By James Kwak
Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal had an article titled “Foosball over Finance” about how people in finance have been switching to technology startups, for all the predictable reasons: The long hours in finance. “Technology is collaborative. In finance, it’s the opposite.” “The prospect of ‘building something new.’” Jeans. Foosball tables. Or, in the most un-self-conscious, over-engineered, revealing turn of phrase: “The opportunity of my generation did not seem to be in finance.”
We have seen this before. Remember Startup.com? That film documented the travails of a banker who left Goldman to start an online company that would revolutionize the delivery of local government services. It failed, but not before burning through tens of millions of dollars of funding. There was a time, right around 1999, when every second-year associate wanted to bail out of Wall Street and work for an Internet company.
The things that differentiate technology from banking are always the same: the hours (they’re not quite as bad), the work environment, “building something new,” the dress code, and so on. They haven’t changed in the last few years. The only thing that changes are the relative prospects of working in the two industries—or, more importantly, perceptions of those relative prospects.
Wall Street has always attracted a particular kind of person: ambitious but unfocused, interested in success more than any achievements in particular, convinced (not entirely without reason) that they can do anything, and motivated by money largely as a signifier of personal distinction. If those people want to work for technology startups, that means two things. First, they think they can amass more of the tokens of success in technology than in finance.
Second—since these are the some of the most conservative, trend-following people that exist—it means they’re buying at the top.
By James Kwak
I spent the past two days at a financial regulation conference in Washington (where I saw more BlackBerries than I have seen in years—can’t lawyers and lobbyists afford decent phones?). In his remarks on the final panel, Frank Partnoy mentioned something I missed when it came out a few weeks ago: the role of Microsoft Excel in the “London Whale” trading debacle.
The issue is described in the appendix to JPMorgan’s internal investigative task force’s report. To summarize: JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office needed a new value-at-risk (VaR) model for the synthetic credit portfolio (the one that blew up) and assigned a quantitative whiz (“a London-based quantitative expert, mathematician and model developer” who previously worked at a company that built analytical models) to create it. The new model “operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another.” The internal Model Review Group identified this problem as well as a few others, but approved the model, while saying that it should be automated and another significant flaw should be fixed.** After the London Whale trade blew up, the Model Review Group discovered that the model had not been automated and found several other errors. Most spectacularly,
“After subtracting the old rate from the new rate, the spreadsheet divided by their sum instead of their average, as the modeler had intended. This error likely had the effect of muting volatility by a factor of two and of lowering the VaR . . .”
By James Kwak
Last summer, Lawrence Baxter wrote these two posts about the toxic combination of bad software—actually, software in general, since no software system is perfect—and too-big-to-fail banks. Baxter knows whereof he speaks, as he was previously a technology executive at a very large bank. Here’s what he has to say about it:
I don’t care what a CIO or even a CEO might say: if they claim that they can eliminate the real risk of such missteps, they just don’t know what they are talking about no matter how good they are. And if such missteps are inevitable, then we simply cannot avoid the question whether the dangers posed by large, complex financial institutions and systems could outweigh their benefits.
Think about that the next time you hear some CEO talking about his company’s state-of-the-art technology.
By James Kwak
Last week BATS admitted that its software suffered from systematic problems for four years, failing to obtain the best execution price for about 250 customers and costing them about $400,000. That should be a giveaway: no self-respecting company would break the law just to steal $400,000 from its customers. This was a programming error, pure and simple.
Also last week, a RAND study revealed that, despite billions of dollars of investment, electronic medical records have done little to reduce costs for healthcare providers. This is more complicated than a simple programming error. The issue here is that projected savings of this kind are typically based on some model of how operations will be done in the future, and that model depends on perfectly-designed software functioning perfectly. Medical records systems apparently fall far short of this ideal: as the Times summarized, “The recent analysis was sharply critical of the commercial systems now in place, many of which are hard to use and do not allow doctors and patients to share medical information across systems.”
The common feature to these stories, however, is that big, complex, business software is really, really important—and a lot of it is bad. In many niches, it’s bad because there aren’t that many companies that serve that niche, it’s hard for customers to evaluate software that hasn’t been delivered and installed yet, and there are all sorts of legacy problems, particularly with integration to decades-old back-end systems. And most of the incentives favor closing the sale first rather than making sure the software works the way it should.
I don’t have much to add that I didn’t put in my Atlantic column on a similar topic last summer. Nothing has changed since then. So I’ll stop there.
By James Kwak
Charles Duhigg and Steve Lohr have a long article in the Times about the problems with the software patent “system.” There isn’t much that’s new, which isn’t really a fault of the article. Everyone in the industry knows about the problems—companies getting ridiculously broad patents and then using them to extort settlements or put small companies out of business—so all you have to do is talk to any random group of software engineers. And it’s not as much fun as the This American Life story on software patents, “When Patents Attack!” But it’s still good that they highlight the issues for a larger audience.
The article does have a nice example of examiner shopping: Apple filed essentially the same patent ten times until it was approved on the tenth try. So now Apple has a patent on a universal search box that searches across multiple sources. That’s something that Google and other companies have been doing for years, although perhaps not before 2004, when Apple first applied. There’s another kind of examiner shopping, where you file multiple, similar patents on the same day and hope that they go to different examiners, one of whom is likely to grant the patent.
By James Kwak
From the Times:
“Doug Purdy, the director of developer products, painted Facebook’s future with great enthusiasm . . . One day soon, he said, the Facebook newsfeed on your mobile phone would deliver to you everything you want to know: what news to digest, what movies to watch, where to eat and honeymoon, what kind of crib to buy for your first born. It would all be based on what you and your Facebook friends liked.”
Does that sound to you like a good thing? Even assuming for the sake of argument that Facebook does not let commercial considerations interfere with that “newsfeed” (and we know it already has, with Sponsored Stories), or otherwise tweak its algorithms to influence what you see:
- First, do you really want your view of the world shaped by your friends? I mean, I like my friends, but I don’t count on them to, for example, tell me which NBER working papers are worth reading, let alone what crib to buy. (In Facebook’s theory, my friends are the people with similar tastes to mine, but that’s not how it works in the real world. For example, I liked Laguna Beach, and most of my friends thought were horrified to find out. In reality, you have plenty of friends with different tastes from yours, and that’s a good thing. This is why Netflix ratings work better than Facebook friends.)
- Second, doesn’t that seem like a terrifying vision of the future? It’s kind of like 1984, except kindler and gentler, because Big Brother has been replaced by the most effective form of peer pressure ever invented. At the same time, humanity has splintered into millions of tiny (though overlapping) tribes, each with its own version of the Internet and hence its own set of facts.
By James Kwak
Facebook went public a week ago, to great embarrassment. NASDAQ creaked under the strain and, more important, the price dropped from an offer price of $38 to as low as $27 over the next week as investors decided that Facebook wasn’t so exciting now that anyone off the street could buy it.
In the long run, this could become a footnote. (Remember all the criticism of Google’s IPO?) With over $200 million in profits per quarter, Facebook’s P/E ratio is still less than 100, which isn’t bad for an Internet company that dominates its market and hasn’t fully opened the advertising spigot yet.
In the long term, Facebook’s ambition is to succeed Google (or Apple, depending on how you see it) as the dominant company on the Internet. And that’s where its real problems lie.
By James Kwak
At least, that’s the impression I get from reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, which I finally finished this weekend. It’s not a particularly compelling read; it basically marches through the stages of his professional life, which is already the subject of legend, so there isn’t much suspense. I fear that it will inspire a new generation of corporate executives to imitate all of Jobs’s personal shortcomings—but without his genius.
The picture you get from the book is basically that Steve Jobs acted like a five-year-old for his whole life. He could be wrong about some basic, uncontroversial fact yet insist stubbornly that he was right. He divided the world into things that were great and things that were terrible, and his classifications could be arbitrary. He was an obnoxiously picky eater, constantly complaining about his food and sending it back. He threw epic tantrums that only a CEO (or a five-year-old) could get away with.
Posted in Books
Tagged CEOs, technology
By James Kwak
I’m sure many of you saw the article featuring David Choe, the artist who painted the walls of Facebook’s first offices and received stock that now could be worth $200 million. Nice story. I was thinking, though: why was Facebook paying its vendors with stock?
I understand what you pay your early employees with stock: (a) you have to in Silicon Valley and (b) you want their fortunes aligned with those of the company. Outside board members also will often demand stock. But in most circumstances, you should pay your vendors with cash.
Giving a vendor stock instead of cash is equivalent to raising capital from that vendor—at the existing valuation. When you’re an early-stage startup, you want to raise as little money as possible, at as high a valuation as possible—because the whole point of the startup is that it should be getting much more valuable over time. There are tactical considerations, like not letting your bank balance get too low (because then your VCs will have too much negotiating power). But in general, you want to delay raising more capital until you reach some milestone that will boost your valuation significantly.
Obviously, things turned out just fine for Facebook. But it doesn’t seem like the smartest business move.
By James Kwak
I must admit that I find Facebook’s impending glory a bit awkward, as it touches on two themes I have written about previously. One is that I just don’t like Facebook. And, I confess, I don’t really understand it. I sort of understand why people like it, but I don’t really understand why it’s going to be the most valuable technology company on the planet in a few years. I don’t understand why anyone would ever click on an ad within Facebook (or why anyone would even see them, since you could just use AdBlock), since I don’t understand why you would want your shopping choices to be dictated by who is willing to spend the most money for your attention. (When I want to buy something, I prefer using organic Google search results, since at least they aren’t affected by ad spending.) Maybe I’m just too old.
At the same time, it’s pretty clear by now that Facebook does whatever it is that it does pretty well. $1 billion in annual profits is impressive, and it’s also considered a pretty good place to work. And who is the CEO of Facebook? A twenty-seven-year-old kid with no other work experience. So while, as a customer (“user,” in software industry parlance), I’m less than thrilled, I can’t deny that Zuckerberg is doing something right as a CEO. Which is further evidence that the myth of the experienced CEO and the cult of the generalist manager are just a myth and a cult, as I’ve written about before. According to Reuters, Zuckerberg will soon be the fourth-richest person in America, after Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Larry Ellison. Which means that, like Gates and Ellison, it’s a good thing he never let anyone convince him that his company needed an experienced CEO.
By James Kwak
Last week, This American Life ran a story about the Chinese factories that produce Apple products (and a lot of the other electronic devices that fill our lives). It featured Mike Daisey, a writer and performer who traveled to Shenzhen, China, to visit the enormous factories (more than 400,000 people work at Foxconn’s, according to the story*) where electronic products are churned out using huge amounts of manual labor.
I’m sure that most of us already realized, on an intellectual level, that the stuff we buy is made by people overseas who, in general, have much less than we do and work harder than we do, under tougher working conditions. It’s harder to ignore, however, listening to Daisey talk about the long shifts (up to thirty-four hours, apparently), the crippling injuries due to repetitive stress or hazardous chemicals, the crammed dormitories, and the authoritarian rules. At one point an interviewee produces a document, produced by the Labor Relations Board (with the name of the Board on it): it’s a list of “troublemakers” who should be fired at once.
By James Kwak
As you may have noticed by now, Wikipedia’s English-language site is (mostly) down for the day to protest SOPA and PIPA, two draconian anti-copyright infringement laws moving through Congress, and Google’s home page looks like this:
Under existing law (the DMCA), if someone posts copyrighted material in a comment on this blog, the copyright holder is supposed to send me a takedown notice, after which point I am supposed to take the material down (if it is in fact copyrighted).
SOPA and PIPA are bills in the House and Senate, respectively, that make it much easier for “copyright holders” (like the big media companies that back the bill—or, come to think of it, authors like me) to take action not only against “bad” web sites that make copyrighted material available (against the wishes of the copyright holders), but also against web sites that simply link to such “bad” web sites. For example, the copyright holder can require payment network providers (PayPal, credit card networks) to block payments to such web sites (in either category above) and can require search engines to stop providing advertising for such web sites—simply by sending them a letter. That’s SOPA § 103(b).*
By James Kwak
Whenever someone criticizes “Wall Street,” someone else tries to defend Wall Street by saying that without it we wouldn’t have Silicon Valley and all of its wonders. Most recently, A.S. at Free Exchange says this:
“What would Silicon Valley have been without venture capital and private equity? Apple’s spectacular growth was made possible by the capital it raised in financial markets (it is a public company).
“Much of Apple’s initial investment came from an angel investor (a relative or friend who provides the start-up capital). But most new companies rely on formal capital markets. In a 2009 working paper, Alicia Robb and David Robinson investigated the capital structure of start-up firms, and found that 75% primarily relied on external financing from formal capital markets, usually credit cards and bank loans in their first year. They also found that firms that used formal credit were more successful.”
As critics of Wall Street go, I probably find this more annoying than most because, well, I worked in Silicon Valley. Most of these comments are obvious, but here goes anyway.
By James Kwak
I took a short break from fiscal and monetary policy to write an Atlantic column about Steve Jobs’s retirement and what it means for the eternal debate over whether and when founder CEOs should be replaced by experienced outsiders. Along the way, I read some interesting papers on the relationship between founder CEOs and stock market returns or company valuations.
I should clarify that I’m no Apple fanboy. I use a MacBook Pro, which I consider almost a necessity given how much time I spend with my computer and the abominable state of Windows. But I don’t like the “my way or the highway approach” when it comes to hardware; I wish it had a Backspace key and a deeper keyboard, among other things.
I understand that controlling the hardware ensures a more consistent user experience and less customer dissatisfaction, but allowing hardware manufacturers to compete certainly has its advantages. Look at Android, for example: I use an Android phone, and even if the iPhone is still the best phone for the median customer (a highly debatable point), the proliferation of Android models means that for most people, there is an Android phone that is a better fit. Although I was an early iPad adopter, I’m generally disappointed with it. It’s great for playing Plants vs. Zombies, checking the weather, or watching a TV episode, but it’s too slow and the browser is too weak to do anything serious. And the fact that you can’t swap out the default Apple keyboard (as far as I know) is a classic example of the problem with the Apple approach: the thing doesn’t even have arrow keys (yes, I know how to use the magnifying glass), and every Android keyboard does a better job with special characters.
Still, there’s no question Steve Jobs is a genius, and nothing like the empty suits who parade through the Times‘s Corner Office column who talk about nothing but hiring, motivation, and teamwork.
Update: Sorry, I meant to say Delete key, not Backspace key.
By James Kwak
From The New York Times:
“Consumers will be able to integrate the new phones with a number of Microsoft products, including Zune music and video content, the Bing search engine, business products like Microsoft’s OneNote software and the Xbox gaming platform.”
Apart from possibly the Xbox, who cares? How can it be that the master of bundling now has nothing that anyone wants as part of a bundle?