One of America’s most respected technology journalists, Kara Swisher, talks with John Kennedy about sexism in Silicon Valley, diversity in the technology industry and the ongoing transformation of the media landscape.
Minutes after a blistering but frank and insightful panel at Inspirefest 2015 entitled ‘The Investors’, in which Kara Swisher, the pre-eminent technology journalist of Silicon Valley laid bare a few myths about the so-called epicentre of technology, I find her in the lobby of the nearby Marker Hotel sipping on an ice-cold drink. She’s doing her best to relax and clear her head.
Mindful that I’m about to pepper her with questions about herself and most likely fracture any newly found harmony, I wait before introducing myself and think on the panel she just chaired with Sharon Vosmek of Astia, Adam Quinton of Lucas Point Ventures, Nnamdi Okiki of 645 Ventures and Julie Sinnamon of Enterprise Ireland. The panel focused on gender bias in venture capital investment – with Vosmek pointing out that less than 5pc of venture investment goes to female founders. Adam Quinton summed up the bias perfectly: “The fundamental problem, especially in Silicon Valley, is that it loves to think it’s a meritocracy, which is bull. It’s not. It’s a mirror-ocracy.”
Swisher has been covering Silicon Valley since the early 1990s and is known for her fearless, blunt and no-nonsense approach to covering the technology beat, getting answers out of zipped up CEOs and scoring celebrated scoops. Indeed, in some quarters her name inspires fear and on stage she joked how her “aggression and obnoxiousness” had been a career asset for years.
She wears dark aviator glasses indoors, which supports the fear invoking image. But when asked has the technology industry not got the potential to be one of the most egalitarian industries on earth, it is clear that Swisher is above all a fair person who just tells it like it is. “It is. It could be,” she says levelly in response to the question.
I think the technology industry initially was a very honest place and now as they’ve gotten bigger, richer and more self-important they tend to believe their own stories and narratives, which are often overblown and hyped. If people keep telling you that you are ruling the world, you start to believe them
Swisher, a graduate of Columbia University, began her journalism career in newspapers and her star rose when along with fellow Wall Street Journal tech reviewer Walt Mossberg launched the AllThingsD conference in 2003, which also spawned its own media brand.
Her dedication to covering the early days of the internet made her one of the most influential writers about the internet and she authored two books about AOL: aol.com: How Steve Case Beat Bill Gates, Nailed the Netheads and Made Millions in the War for the Web, and a sequel, There Must Be a Pony in Here Somewhere: The AOL Time Warner Debacle and the Quest for a Digital Future.
The AllThingsD conference became one of the most influential tech conferences in the US, including appearances from both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
On 1 January 2014 Swisher and Mossberg struck out on their own and created a new technology site called Re/Code. Just a year and a half later – a few weeks ago, in fact – Re/Code was acquired by Vox Media, the publisher of The Verge, in an all-stock transaction.
Our interview begins with a discussion about her and Mossberg’s respective styles. Mossberg is one of the most celebrated technology reviewers in the US, writing reviews of gadgets with a clarity and lack of jargon that ensures the review is accessible and enjoyable – but most of all informative. His opinion could make or break a product’s likelihood of success. “Mossberg, our friend, is no longer writing good things about us,” Steve Jobs raged at executives following Mossberg’s reaction to the poor MobileMe rollout in 2008.
Swisher gets right to the point, teasing out the most vital details and nuances, again making the facts accessible and easy to digest.
“Walt has always been strong in that way,” she says fondly. “Techies like to complicate things so you don’t know what’s going on. Walt calls it a priesthood that tries to act like this stuff is complicated. Technically it is, but once you know how to use it… no one should be confused or tricked by the technorati. That’s important to both of us.
On her own approach she says: “Lots of reporters should be curious. People won’t give you straight answers or there’s a lot of doublespeak no matter where you go, especially in politics. I think the technology industry initially was a very honest place and now as they’ve gotten bigger, richer and more self-important they tend to believe their own stories and narratives, which are often overblown and hyped. If people keep telling you that you are ruling the world, you start to believe them.”
I would say in Silicon Valley there’s a lot of big minds chasing small ideas. I’m really excited when they chase the big ideas like how to deal with poverty, cancer, illness and inequality
I point out the window to Google’s shimmering headquarters across the so-called Silicon Docks and gesture in the direction of Facebook’s new headquarters just a few yards away.
So are these guys masters of the universe or just geeks with lots of money who believe their own PR? Swisher makes it clear she would rather see Silicon Valley and every other tech ecosystem focus on real world problems.
“The world is a super complex place where you could think by creating a social network you are fixing real problems in the world, you are not. Some of these guys think they can fix third world comms – they may, but it is not their overall goal. Their goal is to sell a photo app or get people to click on advertising. So technologists tend to overestimate their impact.
“You could make a great argument about the people who created cars being more important from a societal perspective so that people could get out of small towns and see the world. They are just cars, but they do something. I think technology has been super important but the individual players need to think about doing something. I would say in Silicon Valley there’s a lot of big minds chasing small ideas. I’m really excited when they chase the big ideas like how to deal with poverty, cancer, illness and inequality.
“They tend to overestimate their short-term impact and underestimate the long-term impact.
“Ultimately the communication systems, the ability for people to reach each other, the tools that people can use to develop their lives in the third world – women using phones to get loans – and there are some massive implications to be able to be globally connected. I just think that in the moment people can get caught up in the hype of the money, but it is really not the point.”
If you start with certain advantages you tend to do better and even though I think the intention is to be a meritocracy, it is a gamed system for certain groups of people. They don’t think it is gamed. But it is. 100 percent
Being a female reporter capable getting details out of mostly male CEOs and founders has made Swisher who she is today, but as she says that does not make it right.
“I joke about it when I go to events and point out ‘this is a sausage fest’ or ‘hey, have you noticed that there are no women here?’ Adam [Quinton] made a good point on stage that in Silicon Valley they think it is a meritocracy but in reality it is a mirror-ocracy. They look at themselves reflected and think their success is earned and they made it on their own, especially for white men, but in fact they made it there because of the way they look, the way people pattern match against them. A lot of it is their hard work, but there’s an awful lot that people have to contribute but don’t have the same advantages.
“It reminds me of the famous Martin Luther King quote that people who say African Americans should haul themselves up by their bootstraps, but it’s hard to do if they don’t have shoes.
“If you start with certain advantages you tend to do better and even though I think the intention is to be a meritocracy, it is a gamed system for certain groups of people. They don’t think it is gamed. But it is. 100 percent.”
STEM and change in Silicon Valley belongs to the creators, not consumers
Swisher’s observations bring to mind two points made by speakers at Inspirefest that impressed me greatly. Dr Nina Ansary, author of The Jewels of Allah, showed that despite the repressive regime in Iran, Iranian women have been at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs in recent decades. And Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code’s point: “By limiting women in technology we are limiting ourselves to only half of the world’s solutions.”
Swisher wholeheartedly agrees: “There’s this thing I call ‘talentism’. There is talent in Sudan, there is talent in Afghanistan. If you think people in Afghanistan or Iran don’t have entrepreneurial ambition, you are crazy. They are just in a place where they can’t get to articulate themselves in the same way as people in Silicon Valley can.
“Silicon Valley needs to be less insular, it needs to think about the greater impact it can have and how much richer people can be if it just reached out to more people.”
The car industry has a major woman executive running one – Mary Barra, CEO of GM – but the internet companies just have Yahoo!, and that’s not a major internet company anymore
Specifically on women in technology, Swisher said that women’s contribution to the advancement of science, from Ada Lovelace in the 19th century to the code-breakers at Bletchley Park, the ‘Computers’ at ENIAC to Katherine Johnson the African-American physicist who plotted the trajectory of the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon, being blotted from history is nothing new.
“History is written by the victors. It’s only when you scratch the surface and dig you start to realise that there are more contributors than people think – not only women, but a great number of African Americans in the US too.
“Silicon Valley is a melting pot. It represents opportunity, but that’s a lie. It’s a lie told by people who are creating a myth. And so while it is more tolerant than other places, more open-minded, more open to people succeeding that you can succeed from nothing, that is 100pc true. But if you look at the actual statistics they are exactly like the car industry – the car industry has a major woman executive running one [Mary Barra, CEO of GM] but the internet companies just have Yahoo! and that’s not a major internet company anymore.
“I think there is more potential opportunity, but it’s a little bit of a myth that anyone can succeed there, it’s just not so.”
She says change is happening, but not fast enough.
“Sexism and racism? Yes, I would like to think they would be fixed in our century. There are amazing changes going on. Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlin Jenner created a really interesting reaction. You couldn’t have had that 10 years ago, ‘she’ would have been mocked for what ‘he’ did. We are about to have a gay rights referendum but then you look at what’s happened in Charleston … if I was a black man in our country I would feel very, very unsafe.
“Then you have the crazy right wing saying it’s dangerous all over the world that ‘it’s not guns’ fault’. Of course its guns’ fault. Of course, it is racism that persists everywhere. Everywhere throughout our country. We pretend it’s fixed because we have a black president well guess what, it’s not.
“It’s the same thing with sexism and other issues. I think it is good to shine a light on it and at least more people are talking about it and that’s how change happens. That’s how gay rights issues got to the forefront; gay people wouldn’t stop talking about it and it is important that the discussion continues and then actual change will happen.”
Swisher says that for more women to succeed in the technology industry not only does the power structure need to change, the way computer science needs to change too.
She points to efforts by Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd University in California, who as well as being a celebrated computer scientist is an advocate for more women in STEM fields and wants to change how computer science is taught.
“We have to be thinking about how can we get the most talent out of the human race, and especially since women use half the internet – they are bigger consumers of the internet than men are.”
Swisher recalled a fascinating speech she heard at a church in San Francisco where young teenagers were asked why are they consuming apps and not creating them themselves? “’You are like digital sharecroppers,’ they were told. ‘You are doing their work for them and you are not creating and you are not gaining in the wealth and all you are doing is consuming.’ The teens were really hit by it and I was blown away. These were smart kids but they realised how stupid they were being, helping Facebook and Snapchat and others benefit financially from their usage. If you don’t make anything in the future you are going be just a creature, a fuel for these companies, who don’t care about your privacy, who are using all the information they can get on you to make more money for themselves.
“I don’t begrudge them that. But we need to change the conversation around how we educate people and include people. It is really important.”
Swisher on the very near future of media
Swisher said that her and Mossberg’s decision to sell to Vox Media was based on an instinctive feeling that media is about to go through another enormous change that transcends web, mobile and eventually even virtual reality.
“I worked in newspapers and not everything about newspapers is as romantic as people remember it. I was there, trust me. But I think the idea of a rigorous reporting structure is really under pressure and that’s why we sold to Vox because they are one of the few organisations that respects quality journalism. There’s not that many left.
There has never been a better time to be a content creator, but there has never been a more challenging time to figure out the new business model around that because it shifts every hour. First you are on desktop, then you are on mobile and next it will be VR
“Newspapers are under siege financially. Just look at their balance sheets. They are holding on to a print publication they have to publish that fewer people want.
“There has never been a better time to be a content creator, but there has never been a more challenging time to figure out the new business model around that because it shifts every hour. First you are on desktop, then you are on mobile and next it will be VR.
“If you still want to do quality journalism how do you do that? I am not worried about the content business, but I think you have to be super creative in creating new business models. You have to be super-agile.
“I think literally I’ve changed direction 26 times. I’m unusual. Most reporters aren’t like that. I don’t mind the change, but I do find it exhausting. There’s still a lot to learn and most journalists are terrified by it. I am worried about SEO, should I put my content on Facebook, what the hell is Snapchat and should I put money into that? And then there’s the Apple Watch and Apple News.
“The issue is finding audiences today is super-hard. The question is: can you create quality content and the audience will find you? No. It’s very hard and especially in a mobile environment where people consume content in so many ways.”
Newspapers, she believes, are about to be hit the hardest and the change will be dramatic and fast. The Washington Post’s acquisition by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was particularly fortuitous for the paper, but overall the newspaper industry will be hit hard.
“Re/Code had a big audience, we hadn’t spent any of our investors’ money and we were up to US$12m in revenue in a year and a half. But I saw the writing on the wall and decided that rather than be in a vulnerable position three years out, we needed to be attached to a bigger ocean liner that respected quality journalism and had the ethics we had.”
Swisher believes the key word here is impact. “We have a much smaller staff than most news outlets, but we have a bigger impact. Lots of sites have larger audiences but very little impact. Vox has The Verge, which is good at gadgets, while we are more news, business and analysis. It’s a good fit.”
Rather than rest on their laurels, Swisher says she and Mossberg intend to fight on and achieve more breakthroughs.
“I didn’t have this kind of impact when I was a regular reporter. Anyone can talk to their audience now and reach their audience and inspire peoiple. The only reason I go on is because I do good work.
“With Vox we are more aligned with the changes in our industry. Their design and technology are superb and their CTO is an astonishing and creative guy. We have respect for technologists where most reporters don’t. Technologists can really help you tell your stories.”
Inspirefest is Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM with fresh perspectives on leadership, innovation and diversity.