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How I support an employee’s goals beyond their tenure at the company

Providing guidance and opportunities for professional development is an important part of being the leader of any team. Not only does it help your team excel at their work, but it’s a way to demonstrate support and make their work more meaningful for them. Everybody wins: it’s an investment in a colleague’s growth that will pay dividends for your company and is something they’ll carry with them throughout their career.

I’ve spent most of my career in relatively early-stage startups. Those companies aren’t Google: there’s no incredible stock compensation, the perks tend to be a little lower-key, and the name doesn’t always carry the same cachet (unless you’re successful). In order to make up for those things, startups can and should provide more flexibility for employees: not just in terms of how they work, but in providing more opportunities to level up and try on different hats. Because people typically have to perform a broader set of tasks, early-stage startups can be a great way to move to a different role and grow your skills. …

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A history of not quite making bank

Talking about money is still a taboo, particularly here in the tech industry. But, inspired by Hunter Walk’s post from a few years ago about exactly this, I thought it might be interesting to talk about my experiences.

By not going with the flow, I’ve had a lot of really great experiences in tech, but I haven’t made the kind of money that others claim to. To be clear, none of it is bad! I’m not complaining in this post; I’m grateful for the opportunities and experiences that I’ve had. …

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The moment that gave me back the rest of my life

When we got the DNA test back, my sister and I, sitting in the antiseptic hospital room with the genetic counselor and our tiny disposable glasses of water, we cried. Openly, right in front of her, as if she wasn’t there.

Pulmonary fibrosis scars up your lungs. One day it’s a cough you can’t seem to shake; another, maybe six months or several years down the line, you can’t breathe. There’s no cure except to get new lungs. My grandmother died of it. My aunt died of it. My cousin died of it. …

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Here are some books. You must read Phil Knight’s Shoe Do.

The complete guide to crushing it poorly

Step one: Name and logo. This always comes first.

It’s got to rock, man. That’s how you know you’re cool.

My best guess: draw a circle, split it into four with an X, and put some vector art inside it. Black and white only! Colors are so 2015.

Then find a single word that sounds pretty cool when you say it out loud and also has a double meaning if you squint a bit, like “Flow” or “Horse”. This must come first.

Get some business cards printed and register a disruptive domain name. Yeah.

Drink a fine whisky while you’re doing this, like an 18-year Oban or a rare Macallan. …

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It’s been the guiding rule for my entire career. But I was applying it wrong.

When I started my career in tech, I set out a few basic rules:

  1. Don’t work for a bank.
  2. Don’t work for a weapons manufacturer.

In both cases, my underlying reasoning was to avoid working for a company that facilitates the death of vulnerable people for profit. Weapons manufacturers facilitate suffering from the colonization of nations to domestic violence. Banks facilitate suffering by perpetuating inequalities from wars to redlining. Both are prerequisites life in a capitalist society; neither is beneficial.

Over time, it’s become clear to me that these rules don’t go far enough. The entire endeavor, though well-intentioned, is fatally flawed. If you limit your definition of harm to a few key things, by definition anything else isn’t harm: it’s tacit permission for a spectrum of wrongdoing. By making myself the sole arbiter of harm, anything that isn’t within my experience or knowledge is, by definition, allowed. …

The silver lining of the pandemic was getting to care for her.

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I listened for the car for an hour this afternoon; every hint of a motor buzzing past the house would send me to the window, looking for the grey Civic gingerly turning into the drive. Finally, it arrived, and I went outside to greet my mother and hold her by the arm as she made the arduous journey towards bed.

One of the silver linings of the pandemic has been working from home. For me, that mostly meant my parents’ home, where I would finish work, close my laptop, and then see if there was anything I needed to help with. Many nights, I cook dinner, or bring her a series of mugs and cups so she can brush her teeth in bed. …

Characteristics of a perfect remote workplace

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Tech workers have been remote since March or so at the latest: while some startups had always worked through the internet, others were torn from their offices with no understanding of when they would return. Across Silicon Valley, plants wither in pots and dust gathers on desks. Buffet-style cafeterias — remnants of the Before Times — sit empty and unused.

I’ve never been much of a big-company tech worker, but for many others, this was a huge shift. Lots of people picked their employers based on the comfort of their offices and the luxury of their in-person benefits. But the novel coronavirus has thrown that all away. Fancy gyms, kombucha taps, and unlimited high-end snacks are all historical novelties. We sit in our own homes, the line between life and work blurred until they’re one and the same. …

Building a peer to peer web using the devices we hold in our hands.

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One of my favorite pieces of software is Apple photo search. If you’ve got an iPhone, try it: great searches to try are “animal selfie”, “bird”, “ice cream”, or “cake”.

What’s particularly amazing about these searches is that the machine learning is performed on-device. In fact, Apple provides developer tools for on-device machine learning in any app across its platforms. There’s no cloud processing and the privacy issues related to that. The power to identify which photos are a selfie with your cat lies in the palm of your hand.

Not everyone can afford a top-end iPhone, but these represent the leading edge of the technology; in the near future, every phone will be able to perform rapid machine learning tasks. …

When she was twelve years old, my aunt escaped from the concentration camp where her mother and siblings were interned. She swam through the sewers, found food, and returned. My grandmother collected snails and cooked them out of sight of the Japanese guards. Around them, people were tortured and killed on a daily basis.

On paper, the Allies won the war. For my family, it continued to rage.

To this day, trauma has rippled from generation to generation. That simple act of ripping my aunts from their lives mid-education has led to cycles of poverty and misery that continue to this day. Some of my family, like my father, were able to break the cycle. Some were not. The recent history of my family runs the gamut from stability to crime and heroin addiction. …

A roadmap for telling stories that envision a better world.

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Like many people, 2020 has creatively consumed me. It’s hard to give your undivided attention to something, or put yourself in a truly creative flow, when so much is going on. The sheer onslaught of new information — some newly jaw-dropping story seems to be showing up four to six times a day — puts my brain in a reactive mode. Instead of being inventive and generative, I’m constantly aghast. I’m hopeful that it will be possible to re-find a sort of mental peace once the election has been and gone, but I’m also a realist. …


Ben Werdmuller

Writer: of code, fiction, and strategy. Trying to work for social good.

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