The NewCo Daily: Today’s Top Stories
It’s true that the technology used by the U.S. air traffic control system is antiquated. In fact, the system’s repeated failed efforts to modernize have become the gold standard of epic tech failures, the Hundred Years’ War of the digital age. Still, that record doesn’t give an automatic free pass to any upgrade plan, and President Trump’s new proposal to privatize the system raises some tough questions.
Trump wants to hand the entire system over to a private company, which theoretically will be able to solve the problems that have bedeviled the current regime. But, but, but: The new company will still have to meet FAA standards, so it’s not as if it would get some magical anti-red-tape powers (even if we wanted such a thing in the realm of air safety). The hope is that private industry has the knowhow to pull off a massive tech upgrade that the public sector has fumbled. The reality is that big airlines like British Airways, Delta, and Southwest keep experiencing massive software failures themselves.
“Privatization would put the industry’s cost-cutters and jerry-riggers in charge,” writes David Dayen (The Fiscal Times). The Trump plan gives extra sway to the big airlines at the expense of general aviation (all the other, smaller planes that share the sky with your jetliner) — which sounds great until you realize that general aviation accounts for 26 times more flights than commercial airlines.
Modernizing air traffic control is a wicked problem not only because the technology needs to be upgraded with no downtime but also because solving it requires balancing so many different interests. The Trump plan doesn’t look like a magic bullet. It just transfers public assets to private interests in a fire sale and hands the big airlines a free pass to restructure the system as they wish.
Uber Fires 20 As Harassment Inquiries Gather Steam
It’s too early to say whether Uber has turned a corner in dealing with the issues of harassment and sexism in the workplace that have consumed the company for months. But if there is going to be real change at Uber, it will manifest itself in part through moves like those the company revealed this week: It told staff that it has fired 20 workers, including senior managers, as the result of a legal investigation (Bloomberg).
Law firm Perkins Coie looked at 215 employee complaints, and the inquiry’s result to date include “20 terminated. 31 in training. 7 final warnings. 57 still under review,” Uber reported on Twitter.
Uber’s practices are in the spotlight thanks to several converging stories, including the company’s use of a software tool that helps it evade local regulation and CEO Travis Kalanick’s squabble with an Uber driver.
Still to come is a broader report on the company’s woes from former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, new executive hires (including Apple’s Bozoma St. John), and further developments in the high-profile lawsuit brought against Uber by Alphabet/Google’s self-driving-vehicle subsidiary, Waymo. Uber is hardly done with controversy — but it looks like the company has at least begun to clean house.
When Is Over-Work Worth It?
Is the work-till-you-drop ethos of the startup world heroic or toxic? A recent debate on Twitter illuminated a divide in thinking among the investor class between work-ethic hard-liners and work/life-balance supporters (Nitasha Tiku in Wired).
Investor Blake Robbins kicked off the argument: “Not hanging with friends and family because you’re working isn’t ‘cool.’ Burning out isn’t ‘cool.’ I promise you…your competition isn’t beating you because they are working more hours than you. It’s because they are working smarter.”
“Totally false,” venture capitalist Keith Rabois responded, and the fight was joined.
The hard-work camp cites the inspirational sagas of workaholics like Elon Musk and the legendary dedication of athletic champions. Work/life balance supporters point out that the venture-capital ecosystem depends on a multitude of startup workers burning themselves out to produce a minuscule number of outsize wins for investors.
“Success without sacrifice is a myth,” according to Rabois. Yet sacrifice in startup-land typically fails to pay off. Hard work may be a virtue in its own right — a chance to gain skill, to contribute to a larger cause, and to feel good about an honest effort. But investors ought to be cautious about attributing too much of their success to hours clocked rather than timing and luck. Better to be honest: As Darius Kazemi puts it, everyone who enters the startup race is buying a lottery ticket.
Tech Philanthropists Set Out to Reboot Education
Can Silicon Valley’s engineering mindset work wonders with the U.S. educational system? That’s the premise a bevy of tech billionaires is testing out, with a wave of funding for innovative programs (Natasha Singer in The New York Times). Marc Benioff, Reed Hastings, and Mark Zuckerberg are among the high-profile philanthropists who are spreading both their wealth and their hands-on approach to grant-making.
A lot of good can come from such efforts, to be sure, but having “millions of students serving as de facto beta testers” (as Singer puts it) brings up questions, too. There are few checks and balances on these initiatives, and limited scrutiny mean that the public has less input and visibility into such projects than with more routine school programs. Some efforts end up raising suspicions that tech funding for new educational initiatives cloaks a self-interested industry agenda.
The experimental ethos rubs some educators the wrong way. As one superintendent tells Singer, the tech industry expects 9 out of 10 startups to fail, but “We don’t have the luxury of failing with people’s kids.”