My name is Spencer Lazar. I am a venture capitalist at General Catalyst. I grew up with the internet, spend my life thinking about how it can make our lives better, and work with world-class entrepreneurs to affect that chanage. NYC is my home. This is my blog.


Computer Programming as a Foreign Language

I went to The Laboratory School on the South Side of Chicago in Hyde Park.  It is a progressive K-12 institution established by John Dewey as a forum for University of Chicago researchers to explore innovative teaching techniques.  Grades K-2 involved puzzles, playing, gym class, and homeroom.  But come 3rd grade, kids were faced with two meaningful choices that combined would account for more than 25% of their classroom time: music and language.  While I have serious doubts about the value of learning to play the clarinet in a school band, I am a fan of mandating that students spend time exploring creative outlets.  The decision that pains me was my commitment to study French.

When I was selecting my language, I remember my father telling me that the most useful language one could learn was Latin.  Latin is the foundation of the most dominant Western tongues. It is extremely helpful in fields such as medicine and chemistry, where Latin roots help us categorize and ultimately understand the taxonomy of the natural elements around us.  To an 8 year old, Latin always seemed a funny choice though. While the language seemed everywhere, it was at once nowhere - as it is really no longer spoken.  Alas, my school did not offer Latin, so I chose the next best language - what I thought to be "the language of love" - French.  20 years later and many fantastic teachers & classes along the way, I consider it a huge waste of time.  Sure slipping a few words to a cab driver or business contact every now and again puts a smile on my face, but all in all, my having learned to speak French (as I assume would have been the case had I learned German, Spanish, or Italian or really any other Romance language) has added very little value to my life or those of others.  The Lab School is a great institution.  But, I think it, and frankly most general preparatory schools should enjoy a moment of introspection and consider the following proposal for reforming their approach to language arts in the 21st century: offer computer science as a foreign language.

Everyone should have a basic understanding of code.  When I was growing up, laptops did not exist.   Monitors were rarely capable of displaying more than 256 colors.  Number Munchers ruled all.  More kids knew Latin than knew how to read or write html.  Today, we cannot escape 1s & 0s.  In what Jim Robinson IV at RRE calls the great horizontalization, information technology is no longer an industry unto itself, but a necessary part of the DNA of every vertical on the planet.  Like other foreign languages, computer science follows a set of logical and linguistic properties.  It can be used as both a medium for communication and an outlet for creative expression.  Like Latin, it remains unspoken.  Unlike Latin, its centrality to our daily lives is growing - at a seemingly non-linear rate.  

My desire, however, is not to impose my own set of values on others.  For those language lovers out there, please continue to pursue your passions.  My proposal is specifically to give parents & students the option to count courses taken in computer science for a foreign language credit.  Students should be enabled and to some degree encouraged to pursue coursework that renders them relevant to the challenges and opportunities of the world that they will grow up to face.  They should not have to cram web design into an after-school activity or take an inappropriately large course load.  They should not only get curricular credit, but were should make it easier for them to do so.  My gut tells me that this is the type of progressive experiment that Dewey would have been in favor of. With all due respect to each of my adored French teachers, if I could turn back the hands of time, I would have pursued computer science given the option - they might even have too.

I will be contacting the Lab School about this issue.  If you agree, ping your alma mater.  I would be curious to hear what kind of experiences people have in challenging the status quo.


Seeding a Network Effect: iPhone 4 Product Marketing

This week, with the launch of Apple's iPhone 4, we are going to witness something that only successfully occurs once or twice in a generation: the seeding of a network technology. While I bounce back and forth between which of the device's many upgrades (Retina Display, antenna technology, precision of design, HD Video Recording/Editing, Method of Multi-Tasking...) impresses me most, it is clear that the flagship feature is Facetime - video chat in the palm of your hand. While Streve Jobs has been at the helm of many of the most important technological revolutions of the past 30 years (from PCs to Pixar & iPods to iPads), we have never seen the master marketer attempt a launch quite like this.

A network technology (or a technology that scales via a "network effect") is one in which the value of the product to each incremental user grows exponentially in proportion to the number of users who have already adopted the technology. Networks are always predicated on some level of user communication or interaction.

One of my most vivid memories of such a technology transition dates back to 1995, when my grandmother saw something exciting in Hammacher Schlemmer. It was one of the first home video chatting technologies. This was pre-consumer web. A lunchbox-sized video camera was mounted on top of a small television. The audio for the calls was routed through our landline phone. The video was routed through our TV cable. To coordinate a chat, you called each other to schedule, set the TV to channel 3, and with a prayer, a live feed was up and running. That holiday season, she bought a set-up for our family, my mom's bother's family, and herself. The gift was intended to help us stay in touch. But, at the end of the day, it was just too hard to communicate. The universe of people we could chat with was extremely limited. Even if a connection was made, if you moved while on camera, the system would almost surely crash. We used it thrice.

Now take an example of a successful launch. Remember the early days on Facebook? It was not all that fun, was it? You had no photos from friends to look at. No articles posted by classmates to read. No goofy videos of roommates doing stupid things. Nothing juicy. As your friends started to join and the system opened up beyond local colleges & universities, however, things got more interesting. You were able to catch up with long lost friends from sleep-away camp; meet & learn about people that would become future colleagues, and let your grandparents keep up with your misadventures. While the sociological dynamics with each technology are different, similar user acquisition & interaction dynamics exist with the telegraph, telephone, fax machine, email, instant messaging, Twitter, Foursqaure, and even Chatroulette: the more incremental users on the platform, the more benefit I stand to gain from the service. And, they have to be easy to use.

One June 24th, a lucky few hundred thousand people will buy iPhone 4's and be some of the first in the Western world to join Apple's new implicit mobile video social network. Given the level of precision that Jobs & Co. employ in every area of product messaging, it feels safe to assume that every part of the product role out was a conscious decision and scrutinize them accordingly. I will focus on four.

  • Penis Envy (or "I've Got Something You Don't Have"): Facetime will begin as an exclusively iPhone 4 to iPhone 4 technology. For a network technology, some might see this as a surprising limitation. They will begin by capping the number of people benefiting from their powerful feature set. One has to imagine that technology was not the limitation to letting users make video calls to other video camera-enabled devices (even if only to Apple's very own iChat, which works on both laptop and desktop devices). This would have been a tremendous benefit to users in the feature's early days, helping them avoid the techno-isolation I experienced via Hammacher Schlemmer. Given how good Apple is at releasing products of any kind, Jobs has to be betting that enough people will be purchasing the device to begin with that whatever limitations this places on their network's traction will be more than made up for by the creation of the public perception that the only way one can participate in such an experience is by purchasing an iPhone 4. In a somewhat similar way, RIM has done the same things with their internal BBM service on Blackberry devices - a huge marketing success for them in the teenage demographic, where kids can send messages to one another all day long without it showing up on their parent's cell phone bill.

  • Reliability. Facetime will begin as an exclusively WiFi-based experience. While the real "Jetsons Experience," as Jobs calls it, is the ability to truly video conference on the go, the company has learned from its experience with AT&T. As in the case of the Hammer Schlemmer device, if the service quickly earns a reputation for poor video call quality, consumers will dismiss the technology as a novelty feature. Jobs has also learned from the failure of AppleTV. After a weak inital product launch into a new category, it is tough to get a second chance with consumers. 3G conferencing will come in a matter of time.

  • Bundling. Facetime is one of "100" new features on the new iPhone and the last of 9 specifically called out at the lastest Apple marketing event. This is an important hedge for Jobs & Co. They know that each feature will not resonate with each consumer. Some will buy the device only for the retina display. Some will think of it as a camcorder and a substitute for a device like a Flip. Some will buy it for Facetime. No matter the purchasing intent, Apple's goal is to get the iPhone 4 in as many hands as possible. Buy selling these and each of the many other features, they are implicitly telling all of us that no matter who we are, the iPhone 4 has something that we will love. From the network's perspective this is hugely helpful. Anyone who has an iPhone 4 will be another node, and each node increases the value of the network to that next user manyfold.

  • Openness. In the coming months, Facetime will open source its underlying architectural protocols to the developer community. While the details of this decisions still need to be fleshed out over time, it is clear that Apple would like to allow its mobile video-enabled devices to communicate with as many other devices as possible (mobile, laptop, desktop, and otherwise). Contrary to my Hammacher Schlemmer experience, this is intended to give each user as many instant benefits from purchasing their product as possible. If I am a child in a family of other iPhone 4s, openness might not matter. As soon as I fire up my device for the first time, Facetime will work. But for heterogenous environments, which the broader world is, this will become key. The more instant satisfaction that my network delivers, the more I am likely to use it. The more I use it, the more benefit I will be delivering to each of the other nodes in the network by extension.

While Jobs is a prosthelytizer of simplicity, he did explicitly leave something out that I believe will be important over time: a video conferencing buddy list. Leaving out this functionality at launch makes sense. If you opened your buddy list on June 25th or even December 25th, you might not see many people on it. Like a guest list to a party without no one on it, Facetime chatting might not be worth considering. Over time, however, as the feature's adoption crosses some critical mass, a simple buddy list, even something as small as a video icon next to corresponding names on a contact list, would go a long way. Seeing a rich "attendance" list will compel widespread attendance.

The goal of a product developer in the launch of a new network technology needs to be to both get as many useful connections on the system as fast as possible and to lower the barriers to interaction as much as possible. Apple appears to have something magical here. Very much looking forward to seing how things unfold.

UPDATE: Very interesting to see that Apple has already begun to struggle with the infancy of its Facetime network.  They launched 1-888-FACETIME to give people without a critical mass of iPhone 4 contacts the ability to chat with an Apple representative instead (8:00 AM - 8:00 PM CDT).  I wonder how long it will take them to make the service interoperable with other video chatting clients. 


The Atomic Challenge in Next Generation Education 

One of my areas of deep personal passion as a technology enthusiast is education.  I cannot remember who first introduced me to the following anecdote, but it serves to capture the "potential energy" of the space.  If you walk into most classrooms today even at the university level, they look strikingly similar to the way that they would have looked 50 to 100 years ago.  Blackboards, chalk, pencils, notebooks, and - ok - calculators.  This is unlike almost any other industry today.  Think of walking into a commodities exchange or a hospital along a similar timescale.  With the information revolution finding its way into everything from our cars to our kitchens, the lack of relative progress in learning & instruction boggles the mind.

I am proud to have led and been a part of organizations that have spearheaded investments in the sector over the past few years.  For each of the businesses that I have backed, there are hundreds of others that I have looked at - some of which I wish that I had.  The most important transformation that I have witnessed is the migration of pedagogy from a teacher- to a learner-centric model.  Just as the transition of the album- to track-based economies of the music industry allowed consumers to purchase more of only what the want and web services like Twitter, Instapaper, and Boxee give their users the ability to set their own table of contents to the stories that they want to follow, students now have more power than ever before.  

Education for hundreds of years was a market that functioned under local monopolies.  If I wanted to go to college in the pre-plane/train era as a Chicago-an, only the most wealthy of families could afford to send me somewhere beyond Ann Arbor, MI or Champagne, IL.  Now international learners represent a non-trivial proportion of many domestic student bodies.  When combined with the amazing economics of software & the internet, working parents can take supplementary MBA classes late at night or early in the morning from the University of Phoenix, and a child can take chinese lessons from Rosetta Stone if their school does not offer it.   These newer models challenge local monopolies by empowering individuals with tools to achieve a better temporal & geographic fit for their needs.  This is where we stand today.  A working student growing up in the Bronx might just as easily encounter their next door neighbor in an early morning GMAT test prep course as a Indian accountant burning the midnight oil.

The learners of today, however, demand more.  In an era where the music streams of Pandora adapt to each listeners love of lyrics and temperament toward tempo, educational technology must find ways of teaching the same routine concepts math, science, language arts, and social science in ways that cater to the specific learning needs & preferences of the individual.  Some students learn geometry better through equations.  Others grasp it better through graphs.  Some students learn language better via video visualizations.  Others keep up better when forced to spend time conversing in groups.  The only way that the educational system can scalably be more finely tuned to optimize pedagogical concepts at the learner level is through technology - an exciting opportunity for the entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This is fundamentally a data problem, one I call the Atomic Challenge in Next Generation Education.  The only way to "optimize" is to know by student what techniques and content are working and what aren't.  The only way to do that is to tag each and every question posed by difficulty, format (graph-based, video, algorithmic...), time of delivery, and really any other variable that could possibly effect an individual's performance.  Next, a level of machine learning is needed to build a customized content feed according to the formats that maximize that individual's chances of success.  

Atomic data-based learning is going to be the way of the world because the failures of the system - at least in the US - demand it.  With the staggering cost of healthcare and impending bankruptcy of the Social Security Trust, their economy must grow fast enough over the long-run to afford to pay both principal & interest to reduce the national debt.  Super-charged & sustainable growth requires heightened levels of productivity.  Since the 1980s, however, the US has experienced half the productivity increase as in the previous two decades.   The principle way in which we boost productivity is by fixing our falling educational system.  In order to improve, we need to understand what is working.  And, in order to understand what is working, we need data.  The Duncan / Obama $4.35B "Race to the Top" program embraces "Standards & Assessments"-based initiatives as a key area of focus.  Only by accepting that reality will projects be eligible for state financing.  When teachers fail to improve the performance of their students and cannot get our young to basic levels of literacy, we need to know.  

Along with the district & state bureaucracy that supports them, institutions of instruction have shifted to an Age of Compliance.  Accountability will soon pervade schools the way it governs our hospitals and courts.

If we take for a given that today's relatively data-lite schools will some day be guided by 1s and 0s, what sorts of technologies exist to enable transition?  How can we think about building educational content in the absence of a common set of pedagogical formatting standards?  Is it worth it, or should we wait?  These are questions that keep me up at night.  If you have ideas, drop me a line.


Women in Tech: The Real Problem & Possible Solutions

Over the course of the past few weeks, the long-standing hot button topic of the 'gender gap' in the technology sector has resurfaced as arena for deep social commentary - culminating in a full-page spread by Sharon G. Hadary in the Wall Street Journal entitled "What's Holding Back Women Entrepreneurs?"  The gender gap represents the discrepancy between the proportion of women to men within the field relative to that same ratio in the broader population (~1:1).  Leading entrepreneurial academic and weekly Techcrunch contributor, Vivek Wadhwa cites: "Women start only around 3% of the nation’s tech firms; they are almost absent in high-level technology positions; they contribute to fewer than 5% of all IT patents and 1.2% of open-source software; and the proportion of women-led companies receiving venture capital has dropped dramatically over the past few years. This is despite the fact that girls now match boys in mathematical achievement; 140 women enroll in higher education for every 100 men; and women earn more than 50 percent of all bachelor’s and master’s degrees and nearly 50 percent of all doctorates."  The 'gap' is a problem, some would argue, because although women are as capable as men, the two genders do not sit in parity, reflecting not only a level of systemic discrimination that is unhealthy, but one in need of immediate intervention.

It is out of my absolute respect for women in business that that I wholeheartedly disagree.  I do not debate the demographic fact that technology has historically been an industry lopsided heavily towards the Y chromosome.  I am also no proponent of active discrimination or misogynism - as has been reported in the past.  Women, as well any any other relative minority in the tech world and beyond, should be judged by their qualifications and given an equal shot at opportunity.  

What I take issue with is the notion that just because discriminatory experiences have occurred against a minority group, that somehow society should expect and desire a world in which women and men are equally or even more proportionately represented in the tech arena.  Imposing some normative view on demographic equilibria is wrong.  Telling women that there should be more of them running their own companies, raising capital for their own businesses, and engineering interesting products is just as bad as telling them that they should be in the garden planting flowers or picking the kids up from school.  Women should be encouraged to do what they want to do.  Some women choose to start companies.  Some choose to treat patients.  Some choose to teach algebra.  Social structures are changing, and despite the snail-like pace, to the extent that they are underrepresented relative to their own volition, the numbers are sure to swing back toward female participation/leadership in technology in the coming years.  

The question then becomes how we enable those women who may someday want to play a role in the technology & business worlds to fulfill their dreams.  I believe that this question can even be expanded more broadly to apply to young aspiring mind of both genders.  So what are our options?

Polling a few prominent female technologists, Viviek Wadhwa argues that as a population, "parents need to teach their daughters that they can help change the world by becoming engineers and scientists, and successful women need to provide them with encouragement and coaching."  This is a respectable suggestion, but one that is very hard to actively implement formally as family values are often older and more impenetrable than the hills.  My friend Elizabeth Stark suggests that we (both men and women) should focus specifically on creating more of a culture of mentorship, such that feeble minds have the support infrastructure to make mistakes, take chances, and challenge societal norms.  I like this idea because I believe that it is relatively easier to implement.  For women in particular, I have been very pleased to see local events such as Girls in Tech in NYC & DLD Women in Germany bring together such prominent individuals who can serve as role models and coaches for the next generation of hungry minds.  Even Fast Company's Most Influential Women in Technology serves to direct talent toward individuals who might be able to help them get where they want to be.

In my mind, parenting and mentoring initiatives are not scalable enough.  There needs to be a more institutional way of getting people closer to "what they want to be when they grow-up."  I would target schools.  Middle schools and high schools are a possibility down the road, but I would focus today on those most capable of near term change: colleges & universities, who year after year shuttle our young directly into the working world.  Career counseling and on-campus recruiting efforts are abhorrent.  They feed students into white collar jobs through formal recruiting cycles that find a way to woo candidates into jobs that they do not even understand.  As a 20 or 21 year old, most jobs that pay $50K+ sound amazing and as friends throw frisbees and sip cold ones on the main green, it is easy to loose track of what you are even applying for.

Having been through the system a few years back, my experience was that if you are not going to med school or law school, 'campus recruiting' is essentially an on-ramp to consulting, trading, or investment banking.  While the dynamics may have changed as a result of the financial crisis, I always found it sad that many of the best and the brightness technical minds (both male and female) got siphoned off to architect trading systems for Goldman Sachs or sweat under heat lamps while building complex leveraged buyout models for JP Morgan.  Some population of graduating seniors with their heads on their shoulders actually knowing want to go into finance - and they should.  But before anyone is sentenced to a cubicle confined serfdom, they should know the options that they really have.  

Entrepreneurship - and the technology world more broadly - is a vast expanse of opportunity that continues to be under-encouraged by the pedagogical support community.  My recommendation would be to create an "Innovation Track" to supplement Finance, Consulting, Medicine, and Law.  Universities have the ability to leverage their deep networks of alumni that have done interesting things to help breed more success.  While it would certainly be hard work, my hypothesis is that it would pay off in the the long-run from an endowment perspective as happy people fulfilling their dreams are far more likely to support the infrastructure that allowed it to happen.  This is a gender agnostic proposition, but one that I think would very much work out for eager and qualified women everywhere. 


Kindle Post-Mortem

My name is Spencer Lazar, and I own a Kindle.  These days, it is hard to write those words without sounding apologetic.  I was not even an early adopter of the technology.  About six months ago, out of a desire to pack lean in my move to Europe, the Kindle was a nice (and at the time, other than iPhone books as apps, the only) way to comfortably carry the world's books with me wherever I would go.  But with my iPad now on the way and a wall mount now installed to showcase legacy technology, I thought that I would offer an epilogue highlighting the single worst and best UX features of the Kindle 2.0.

Negative: The Kindle has buttons.  This was not the device's fatal flaw, but it was the paradigm into which the form factor was born.  Unlike the touch-screen multi-purpose devices that would come to being, the Kindle was meant for reading.  As such, every design element must be evaluated against this backdrop.  Every button must exist to make this process easier.  The keyboard was useful for looking up words and making little notes every now and again.  Unlike the buttons on cell phones positioned incestuously close together, the Kindle had a more comfortably spaced nearly full keypad.  Sure the mini-joystick-like navigation interface had a lot to be desired.  But, Amazon's greatest blunder was leaving out the most important button: Store (a.k.a. BUY! BUY! BUY!).  

As the reader, I want to be able to access new books as quickly as possible.  I do not want to do any workflow guessing.  I do not want to toggle through menus.  Like the readily visible AppStore and iTunes store on the iPhone, I want an obvious and frictionless path the purchase.  

So too does Amazon! This is what is so surprising.  For a $55B company with likely scores of people focused on optimizing customer conversion in their ecommerce business, this was an unexpected oversight which revealed how far behind in their thinking Bezos and team really were.

Positive: Taking the aggregation and indexing of massive amounts of digital media as a given feature of any successful e-reader, the most unique feature of Amazon's Kindle product strategy was their embrace of digital media content as a data vs. as a native app.  In purchasing a Kindle version of a book, I am able to access content on any device onto which Amazon has a connection (iPhone, Laptop, Kindle, Blackberry, iPad...).  It gives users ownership of the reading experience, rather than a form factor.  To make content portability work, however, Amazon takes things one step farther.  They sync your place from medium to medium, allowing you to pick-up on your iPhone where you left off on your Kindle - automatically.  

There were a number of other positive & negative features of the device.  If you had overwhelmingly different impressions, I'd love to hear your thoughts.