Unleashing Korean Productivity

Once again, Bloomberg has rated Korea as an innovation hub. And once again, Korea’s weakest statistic is productivity per worker, though a jump from 32nd place to 21st is impressive.

So what gives? After more than a year at Samsung, I see two main causes of Korea’s low worker productivity. The first, most obvious cause is long hours. Many Koreans (though, thankfully, not those in my division) feel like they have to get to work before their bosses and leave after, regardless of whether they have anything important to do. They put on a show of being at work for very long hours, but exhausted workers don’t actually produce very much. They’d be more effective if they just went home and slept.

This culture, thankfully, is changing. The president is pushing policies to limit excessively long hours, and companies like Samsung are making changes. In my division at Samsung, it’s now against the rules to work more than 52 hours in a week — still a lot of hours, but it means you can’t put in 12-hour days and then come in on the weekend without a notice getting sent to HR and the CEO. There are twice-a-month events called Smile Day, when you’re encouraged to go home early, and Wednesdays are Family Day, so people are also pushed out the door a little bit. And vacation days are mandatory: if you don’t take them by the end of the year, you’re actually not allowed to come in to work until they’re all gone. None of these reforms is a magic fix, but they’re helping to push the culture away from overwork and toward more efficient time management.

The second cause of low productivity is perhaps harder to pinpoint, and harder to reform, but I think it has much to do with the top-down, authoritarian culture that still rules many companies. Workers put in a lot of effort do get something done, only to be told to do it all again differently. I’ve worked on projects that carried on for months in a state of constant crisis, everything needing to be done immediately even though the release date was still far in the future. Instead of “measure twice, cut once,” it was more like “chop everything to pieces and glue it all back together,” and we did it over and over again. The final result was the sloppy hodge-podge you would expect.

This too is changing, though maybe not as visibly or as quickly. The leader of that project was edged out, and there’s a notable lack of panicked frenzy these days in my division. When workers are given the time and space to think and to do things right, they produce greater value. Just think what we could do if we added that latent worker productivity to the many factors already standing in Korea’s favor!

Diversity at Google

So about that Google guy and his absurd fake-science rant about women. In my seven years at Google, I heard again and again from women in engineering that they felt slighted — left out of discussions, overlooked, underestimated. What happened with this post, and the author’s subsequent firing, didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Some of the best people I’ve ever worked with were women at Google: my tech writing colleagues, my first manager at DoubleClick, countless product managers and program managers and translation managers and UX designers and software engineers and women in other roles too. Women make tech better and women make Google better.

Here’s an example. Google is a global company that makes products for both women and men  — like, for example, smart phones that measure your steps. I remember a big meeting where this tech was explained: with the phone in your pocket, the accelerometer would measure each swing of your leg. But, someone asked, what about when the phone is in your purse? The guys on stage just sort of stared. Purses had not occurred to them, and they waved it off as something they’d solve later. It’s hard to imagine half the population’s needs being so easily dismissed if women had also been half the population on the engineering team.

The challenges of diversity

Diversity sometimes challenges us. I experienced this directly, and it wasn’t comfortable. I won’t go into the details, but at one point I found myself sitting in a room with an HR rep, trying to explain my way out of a comment I’d made to a female colleague in a private conversation. From her perspective, I’d questioned whether a woman could effectively lead a group of men. That wasn’t my intention, but I can see how she got there. I’d expressed myself poorly, and I take responsibility for that. But I’d also spoken against a background of pervasive, sometimes radical sexism whose extent and severity I don’t think I fully understood, and maybe I still don’t.

But you know what’s even more uncomfortable than a conversation with HR that makes you squirm and fucks up your quarterly performance review? Working an entire career in an industry and a company that makes you squirm and consistently undervalues, underrates, and underpays you because of who you are.

So I took my medicine. I defended myself, but I was also grateful to work for a company that took my colleague’s concerns seriously. There were things I needed to do better, and still are. I’m open to that. And I can think of moments across my 20 years of professional life where I’ve said sexist or racist things, or stood by while other people said them. We’re not going to make progress if we all pretend it’s someone else.

The right choice

Google made the right choice in firing the guy who wrote this manifesto, both for promoting grotesque and counterfactual stereotypes about women, and for expressing his views in a way that has been wildly disruptive to the company where he works. This isn’t, to me, a matter of free speech, nor a matter of political oppression. He wasn’t punished for his private speech or his conservatism, but for his public announcement in the workplace that he viewed a significant group of his colleagues as inherently unsuited for their work and prone to neuroticism.

It also matters that he was dead wrong. Not all viewpoints are equally valid.

I hope Google, and the larger tech world, learn from this incident. Much more needs to be done, clearly, if this sort of nonsense gains traction within the company.

For people who look like me, that means facing up to discomfort from time to time. We can handle it, though. Our women colleagues have handled it their whole careers. There’s a lot we could learn from them.

Joining Samsung in Seoul

Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia

I am thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted an offer from Samsung. Starting in September, I will be working in the Seoul office as a Senior Designer, helping to craft the user interface (UI) text for mobile devices.

Saying no to Samsung

The whole process with Samsung actually began a year ago, when they found me on LinkedIn and began recruiting me. At the time, I was still at Google, but I was nearing the end of my MA in Korean studies at Columbia and already planning a move to Seoul in the future. I went through the interview process, they made an offer. And I declined.

It wasn’t the right time. Yes, I wanted to move to Korea, but I had also been planning these six months in Southeast Asia for a long time. When I get to Korea, I want to settle there — to make it my long-term home. I didn’t want to find myself staring out the office window, wondering when I’d ever get the chance to go on this trip I’d been thinking about for so long.

I talked to my family about my decision, and my father passed on some words of wisdom from my grandfather, his father-in-law: “Money comes and goes, but you can’t make up time.” I went on the trip. I figured that if Samsung didn’t want me in a year, someone else would. I’d manage in Korea just fine.

Saying yes to Samsung

Well, a year passed, and the recruiter got back in touch. And this time, I was ready to say yes. After my longest stretch of time off since before nursery school, I’m ready to go back to work.

And I’m excited to work on mobile devices. My time here in Southeast Asia has given me a look at a part of the world where mobile is how people connect to the Internet, to each other, to the wider world. I’ve seen how important these devices are, and how important it can be to get the design right so that people can use their devices to the fullest.

My writing at Google was on specialized ads software. It reached thousands. What I do at Samsung will reach millions. Samsung sells more smartphones worldwide than anyone else. Making these phones even marginally better to use can have a vast impact.

I can’t wait.



Moto X Pure gives you wood

I’m a few weeks into using my new Moto X Pure, and I love it. It’s beautiful (mine is white, with a bamboo back and silver highlights), it feels good in the hand, and it is neither too large (Nexus 6) nor too small (Nexus 5).

Why I got a new phone

Last spring, when my first Nexus 5 was dying from a bad battery, I jumped up to a work-issued Nexus 6. It was so huge that it wasn’t quite comfortable in my pocket, but I liked the big screen, which made reading The New Yorker more pleasant.

Even more, I liked the big memory.

Ever since the 120 GB iPod Classic went obsolete, I’ve missed it. I use Google Play Music now, so in theory I could stream everything, but I like to have my music on my phone for when my connection is limited, and I love to shuffle my way through a big music collection.

Then I left Google, returned my Nexus 6, and went back to my Nexus 5 (I’d been given a replacement with a new and better battery). It’s a fine phone, but 16 GB felt like a straitjacket. A few bands’ discographies maxed out the memory to the point that I couldn’t update apps.

Why I chose the Moto X Pure

I wasn’t sure I even needed a new phone, but I looked at a lot of them. The Sony Xperia Z3 has nice speakers and is supposed to be waterproof, but Sony’s whole mobile strategy seems confused at best. The Samsung Galaxy line is pretty but very expensive and burdened with Samsung’s TouchWiz software. And I thought about holding out for the new Nexus 6P, which I knew would be a great phone offering pure Android.

But then along came the Moto X Pure, with two killer features — beauty and memory — and very little fluff on top of the Android operating system.

First, the hard facts: The Moto X Pure, along with its on-board memory (I went for 64 GB), lets you add an SD card with up to 128 GB. That’s a lot of music. The rest of the phone’s specs are flagship-worthy, if not always quite the very top of the line (Snapdragon 808 instead of 810, but who cares?).

Second, the soft stuff: The Moto X Pure is pretty. It looks and feels premium. Every phone I’ve had for years has been some variation on matte black or matte gray — Nexi One through 6, and before that an HTC Hero. The white front and especially the bamboo back are surprisingly satisfying. It might seem like fluff, but your phone is an accessory you look at and touch all the time. It makes a difference when that accessory is elegant and appealing.

The speaker quality has also been a pleasant surprise. This is my first stereo phone, and it sounds pretty amazing for what it is.

And the Moto software is mostly pretty good. I like the camera app, the motions, the notifications, the subtle tools that change how the phone behaves at certain times or under certain conditions. It’s never invasive and often smart.

We’ll see how it holds up over time and as I travel, but so far, I’ve loved the Moto X Pure experience.

Fun Google/Chrome trick: you can enter “translate: word or sentence” and Google will translate the word or sentence.

[intellectual property]

I stumbled upon a fascinating artifact, on the Locust St. music blog, of all places: an open letter from Bill Gates, “General Partner, Micro-Soft,” written on February 3, 1976:

An Open Letter to Hobbyists

To me, the most critical thing in the hobby market right now is the lack of good software courses, books and software itself. Without good software and an owner who understands programming, a hobby computer is wasted. Will quality software be written for the hobby market?

Almost a year ago, Paul Allen and myself, expecting the hobby market to expand, hired Monte Davidoff and developed Altair BASIC. Though the initial work took only two months, the three of us have spent most of the last year documenting, improving and adding features to BASIC. Now we have 4K, 8K, EXTENDED, ROM and DISK BASIC. The value of the computer time we have used exceeds $40,000.

The feedback we have gotten from the hundreds of people who say they are using BASIC has all been positive. Two surprising things are apparent, however, 1) Most of these “users” never bought BASIC (less than 10% of all Altair owners have bought BASIC), and 2) The amount of royalties we have received from sales to hobbyists makes the time spent on Altair BASIC worth less than $2 an hour.

Why is this? As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?

Is this fair? One thing you don’t do by stealing software is get back at MITS for some problem you may have had. MITS doesn’t make money selling software. The royalty paid to us, the manual, the tape and the overhead make it a break-even operation. One thing you do do is prevent good software from being written. Who can afford to do professional work for nothing? What hobbyist can put 3-man years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product and distribute for free? The fact is, no one besides us has invested a lot of money in hobby software. We have written 6800 BASIC, and are writing 8080 APL and 6800 APL, but there is very little incentive to make this software available to hobbyists. Most directly, the thing you do is theft.

What about the guys who re-sell Altair BASIC, aren’t they making money on hobby software? Yes, but those who have been reported to us may lose in the end. They are the ones who give hobbyists a bad name, and should be kicked out of any club meeting they show up at.

I would appreciate letters from any one who wants to pay up, or has a suggestion or comment. Just write to me at 1180 Alvarado SE, #114, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87108. Nothing would please me more than being able to hire ten programmers and deluge the hobby market with good software.

Bill Gates
General Partner, Micro-Soft

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I can’t find any great sourcing for this letter, but here’s a fuller version than what’s on the Locust St. site.

[the compression obsession]

Ever put a bunch of CDs on random in your disc changer, only to find yourself scrambling for the remote to turn down the volume when you go from a relatively quiet record to one that blasts? Ever wonder why different CDs are mastered at different volumes?

DKNY once explained to me that record companies have for years been pushing new CDs ever louder, in the belief that louder somehow equals awesomer. And it’s true that on cheap stereos and crappy headphones — the sort of equipment owned by, say, teenagers — the additional loudness can give a record some extra power.

Unfortunately, the effect is achieved through a process called compression, in which the dynamic range of the recording is squeezed, so that the quietest sounds become louder and the loudest sounds become quieter. Then the whole reduced-range package is given a higher overall volume. An article in the Austin-American Statesman goes into greater detail about both the technicalities and the industry issues behind them. This tends to smooth the music into a roaring mass of sound that is fatiguing to the ears. It’s a trick Phil Spector used and was probably right to use: he was making three-minute ditties to be played on AM radio, surrounded by far less densely recorded songs. But it’s why entire CDs of Spector hits are so exhausting. Eventually the wall of sound crushes you.

On today’s 70-minute pop CDs, though, the effect can be intensely wearing. So why do producers do it? Partly there’s an element of competition: when your disc comes up in the changer, you want people to hear it. Likewise when they listen to your song in MP3 form in the car or the subway, where it has to compete with background noise. And I will admit that while commuting, I often skip songs with a lot of quiet bits in them.

Music has always been affected by the requirements of loudness. Jazz went from tuba to upright bass when electrical amplification made the latter audible over the uproar of the brass, and this allowed a looser rhythm that became known as swing. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and Caruso’s tenor had the clean, clear wave forms necessary to punch through the static of 78s, while new hi-fi technologies ushered in the crooners of the 1950s. Electrification of guitars was initially a way to make them louder, with distortion considered a problem to be avoided, as its name implied; only after Jimi Hendrix did musicians start using distortion as its own instrument. And I have posited that the high-treble tendencies of 1970s heavy metal — the squealing guitar solos and Robert Plant-inspired screeching — had much to do with the fact that people listened to this stuff on FM radio in their cars, where bass notes and baritone voices would be buried under the rumble of engine noise.

Will we pull back?

Trends in recording come and go, and we are in a moment that has particular respect for sheen. It’s an 80s retro moment, among other things, and 80s pop production was awfully shiny and bright. En Vogue and Paula Abdul and Def Leppard and Bon Jovi had very, very clean, slick production. Ultimately that’s much of what made them sound ridiculous. Late-80s pop was knocked off its perch by the inheritors of a countercurrent in 80s rock: the post-punk murk and dynamic range of Steve Albini and the Pixies. Nirvana made their fortune from dynamic range, and alternative acts and labels with decidedly unshiny production — SubPop, Beck’s Mellow Gold, Pavement — took over the mainstream.

For a while, no record was complete without pointless feedback and studio noise tacked on. (Did we really need that extra three seconds of amp hum at the end of the song?) But like anything else, grunge ran its course, and artists who demonstrated auditory discipline and sophistication and songcraft began to sound fresh and new instead of stale and packaged. At the same, technology created another shift in the way young artists were creating music. For the first time, it became cheaper and easier to assemble sophisticated soundscapes on computer than to buy a guitar, a bass, two amps, a trap kit and a four-track. Guitar-driven garage rock lost its claim to superior authenticity, and anyone with a computer could be a record producer. To stand out as professional — to protect the guild, as it were — actual record producers have had to go searching for things to do that kids in their basements can’t do. And as far as I can tell, compression and loudness are the marks of professional as opposed to amateur CD production.

I suppose the big question is whether artists and record companies will be willing to risk musical moments that get lost when tracks are converted to low-grade MP3s and played in noisy environments. My guess is that they will, and that quieter CDs with more dynamic range will eventually be seen as a mark of sophistication. Why? Because pop music is always looking for a new sound, and its pendulum is always swinging. Some record with phenomenal dynamic range will sell a gazillion copies, and suddenly everyone will be demanding auditory Easter eggs, hidden sounds that only show up at high volume. (“Telephone call for Mr. Jones!”) It’s as likely as anything else.

Well, almost anything else. The one really unlikely scenario is that pop music will keep sounding like it does today.

[watching the walls]

This past weekend, Jenny and I made a purchase we’d been researching and planning for some time: we bought a video projector, the Sharp XR-10X. Gone is the small flickering tube, a mere 18 inches across diagonally. Replacing it is our flickering living room wall, or rather a flickering expanse of it that’s about 100 inches diagonally, or 80 inches from one side to the other.

It’s a helluva way to watch the Simpsons.

The new projector isn’t perfect. For the moment, we have an s-video cable snaking its way across the room, but that means the picture quality is a little off: you can see flicker lines gradually scrolling up the screen, and sometimes quick motion is a little glitchy and pixelated. Hopefully this can be corrected by switching to component video cable, but that’ll mean calling Time Warner and bugging them to get me a cable box with a component-video output.

But even with the extant flaws, it sure beats the old cathode rays, especially for Jenny, whose distance vision isn’t great. Even with a fair amount of ambient light, the image is clear, and somehow the mind is willing to believe that a patch of white wall in a lighted room is black if the surrounding area is flooded with brighter light. There’s a bit of the window-screen effect from visible pixels, but I have to pause the video to see it clearly, and it’s actually kind of useful for making sure the focus is right. The sound of the fan in the machine is far less intrusive than the air conditioner across the room. And at the rate we watch TV, the lamp should last us at least a couple of years.

Now I just need to get a hold of some quality ambient films to show at parties. Fluxus films? Warhol screen tests? Fillmore-style psychedelic light shows? Daniel, I’m counting on you to have some kind of Russian avant garde something-or-other that gives good background.