Art: Portrait of General Thomas Gage, John Singleton Copley, 1768
Reality sucks right now, so let’s play pretend.
Let’s make believe that you’re the CEO of a hot startup, Slick’s.
Slick’s, as everyone knows, is the Eastern European knockoff version of an extremely popular American asynchronous chat service.
Slick’s started as a way for coworkers to collaborate, but it’s grown into an entire platform encompassing food delivery, AI-based facial recognition, and, because it’s Eastern European, sharing pirated movies for free via DMs. Slick’s also has started to branch out into hosted web servers, because why the hell not.
And, as the CEO of the company, you have your eye on a foothold in the States. So far, you have offices in New York and Miami, and you are doing field trials in those markets. If these go well, you might get Silicon Valley investors interested, and then, of course, you’ll be poised to take over America, the most important market for leading tech innovation. Then, you can buy a car with doors that open like this.
You’re doing great, but investors are getting antsy, and you need to work the US operations more aggressively. In the meantime, you’ve been hustling all year, and you need some downtime.
Sergei has some bad news
You get to the restaurant, put down your gold-encrusted iPhone, and tap impatiently on the table. “What is it, Sergei,” you ask him, adjusting your Breitling.
“There’s a problem, boss,” Sergei says, fiddling with his glasses. He’s always nervously fiddling with something, your COO. But he’s a serious man, and you can trust him. “There are reports in China of some sort of unknown pneumonia.”
You shrug. It’s none of your business. You got out of trying to enter the Chinese market years ago when the Great Firewall went down. And besides, you had really terrible dumplings on a recent business trip to Khabarovsk, and you’re still nursing a grudge (and a hangover.)
“Who cares?” you say. “Is it dangerous?”
“Doesn’t look like it,” the COO tells you. “The newspapers are saying it’s not harmful to people.”
“But we should be keeping our eye on it,” Sergei says calmly.
Annoyed, you fiddle with your phone. “You called me in for this? I’m out of pocket for the next three weeks, Sergei. Only call me if it’s life-or-death, or if the app goes down,” and you huff out of the restaurant, your espresso unfinished.
Two weeks later, you’re still on the yacht somewhere out past Santorini, when your gold-encrusted iPhone vibrates. “What is it,” you pick up with irritation.
“Chief, we need to be watching this thing,” Sergei says, his tone worried. “Is it impacting a significant part of China. They have a whole region on lockdown.”
“Well, what are they saying in the States,” you ask. You’re now worried about your investment, your offices.
“Oh, not much. The media doesn’t seem to think it’s a problem.” Sergei sends you a link.
“Ok,” you say, annoyed, a wave of paranoia washing over you. “Don’t alert the staff yet, but keep your eyes out. What are people on the ground saying?”
“I’ve talked to a couple of my guys and they’re already seeing stock markets moving,” Sergei says. “Boss, this could be big.”
“So when is this thing coming? How fast is it moving,” you say, putting down your drink.
Sergei is silent for a minute. “I think it’s time to come back to the office, chief.”
By the time you’re back, the virus has already reported several cases on the US mainland, but nothing serious, but Sergei is anxiously fiddling with his phone, checking movements. But nothing happens for weeks.
“Show me the charts,” you demand from your data science department. But they hem and haw, and show you ten different projections for how COVID - now it’s COVID- is going to go. “I should fire you and replace you all with Kafka,” you scream at them as they cower in the halls with their Powerpoint decks. But you know it’s not their fault. The market is a thick soup of inscrutability right now.
“Give me the worst scenario,” you tell your finance team, and you start to prepare lists of people who you’re going to lay off, just in case.
You debate pulling your team from the States. Or stocking up on facemasks. Or...what? You’re not sure what you should do. Should you reallocate assets so they’re not as tied up with American markets? Should you be pitching VCs more aggressively? Should you go to America to ride this thing out?
By the beginning of March, there are dozens of cases in the States. “Boss, we need to move, NOW,” Sergei says, handing you your secondary, silver-encrusted iPhone, the one with all the company financials and passwords on it.
You start to make calls, move money and staff around. But you’re not fast enough.
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen,” Lenin said, and you’ve never felt that more acutely than now.
After weeks of stalemate between the world and the virus, all of a sudden, everything happens at once. Trump closes the borders, Tom Hanks gets coronavirus in Australia, and the whole Utah Jazz basketball team is out of commission. You only have a few days to scramble, but by the Monday after all that news hits, the US is in immediate lockdown, and your delivery business folds on the third day.
That hits cascades into Slick’s other business units like a ton of bricks, and pretty soon, you’re not dreaming of a McLaren, you’re just trying to figure out how to sell your gold-encrusted iPhone to keep the servers up.
What if you had perfect information?
What would you as the CEO of Slick’s have done differently if you knew for a fact that coronavirus was going to be what it was? There was no single decision point, no trigger, no basic understanding we could use to get ahead of it. It was all vague, until, at the last second, it wasn’t.
Humans are godawful at predicting black swan events, and this was no exception. For me personally, the warning sign should have been that people started panic-buying baby formula ahead of time. But I didn’t read it as anything other than a blip in the Amazon delivery system rather than a harbinger of a global crisis. Amazon is huge and infalible.
Or, was, just like all of our public and private institutions, which seemed flawed but functioning, a notion which seems every day to have been upended more and more.
What would you have done, had you possibly known? It’s a trick question, because almost no one knew. Well, except for senators. But certainly not most CEOs - that is, the people who should actually have their ear to the ground, who are primed to watch markets, understand them, and take decisive actions.
For example, Stewart Butterfield, the CEO of the actual Slack, wrote a recent tweet thread about how he processed the events as they unfolded,
His tweets are an enormously interesting play-by-play of increasing chaos and uncertainty, indicating that he’s afraid to pump the breaks but also having to act very quickly on very sparse amounts of information and intuition.
“Monday: Fewer than 100 COVID cases reported in US, but uncertainty increasing. Over the weekend we shut down the Tokyo & Osaka offices, put travel restrictions in place and cancelled our annual Global Sales Offsite, a long-planned 800-person event.”
“Tuesday: Announced “optional WFH” at all other offices globally. A few other companies had also started or were considering starting WFH programs amid growing uncertainty. We noticed upticks in new teams signing up for Slack, especially in Japan, Korea and Italy.”
Thursday: Board meeting. Debated and approved plan for this fiscal year— hiring, budgets, targets, forecasts, etc. Got feedback on our prepared remarks and guidance for next week’s earnings call; felt confident! Didn't know it, but for most, our last meeting in the office.
Let’s assume that he’s not being entirely forthright, because Twitter is a very public and performance-based platform. But even if he’s withholding information to make him and the company look good, it still paints key decision makers in a scary light: not as smart adults operating in some closed room with all the answers, but as people who are as uncertain as the rest of us about the direction the rest of the world is going to take.
And they’re just as easily confused, scared, and operating under the same biases and lack of complete information as the rest of us.
But, it’s not hard to imagine what kind of constraints CEOs are operating under these days, because we’re all right there with them.
We are all CEOs now
The amount of coronavirus information out there available to the average citizen these days is completely overwhelming and completely contradictory.
Take, for instance, the debate over whether to wear facemasks. In many countries, it was non-negotiable. But even in Asian countries, where facemasks have a much firmer cultural grip, there was debate as leaders scrambled to tell people different stories.
In the United States, it was an entirely different story as the Surgeon General first told people not to buy facemasks, and then seemingly backtracked on that statement.
If you’re checking out the mainstream news, you probably have several points of view on what you should and shouldn’t do, where you should go, and how you should get treatment. It’s even worse if you’re on Twitter, which, although it was the first and most informative place to find out about coronavirus, is now quickly becoming a firehose of information about coronavirus blasting away at us, much of it contradictory, not verified by experts.
There is also information on Facebook, on Nextdoor, from texts you get from your family and Zoom chats with friends.
But on Twitter, everyone is desperate to make sense of things on their own terms.
There are lot of experts giving contradictory advice, and a lot of advice based on outdated information.
neil_ferguson @neil_fergusonI’m conscious that lots of people would like to see and run the pandemic simulation code we are using to model control measures against COVID-19. To explain the background - I wrote the code (thousands of lines of undocumented C) 13+ years ago to model flu pandemics...
Countries are reporting numbers much differently, and VCs are becoming experts in data science.
And above all the noise there are the world leaders, who are still shaking hands and walking around like nothing’s happening, sending further mixed signals into the fog of chaos that is our general information system.
This vacuum of competence is enough to make anyone go insane. But when you pile on top of all of that of lost wages, ruined businesses, hospitals full of doctors and nurses without protective gear, closed schools, parents having to work from home, reduced charity services, you get a general level of disruption of society unlike anything we’ve seen in recent memory.
And, don’t forget about the civets.
How do you deal?
In an environment where you can only trust yourself and those closest to you, and we’re not getting the news we need, we have all, as individuals, become the CEO now. This is how it feels: having to make risky, seat-of-your-pants decisions immediately, given different, contradictory, and disparate data (and millions and millions of dashboards), from people who are not always experts and have to themselves make snap decisions in order to inform us.
No one is helping, and the information is constantly shifting from underneath our feet.
In a way, nobody is in charge here, which means that everyone is. The adults are all asleep at the wheel while we are constantly having to evaluate and receive information. Is it safe to go grocery shopping? Can I go to the urgent care? Is it safe to go to the park? Why is everyone watching Tiger King? When will society reopen?
In the absence of leadership from our respective country officials, from international health organizations, and from our local governments, we’re forced to synthesize a bunch of social media threads to get close to a coherent picture. Confused, scared, and frustrated, people are trying to make sense of the situation in any way they possibly can. Which probably means a lot more home-grown dashboards in the future.
We’re the CEO now, but there is no COO, no driver, no Breitling watch, and no gold-encrusted iPhone. It’s just us, alone in our homes, trying to fight an entire world’s worth of information asymmetry, trying to figure out how and when this thing ends, and, I have to say, so far, the world is winning.
What I’m reading lately:
If you’ve lost your job and are on the market, shoot me the info and I’ll RT it.
Let’s use more databases
The impact on book releases
This newsletter’s M.O. is takes on tech news that are rooted in humanism, nuance, context, rationality, and a little fun. It goes out once a week to free subscribers, and once more to paid subscribers. If you like it, forward it to friends and tell them to subscribe!