I Joined Airbnb at 52, and Here’s What I Learned About Age, Wisdom, and the Tech Industry

A growing number of people feel like an old carton of milk, with an expiration date stamped on their wrinkled foreheads. One paradox of our time is that Baby Boomers enjoy better health than ever, remain young and stay in the workplace longer, but feel less and less relevant. They worry, justifiably, that bosses or potential employers may see their age more as liability than asset. Especially in the tech industry.

And yet we workers “of a certain age” are less like a carton of milk and more like a bottle of fine wine — especially now, in the digital era. The tech sector, which has become as famous for toxic company cultures as for innovation, and as well-known for human resource headaches as for hoodie-wearing CEOs, could use a little of the mellowness and wisdom that comes with age.

I started a boutique hotel company when I was 26 and, after 24 years as CEO, sold it at the bottom of the Great Recession, not knowing what was next. That’s when Airbnb came calling. In early 2013 cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky approached me after reading my book Peak: How Great Companies Get Their Mojo from Maslow. He and his two Millennial cofounders wanted me to help turn their growing tech startup into an international giant, as their Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy. Sounded good. But I was an “old-school” hotel guy and had never used Airbnb. I didn’t even have the Uber app on my phone. I was 52 years old, I’d never worked in a tech company, I didn’t code, I was twice the age of the average Airbnb employee, and, after running my own company for well over two decades, I’d be reporting to a smart guy 21 years my junior. I was a little intimidated. But I took the job.

On my first day I heard an existential tech question in a meeting and didn’t know how to answer it: “If you shipped a feature and no one used it, did it really ship?” Bewildered, I realized I was in deep “ship,” as I didn’t even know what it meant to ship product. Brian had asked me to be his mentor, but I also felt like an intern.

I realized I’d have to figure out a way to be both.

https://hbr.org/2017/04/i-joined-airbnb-at-52-and-heres-what-i-learned-about-age-wisdom-and-the-tech-industry

Drawing lessons from the “ Bezos Way”

Amazon’s CEO annual letter to his shareholders is a must-read. Customer focus, decision-making or the importance of writing down important things… Here are my takeaways from Jeff’s latest.

Whatever we think of its founder and CEO, Amazon remains a remarkable example of great management. Since its 1994 start, the company enjoyed steady growth, relentlessly conquering new markets and sectors, coupled to exceptional resilience shown when the company weathered two market crashes (2000 and 2008). In addition, Bezos has demonstrated a consistent ability to convince his board and shareholders to let expansion take precedence over profits and dividends. (No one can complain: thousand dollars invested in Amazon’s 1997 IPO are now worth more than half a million, a 500x multiple).

This didn’t happen without damage. By some measures, Amazon isn’t an enviable place to work and the pressure it applies to its suppliers rivals the iron fist of Walmart’s purchasing department. All things considered, Amazon’s level of corporate toxicity remains reasonable compared to Uber, as an example.

Jeff Bezos is also able to project an ultra-long term vision with his space exploration project for which he personally invests about a billion dollars per year.

Closer to our concerns, he has boosted a respected but doomed news institution — The Washington Post — thanks to a combined investment in journalistic excellence and in technology, two areas left fallow by most publishers.

That is why I thought Bezos’ written addresses to his shareholders (here) are worth some exegesis.

Let start with last week’s letter. (Emphasis mine, and while quotes are lifted from the original documents, some paragraphs have been rearranged for clarity and brevity).

Bezos starts his 2016 missive with a question asked by staffers at all-hands meetings:

“Jeff, what does Day 2 look like? (…) [Bezos reply:] Day 2 is stasis. Followed by irrelevance. Followed by excruciating, painful decline. Followed by death. And that is why it is always Day 1.”

Then he enumerates the three obsessions that make Amazon what it is today:…

https://mondaynote.com/drawing-lessons-from-the-bezos-way-dd0e950ade68

Five reasons blog posts are of higher scientific quality than journal articles

The Dutch toilet cleaner ‘WC-EEND’ (literally: ‘Toilet Duck’) aired a famous commercial in 1989 that had the slogan ‘We from WC-EEND advise… WC-EEND’. It is now a common saying in The Netherlands whenever someone gives an opinion that is clearly aligned with their self-interest. In this blog, I will examine the hypothesis that blogs are, on average, of higher quality than journal articles. Below, I present 5 arguments in favor of this hypothesis.  [EDIT: I’m an experimental psychologist. Mileage of what you’ll read below may vary in other disciplines].

http://daniellakens.blogspot.com.br/2017/04/five-reasons-blog-posts-are-of-higher.html

How Elon Musk Learns Faster And Better Than Everyone Else

The implicit assumption is that if you study in multiple areas, you’ll only learn at a surface level, never gain mastery.

The success of expert-generalists throughout time shows that this is wrong.Learning across multiple fields provides an information advantage (and therefore an innovation advantage) because most people focus on just one field.

For example, if you’re in the tech industry and everyone else is just reading tech publications, but you also know a lot about biology, you have the ability to come up with ideas that almost no one else could. Vice-versa. If you’re in biology, but you you also understand artificial intelligence, you have an information advantage over everyone else who stays siloed.

Despite this basic insight, few people actually learn beyond their industry.

Each new field we learn that is unfamiliar to others in our field gives us the ability to make combinations that they can’t. This is the expert-generalist advantage.

https://medium.com/@michaeldsimmons/c7c753266993

An ancient memorization strategy might cause lasting changes to the brain

Weird as it might sound, there are competitive rememberers out there who can memorize a deck of cards in seconds or dozens of words in minutes. So, naturally, someone decided to study them. It turns out that practicing their techniques doesn’t just improve your memory — it can also change how your brain works.

There’s been a long-standing debate about whether memory athletes are born with superior memories, or whether their abilities are due to their training regimens. These tend to include an ancient memorization strategy called the method of loci, which involves visualizing important pieces of information placed at key stops along a mental journey. This journey can be an imaginary walk through your house or a local park, or your drive to work. The important thing is that you can mentally move back through it to retrieve the pieces of information you stored. (The ancient Greeks are said to have used it to remember important texts.)

http://www.theverge.com/2017/3/16/14950798/memory-palace-method-of-loci-brain-fmri-activity-neuroscience

What is it like to work in industry versus working in academia at Stanford? – by Andrew Ng

When people ask me if they should work in industry or in academia, I usually advise them to first figure out what they want to do. I.e., what is the mission that you’re on? What is the change you want to make happen in the world? When you have an answer to that, you can then figure out if a company or a university is a better place for you to execute your mission.

Here’re some things I like about working in the business world:

  • Access to significant resources to do big projects. AI research is increasingly capital intensive, requiring huge data and computational resources. These are easier to get in a company.
  • Strong sense of teamwork. When you don’t need to worry as much about authorship order or making sure this work counts toward your PhD thesis, you can better execute with a strong sense of teamwork and go after team goals and celebrate team successes.
  • Rapid decision making (depending on the company). I love working in a nimble environment where we can rapidly direct resources to where there’re needed, ranging from quickly building a new compute cluster, to buying a large amount of data, etc.
  • The ability to directly help huge numbers of people, through launching novel products and services.

Here’re some things I like about the academic environment:

  • Ability to explore almost any topic under the sun. For example, at Stanford I started recording educational videos. Initially no one considered this “real” Stanford work; but this turned into Coursera (and benefitted Stanford too). At Stanford, when my students and I like felt like building an open-source robotics platform, we could also just do it without justifying it to anyone. This led to the creation of ROS, a very successful open-source platform.
  • The freedom to spend 100% of your time learning and not have any direct output even for years. Companies like Baidu are very supportive of employee growth and often have people spend months just learning/studying; but it would be harder to have employees do this for years.
  • The ability to earn a degree. Even today, having an advanced degree is helpful. Universities and companies can both be very good at developing talent, and society is getting really good at recognizing ability, regardless of where you gained that ability.

For myself, one of the missions I’ve been excited about is creating universal access to the world’s best education, and I thought a company (Coursera) would execute best on that mission. More recently, I wanted to develop AI technologies that let us help hundreds of millions of people, and I thought a company (Baidu) would be best for that mission. But there’re plenty of other worthy missions, such as teaching students, and certain areas of investigation, that would be better to execute in a university.

https://www.quora.com/What-is-it-like-to-work-in-industry-versus-working-in-academia-at-Stanford/answer/Andrew-Ng

Why We Believe Obvious Untruths

How can so many people believe things that are demonstrably false? The question has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration propagates falsehoods about voter fraud, climate change and crime statistics that large swaths of the population have bought into. But collective delusion is not new, nor is it the sole province of the political right. Plenty of liberals believe, counter to scientific consensus, that G.M.O.s are poisonous, and that vaccines cause autism.

The situation is vexing because it seems so easy to solve. The truth is obvious if you bother to look for it, right? This line of thinking leads to explanations of the hoodwinked masses that amount to little more than name calling: “Those people are foolish” or “Those people are monsters.”

Such accounts may make us feel good about ourselves, but they are misguided and simplistic: They reflect a misunderstanding of knowledge that focuses too narrowly on what goes on between our ears. Here is the humbler truth: On their own, individuals are not well equipped to separate fact from fiction, and they never will be. Ignorance is our natural state; it is a product of the way the mind works.

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/03/03/opinion/sunday/why-we-believe-obvious-untruths.html