Media Q&A: John Converse Townsend, Fast Company

Welcome to the first post in our media Q&A series! Here, we flip the script and interview reporters we work with to get their insights on the current state of the tech industry, learn tips/tricks for how to best pitch them, hear their take on current events, and maybe uncover something personal we didn't know about them before.

Today's Q&A features John Converse Townsend, a writer and social media producer at Fast Company, and a co-editor and reporter for ESPN's TrueHoop Network.

Q: How did you get your start as a journalist?

JCT: It was in the mid-to-late 2000s, at a time when Twitter was releasing and Facebook had just picked up. The idea of social networks was much different – MySpace was the hot one of the time. It was cool to see the democratization of content. Some big name journalists now writing for GQ and Esquire back then weren’t being paid but had entertaining voices on social media. I remember reading nascent sports blogs – those guys had opinions and it was an easier place to be heard back then. Myself and a couple guys from UNC [alma mater] started a sports blog that was somewhat successful, given that we didn’t put any money into it. People (not just our moms) were reading it. I graduated with one of the worst professions when no one was hiring. I put out all these applications, but it was the classic paradox of “you need experience for us to hire you” but you can’t get experience until you have a job. So I interned in my spare time, contributed to different outlets, got on Twitter. I just continued to try to be creative and express myself and eventually it worked out.

Q: What do you cover?

JCT: I’ve been covering what I describe as smart solutions to social problems. That can range from a nonprofit doing good work in disaster recovery or a smart technological fix that alleviates some issue presenting a problem to people. Growing up overseas I was exposed to different people and cultures and ways of life. Part of what I try to do is tell stories that will in some way make the world a better place. I love learning about what startups and organizations are doing in small ways to improve the world.

Q: What technology are you excited about?

JCT: A lot of people talk about VR but I’m not really into it, which is weird since I’m a gamer (my mom got me the original Nintendo when I was two-and-a-half and I got really good). For some reason graphics in VR aren’t there, though they’re getting better quickly. [Going back to basketball] if I’m going to play a VR basketball game and there’s no glove where you can feel the weight of the ball, why wouldn’t I just play a video game or go outside and actually play basketball? This isn’t really tech related but I’m really interested in transportation as it pertains to cities. The Segway people got a ton of money from everyone and it didn’t work out; the internal combustion engine is being forced out of cities -- there are all these interesting dynamics, so the future of urban transportation is something I’m keeping my eye on. Some guy just passed me on a motorized skateboard and I think, huh, why don’t more people use that? How could different modes of transport change the way we interact with one another, change our cultural patterns, and shift costs, etc.?

Q: What’s your favorite way to be pitched?

JCT: Short pitches are best. The way we do it is helpful because instead of going back and forth over email over the course of two days, we can have a more casual conversation, get follow up details, etc. I’m not against email, though I don’t love it generally. I’d be embarrassed to show how many unread emails are in my Gmail…it’s a lot. You get so much shit in your inbox all the time! I selfishly choose the pitches I’m going to enjoy writing about. If I’m enjoying reading and writing about it, then chances are the reader will too. If I don’t see what’s cool about it, then the story won’t do well, and there’s a better use of my time than what could be essentially PR for a product or service.

Q: For people without the benefit of having a casual conversation with you, what’s the best way to reach you?

JCT: I’ve had a few things come through Twitter, which is neat. Social media also works as an aggregator – if I see a tweet, sometimes I’ll check out the story. I’ve had times where I see something cool on Instagram or Twitter and I’ll reach out to them to find out more about a startup or new idea.

Q: Do subject lines matter for those people stuck in your inbox?

JCT: Yes, it does. A tip – the way we do headlines is pretty smart. The behavioral science suggests you want to be conversational, but you also want to share the biggest part of the story. Essentially, don’t bury the lead. So look at some of our headlines, e.g. why X doesn’t do what you think it does. If you can sell it in a headline, you’ll get a click on a story. The same goes for email subject lines. It matters.

AI Companies Not Blowing Hot Air

The new mobile. Our final invention. The new electricity. Artificial intelligence has been hailed as all of the above. As an industry, it was the recipient of more than $5 billion VC dollars in 2016 and is now the noun in tech juggernauts’ newest blank-first strategies (think “mobile first,” “social first,” etc.). Much editorial space and time has been spent pondering whether AI is a fad in the same way the aforementioned trends in tech were – will it sputter out and give way to some more extraordinary force in two years’ time, or is it truly the revolution it purports to be?

Frankly, there is a lot of nonsense out there that leads with “AI” to validate itself while solving exactly zero problems and innovating on precisely nothing. But there are also some pretty spectacular companies deftly using artificial intelligence to take on the most challenging issues facing humanity. So whether AI will make it to the 2020’s – whether its pioneers will hang on hallowed walls next to Galileo, Newton and Einstein – we’ll leave up to you. Instead, we want to take a few moments to shout out a few organizations doing arguably the coolest work we’ve seen and using clever forms of artificial intelligence (machine learning, deep learning, etc.) to do it. For now, we think this conversation is a better use of our time.

Check them out and let us know who we’re missing!

AI Organizations Solving Big Problems

Descartes Labs – applies machine learning to satellite imagery and is helping to prevent global food shortages via agriculture applications.

Fracta – uses big data and AI to help utilities solve the $1 trillion water infrastructure problem facing the United States.

Grail – early stage cancer detection that draws on clinical science, bioinformatics, deep learning and engineering.

OpenAI – a non-profit artificial intelligence research company with the mission to build safe AI, and ensure its benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible.

Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science – conducted a study drawing on satellite imagery and machine learning, using night-lighting as an indicator of socioeconomic status worldwide. The aim was for this metric to support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating global poverty.

2016: Worst Year Ever. Or was it?

Let’s be honest: 2016 was wretched. The devastating combination of violence (the Orlando shooting, bombings in Turkey, race-related police violence ad nauseam), global politics (Brexit, the clown show that was the US presidential election) and deaths of iconic public figures (Prince, David Bowie, Muhammed Ali, George Michael and yesterday’s passing of Carrie Fisher) has us counting the seconds until this nightmarish trip around the sun finally concludes. 2017, though you come laden with baggage of the heaviest sort, you could not come soon enough. We’re exhausted and in need of the symbolic rejuvenation the New Year brings.

This exhaustion from the onslaught of negative world events is undeniably compounded by the internet. As Jia Tolentino points out in her astute New Yorker reflection piece, “there’s…no guidebook for how to expand your heart to accommodate these simultaneous scales of human experience.” The more connected the world becomes and more exposure we have to suffering and joy, the less equipped we are to really process what we’re seeing and empathize appropriately. The quick take: the internet is hard and it made 2016 feel harder.

But rather than run screaming into the New Year, let’s take a beat to reflect on the good news that the last 360 days brought us (yes, it brought us some). It’s our nature to remember pain and negativity disproportionately, and there’s merit in working against that. Before all events of 2016 are subsumed into the shitstorm of doom it will be remembered as, here’s a shortlist of five not-terrible things that happened in 2016.

  1. A good year for public health: major progress was announced in global health efforts, most notably, the first Ebola vaccine was found to be nearly 100% effective in a large clinical trial, raising hopes for halting the next major outbreak.
  2. We called a spade a spade: the media was called out hard during the Summer Olympics for explicitly sexist coverage of female competitions, like gymnastics. We call that progress (Simone Biles for the win).
  3. Paris, je t’aime: the Paris Climate agreement – a pact focused on cutting down use of fossil fuels to slow global warming – was signed by nearly 200 countries and kicked into effect in November. Its efficacy remains to be seen, but the scale of international cooperation is quite a feat.
  4. Less global hunger: world hunger dipped to its lowest point in a quarter century according to the New York Times.
  5. In the holiday spirit: Americans gave more to charity than ever before and global trends in giving reflected a similar rise. It’s profoundly heartening to see that there’s an actionable response to our increased exposure to the world (and its suffering).

So, although it felt like the roughest year yet, humanity’s good side made it into the news a substantial amount in 2016. It appears that all hope is in fact not lost (see here for a longer laundry list of proof).


Here’s to a happier and healthy 2017.


Reflections on the DDoS Attack That Broke the Internet

Whether or not you knew what kind of security breach was going down behind the scenes on October 21, if you were on the internet that day, it likely impacted you. The DDoS attack, or “distributed denial of service,” is now said to be the largest of its kind in history.

So what actually happened? A malware program called Mirai gave hackers access to hundreds of thousands of internet connected devices. These devices were used to marshal a huge amount of artificial traffic that targeted popular sites like Amazon, Netflix, Spotify, Twitter, PayPal, etc. The onslaught of “fake” traffic overwhelmed the sites, making them unable to serve legitimate traffic – this explains the twenty frustrated minutes you may have spent refreshing Netflix as you pined for the next episode of Narcos.

Aside from inhibiting TV binges across North America, the attack highlighted some important things:

  1. It’s time for some real talk around security for IoT. The devices targeted in this attack were internet-connected products like webcams, DVRs, video conferencing systems, etc. These IoT products typically have weak passwords and limited security which makes them especially vulnerable to these kinds of attacks. Up until now, the security risks of our hyper-connected world have been largely unknown, and based on a pretty hefty amount of speculation. This attack lays bare the risks of having a growing number of unsecured points of connection in homes and offices around the world, and how easy it is for them to be exploited.
  1. Secure-by-design needs to happen. The Chinese manufacturer of thousands of webcams used in the attack issued a recall of their product shortly after, and other companies involved in the breach are taking heat as well. Once again, the security community is calling on IoT manufacturers to build security directly into devices, largely eliminating the risk of attacks like this one.
  1. We’re all responsible. While the onus of secure-by-design falls partly on companies building IoT devices, the responsibility of keeping ourselves safe falls on us as individuals. The world is becoming more connected whether we like it or not, and that opens our homes and offices up to increased vulnerability, whether through our PC webcams or connected coffeemakers. While it’s difficult to anticipate when or by what route cybersecurity attacks will happen, we know that the fallout from events like last week’s DDoS fiasco costs much more than proactively investing in security to prevent it. This is a lesson we can apply on an individual level.

So think about using two-step verification for your Nest cam, don’t use a throw away password like 12345 on your coffeemaker and pay attention to the devices you use that might not have any security built into them – as the IoT ecosystem continues to evolve, it’s on all of us to pay attention to the new risks that follow.

Why I Appreciate John Greathouse’s Mansplaining (or #womenintech)

“Professional women, are you properly curating your online first impression?” starts John Greathouse’s Wall Street Journal post urging women to hide their gender when raising rounds of funding, searching for jobs and generally seeking success in the professional world.

Oh, John.

You’ve seen the piece so there’s no need to synopsize here, but in short: while doling out advice for how to better mask our lady-ness in the workplace, Greathouse acknowledges the lack of diversity in tech and the biases that perpetuate it, and still suggests the answer is for diverse parties to become less diverse.

While I’m sure Greathouse just meant to make a statement, I doubt he expected the enormous, negative response he received. It spawned editorials, tweetstorms and watercooler conversations so vehement that he issued a public apology admitting the piece was “dreadful.” The responses boiled down to this: it’s not the role of the minority to make the majority feel more comfortable (or in more political terms: it’s not the role of the oppressed to make the oppressor comfortable). In an ideal world, the responsibility is on those in power to recognize their biases and push for change.

But here’s the thing: without these blatant examples of the way gender bias works in professional spaces (and really, the way all bias works), we have no way to address and then improve the situation. If it’s not totally explicit, as in the case of Greathouse’s post, it’s that much harder to start these conversations and actually talk about the mechanisms that lead to the crazy lack of diversity in tech, for example.

So let’s talk about it (it being women in the workforce + tech). Actually, we’re busy being #ladybosses. Let’s just look at some quick stats, courtesy of Bloomberg, McKinsey and NCWIT:

  • For every 100 women participating in the labor force there are
    • 119 men
    • 125 men in professional and technical jobs
    • And most strikingly 152 men in leadership and managerial roles
  • Regarding tech: in 2015, women made up more than half of the U.S. professional workforce, but only a quarter of professional computing jobs
    • Of those in computing jobs, 3 percent were African American women, 5 percent were Asian women and just 1 percent were Hispanic women
  • And for every 37 minutes men spend doing unpaid work, women spend 60 minutes

The kicker? We’re only hurting ourselves by turning a blind eye to this data – addressing gender inequality in the U.S. would make us richer as a country. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, full gender equality could add up to $4.3 trillion in annual GDP by 2025.

So what do we do? One easy answer is: do the opposite of what Greathouse advised and make ourselves more visible in the workplace. Don’t hide, don’t shrink, don’t shift toward a more gender-neutral profile. The more visible our “diverse” tones, mannerisms and general presence become at work, the more normalized they will be. And normalization means our simply being professional women is no longer a distraction or an obstacle to success and we can thrive based on our work product and ideas. Sounds nice, right?

Another solution? Keep putting the heat on unproductive comments like Greathouse’s so that the burden of change doesn’t rest wholly on ladies’ shoulders. This is something we should discuss openly and often, and for bringing it up, I appreciate you, John.


We Were Bound for Mexico…


I’ve seen my coworkers every day for almost two weeks. That might sound terrible to some of you (the horror of seeing your workmates’ mugs for a 14 days straight!!) but I’m loving it. The reason? WorkAway.

Arguably one of the coolest benefits offered to ICLabs employees, the annual WorkAway is a week-long retreat the whole company takes together. We pack up our SF-based office temporarily (polycoms, laptops and all) and jet off to a fabulous beach destination to work, bond and contemplate the direction of the company together. This year we spent Sunday to Sunday in a sprawling house on the beach on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. Needless to say, it was a great time. More importantly though, it was a productive week.

The idea of WorkAway is not just that we continue our client work in a beautiful place (we do), but that we spend time together in space that isn’t defined as purely professional. The combination of beach scenery, sun and nightly margaritas yields impressive bonding and, like it or not, we all come back to SF with a better understanding of our coworkers and the core values of our company (and if all goes according to plan, a nice bronze).

The benefits of WorkAway are not all Kumbaya and intangible, though – in fact, quite the opposite. Some of the most revelatory ideas about how to improve company practice or hit a long-term business metric were hatched over Coronas in the infinity pool. And this investment in a strongly integrated team means we’re more productive and resilient as a company in the long-run. We communicate better, faster and more openly, which leads to more creative ideas for our clients and more enthusiasm to execute on those ideas together. We’re better equipped to deal with challenges and have more patience functioning as a team, which means as an organism, we’re able to bend not break under pressure. And in terms of company visibility, it doesn’t hurt recruiting efforts to be able to offer a weeklong trip to a tropical paradise as part of the deal.

In short, investing in company retreats are worth it and mutually beneficial to all involved. We had a great time, churned out excellent work in Mexico and grew as a team. As we head into the weekend, I’m surprisingly sad I won’t be seeing my colleagues for a few days, but I have my favorite #mxwa2016 memories to get me through until Monday including:

  • dancing with a mariachi band over surf ‘n turf
  • a team-wide cocktail competition for the hearts and palettes of the staff
  • riding banana boats & parasailing in the Bay of Banderas
  • pitching press on the patio at 6am against a Mexican sunrise
  • brainstorming the future of the company to put our money where our hearts are