On prostheses, gold medals, dinners, and trolls

She wore not a prosthesis, but four. Quadruple amputee athlete Bebe Vio, 19, who lost her limbs to meningitis at the age of 11 and last month won a Paralympic gold medal in women’s wheelchair fencing, walked on her own two lower limb prostheses when joining Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the State Dinner hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama two nights ago in Washington. And what did she get out of it? Glamour (she wore an evening dress donated by Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior), fun (at least judging from her selfie with Obama), some food prepared by celebrity chef Mario Batali, and a lot of vitriol poured onto her from all corners of the Web. In the last couple of days, online armchair critics have accused her of the most bizarre sins, such as flying to Washington to have fun at the expense of taxpayers, neglecting the plight of the unemployed, wearing an expensive dress by a French brand, being “politicized” in support of the embattled Renzi, and worse. Countless online trolls over the past two days have let out their own frustration against Bebe, as they have in the past against many women who have, for example, spoken out against misogyny in videogames, called for historic women leaders to be portrayed on banknotes, or written about contemporary feminism.

Bebe, who only recently won her Paralympic gold and is not a feminist campaigner by any stretch of the imagination, pays for two original sins. First, she never let herself become a victim. Life gave her a shitload of bitter lemons, and she built a factory of very sweet lemonade: the non-profit she started with her family, Art4Sport, has helped dozens of amputee children practice sports instead of languishing in their wheelchairs. Second, she is a young woman: and women who are proud of any achievement – technology, entrepreneurship, politics, sports – end up being attacked, insulted and threatened with the worst sexist and violent attacks if they so much as dare to share their pride online. The torrent of insults unleashed on Bebe is just the latest example of how the basic rules of civil discourse seem to be suspended when it comes to criticizing women. What is to be done if we are to neutralize poisonous threats against women? One might follow the example of journalist and podcaster Alanah Pearce, whose anti-troll technique became famous after this tweet: “Sometimes young boys on Facebook send me rape threats, so I’ve started telling their mothers.” If you are disgusted by the trolls who attacked Bebe, finding out who their moms are and sending them screenshots might not be a bad place to start.

Bitcoin and beyond: a few thoughts

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Much ink has been spilled on Bitcoin and its smaller cryptocurrency siblings. I’ve recently thought a lot about the impact of cryptocurrencies on financial systems and on the world at large. While I do not expect that any conclusions may stand for long, I’ve tried to sum up what I understood so far and digest it for my readers here. Apologies for any technical inaccuracies – please highlight them in comments.

First, a few thoughts on what’s new and different about Bitcoin:

  • The intellectual and technical work that Bitcoin stands on, my geekier friends agree, is an astonishing leap forward from everything we’ve seen before. Satoshi Nakamoto is not one person, as multiple disciplines from cryptography to software engineering were involved in its conception, but may have been a small group of people with the extraordinary discipline to publish some brilliant open source code and yet not to come forward and reveal themselves, at least so far. Code that is an achievement in that it is not just smart, but also amazingly robust. If Satoshi Nakamoto were one person, his achievements would be on par with those of Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
  • The main reason why it’s difficult to explain Bitcoin to people is that it’s a system where flows, not stocks, are certified. If I start with $100 in my bank account, I deposit $50, and then I take out $30, my bank knows what I did, knows that I have a new balance of $120, and can print me a statement with that balance. If I do the same with Bitcoin, all that’s monitored is the flow: “in 50” and “out 30” are recorded on a ledger replicated on thousands of servers all over the world, but my new balance of 120 – just like my old balance – is strictly my information, and nobody else has it. The Bitcoin community validates the flows; the algorithm cares not one bit about stocks.
  • The total quantity of Bitcoin in the Bitcoin system is algorithmically predetermined, and in that sense is the only stock that matters to the system. This also means that, at some point (roughly around the year 2140), mining will stop and the quantity of Bitcoin will be fixed. No central bank, commercial bank or other authority will be able to print more. As we’ll see below, this has important macroeconomic implications.
  • Other things that strike people as weird are that Bitcoin is strictly a bearer instrument (you lose it, you have no recourse) and that transactions, once validated, are irreversible – unlike with your credit card or your PayPal account, there is no chargeback mechanism. Transactions are final.
  • Most importantly, a “trustless” network that keeps working with no central authority and never collapses – because trust is distributed and resides in the consensus mechanisms that enables the endless replication of the blockchain – is in itself a concept that takes a bit of time getting used to.
  • Volatility? Oh yes, plenty. Don’t stash your mom’s retirement nest egg in a Bitcoin wallet. That’s not what it’s for, really.

Where different players stand:

  • Economists are intrigued, but do not believe that at a macro level Bitcoin can power a sophisticated economy. While the developer community is working to overcome this limitation, for example, Bitcoin as it stands today can carry out only a limited number of transactions: 7 transactions per second. (Visa, depending on which source you believe, is said to support 10,000-50,000 per second).
  • Also, there is not enough Bitcoin in the system, and there never will be enough for a significant world economy to adopt it to the exclusion of other currencies. If output is to grow and the quantity of money cannot grow, deflation wreaks havoc because the debt in the system becomes unsustainable. And “debt is to capitalism that which Hell is to Christianity: seriously unpleasant but absolutely necessary”, claims economist Yanis Varoufakis (yes, he who just became Finance Minister of Greece).
  • Regulators are walking a fine line. Err on the side of protecting consumers from risk, and you stifle innovation; err on the side of fostering innovation, and a lot of people will go bust. Not because the Bitcoin technology per se is unsafe, but because issues come up at the edge, in the wallets and exchanges that sit at the crossroads of Bitcoin and fiat currencies. The blockchain is resilient and continues to function when mayhem happens, but people get burned.
  • London is trying to ride the Bitcoin wave, with a light regulatory touch and a Chancellor of the Exchequer who has voiced support for cryptocurrencies as an enabler of financial innovation – although the Treasury review he commissioned is taking longer than expected. New York State is working on a “BitLicense” regulatory framework, although critics say it is too restrictive for New York to become a Bitcoin hub. The US Commodities Futures and Trading Commission says Bitcoin is a commodity, not a currency, and falls under its remit. The European Central Bank and the European Banking Authority have highlighted risks for consumers, recommended that banks refrain from buying or holding bitcoin, and then mostly kept silent: one gets the feeling that they would really rather see the whole headache go away. But Bitcoin has no borders, does not reside anywhere and recognizes no nations: shouldn’t we aim for a global framework, instead of burdening the ecosystem with incompatible rules, lack of interoperability, and unsustainable compliance costs?
  • Financial institutions, though listening to regulators out of one ear, are eager to become players in the Bitcoin economy, or at least to be seen as such. See the recent investment by, among others, BBVA and the NYSE in Coinbase.
  • There already are better ways than Bitcoin to implement an alternative and decentralized payment network. Ripple, although not perfect, is said to be one. Stellar is another one.

What’s next?

  • Expecting that Bitcoin will be a major world currency five or ten years from now would be a bit like betting in 1995 that AOL would be the dominant Internet service in 2015. It’s still very early days. The entire Bitcoin system is barely six years old. We haven’t seen anything yet, really.
  • In addition to finance, there are a lot of things you can do with a system that decentralizes the hard work of certifying a transaction between two parties. Indeed, some go so far as to say that Bitcoin isn’t the point of the Bitcoin technology: “Bitcoin as a currency has been a red herring driven by speculative investment, but that’s not the ultimate potential or the most exciting thing about it” (Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong, quoted in Quartz). In other words, a virtual currency is just one application enabled by the blockchain: it has been and is important as an incentive to participants (miners) and to create liquidity in the system, but it won’t be the only use of the technology in the future.
  • Sidechains – ledgers that experiment with features that might be added the Bitcoin core, or might serve some entirely new purpose, without actually jeopardizing the stability of the blockchain – will be big. See Austin Hill and Adam Back’s Blockstream, which is now backed by Reid Hoffman.
  • Under so-called “Bitcoin 2.0” frameworks, you can make money programmable, for example tag a certain bitcoin for spending only with certain counterparts. You can also have a bitcoin represent other types of assets than money, such as a car, a company share, a vote in an election (video).
  • The most ambitious project inspired by the Bitcoin blockchain (but entirely separate from it) seems to be Vitalik Buterin’s Ethereum, not just a platform allowing for contracts written as computer code, but an entire scripting language and programming environment to create an ecosystem with self-enforcing contracts, distributed autonomous corporations, and perhaps entirely novel models for political organizations.
  • Would a software-based societal model be resilient enough to cope with the real world, or would it be too brittle to withstand shocks by reacting intelligently? Would the utopistic libertarians willing to delegate a part of their life to a blockchain risk waking up in a dystopia of inequality, polarization and control? Hard to say. What we can say is that as a society we need to understand the technology, weigh the upside potential against the risks, and make collective choices that will serve us well for the future.

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Images credits (and recommended article): Quartz. Thank you to some of the smartest among my friends and colleagues, who helped me clarify my thoughts on the topic: Giovanni Daprà, Vincenzo Di Nicola, Raffaele Mauro and Stefano Quintarelli.

Personal branding at the top

Dear readers, it is not often (yet) that one gets invited to blog on LinkedIn, and even more infrequently does one get to use pictures of Queen Rania, Marc Andreessen, and Sir Richard Branson to make essentially the same point.

I would love your comment and feedback on these three blog posts in a series titled Personal branding at the top:

QueenRania

marc-andreessen-handsSir Richard BransonI hope you find them a good read and you get some inspiration for your own personal brand, too!

Update Sept. 30: See the fourth and (I think) last post in the series, where I take a case study from close to home (Mr. Rosso and I are both from a small town near Vicenza in Northern Italy) and highlight effective habits and improvement opportunities:

Renzo Rosso Instagram 26 09 14

Set up two-factor authentication now

Screenshot_2014-09-03-08-13-41 If you have no idea what this screenshot means, then your online accounts are not sufficiently protected.

Google Authenticator is a little smartphone app (iTunes; Play Store) that you can – and should – use to ensure that whoever logs into your account on Gmail, Dropbox, Tumblr and so on not only has your username and password, but also is in physical possession of your smartphone, i.e. is most likely to be you. This is important in general, but phenomenally important for your primary email account, since whoever gets into that has a good shot at full-scale identity theft if they want to.

Two-step verification means that when you login to Gmail from a new machine, after your usual username-and-password step, you are asked for a six-digit verification code; and you obtain the code – which changes constantly – by opening the Authenticator app on your smartphone. You only have to do this once if you check the machine as a trusted computer (obviously, don’t do this at shared computers).

Here are the instructions for Gmail and all other Google services; here is an article from the Financial Times (login required) that explains how to do the same thing to protect any nude photos you might have on iCloud through Apple’s two-step verification.

Finally, even if this post is about taking your online privacy seriously, let me close on a lighthearted note from the FT’s Chris Nuttall:

Have hackers put any nude photos of me out on the web?

Not if you haven’t taken any of yourself. If you have, they probably won’t have bothered trying to hack you unless you’re a celebrity.

 

 

What to look for in your next Chief Digital Officer

I am often asked to help people define what CEOs should look for in a candidate for the Chief Digital Officer position. My past eight years of digital experience have taught me that most companies tend to clearly see one or two sides of the job description and corresponding skill set, but cannot articulate in their entirety what should really be a multifaceted role – nor their expectations for impact or even outcome metrics.

Chief Digital Officer

This is my cocktail-napkin framework for the skills you should expect a Chief Digital Officer to bring to your company. A 2012 Russell Reynolds article listed part of them, but I believe this framework completes the scope of the role in important ways that were not originally covered; for more literature, see this McKinsey survey and this Forrester report (Forrester clients only). So, what does the CDO need to know how to do?

  • Online marketing, social media and digital PR. Most marketing and communication-focused companies, such as those in fast-moving consumer goods, are quite aware that the ways to drive brand awareness and engagement have shifted dramatically in the digital era; and that they need to move from traditional metrics, such as GRPs, to much more granular digital measurements. Market research, a cornerstone of many organizations’ plans, is largely shifting to online platforms, too; and digital listeners who can find the signal in the noise are in high demand. Yet, listening and communicating well in the digital domain are far from the only required capability; and what looks like the cutting edge today quickly becomes table stakes tomorrow.
  • E-commerce, digital distribution, multichannel. Retailers and manufacturers in many sectors are aggressively pursuing online sales: consumers are looking for your products online anyway, so hiding your head under the sand does not work, and in high-margin sectors such as premium and luxury goods a digital sales strategy is – at last – no longer shunned as damaging to the brand. Metrics here are about conversion, revenues and margins. The Chief Digital Officer will be the cross-channel integration champion in the organization, knowing when to push and where to stop: users will prize a seamless experience across a few channels much more than a complicated and fault-prone experience across many channels.
  • Online service and CRM. Customer expect you to be online, 24/7, to answer their questions, and no longer just at the other end of a toll-free number. What often starts as a marketing-focused corporate social media presence almost always needs to be complemented by strong online customer support capabilities; forward-looking banks, insurance companies and utilities are increasingly proving their worth in this arena. Here, the relevant metrics are customer service metrics; a digital customer operations mindset and expertise are needed, enabling in turn the generation of additional upselling and cross-selling opportunities.
  • Digital product and technology. The previous three quadrants extend what you are doing in the analog domain and can give you a competitive advantage: yet, it is only if you are able to reinvent your product into a profitable digital experience that you leave your competition in the dust. Media publishers, music and movies have struggled with the “profitable” part of the equation. Among successful examples, on the other hand, witness how Nike has positioned the Nike+ FuelBand at the center of a whole new Nike+ ecosysytem – remember, they used to make running shoes. A lesser-known but fine example of product redesign for the digital era is the new Getty Images watermark. From thermostats to cars, over the next few years all sorts of products and services will become very different from what we know today. If you’re not sure, go back and re-read Marc Andreessen on why software is eating the world. A good and easy-to-read guide to some of the disruptions is the recently published Age of Context by Scoble and Israel.

(Note that you can use this framework to get immediate clarity whenever a fuzzy digital project comes your way. Suppose, for example, that your team tells you “we ought to make a mobile app.” Is this a communication (or, worse, a vanity) app? a sales app? a service/CRM app? or an app that supplements, enhances, reinvents or revolutionizes your product or service? This way you can quickly define the right metrics and set your ambition levels.)

Underlying these four capabilities, your Chief Digital Officer should be able to foster a digital culture and nurture digital talents. Collaboration and knowledge sharing within the company must mean more than having an intranet, a digital suggestion box or even a prediction market: digital tools should foster your employees’ sense of community and belonging. Millennials thirst for transparency, openness and meritocracy; they will expect your company to be much more like an open-source-based software project and much less like the bureaucracy you grew up in. See this Gary Hamel talk if you’re not sure of what you should aim for.

In summary, a Chief Digital Officer is not just – as he or she is often portrayed to be – a good general management talent who has learned a few sexy digital marketers’ tricks. In my experience she will be much more impactful if she has a 360° vision of the future around her, not just of her product or industry; if she knows the front line well and has got her hands dirty with operations; and if she is unafraid to lead the evolution of the company’s culture.

The Digital Director. More from the Korn/Ferry Institute

Mina GouranLast February I referred you to some research from the Korn/Ferry Institute about what makes an exceptional non-executive director. That report underlined the importance of social networks and digital media in a board director’s understanding of social trends and their impact on the business – practically any business.

The Institute has now published a new report on The Digital Director, authored – like the previous one – by Senior Client Partner Mina Gouran (pictured). It is highly recommended reading for chairmen, nominating committees, and prospective board members. Here are a few quotes for your appetite. Enjoy it!

  • Among the FTSE 100, just 1.7 percent of non-executive directors (NEDs) would qualify as ‘digital’ — that is, executives who have spent the bulk of their careers either in companies where the Internet is central to the business model, or in strategic roles focused on leveraging the Internet.
  • There needs to be a rapid upswing in the number of digital NEDs so that the strategic issues posed by the digital revolution are exposed and examined. Navigation of this paradigm-shifting change, affecting the way we do everything, cannot be left to the executive alone.
  • In most cases, the new digital NED will arrive with less board experience than ‘traditional’ NEDs. Our analysis of FTSE 350 appointments, for instance, found that digital NEDs were, on average, 46 years old compared with 56 for the rest of the NEDs.
  • More of these digital NEDs are women (25 percent) as opposed to non-digital NEDs, of whom only 15 percent are women.

iOS 7, and why Android still wins for me

iOS 7 is now with us, and while we get used to its clean, spare look, let me tell you why I think Apple has missed a major opportunity to catch up with Android.

On the left is my iPad, recently updated with iOS 7; on the right, my Galaxy Note (admittedly a large device for a phone, but one that I carry everywhere because it fits in any purse and still isn’t too large to have a phone conversation), carrying Android 4.1.2 (which isn’t even a very new version of Jelly Bean). Here are three reasons why I prefer Android by far.

Numbers row

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You’ll notice something that makes all the difference in the world: with the Galaxy Note, if you are typing letters and numbers, you don’t have to keep toggling back and forth: they are all there on the same keyboard. As far as I’ve been able to find out he iPad, with all that screen real estate, does not allow me to have them together.

Predictive typing

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Tweeting, posting quick text updates, and writing in general are all much faster with the Android keyboard. Try it especially with longish words. In this example, I can pick “absolutely” from the suggestions row after typing just three letters. With iOS, it takes nine letters before it knows what I need.

Filling forms

 

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Don’t know about you, but to me it feels like I fill in forms all the time. There is, especially, one piece of information that goes into all sort of logins, order forms, verification screens and so on: my email address. Android offers it to me in the suggestions row after just four letters; in iOS, I have to type it out in full every time. This gets, shall we say, repetitive.

If you have suggestions to help me improve my iOS 7 experience, please let me know in the comments (“Leave a reply” link). Otherwise, I think the iPad will stay at home more and more often, while the Galaxy Note comes out with me.