a diverse workforce is building the team to accomplish the mission. “Outing” members of the team imperils their ability to do the job and diverts resources when focus is needed to survive in a “world is flat” global economy.

So what would be the best advice for “J”? The direct way (and the best to clear the air and refocus the team) is to find the manager and point out that the team isn’t focused on building the product but instead involved in indulging individual whims. I wish I could say it will work — there are a lot of bad managers out there who don’t get held accountable when their teams fail to achieve — but sometimes sanity prevails.

But what if “J” fails to get satisfaction? In this case, she’d have to do what a lot of women are forced to do — try to find another job and pray she isn’t “too old” (for women I’m told it’s now 40, for men I’m told it’s 50, and yes it’s discriminatory but as an SV attorney said not so long ago “You can’t prove intent”). “J” can’t ignore that a lot of men (and women) agreed with Rush Limbaugh when he said nobody would want to watch a woman, no matter how smart or experienced or good at her job, grow old.

Would be safer for “J” to keep her mouth shut, hunker down and try to last a few years longer? Perhaps. In a recession, taking a risk like this, even if it’s right and good, may require “J” to pay too high a price. It isn’t fair, but what if nobody is either?

I can’t see a good answer here. Is there one?

Anne Wojcicki, Google and the Changing Face of Silicon Valley – A Watershed Moment

Silicon Valley has been considered a hallmark of the American Horatio Alger legend – come with an idea, build it, and become rich and famous. And it is true that many men have arrived here with little more than a degree and an idea and built a fortune. But the dirty little secret in Silicon Valley has been that those who didn’t fit the “look and feel” of investors were far less likely to get a meeting, much less a deal. African-American men in particular have long complained about the parochial nature of hiring in the “Valley of Heart’s Delight”, and the lack of women in major Silicon Valley roles, both in industry and investment, has been a subject of much study.

The claim as to why women and certain minorities were underrepresented usually hinged on the lack of a technical degree and line management experience, but as I discussed in an article on Anita Borg’s influence on women in technology in the San Francisco Chronicle a few years ago, it isn’t that simple. During the 1980’s there was a great influx of women into computer science in the top schools, with the expectation that they would take part in the booming entrepreneurial experience of that time. But most women found they were immediately channeled into field sales or marketing jobs instead of engineering jobs. The few women who were placed in engineering generally found themselves in lower-paying quality assurance positions working with men who often had no comparable degree or training. These jobs were also not considered manager tracked positions. By the time I wrote my article, I noticed there were very few women who had lasted through this gauntlet through real line management to executive level. If you make it into a top university, endure the competition, and study and receive a degree in a universally-accepted “tough” major, you would expect to be considered for positions that your credentials merit. And if you aren’t, would you feel you got a good return on your investment? I doubt it.

This is why the latest gossip about Anne Wojcicki’s new startup is so interesting. Anne, if you’ve been living on newly demoted subplanet Pluto recently, is the wife of Google’s Sergey Brin. Her sister Susan (Harvard, UCSC, UCLA) is a VP at Google, and her family is plugged into the Stanford scene – dad is the Stanford physics department’s current chairman (he’s involved with MINOS, and for those who are interested the colloquium next week is on neutrino oscillation results from MiniBooNE). Mom teaches at Palo Alto High School (no, I didn’t take journalism at Paly my junior year – I took German, but I did get a 5 on the English AP the following year). Anne herself went to Yale and majored in biology and met her future husband when Google rented their garage – there’s that Stanford connection again. The only thing missing here is the Stanford sports alumni networking dinner (my dad is a Stanford baseball alum, so we all went to the Fall football kickoff BBQ. And yes, I’m a Cal alum. Go Bears!).

So what’s the big deal? Apparently Anne has launched a startup on genetic search, and Google has made a substantial investment. This has caused loud harrumphs among the old guard, because she’s his wife and that’s so unfair!

Funny thing, I never hear these whines when it works in a person’s favor, like one guy I know who’s only claim to fame for a plum VC job was he was a drinking buddy in college of the firm’s founder, or the architect who brought his brother-in-law into the firm and got him hired because he knew what the firm wanted (inside information), or the investor who launched his son’s company. I hear these stories all of the time ! I’ve also hired many engineers on the basis of personal recommendation myself (yes, they were qualified – we had to build something). There’s nothing better than having someone vouch for you and put their reputation on the line to get the job done. The truth is, personal recommendations go a lot further than cold calls, and the odd luck of getting a room assignment with a future IVB or CEO means a lot of lesser lights going along for the ride. And this is one reason why it’s harder for men who are qualified but didn’t go to the top schools, and African-American men in particular, to get that inside edge.

But when it comes to women, it’s doubly hard. You see, women don’t usually get room assignments with future CEOs in college (and if they did, they’d probably get called lots of nasty names that equate their placement with promiscuity and prostitution). Smart women know that a drinking buddy relationship with a man isn’t necessarily a good or safe one (witness the recent De Anza gang rape case). And women who marry into a business, no matter their qualifications, still face ridicule and envy precisely because of the sexual access (remember the “pillow-talk” buzz about Bill and Hillary or FDR and Eleanor? Why couldn’t they be more like Ike and Mamie for goodness sakes, pundits would moan).

I view this investment as a watershed moment for Silicon Valley. Not because this is specifically a perfect investment – all investment is risk, and personally I’m not too enamored of knowing too much about who is genetically related to me. But if “Anne” had been “Albert” there would have been no breathy press reports in the major papers and hand-wringing over this investment. And Google is openly sticking to their investment and making no apologies about it or the woman who has received the investment. Yes, she has access, just like many others. And yes, she’s married and their relationship is disclosed.

I remember when Melinda French got involved with Bill Gates, there was much ado on the back channel about her influence on him. I remember a trade show back in 1995 (we were doing a talk for Dr. Dobbs Journal on 386BSD and Jolix at the time) watching a coffee-swilling dinosaur at a Microsoft display and having a couple of very puzzled Compaq engineers who knew me tentatively ask if I thought this was a great idea or a bad one – after all, it was Microsoft. I believe they decided I was a technologist and a woman so maybe I could figure this out (and no, I was just as puzzled as they were). Well, this strange apparition who’s claim to fame is that he may have been the inspiration for Scott Adam’s “Bob the Dinosaur” in Dilbert was also reputed to be a Melinda French special (actually, it came from her group at MSC that also did other products like Encarta, but she was the manager). It was a failure, of course, and it came out right after her marriage (she had worked at MSC for 7 years prior), so of course she became the target of a lot of disproportionate derision and envy. Yes, I’m sure she’s very happy to be Mrs. William Gates, but I’m also sure she’s probably still annoyed by the fact she was tarred for a group’s marketing failure with substantial buy-in when MSC has them all the time – big and small – and execs often get promoted even if they fail because they are supposed to execute initiatives and not just sit on their hands and hide in their offices. After all, risk means failure most of the time, doesn’t it? And Silicon Valley is all about doing startups and gaining experience until you succeed, right? Unless you’re a woman.

So, speaking as a woman in technology and a Cal Berkeley physics alumna and a woman who is very happily married to a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur, I’m pleased to see Anne get funded and I’m pleased Google (along with others) funded her. Because it is no fun getting a business plan refused purely because you’re married to someone who’s invested in you and not on the basis of the business or customers or your track record or line management background or degree or all those things they tell you in biz school are important. Believe me, I know how it feels. And you know what it feels like? It feels unfair.

Fun Friday: Turing Goes Pink

Well, it finally happened. The Turing award went to a woman. Frances Allen, IBM Fellow, began her career teaching FORTRAN in 1957 (the year of Sputnik) at a time when nobody really knew what to do with those big clunky room-sized computers and “computer science” didn’t exist as a discipline. By the end of her career, she had worked on parallel computing and high performance computing initiatives such as PTRAN, and also become a mentor to many younger scientists. An honorable career.

Moms in Tech, Really? Impossible!

The NY Times today featured an article on MomsRising, a “post-feminist” group that’s concerned about discrimination in the workplace against mothers. They’ve got a website, petitions, and all that, and of course are speaking a cross-politics lingo that everybody loves. I wish them luck.

So what’s this got to to with tech? Technology has been the bellwether for this country’s economy, and is the driver for the global economy. The pivotal works I co-authored which pioneered open source operating systems are commonly referenced today throughout Europe, Asia, Central/South America, Africa and the Middle East. Because of globalism, the US-centric dominance of a handful of companies no longer exists. Open source has been key to this.

So how do women fare in technology? Not very well…

Denice Denton and the Politics of Ugly

On June 24, 2006, Dr. Denice Denton, Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz, leaped to her death from the roof of the Paramount apartment building shortly after her release from the UCSF psychiatric hospital. “Didn’t you meet Dr. Denton at Google?” asked my husband. “Sure did – I wrote about her” I responded as I struggled with the coffeepot (see UCSC Chancellor on Academia, Women, and Technology). “Why?”. I was totally unprepared for the next sentence: “She killed herself this morning”.

UCSC Chancellor on Academia, Women, and Technology

Dr. Denice Denton headlined a talk at Google last night on “Leadership and Strategies for Cultural Change in a High Tech Environment”. Ms. Denton, an accomplished engineering professor, was recently appointed Chancellor of UC Santa Cruz. Articulate and involved, she didn’t throw punches on the difficulty of integrating more women and minorities into an institution with very slow processes (tenure) and conservative personal networks in a fast-paced technologic world (see “Advocates Unlock the Clubhouse at Google”).

Given the recent Summers diatribe at Harvard and the propensity of jerks and bullies to get their way (see “Girls and Science – the Hard Costs of Pushback”, Dr. Denton did tackle the “why aren’t there women in the sciences?” question, and she wasn’t afraid to point out that a grave imbalance in gender didn’t imply ipso facto that those few women there would welcome more women, since the risk of becoming “just one of many” could erode the unique position such a woman might have. So while the “only woman” or “only minority” might chair a search committee, for example, with the charter of increasing “diversity”, there isn’t a lot of incentive to the lone representing person to personally risk a loss of position and also possibly antogonize her male colleagues by championing a woman. A man, in contrast, can do this without a loss of status, because he’s arguing against others in his somewhat homogeneous group the same as he might if he were debating fantasy football picks.

Yes, I know this is just common sense. To expect a lone woman to risk her career and position to help a stranger is not reasonable (although some still do). This fear of isolation and ridicule even impacts the mentoring of younger women – I’ve found very few established women willing to speak up for their younger female colleagues. In this case, it helps to be on the business side – see “Girls Can Do Calculus and Physics and Astronomy and Look Nice!”.

Often, to be honest, I find many of these women don’t have children of their own, having sacrificed motherhood for the brotherhood of university success. I do know women in academia who have sons and daughters and are motivated for their children to do the right thing. But then we run into the “can’t get tenure because of the babytrack” complaint (see “Why Women Don’t Like IT?“). Women in business run into this same problem – see “Mompreneurs and Tech”. I wish more women had the courage to do the right thing. But I understand in an area where the Dr. Summers of the world can rant about their peculiarly bigoted beliefs and still get raises, the likelihood of the few women in academia who have survived the gauntlet championing women, tenure notwithstanding, isn’t something I’d bet the farm on.

Roomba, We’ve Waited for You All Our Lives

CNN has a delightful profile of Helen Greiner, Roboticist and Roomba inventor that is a must-read for young women in technology. “I think in the old days, robots had a perception of being kind of scary, and more science fiction than science fact. These robots are on a mission, and so are we: to bring robots into the mainstream. … We can make robots do a better job than humans in some cases.”

An admirer as an 11 year old girl of R2D2 in Star Wars, her latest consumer product (IRobot also has substantial military applications, but that’s not “consumer”) is the Roomba robotic vacuum. Imagine never having to tote around a vacuum again. The little Roomba scouts around the room, scooping up the dust and dirt, so you never have to. It’s not surprising that has sold over 1 million in two years. I’ve watched the little critter skitter around at Frys.

Watch Out for that …. Queue! Oh Wait, I Feel Buffer.

Ran into Vidya Babu (Director SW Engineerng, Cisco) at a girls Internet event sponsored by the ATW and Cisco called Great Minds Program Series: The Human Internet Game. What was it about? According to the invite the “…participants play the roles of routers, switches and packets in a network. Working together, these “components” (AKA the girls) have to route as many “human packets” as they can through the network in a limited amount time.” In other words, I got to watch my daughter Rebecca Jolitz and her friend Jesse run from hop to hop, while other girls stood around acting as very unsophisticated routers.

So I asked Vidya “What do you do with the girls if a packet is dropped”? I kind of left her speechless. Nope, no congestion control, retransmission, window, or other stuff. This would have made the game a lot more fun and real to the girls. I guess we’re just at link, right?

Or maybe I should save the inside humor for Byte next time.

Women in the Newroom, Women in the Schoolroom, Where Will It all End?

Enjoyed Pati Poblete’s article today “Personal Perspective: Whither the Woman’s Viewpoint?” in the SF Chronicle. It is so true that getting up into management and calling the shots on a news story is rarely a woman’s choice. But this is also true, actually much worse, in industry trade press like the computer industry. It’s hard to have the dual tech and writers credentials, and keep them current given the levels of stress (work, family, finances) and demands of the business post-bubble. But, as the they said during the Blitz, “We’ll muddle through somehow”.

I also was asked today privately about an academic’s work who happens to also be a woman married to another technologist who does similiar work. The question in a nutshell was “Should she be considered part of his work, or is her work separate”?

Kind of an odd question, isn’t it? After all, I haven’t had anyone connected to me except for those nine-months (thrice) when I was pregnant. Amazingly enough, ever since my kids were born they have not been connected to me, let alone my husband. So assuming that a woman, just by marriage, must somehow be “part” of her husband’s work instead of a “co-worker” is really quite bizarre. But of course, this question is interlinked with Harvard, and we all know what’s been going on there. But if everyone is “enlightened” and “talking about it”, why does this question keep coming up? Perhaps it’s simply lack of disciplined thinking… so let’s practice a bit, shall we?