One tiny detail at companies like SpaceX, Google, and Airbnb speaks volumes about their culture

Two weeks ago, in an act of somewhat desperate symbolism, Uber board member Arianna Huffington announced that the ride-sharing service was renaming its “War Room” the “Peace Room” as part of a broader effort to reform its tarnished image. Name swaps alone won’t help Uber recover from allegations of widespread discrimination and harassment. But the change does highlight the way that the names of conference rooms can reveal a lot about a company’s culture.

Sarah Brazaitis, an organizational psychologist and senior lecturer at Columbia’s Teachers College, says that themed conference room names are tied to the rise of open-office layouts. Both elements of office design aim to inspire collaboration, innovation, and happiness among employees.

“In contrast to cold, hierarchical, spaces where labor happens, village-like offices are designed to tie individuals closer to the organization’s identity,” says Brazaitis. “Companies that name their conference and meeting rooms according to themes are doing so to communicate their values and organizational culture to their employees, customers, clients, and all who enter.”

Much like kitchen cleanliness and desk decor, conference room names are an easy way to gauge a company’s priorities—and an opportunity to assess whether the organization is actually living up to its aspirations. To that end, we took the opportunity to compile a list of the conference-room names at leading companies in tech, media, and more—from Google and SpaceX to HBO, Yahoo, and Goldman Sachs.


Room themes: John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Johannes Kepler, Hermann Julius, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev

At the headquarters of Elon Musk’s space travel company, conference rooms honor people who have left major marks on the history of celestial exploration. “This includes famous astronauts such as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin. It also includes scientists who have made groundbreaking discoveries in physics, most notably Albert Einstein and Nikola Tesla,” says one SpaceX employee. As these SpaceX Facebook and Twitter posts reveal, each name plaque features a brief description of the innovator’s accomplishments.


Room themes: Birds (Canary, Elapaio, Dove, Raven, Mallard, Falcon, Chick, Ostrich, Thrasher, Penguin, Peacock, Seagull, Lapwing, Nightingale, Bluebird); San Francisco monuments and venues (City Lights, Grant Ave, Golden Gate, Fort Point, Crissy Field, Coastal Trail, Bill Graham, Civic Center, Jones St, The Warfield, Van Ness Ave)

Beyond representing the social media behemoth’s fun, creative spirit, according to one Twitter employee, “with the San Francisco names we want to pay homage to the city and culture that host our office, [and show] pride for our city. The birds are more of an homage to our logo and our beginnings as a company.”


Room themes: New York City (City Hall, Radio City, Great Lawn, Washington Heights, George Washington Bridge); seasons (Snowball, Sandcastle, Lemonade Stand, Oktoberfest, Winterfell); Easter eggs (“It’s here,” “It’s there”)

One floor of Google’s New York office features rooms named after city landmarks and boroughs, such as City Hall, Washington Heights, and Central Park’s Great Lawn. “The building is huge, so they try to come up with wayfinding hacks,” says one Google employee. “On my floor, rooms are organized from north to south, so if you have a meeting at ‘George Washington Bridge,’ you don’t have to look at a map, you just have to walk ‘uptown.’”

Similarly, their season-themed floor moves from winter, to spring, to summer, to fall, with room names like Snowball and Sand Castle. “Again, you can tell if you should be heading in the ‘winter’ direction if you’re room sounds cold (like ‘Winterfell’ or ‘It’s too cold’),” she says.

The general mentality behind the names is to be both fun and—in the spirit of Google’s tech—useful. Decorations—a bucket of kinetic sand in Sand Castle, a big print-out mojito recipe in Mojito, and cotton ball snowballs to throw at colleagues in Snowball—enhance the rooms’ playfulness, she reports.


Dare you to figure out all the themes.

Room themes: Bay Area neighborhoods (Alamo Square, Corona Heights, Golden Gate, Glen Canyon, Twin Peaks) and coffee joints (Blue Bottle, Flywheel, Andytown, Capricorn); floor 6: SF bars (Elixer, Horshoe Tavern, Dogpatch, Bustop Saloon); San Francisco writers (Ginsberg, Castenada, Brown, Kerouac, Keysey); San Francisco events (Bay to Breakers, Cherry Blossom, How Weird, Jazz Festival, Pillow Fight, SantaCon, Sketchfest); Video games (Alcatraz: Prison Escape, Blur, Call of Duty: AW, Defiance, Godzilla: Unleashed, Tony Hawk’s pro skater)

LinkedIn’s 17-floor building, originally designed by Tishman Sperry, has numerous themed floors honoring San Francisco, the city where its headquarters is based. While alphabetically ordered, the unique names can be overwhelming and hard to keep track of, says one employee.


Room themes: Portici, Italy; Smiths Lake, New South Wales; Mexican Log Cabin; Brooklyn; Shanghai; Rio; Johannesburg; Mumbai

Airbnb’s San Francisco headquarters is among the most unique offices in the world, with conference rooms and meeting spaces meticulously designed to mirror some of the site’s most impressive listings worldwide. The “culture-based listing rooms,” each named after the real-life listing’s city, “showcase Airbnb’s global expansion,” according to IDF Studio, the design company behind Airbnb’s office. (Photos of the “Portici, Italy” room, adorned with a moulded ceiling, chandelier, and Roman marble bust, along with the Mexican-style log cabin and Mumbai coffee shop can be viewed here.)


For such a creative company, one would think their room names are more unique than numbers (4-003, 4-001, 5-49)—but, as an HBO employee reports, they aren’t.


Room themes: Food (Empanada, Cold Brew, Waffle Fries, Grilled Cheese); Classic toys (Game Boy, Moon Shoes, Blockbuster, Koosh Ball); Celebrities (Jennifer Lawrence, Ryan Gosling, Amy Poehler, Bill Murray); Emojis (❤️ 💩 😉 😍); New York City (Statue of Liberty, streets where the company previously had offices)

“BuzzFeed is loud—it’s not subtle,” Chris Rushing, the company’s senior art director, told Fast Company in an article about their zany, colorful new NYC office. In addition to each floor’s uniquely-themed meeting room names, a BuzzFeed employee says its large conference rooms have massive wall decals—like OOO, SFW, NSFW, LOL, ROFL, TY, and TTYL—all of which are removable, so they can be replaced with next gen’s abbrevs.

Food Network

Room themes: Fruit (Kiwi, Apple, Strawberry, Banana)

Meeting rooms are named after fruit in the digital division of Food Network’s NYC office. “Food Network is all about accessibility to the average American,” says a former employee. “They really focus on the building blocks of food, so rather than naming the rooms after crazy dishes, they went with stable fruits.”


Room themes: Washington, DC, and American politics (K Street, New Deal, Filibuster, Recess, State of the Union)

It’s no surprise that the DC-based political news outlet has room names related to American history, Congressional procedures, and other traditions of life in the capitol.


Room themes: TV shows (All in the Family, Brooklyn 99, 30 Rock, Gossip Girl, SNL, NYPD Blue, Mad Men, Project Runway, Seinfeld, Sopranos, Weekend Update, The Daily Show); Plays (Rock of Ages, West Side Story, Wicked, Avenue Q); and Movies (American Hustle, Black Swan, Do The Right Thing, Saturday Night Fever, Devil Wears Prada, Great Gatsby, Wall Street, Watchmen)

The media giant names its rooms after TV shows, movies, and plays based and/or produced in NYC, their headquarters’ home city.

New York Times

The global news organization isn’t devoting a lot of creative resources to its conference room names, says a former employee. “The [NYC] board room is sometimes called the ‘Churchill room,’ because there’s a bust of [former British prime minister Winston Churchill] in it… and there’s the ‘Page One room,’ where [the editors] used to meet to decide on what stories go on page one,” he explains. Otherwise, conference rooms are labeled with plain old numbers and letters.


Room themes: Nature

The world’s leading tech-product review site has a fittingly logical room-naming system. The lower level is named after minerals, the ground floor after plants, the second floor after trees, the third floor after weather formations, the fourth floor after stars, and the fifth floor after galaxies. “Get it, bottom up? Very helpful for knowing which floor you should go to based on the name alone,” says a former employee.


Room themes: Subterranean Earth (Magma); Ground-level Earth (sequoia, river); Sky (Lightning, Storm, Rain, Sunset); Space (Stars, Sun)

Similar to CNET, the San Francisco office of CBS employs science-oriented logic when it comes to naming rooms, with floors themes ascending from subterranean Earth (floor 1) to space (floor 4).


Room themes: Celebrities (Beyonce, Kate Moss)

Glossier, the multi-million dollar millennial makeup company, names its NYC office rooms after famous beauty icons, including Beyonce and Kate Moss.


Room themes: Coffee (Espresso, Cortado); Eggs (Scrambled, Sunnyside)

Casper names all its rooms after breakfast foods (coffee, eggs, and a big conference room named “Continental”). The online mattress company notably identifies as a lifestyle brand, with marketing that playfully depicts at hitting the snooze button, brunching, and staying in bed. Thus, the room names are in keeping with its goal of being more than a simple furniture company, according to one employee. “But they also demonstrate a playfulness both in terms of our company image and the work culture,” she says. “There’s something hilarious about scheduling a meeting with my boss in a room called ‘Pancakes,’ and that definitely is consistent with a very laid-back office culture.”

The leading US sexual health care nonprofit

Room names: Morning After, Happy Endings, Sexual Fantasy

While the notable organization chose to remain anonymous, their room names were too delightful to pass up.

Fullstack Academy

Room themes: Coding languages (JavaScript, C++, Ruby); Famous programers and computer pioneers (Ada Lovelace, Grace Hopper, Alan Turing)

The coding bootcamp, with locations in New York City and Chicago, aims to prepare students for careers in software development. “The ABCs of our school is Always Be Coding, so having our rooms named after coding languages helps refocus students to that effect,” explains one employee. “I love that we have rooms named after famous pioneering women in programming because it reminds me that we’re striving to bridge the gender gap in the tech world,” she says. “We have a program for all women that has a deferred tuition option so women don’t pay until they get a job.”

Goldman Sachs

Room themes: Numbers

The top-tier investment firm sticks with the classic numbered system, but one employee says it’s possible to read more into it. “It makes sense because that’s what we want to be,” she says. “Making numbers — $$$.” Their competition, Bank of America, takes a slightly more creative approach, naming executive floor rooms after cities, and some meeting rooms after New York City parks.

Learn how to write for Quartz Ideas. We welcome your comments at

No comments
Jeremy WebbOne tiny detail at companies like SpaceX, Google, and Airbnb speaks volumes about their culture
read more

This simple switch in technique could save tense negotiations like Brexit

The road to Britain’s exit from the EU has been rocky. UK prime minister Theresa May has adopted a hard stance, repeatedly claiming that “no deal is better than a bad deal,” and threatening to walk away if she doesn’t get what she wants (now that negotiations have officially started, she’s started making offers.) The EU, for its part, has fixed the timetable of the negotiations around a three-step plan (paywall) and dismissed any attempt by the UK to cherry-pick the conditions of the deal.

In the world of business, this style of negotiation is called “positional bargaining.” It centers on each side taking fixed positions during deal-making. But the result is almost always a trade-off that leaves people dissatisfied. A simple switch in strategy could change that dynamic, according to William Ury, co-founder of Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation, and Roger Fisher, the Program’s former director. They advise focusing instead on preparing for talks and conducting them in a way that finds an outcome that works for all. This strategy, called ‘principled bargaining,’ is outlined in their book Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In, originally published in 1981, and revised in 2012.

This principle follows four key points:

“Separate the people from the problem”

Focusing too heavily on the individual leaves negotiations vulnerable to egos and emotions. Time would be better spent thinking about to work together towards a common goal, Ury and Fisher write.

The Brexit team is not short on personality. May made a ‘hard’ Brexit seem like the only option. After her snap election flop, this is no longer the case. Negotiators should move from seeing the negotiations as an outcome driven by May, or by one member of a much larger bloc, to one driven by diverse governments responding to various demands.

“Focus on interests, not positions”

Focusing on positions often overlooks what people really want. Instead, the negotiators should look at the underlying reasons driving those decisions, which can promote understanding and compromise.

Despite their disagreements, EU members are united by a need to represent the interests of the individuals in their countries. Cambridge University law lecturer Felix Steffek argues that this is where Brexit efforts should be concentrated —not among states. May is acting as an agent on behalf of the people while also contending with her own thoughts, and those of her party, on how Brexit should be tackled. The interests of all citizens within the EU and the UK should instead drive discussions.

“Invent options for mutual gain”

Fixed positions treat the world as black and white, and it’s anything but. Creative thinking outside the formal negotiation process produces better results.

Professor Lawrence Susskind, co-author of Negotiating on Behalf of Others, argues that the best way to deal with two opposing point of views is to brainstorm ideas. The opt-in, opt-out models of Norway and Switzerland, in which both countries remain non-EU members but still retain ties to the bloc through membership to the European Economic Area (Norway) or European Free Trade Association (both), should act as a springboard to spur ideas on the possibilities available. Susskind says the time is ripe for “exploration of a wide range of options and strategies” which could involve “multiple teams working jointly to generate good ideas on key issues, rather than a final agreement.”

“Insist on using objective criteria”

Moving away from what people are willing or unwilling to do and deferring to a fair standard that all agree on can help keep negotiations on track.

A mediator can help establish that standard during difficult discussions. The UK seems open to outside help: reaching out to the negotiation don himself, William Ury, for advice. It also just hired former New Zealand minister Crawford Falconer as its chief negotiations adviser. Falconer’s separation from European politics and expertise in global trade (he has also worked for the OECD) will hopefully allow him to offer fair and insightful judgments. Settling on what both sides consider crucial to future prosperity, like trade and the economy, will produce a result that is most pleasing to all.

A little flattery doesn’t hurt

Before and during negotiations, Ury and Fisher recommend appealing to your opposing side with gestures that acknowledge their humanity. Benjamin Franklin liked to flatter his adversaries by asking to borrow a certain book. That way, they felt like Franklin owed them. The Brexit team seem to be taking note. On Monday, Brexit talks in Brussels kicked off with the UK’s secretary of state for Brexit, David Davis, bringing a signed first edition copy (paywall) of the mountaineering classic Regards vers Annapurn. The EU’s chief negotiatior Michel Barnier, meanwhile, presented a walking stick from his home region of Savoie. Both men enjoy walking, you see.

No comments
Jeremy WebbThis simple switch in technique could save tense negotiations like Brexit
read more

Productivity hacks are built for bros

A google employee rides a scooter through Google's NY office

In our work-obsessed culture, productivity “hacks” are like a virtual currency. The internet is rife with shortcuts to help you crush it like a pro, climb the ladder, network like no one’s watching. They’re made for “doers” and self-professed “extremely busy people.

A hack might involve a stopwatch, an app, or a new habit, like “batching” similar tasks, but the point is always to get more—and more, and more—done in less time.

These hacks aren’t as innocent as they seem. Productivity hacks can also be read as cultural signposts, reminders that the clock is ticking, your output is being measured (as employees’ every move becomes increasingly quantifiable), and you’re now expected to work all the time, from anywhere. The embedded message: If you just do your work, without optimizing your operations and maximizing efficiency, you’ll be left behind as your peers advance.

And hacks prop up the myth of the meritocracy. The promise that makes them so attractive is that you can tweak your way to the top, if you just employ enough micro-strategies—except we know that simply isn’t true.

But the most irksome problem with productivity hacks: they represent cultural ideals about work that are decidedly masculine. (To be clear, I mean the social construct of masculinity that young boys begin absorbing at preschool levels, when studies show that fathers are more likely speak to them using words about achievement, like “win” and “proud.”)

This makes sense when you consider that, like gamified dating apps and other customs that have infiltrated our lives, the hacks grew out of the culture of “tech bros,” the usually young, wealthy men who work in the tech industry, worship tech’s founder heroes, and mix frat boy brutishness with a nerdy dedication to “ideating” for their startup. Hacks reflect the creeping of tech bros’ work hard, play hard ethos into most other industries, and they naturally perpetuate beliefs about the ideal employee that give higher value to masculine traits, defined in one study on gender in the IT field as: careerism, competitiveness, aggression, individualism, and self-sufficiency.

Many hacks aim to cultivate just those traits while limiting or banishing the kind of “soft” skills — empathy and collectivism—that are associated with women. For instance, the “network while you eat” hack allows a person to eat (if not avoiding the “friction” of needing to go find sustenance altogether by chugging a Soylent at one’s desk) while tending to a careerist goal. Others might see the daily lunch break as a precious window of unstructured time, or a chance to read a book or check in with friends or family.

Even when the hack recommends “unplugging,” or sleeping more, it’s strategic: Forced downtime in the service of ultra-performance when you’re back “on.” Food and vacations are recommended as tools to help you get stuff done. In an interview about productivity tips last year, GQ magazine asked Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, about the single tool that has most helped him to succeed. His answer:

“I feel like I stumbled into this solution. I met my wife in college. And marrying someone who is temperamentally different than me, and deciding early on that I needed one person in my life whom I would be completely honest with and she would tell me when I was full of shit or being an asshole—that, I think, is the most important thing.

Granted, this is not the sexism of the 1950s—where the wife’s role was to always support the husband’s career goals—but when a spouse can be named a top “tool” for success, we’ve probably reached peak productivity hack.

As it happens, we’re in the middle of a dark moment for today’s tech culture, as the implicit biases against women in the field become explicit and exposed. Stanford University’s Cecilia Ridgeway, a professor of social psychology and sociology of gender, has theorized about the mechanisms that allow gender inequality to persist despite societal counter winds, including laws that protect women at work, and rhetoric about diversity and flextime. She found that background gender frames influence behavior within companies, regardless of their organizational structure.

In a public lecture about her book, Framed By Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World, Ridgeway explained that startups in both the life and information technology sciences typically develop relatively flat structures rather than stacked hierarchies, but in the former industry, gender is less salient and women are seen as more competent. The IT sciences, on the other hand, are still strongly sex-typed in favor of men, she said, so “stronger implicit biases make it harder for women to take advantage of the flexible structure.”

One reason tech culture has a particular problem with gender may be related to its toxic habit of mythologizing genius. In 2015, a team of researchers led by Princeton University philosophy professor Sarah-Jane Leslie, found that women are “underrepresented in fields whose practitioners believe that raw, innate talent is the main requirement for success, because women are stereotyped as not possessing such talent.” Productivity hacks, one could argue, are a symptom of our new but still unequal era.

To be fair, hacks can be clever and useful, like the Pomodoro Technique, and some can probably help a person—of any gender—make more sense of their lives, as the Personal Kanban method promises. But the vast majority of these hacks seem to speak to a culture that defines success by career achievement and makes dedication to work the ultimate virtue.

The traits and concerns we prize should be wider than that.

No comments
Jeremy WebbProductivity hacks are built for bros
read more

In the name of all that is holy, please don’t let Sheryl Sandberg become the next CEO of Uber

Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg speaks at the American Enterprise Institute, Wednesday, June 22, 2016 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

If anyone in this world deserves to be a CEO somewhere, it’s Facebook chief operating officer and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg.

And if there’s one place that needs someone like Sandberg in the CEO job, it’s Uber. Big, bold, and troubled to a fault, it’s desperate for leadership, diversity, and the business skills needed to keep it ahead of the curve while it aims to repair its image as a deeply sexist workplace.

But Sandberg leading Uber would be the worst sort of leaning in. Why? Because women in CEO roles start at a disadvantage when they are brought in as nurses to rush to the aid of a sickly culture, or as babysitters meant to buttress a male founder who acts like an overgrown child.

Companies that do this can claim to have broken the glass ceiling, but that’s not the only mess the new female CEO will need to sweep up. As she works to get her new company back on track, she will be all the while marching right up to the edge of the proverbial glass cliff, until she is thrown over by an impatient board or by frustrated investors who don’t understand why she failed in her role.

It’s true that it’s not only women who get recruited for big turnaround jobs. If that were the case, there would be far more women running big companies today. But studies have shown that when the going gets tough, we are more inclined to seek a female savior than a male one—although strangely this only tends to hold true when the tough times occur under male leadership.

Women, meanwhile, are frequently more inclined to want to clean up messes—or at least are more inclined to be willing to do so.

There’s a fabulous passage in Mika Brzezinski’s book Knowing Your Value in which Elizabeth Warren, then overseeing the creation of the US Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and now a US senator, talks about a strange realization she had while serving as an associate dean at the University of Houston. It came over her when she had to find an instructor for the worst course at the worst time in the worst location—an assignment she that she had reluctantly volunteered to take on in previous years when she’d been asked to fill it. Here’s what she found when it was her turn to find an instructor for it:

Warren says, “Every single woman could be leveraged into teaching the lousy course at the lousy time in the lousy room. Men would just say, ‘No. That’s not convenient for me.’ I thought, ‘This is astonishing!’”

I ask Warren, “It never crossed your mind to say no?”

“Never,” Warren says.


“Partly I felt lucky to be there; partly, I’m the cooperator, you know, let’s get the job done. Someone needs to do this. Someone needs to mop the floor. Okay, hand me the mop.”

Asked to mop up a mess as big as Uber is, a lot of women might feel lucky for the opportunity, especially considering that only 6% of CEOs in the Fortune 500 are female.

There would be plenty of other reasons to take on the job, some of which could yield big gains for women in the realm of business. Female executives are frequently criticized for lacking “the vision thing,” and Uber, for all its faults, remains an extremely visionary company. Succeeding here would help put to rest the persistent stereotype that women are better doers than thinkers. And if a company as big as Uber, in a sector as culturally influential as Silicon Valley, were to thrive under a female CEO who perhaps could find a way to build a better workplace for women (or even better, women and men), the corporate world as a whole would be much better off.

For Sandberg specifically, the top job at Uber would be nice recognition of the work she has put in as Mark Zuckerberg’s number two at Facebook. The pay would no doubt be great.

But as much as I’d hate to see a woman turn down a vacant CEO job at an important company in the global economy, I hope Sandberg holds out for something better—perhaps Disney, which is drawing up plans for an orderly CEO succession while its business is on an upswing. Or maybe Sandberg will someday start a company of her own.

It’s no surprise to hear that Uber wants her now. But the investors and board members who kept enabling Kalanick after his behavior overshadowed his brilliance might never have tolerated so much corporate rot if they were certain there wouldn’t be a woman around later on to clean up the mess.

No comments
Jeremy WebbIn the name of all that is holy, please don’t let Sheryl Sandberg become the next CEO of Uber
read more

Even unicorns need a moral compass: Uber and the ultimate toxicity of sexism

Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick

Evidence grows that sexism stands as the gateway drug to the worst of corporate behavior, with Uber and its recently departed chief Travis Kalanick just the most recent egregious example. If the CEO can’t understand that an employee outing to a karaoke bar that also features escort services is a bad idea, who knows else what he might attempt? Now we do.

When a former Uber engineer told the world about the routine sexual harassment she faced, Kalanick called the details “abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for.” Not true, then or now, it turns out. The ruthless approach to conquering international markets—and any plausible competitor—translated to a workplace where women were regularly demeaned.

That’s the problem with corporate cultures that celebrate winning at all costs. It becomes increasingly difficult to tell where the playing field ends and the “locker room” begins.

At Fox News, Roger Ailes unashamedly counted among his cable-TV commandments that blonde newsreaders are best, and most optimally viewed when their bare legs are visible through the glass desks he demanded for the set. The ensuing accusations of his sexually degraded underlings—a scandal that would engulf Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, his most prized on-air acolyte—astonished no one.

Sexism has been an ever-thus presence in the workplace, surviving despite the championing—with accompanying legal protections—of equal opportunity. There somehow remains plenty of room for “the paternalistic metaphor of the corporate family” that subjugates women, as Melissa Gregg put it for The Atlantic:

Unhappy workplaces feature all of the worst aspects of intimate relationships: They are needy (long hours), they punish by withholding love (promotions), they require obligatory felicities (email at any hour) and compulsory socializing (networking drinks).

As stiflingly workaday as all of that sounds for anyone in 2017, the grind for women who adapt their own identities to fit into male-dominated arenas is additionally nightmarish. Last week, Sarah Stockdale’s blistering Medium account, “The myth of the ‘cool tech girl’: And why she’s dangerous,” explained how insidious the idea of the “cool tech girl” is—”a toxic myth, she helps men feel safe in their sexism,” she notes. It was a coincidentally well-timed piece of writing:

When the news broke about (I roll my eyes as I write this) an Uber board member making a sexist comment about women on boards at a town hall about sexism at Uber (facepalm) — I saw men write in comment threads “he probably thought it was OK, he’s probably friends with Arianna [Huffington] and thought he could be funny, it was just a joke.”

Read: he thought ya’ll were cool girls and you’d be cool about it.

Kalanick scrambled to boot that board member, David Bonderman, according to a New York Times account of his final days as CEO. But that was too little, too late, as became clear in a final-hours chat with Huffington, another board member.

Uber’s investors did what they had to with Kalanick. Still, shakeups attack only a symptom, not the disease. The damage of sexism at Uber may be under some control now. The factors that allowed it to thrive there—and in workplaces around the world— won’t be so easily undone.

No comments
Jeremy WebbEven unicorns need a moral compass: Uber and the ultimate toxicity of sexism
read more

Obama reportedly ordered implants to be deployed in key Russian networks

Enlarge (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Maria Joner)

In his final days as the 44th president of the United States, Barack Obama authorized a covert hacking operation to implant attack code in sensitive Russian networks. The revelation came in an 8,000-word article The Washington Post published Friday that recounted a secret struggle to punish the Kremlin for tampering with the 2016 election.

According to Friday’s article, the move came some four months after a top-secret Central Intelligence Agency report detailed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s direct involvement in a hacking campaign aimed at disrupting or discrediting the presidential race. Friday’s report also said that intelligence captured Putin’s specific objective that the operation defeat or at least damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and help her Republican rival Donald Trump. The Washington Post said its reports were based on accounts provided by more than three dozen current and former US officials in senior positions in government, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In the months that followed the August CIA report, 17 intelligence agencies confirmed with high confidence the Russian interference. After months of discussions with various advisors, Obama enacted a series of responses, including shutting down two Russian compounds, sanctioning nine Russian entities and individuals, and expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the US. All of those measures have been known for months. The Post, citing unnamed US officials, said Obama also authorized a covert hacking program that involved the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the US Cyber Command. According to Friday’s report:

Read 1 remaining paragraphs | Comments

No comments
Jeremy WebbObama reportedly ordered implants to be deployed in key Russian networks
read more

Check Point says Fireball malware hit 250 million; Microsoft says no

Enlarge (credit: Corinne Kuhlmann)

Microsoft sparked a curious squabble over malware discovery and infection rates. At the start of the month security firm Check Point reported on a browser hijacker and malware downloader called Fireball. The firm claimed that it had recently discovered the Chinese malware and that it had infected some 250 million systems.

Today, Microsoft said no. Redmond claimed that actually, far from being a recent discovery, it had been tracking Fireball since 2015 and that the number of infected systems was far lower (though still substantial) at perhaps 40 million.

The two companies do agree on some details. They say that the Fireball hijacker/downloader is spread through being bundled with programs that users are installing deliberately. Microsoft further adds that these installations are often media and apps of “dubious origin” such as pirated software and keygens. Check Point says that the software was developed by a Chinese digital marketing firm named Rafotech and fingers similar installation vectors; it piggy backs on (legitimate) Rafotech software and may also be spread through spam, other malware, and other (non-Rafotech) freeware.

Read 5 remaining paragraphs | Comments

No comments
Jeremy WebbCheck Point says Fireball malware hit 250 million; Microsoft says no
read more

How the CIA infects air-gapped networks

Enlarge / A configuration screen found in the Drifting Deadline exploit. (credit: WikiLeaks)

Documents published Thursday purport to show how the Central Intelligence Agency has used USB drives to infiltrate computers so sensitive they are severed from the Internet to prevent them from being infected.

More than 150 pages of materials published by WikiLeaks describe a platform code-named Brutal Kangaroo that includes a sprawling collection of components to target computers and networks that aren’t connected to the Internet. Drifting Deadline was a tool that was installed on computers of interest. It, in turn, would infect any USB drive that was connected. When the drive was later plugged into air-gapped machines, the drive would infect them with one or more pieces of malware suited to the mission at hand. A Microsoft representative said none of the exploits described work on supported versions of Windows.

The infected USB drives were at least sometimes able to infect computers even when users didn’t open any files. The so-called EZCheese exploit, which was neutralized by a patch Microsoft appears to have released in 2015, worked anytime a malicious file icon was displayed by the Windows explorer. A later exploit known as Lachesis used the Windows autorun feature to infect computers running Windows 7. Lachesis didn’t require Explorer to display any icons, but the drive of the drive letter the thrumbdrive was mounted on had to be included in a malicious link. The RiverJack exploit, meanwhile, used the Windows library-ms function to infect computers running Windows 7, 8, and 8.1. Riverjack worked only when a library junction was viewed in Explorer.

Read 4 remaining paragraphs | Comments

No comments
Jeremy WebbHow the CIA infects air-gapped networks
read more

Crack the Branding Code: How to Build Your Message and Value Proposition Right the First Time

Just over a decade ago, vintage clothing empress Nasty Gal was sitting pretty as a top notch startup with over $65 million in venture capital funding.

Ten years later, a filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection would send the brand into a tailspin that won’t be righted anytime soon — even if the company manages to stay afloat.

The reason?

Well, there were many, actually, but one key driver boils down to brand disruption. Namely, when newly named CEO Sheree Waterson introduced higher-priced brands to boost margins, but ended up diminishing its customer base and extinguishing sales.

As a startup, you should realize your brand represents the most valuable asset your company will ever own. Your brand provides the foundation for your entire reputation. And for startups who have yet to establish many successes in their industry, a little reputation can go a long way in putting you in the green.

Yet many startups neglect to see the value in building a solid branding vehicle from the very beginning. Rather, business leaders believe that branding evolves as a natural progression of the company and only exists to provide marketing departments with direction and content.

And both of these notions prime you for failure before you ever launch.

Branding Mistakes Startups Are Most Likely to Make

Startups typically don’t have massive capital to invest in much beyond the bare necessities, but all too often branding is overlooked as one of those much-needed components.

And those startups who do invest in a solid brand in the beginning don’t always understand the importance or requirements of maintaining the brand after early successes.

Whether you commit the former or the latter, each presents a serious branding crime that could ultimately lead to other common startup branding mistakes:

Ignoring the employee role in building your brand

When you can’t splurge on a publicist or outside marketing agency, your employees will sometimes pull double duty as your company evangelists. But first, they need to know how to spread your message, what the message should say, and to whom to deliver it. 

Creating a modge-podge conglomerate of communications

Whether you have one or five or fifty channels in your company, each one should reflect the same company image regardless of the department’s role.

Following a me-too strategy that mimics your competition

If two companies provide the exact same service to the exact same people at the exact same price, one of them is not needed. And typically it will be the one who hasn’t invested in a strong branding strategy.

Failing to provide memorable experiences

How do you plan to become your customer’s first choice if you can’t establish top-of-mind awareness? Branding goes beyond logo recognition. You should take advantage of every touchpoint to create a memorable experience that your prospects won’t soon forget.

In a stark contrast to the hundreds of brands that have outlived the past century or longer, one comparison shows that of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955, only 12% remain on the list in 2014. Which proves you can’t expect your brand to autopilot your company into repeat success; rather, your brand should continue to represent your company consistently, intentionally, and unceasingly.

Considering how many brands of the past century continue to prosper despite numerous recessions, the Great Depression, and other market instability, you’d think cultivating a strong brand would be an obvious must for startups vying for longevity. Yet branding remains somewhat of a mystery in how it’s supposed to look and function that it represents one of the most underutilized assets of companies new and old.

What does good branding look like?

To peel away some of the vagueness shrouding the concept, let’s first take a closer look at what branding is not:

  • Your company name
  • A well-designed logo
  • A slogan or tagline
  • The products or services you sell
  • Social media presence
  • Advertisements and marketing campaigns

Truthfully, all of these things can contribute to your brand strategy in some capacity. But branding at its core lies in how you connect with your target audience and the resulting perceptions from your customer’s experience.

It’s far easier to recognize good branding practices than putting those actions into practice for your own brand. Generally speaking, good branding always includes the following:

A target audience

The strongest brands remain strong because they know who their best customers are. Instead of trying to be everything to everyone, they limit their mass appeal and focus only on what they do best. 

A commitment from your team

A thoughtful brand depends on participation and cooperation from your employees. It’s important to hire only those who present a cultural fit that can help propel your brand goals. Hiring for cultural fit? 

A well-defined lexicon and content palette

Visuals are worth a thousand words, but the lingo you use still matters. Establishing a brand voice, color scheme, and visual elements can help direct other aspects of your branding strategy, such as advertisements, marketing, social media, and customer support. Here are 50 meticulous style guides from Canva that every startup should see before launching.

A backstory

Every brand has a story, but first you must define the best way to present yours. Well-crafted stories serve three key purposes: they position you as leaders in your industry; they fuel the conversation about your company; and most importantly, they connect with customers on a personal level to “humanize” your brand.

With the growing online competition for visibility, it’s imperative to remind customers what makes you the better choice. This is your chance to define your competitive advantages and let people know what they can get from you that they can’t get anywhere else.

If you look at companies like Ritual, Harry’s razors, and charity: water​ (a non-profit), you’ll see each of the above branding cues featured prominently on their website and throughout their communications.

Wrap Up

Being a startup, you’re in a prime position to avoid the two major branding mistakes that could have potentially salvaged many companies: Not investing in brand building from the start, and failing to maintain the brand after it’s been well established.

Branding can be a tricky process, given the time, effort, and resources it takes to fuel your strategy. But it’s also too valuable to forgo, and too reputation-sensitive not to get the formula right the first time.

No comments
Jeremy WebbCrack the Branding Code: How to Build Your Message and Value Proposition Right the First Time
read more

History has paved a path for CEOs to return and it’s not one for Travis Kalanick

Boards have a penchant for bringing back ousted company founders: “boomerang bosses” is a well-worn phrase. So can we expect the same to happen to Travis Kalanick at Uber?

Perhaps the best way to start answering that question is to dig into what happened with Steve Jobs, the Apple leader who is probably the best-known example of a fired founder making a monumental comeback.

Kalanick certainly has the reckless, upstart, law-defying mentality many saw in Jobs. And while the specifics are different—Kalanick has suffered seemingly irreparable public relations damage with Uber, while at Apple in the 1980s Jobs was facing a politics and a power struggle at the top of the company—both were ousted for similar reasons. Both men revelled in rebellion at the start of their careers and didn’t manage to make the transition from fired up go-getter to sensible decision-maker at the pace required by a rapidly growing company.

Jobs left Apple in 1985, only to return over a decade later. It is striking that Jobs’ reappointment as Apple’s CEO came in 1997, a year after the company gobbled up NeXT, the software company Jobs had been working on in the interim. Clearly, the company craved creativity and saw it in their former boss. When Jobs was ushered back to the help, Apple had been operating at a loss just as its biggest competitor, Microsoft, was seeing revenues grow due to the introduction of the Windows 95 operating system.

The Jobs-Apple trajectory is a typical story. Most founders are only asked to return to chief executive roles when their darling is starting to rot and their industry’s playing field is changing. Infosys brought back its co-founder Narayana Murthy in 2013, desperate to inject some life back into an ailing company that had plenty of cash but dismal growth rates. In May this year, Biz Stone announced he would be rejoining Twitter, along with co-founder Jack Dorsey, amid long-running losses at the company. Jerry Wang, co-founder of Yahoo, who from the birth of the company in 1995 steered clear of getting involved in strategy and stuck to “creating good ideas” under the honorary title of “Chief Yahoo,” found himself roped into taking over as CEO in 2007 after a series of mishaps from his predecessor Terry Semel and amid growing competition from Google.

The “founder mentality” is something investors obviously find alluring—but only, it seems, at certain times in the company’s growth. Peter Cappelli, a professor of management at Wharton Business School, puts it down to organizations needing different skills at different times. The entrepreneurial zeal of a founder is great at a company’s start, but often isn’t enough to take a company through its next stage of growth, where stronger management is required. But then they can come to symbolize an energy and openness to innovation that the company may need to spur and sell new ideas further down the line. The founders seem to enjoy it too: speaking of his experience returning to Apple at a Stanford Commencement Speech in 2005, Jobs noted that, “the heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again.”

All that suggests there’s a chance Kalanick does return to Uber—when, down the line, the company becomes a stale elder statesmen in the tech world.

On the other hand, the problem with Kalanick is that any vision he did have has been overshadowed by the macho and misogynistic culture that pervaded all aspects of the company and which Uber is now desperately trying to shake off. Principles that should drive a company forward, and that are central to the ethos of the workplace, have at Uber been decidedly lacking: Kalanick himself struggled to finish describing them in an interview with FastCompany in 2015. He may have created one of the most disruptive companies of the 21st century, but it seems unlikely that the power and energy which Kalanick could offer if he did return would be enough for a company that’s faced such public relations nightmares. Apple could see beyond Jobs’ dictatorial streak because his attitude, though at times difficult, came from the right place: it’s hard to see the same being true of Kalanick.

No comments
Jeremy WebbHistory has paved a path for CEOs to return and it’s not one for Travis Kalanick
read more