Edition 1: Hello World

Must we be missionaries? Also: TikTok, Facebook, Russian stew.

Hello and welcome to the first edition of The Lobby, a (roughly) weekly deposit of editorialized thoughts - developments in technology, happenings around the world, or things I find plain interesting. Thanks for checking it out!

Missionaries, not Mercenaries

The idea of embodying a missionary, not a mercenary, particularly resonated when I heard about it for the first time this week. Maybe I’m behind the times on leadership analogies, because it seems this terminology has been going around a while. (I came across it in this Jeff Bezos interview, itself a fascinating listen).

A missionary believes heart and soul in their mission, and finds fulfillment in the eternal pursuit of this ideology. Their conviction is addictive and unstoppable (in the long run).

A mercenary operates in terms of means to an end, and the end is implied to be some hedonistic fulfillment. They’re opportunistic, ruthless, and optimize for profits, now.

The dichotomy is reminiscent of the wartime/peacetime CEO, but being a mercenary doesn’t necessarily map to excelling at wartime (though there are implied overlaps).

I don’t think one is “better” or morally superior to the other. Though the term “mercenary” insinuates nasty methods, it doesn’t have to be the case; my interpretation is that a missionary has an externalized, larger than life goal - something that followers will rally behind - while the mercenary is motivated by self-serving interests (and may even employ missionary-like methods to attain those).

In short, I simply take a missionary to be one in pursuit of an external cause, and a mercenary to be one in pursuit of internal desires, agnostic of the methods they employ.

All that is to say I generally agree that missionaries go “farther” in life, depending on the yardstick by which you measure the worth of their efforts, and many of our most vaunted leaders are indeed missionary types, precisely because they have rallied others to their cause. The missionary is indeed larger than life, and carves out a legacy worth remembering. Here lies Jobs, here stands Musk.

As much as we glorify the achievement, does this mean being a missionary is the right aspiration for everyone? Should every leader strive to be a missionary leader?

In my interpretation, the missionary’s work is rarely complete. In fact, I’d go so far as to claim no missionary has ever seen their dream lived out to fruition, because by definition their mission is beyond the capability of individual achievement.

Thinking big is of course something our society particularly celebrates. It even leads to proclamations like WeWork’s mission to “elevate the world’s consciousness”, or some endgame platitude of the like.

How does this missionary thinking reconcile with personal happiness, fulfillment? I’m honestly not sure. The missionary walks a long and winding road, pretty much entirely uphill. Though they may pause to take a breath and bask in satisfaction along the way, their goal ultimate goal is always further still.

In sharp contrast, the mercenary takes a direct path to personal validation and satisfaction, if not zen-like fulfillment. They have an internalized goal and take the direct means necessary to reach it. In fact, I think this is most people we know. Because mercenaries work towards exactly what they want: experiences and things. Tangible, worldly desires: a house, a yard, a nice car, a dog. Attainable experiences: a trip to Tokyo, a stay in the Bahamas.

(Quick note - my interpretation represents a binary classification which is in reality more of a spectrum, of which people probably fall into a bell curve)

Maybe I should move
And settle, two kids and a swimming pool

I love the atmosphere this song creates, and I thought the lyrics were fitting enough for me to shoehorn it into this essay.

In Siegfried, Frank Ocean’s character toys with the idea of “settling” for something like the American dream: a place in the burbs, two kids and a swimming pool. I don’t think a true missionary would consider settling for the American dream - but for most, it is more than enough. For most, it’s okay to know that you can achieve happiness on this Earth, in one lifetime. It’s okay to look out for yourself, your family, your wellbeing and your interests.

We could not thrive, as a species, without missionaries among us to lead the way. Missionaries shoulder the responsibility of uplifting everyone else. But we as a collective majority, a species even, have mercenary (read: selfish) tendencies, and that’s a perfectly acceptable state of being.

The tech scene is particularly awash in missionary culture and I think that pushes some people in uncomfortable directions, creating unhealthy obsession with growth and a perceived necessity of getting into leadership. There’s this implicit shame, in the “upper echelons” of the tech community, of people who don’t keep climbing and expanding the scope of their influence. To a young person like me, it’s hard not to project our lives like they should be a startup growth curve: exponential, up and to the right.

But as the saying goes, 90% of startups fail, and many of us will peak in our careers sooner rather than later. To conclude this rambling, I’m here to tell myself and all my peers, if that happens - it’s okay. You might be a mercenary after all, but that doesn’t make you a bad guy.

TikTok and the Sorting Hat

I downloaded TikTok last week, and I’m now experiencing the magical feed (#fyp) firsthand. Much ado has been made of TikTok’s “algorithm”, the je ne sais quoi of its success (and je ne sais quoi seems a particularly apt phrase because I think no one, not even the genius ML engineers behind it, knows exactly how the algorithm does what it does to a real degree of specificity).

This excellent piece by Eugene Wei (whose insightful articles I have been totally sleeping on and will definitely appear in future editions) takes a stab at what TikTok’s algorithm has pulled off: the abstraction of culture.

To use his analogy, TikTok’s algorithm acts like the Sorting Hat from Harry Potter that, rather than sorting students into houses, presciently sorts users into subcultures with no real understanding of the groups’ interests, or what even constitutes those groups. After all, TikTok is primarily engineered in China, by engineers who have not the slightest clue what American teens are into.

There’s a lot more great context and insight in the article, but my takeaway is that TikTok has pulled off a really stunning strategic upset against the dominant American social media incumbents, through a combination of deep ByteDance pockets and technical/AI know how, leaving Instagram now scrambling to respond.

This part is also a total head scratcher:

In a bit of dramatic irony, Bytedance had cloned Musical.ly in China with an app called Douyin, one that had taken off in China, and now Bytedance was buying the app that inspired it, Musical.ly, an app conceived and built in China but that had failed in China and instead gotten traction in the U.S.

However it happened, this much seems certain - TikTok is the latest social media phenomenon to capture the attention of American youths like never before.

Facebook employee leaks show they feel betrayed

Results from an internal poll at Facebook, taking a pulse of employee morale.

This in-depth look at internal tension within Facebook, in light of Zuckerberg and the FB leadership team’s unsteady stance on racially/radically charged statements by the Trump administration, makes it clear that the halcyon days of interconnected, social-graph-powered utopian idealism are behind us. The harsh reality is that Facebook cannot play “true neutral” - neutral is in of itself a stance, and continuing to give a soapbox to bad actors everywhere is only going to land Facebook in hotter waters.

Of course, Facebook is no stranger to regulatory/political scandal and controversy. Even as its market cap and revenues grow, the outcry around the management of its platform has increased. The complexity of managing this virtual megaphone has definitely gone far, perhaps too far, beyond any of its founders’ wildest dreams.

Now, with the much publicized virtual employee walkout and advertiser boycotts, Facebook’s problems have moved beyond congressional hearings to internal strife and threats on its bottom line. Sooner rather than later, Facebook will need to take a stand against misuse of its platform - hopefully on the right side of history - but among the center/left leaning technology talent pool, the brand damage may already be done.

There’s no such thing as a tech expert anymore

In 1787 we decided that we would be ruled by citizens, not by priests, professors, or professionals. We don’t insist that everyone in Congress understand how the B2 Spirit “stealth” bomber works, or how serotonin reuptake inhibitors help manage depression, or even how the internal combustion engine works. Yet we justifiably expect our government to regulate them.

It goes without saying that Congress is woefully inept at understanding (let alone regulating) Big Tech in a meaningful (let alone productive) way. Siva’s point contends that, not only do regulators not understand the real complexities and implications of technology at scale, neither does any self-proclaimed tech expert.

The true complexity of our post-tech world has eclipsed any human’s ability to understand and dissect it; the system has taken a life of its own, and while we do what we can with our outdated regulatory systems to rein it in, we are ultimately at the mercy of our own creation.

Jeff Bezos at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.

I referenced this interview above in the “Missionaries, not Mercenaries” bit - and Bezos is a missionary through and through. A bit long, but this video humanizes the wealthiest man in the world (a title he attained just before this was filmed) and sheds some light on critical moments in Amazon’s history.

Some highlights for me:

  • Some of the best decisions come from the heart. As important as it is to be data and metrics driven, never discount intuition, gut feeling, and leaps of faith; these intangibles are the only way to surpass local maximums.

  • To know where to go next, just ask. Amazon might have stayed comfortably in its vertical - selling books - if they hadn’t asked early customers what else they’d want to be able to order online. Spoiler alert: their customers said, “everything”.

  • Winning doesn’t always look like winning. For most of its history, Amazon was considered by many to be an unsustainable, fundamentally money-losing business. Amazon Prime seemed like a terrible idea and was a total money sink at first, eventually turning loss leader and finally into the lucrative moat it is today.

  • Gamble to your strengths. Bezos took on the Washington Post when it was bleeding out, betting that he could flex his internet acumen into an unfamiliar industry (from internet retail to internet publishing), and of course it ultimately paid off.

  • Astoundingly, Bezos sleeps 8 hours a night (or at least does his best to)

While I still consider him a controversial figure (said nicely) for the abject conditions Amazon warehouse and delivery workers face, there is something to be said for a man of his vision, focus, and sheer determination.

Shout out John Wick. In an alternate reality, Bezos finds his calling as a hitman.

Recipe of the week

HK Borscht Soup (“Russian Soup”)

One of my favorite (and easiest to make) dishes I ask my dad to make for me is “Russian Soup”, his adaptation of a Hong Kong cafe comfort food, itself adapted from Russian immigrants by way of Shanghai. This recipe is fairly true to how I learned to make it: the critical flavors being beef, tomato, onion, and texture coming from cabbage, potato, and carrots.

Not particularly Hong Kong-ese in flavor, this is a delicious, hearty stew that’s great with rice or pasta (I’m partial to penne or macaroni), though I’m sure dipping bread in it is also divine. For me, this is simple and filling comfort food at a time when we need it most.

That’s a wrap for the first ever edition of The Lobby! Thank you, dear reader, if you have made it this far. Feel free to subscribe if you like what you see (I’ll do my best to make this regular) and drop me a line (l@lawluk.com) if you have any thoughts or suggestions!