Scituate, Massachusetts; Crailsheim, Germany; worldwide

It has been 15 years since this picture was taken:


NEW YORK, New York (Sept. 11) — Coast Guard crewmembers patrol the harbor after the collapse of the World Trade Center. USCG photo by PA3 Tom Sperduto

and almost 40 years since this picture was taken:


NEW YORK, New York (late 1970s) — my grandparents pose on the Staten Island ferry during a trip to visit the United States.

The talk around the world is of a refugee crisis, with millions of victims displaced by Middle East violence making their way to Europe and Germany adopting a controversial policy of welcoming the asylum seekers.

This situation is particularly poignant for me because I am a child of refugees. My grandparents, aunt, and father escaped from East Germany in 1952.

They left their belongings behind and took only what they would need for a week-long vacation in West Germany, with no intention to return. They didn’t tell the children of their plans until the train had crossed the inter-German border. With the help of strangers and a few acquaintances, they set up a new life. They found work, established a household, and returned to raising their family in a small town called Crailsheim. They raised a family that now extends to my children and will extend to their children beyond them. This family exists thanks to the brave and purposeful decision taken by my grandfather (32 at the time) and grandmother (33 at the time) to make a better life for themselves

In practical terms, this “escape” was a simpler exercise than undertaken by those who risked their lives trying to climb the Wall in Berlin in 1952. Easier choices than the Syrian parents in 2015 who proceeded by leaky raft onto unknown waters, rather than by steel train on established tracks.

They knew the language of their destination country, they had a job lined up, and an apartment arranged. They barely knew anyone, and spoke with a far-away accent. They must have struggled to fit in, to feel comfortable. They must have missed their home, their friends, and their parents. It would be years before they were able to see their family again.

They had no choice but to look forward.

They did not need large accommodation from the locals or from the local government. They were able to begin earning money and paying taxes immediately. They simply had to have the opportunity to continue their lives. The ability to find a job, the opportunity to fit in.

My father struggled less as an 8 year old with a far-away accent and dialect in 3rd grade West Germany than I did years later as a 5 year old in 1st grade America. My father and I both struggled less than an 8 year old Syrian with a different culture and language does in 3rd grade Germany today.

So how much opportunity must be explicitly provided and arranged for refugees? Vs simply leaving them free to pursue their goals and make a life for themselves in new surroundings.

A Syrian refugee in Germany in 2016 is unlikely to know the local language – but any German under the age of 50 has spent at least 5 years learning English. Both German and Syrian children learn English as a second language from elementary school. This should allow a basic level of communication as long as both sides are willing to make an effort. The streets are safe (mostly) and the grocery store shelves stocked. There is a need for regular income to visit those grocery stores. Yes, I have to believe that there are Syrians who were living paycheck-to-paycheck that now face the same economic lives as paycheck-to-paycheck German citizens.

We live in a global community, where barriers to communication and understanding are bridged at large scale each day. We also live in a world where some choose NOT to cross these barriers. There are non-crossers in Boston, in Berlin, in San Francisco, and in Aleppo.

It would seem to me that a young blogger in Syria who could make a modest living in Aleppo could do the same in Crailsheim. They can create web sites in English or Arabic as a young German might do in English or in German. A photographer should have the same “eye” for detail and poignancy in the alternating sun and clouds of Baden-Württemberg as in the near constant sun of the Levant. A teacher who speaks (native) Arabic and (learned) English should be in similar demand as a teacher who speaks (native) German and (learned) English.

The bricklayer from Syria will likely face challenges in Crailsheim just as the bricklayer from Mecklenburg-Vorpommern who arrives in Crailsheim might. This has less to do with the language or country of origin, but with education and skill set.

I am a product of the American school system. I am a firm believer in the structure of democracy and in equality of opportunity, but I am not ignorant of barriers to such equality. Barriers exist due to gender, race, language, and appearance. Such barriers exist across the world. Such barriers exist in Manhattan. In Newton, Massachusetts. In San Francisco. Such barriers existed in 2011 pre-crisis Aleppo, as they did in 2011 pre-crisis Crailsheim.

There are always barriers and there are always opportunities. As a society, we owe each other a certain baseline of understanding and communication. We all owe each other this baseline. Syrian bricklayers. Pittsburgh coal miners. Berlin bloggers. San Francisco programmers. The advances of modern communication and connectedness continue to flatten the world each day. Every day reduces barriers in space, barriers in time, barriers in language, and barriers in understanding.

Don’t get me wrong, many, many barriers still remain. I do not mean to equate the difficulties faced by a female software engineer in San Francisco (born in Boston) directly with the difficulties faced by a female teacher in Berlin (born in Aleppo). The pressures and daily challenges faced by two such 25-year-olds are different in both scope and kind.

What I do want to equate is the responsibility of society. Those of us who stand on the other side of these barriers need to assist when we can. This is true whether we jumped over the barriers to get where we are, or were born on the “right” side of the barriers. We must consider equality of opportunity. We must strive for equality of understanding. We must listen, we must be emphatic, we must assist where we can. We don’t have to write long op-ed editorials, we don’t need to join protests or barricades, we need to think “what can I do?” and “what can I do today?”

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i’m just a softy – aka my twitter journey

The title of this post is thanks to Jessica Lynn Rose (@jesslynnrose an American tweeter in the UK).

As this is my first post in 1200 days, I might be a bit rusty, so bear with me.

I wanted to tell the story of my first nine Twitter months, and what I’ve learned and seen.

I joined in 2011 to find out what all the buzz was about, but I didn’t devote any significant effort to the platform until 2015.

I am a regular Facebook Poster, Liker and Commenter, ever since the death of a close friend in 2008. I realized at the time that it is too easy for us to get caught up in our own busy lives. To forget that there is a wider world of friends and acquaintances that value staying in touch, even if only via electronic connectivity.

I should say at this point that I grew up with technology as the Internet and the World Wide Web grew from mere seedlings. I first started emailing in 1989 when some corners of the still-tiny internet were only reachable via BITNET nodes. You had to know every host along the path to your destination, and uucp!had!similar!limitations. The email username that I still use today at er1p was assigned at random by a Carnegie Mellon computer. Format is first-initial.last-initial.random-digit.random-alphanumeric – four characters for everyone. Except for the sysadmins, who could make their own rules. Those admins likely thought that having four character usernames was future-proof at the time (!)

Over the past months, I have tried to understand how Twitter fits into the modern communication landscape. I realized that it is different than the other networks. It makes possible something quite distinct from what Facebook or LinkedIn or mailing lists offer.

As a reader, I can follow the thoughts and links of interesting and colorful people from around the world.

As a poster – a tweeter – I can engage these same people if I choose to. I may or may not get a response, but there is a potential communication and interaction partner behind each avatar and bio.

As a long-time advocate for and practitioner of inclusion, I realize that this can be a great medium for hearing from and about diverse voices. I resolved to curate my following and my reading in a way that would skew me away from my usual cohort. Expose me to diverse views, topics, and experiences.

In practice, at first this meant that I purposely followed female-looking accounts. Since there are only a limited number of non-male voices in my day-to-day job, I can augment such voices with my online interactions. I can widen my knowledge and experience of the world. I soon learned that don’t-look-like-me is probably a better way to think about the voices I am seeking and over time I learned to take into account a wide range of not-like-me factors in my followings.

There are indeed a wide variety of voices on offer – and it can all be quite cacophonous at times. As in any other human interaction, there are petty things and there are important things. There are confusing things, there are challenging things, and there are insightful things.

There are also boring things. Many of which revolve around attempts to “monetize” the community and its users – sometimes in ways so ham-fisted as to be amusing.

Many years ago, the book collection in my apartment was declared “eclectic” by a psychology PhD student (so basically, a “professional opinion”). I believe that the same is true of the users I have decided to follow on the Twitter.

I follow writers, technologists, businesses, and parody accounts. Plus the occasional celebrity and the occasional “Twitter famous.”

My next step was to try to understand what it might mean to have followers of my own. Why would people follow me? What would it mean for non-spam accounts to favorite, or RT or even reply to one of my own 140 character missives?

In addition, looming behind these questions: how to avoid the perhaps inevitable shitstorm that must certainly be lurking just around an unforeseen corner. I have been selectively following German-language accounts, so I know that this term – often used by European posters – quite accurately describes the phenomenon that I have witnessed numerous times in my feed.

A follower would venture an opinion that others felt to be excessively “controversial” and would thereby attract negative commentary. This commentary would soon drown out any supportive messages. Eventually blocking would ensue and/or the original poster would declare themselves DONE and quit the conversation (sometimes with account deletion; sometimes to return perhaps days, weeks, or months later).

Ultimately, I chose the route of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. I had already gotten somewhat comfortable with Favorites – adding my nod or smile or explicit support to a topic that I felt was one of the better things I had read that day. Taking the Favorite concept seriously, I was selective and marked those few items per day or per session that I felt were the BEST or MOST APPROPRIATE.

Then, in an offline conversation about social media platforms, a friend told me that they had gotten advice from a member of the twitterati that “RTs are the only thing that matters” – and this matches my experience.

Favorites – now Likes – are essentially bookmarks. To be used at some future point to find a comment, link or person that was particularly interesting that day.

To truly support a particular message or user, requires a RT.

I adapted my approach and began my foray with comments on article links – adding specific words of endorsement and encouragement to something I found particularly important or touching or amusing. I figured this had dual benefits: others might be more inclined to check out the article AND the author would know what particular aspect of the work had been impactful – at least what had been impactful to me. This seemed a much more useful and proactive contribution than the Favorite.

Eventually, I ventured into direct replies to attempt to join a conversation thread. Sometimes I felt I wanted to be encouraging to the poster; other times I ventured a piece of information that the poster did not seem to have. I did tread lightly – probably deleting more than half of my replies before ever hitting Send. It seemed this was where misunderstandings and miscommunications could so easily occur. My reply might be seen as patronizing – providing information that the poster was already fully aware of; my encouragement might come across as patronizing; my comment might take the discussion in a direction that the poster hadn’t intended. Nevertheless, I persevered and ventured forth, carrying on a range of insightful and practical conversations.

Then, on 24 July 2015 – just before my birthday, I hit the follow limit. Oh,the tyranny of the FOLLOW LIMIT.

At 2,000 followings, I could no longer follow any further accounts.How could this BE? I wasn’t DONE! There were SO MANY other interesting people and voices to be heard.

Every session now became a struggle. Whenever I saw some new account with interesting insights or a relevant bio, I would have to DELETE an older following to make room for the new voice.

I was wracked with guilt.

I was following accounts with egghead avatars – offline friends who must have tried out Twitter long enough to create an account, but never used it for any significant amount of time. What if TOMORROW was the day that they read an amusing cross-post or heard about some new Twitter happening and STARTED TO POST (and upload and avatar image). What if I unfollowed them today and then TOMORROW they suddenly became twitter interesting?!

The same thought process went for dormant accounts – no tweets for weeks or months at a time – what if they were just TAKING A WELL-DESERVED BREAK? They might be back TOMORROW and have something insightful to report, tanned & rested from their offline, off-Twitter vacation.

It was difficult every single time I dropped someone.

I had no choice, the follow limit forced me to drop one old for every one new. How could I pass up the new voices (over quiet), the lovingly-chosen avatar (over egghead), the blue-checked name (over an account forced to have a numeral at the end, sign often not-so-creative late-comers)?

I struggled every one of my twitter days, but I did it.

There were a few times when I seemed to be able to get a few extras past the limit, to 2,001 regularly, sometimes 2,004 or 2,006 – presumably some bug in a distributed eventual consistency algorithm somewhere. These never lasted long, because I would always have to get back under 2,000 to add even one new, losing all the extras in the process. It was a daily struggle.

Then, one day in October 2015, I was able to go beyond 2,000! 2,010 then 2,025 then 2,100 then 2,300 – oh glorious! I was SAVED! Whatever I had done to appease the Twitter gods had been enough. I had apparently achieved the right level of twitterati, my balance of RTs, Likes, modest commentary, and occasional new-topic post had allowed me to jump the shark of Twitter allowances. I was past the follow limit!

I was hungry as ever for new voices and new insights. I was still determined to be supportive and responsive. I would not squander my new-found Twitter status by being boring or quiet. I kept following, I kept RTing, I kept Liking, I posted occasional responses. It was like the early days.

Then, on December 21st, 2015 – just before Christmas, a new shock came. 5,001.

I was again stuck. No more followings beyond 5,001. What had I done wrong? How had I offended the Twitter gods yet again. I’d been so good, doing what I thought I was supposed to, and here I was RESTRICTED again. HELD BACK and having to once again cull one existing following for each new add.

I think it only took me a few hours before I finally turned to google for help in my new desperation. I found out that not only was the 5,000 limit a permanent one (unless/until I could get my own follower account near or beyond 5,000), but I ALSO learned that the limit had been increased from 2,000 to 5,000 back in October. The limit had been raised for ALL USERS – my ability to follow between 2,000 and 5,000 hadn’t been due to my good behavior, my regular interaction, my avoidance of shitstorms, my eclectic Likes – no, none of those things mattered. I had simply been part of a tide that raised all boats.

Raised them to 5,001 where I once again sit, bobbing at anchor. Every day having to determine who to drop when someone new comes along.

(to be continued)

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agility and diversity, oh my

According to the t-shirt record (think “the fossil record”), the last time I was in San Diego for the USENIX LISA (Large Installation System Administration) conference was in 2008, but I also got to the San Jose (2010) and briefly to the Boston (2011) events.


USENIX LISA 2008 tshirt

Two of the most inspiring talks this year were on the afternoons of the last two days.

The closing keynote, by Aussie Geoff Halprin covered a lot of ground to summarize “15 Years of DevOps” (the open access mavens at USENIX have made Geoff’s slides available here).

What I found most interesting in the talk was the blurring of the lines that the “cloud” and “DevOps” evolutions over the past few years have allowed in traditional technology development positions. Much of Geoff’s talk focussed on processes and approaches (like e.g. agile software development), but the evolution of jobs and job titles is also a significant impact.

The obvious blurring is between the “development” team (nee programmers) and the “operations” team (nee sysadmins) just as the term DevOps implies. The more subtle blurring also applies to traditional titles such as “software engineer” and “quality assurance (QA) engineer”.

The obvious blurring is between the “development” team (nee programmers) and the “operations” team (nee sysadmins) just as the term DevOps implies. As he said, if you make the engineers carry the beepers, they tend to make fewer poor design and implementation choices.

The more subtle blurring also applies to traditional titles such as “software engineer” and “quality assurance (QA) engineer”. New titles like “reliability engineer” make it clear that a concern for quality, reliability, resilience and (ultimately) great customer experience is everyone’s job. It isn’t enough to just do solve “your piece” of the problem and then pass it to the next point in the chain to do “their piece”. Statements like “we’ll write a procedure so that the field operations team can work around [a problem]” need to be seen as band-aids at best and only applied when absolutely, positively necessary. Then such “technical debt” needs to be repaid as soon as reasonably possible.

This brings me to the tie-in for diversity. There was a session at LISA the day before, Advancing Women in Computing moderated by Rikki Endsley with a smart, focussed and on-topic set of panelists who had some great advice to contribute to the discussion.

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long-term storage

Yesterday and today, I participated on a panel session at the 2012 Designing Storage Architectures (DSA) Workshop in Washington, DC. This event brings together library, government, academic and industry participants to talk about research and advances in digital preservation and long-term digital storage.

The challenge to the panelists was to propose a design for 5, 20 and 50 petabyte (PB) storage systems today (2012), in three years (2015) and in six years (2018). I believe the intent was to show that different sized systems in different technology eras would require different media and system designs. My contention is that hard drive based systems are the obvious solution for all three cases, both today and in six years time. Details are in my talk linked below.

With slides available via the workshop web site.

Disks are cheap, take two (thousand).

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february links – tidbits on trendy topics


10th anniversary of the USENIX FAST Conference took place with over 500 attendees in San Jose – slides, videos and papers available here – one study on NAND evaluation made it to PC World and other news outlets. Great to see how this community has grown since our first little event in Monterey. Hopefully everyone with clever new ideas will bring them to HotStorage and HotCloud in Boston in June


Blog – Lorrie Cranor of Carnegie Mellon on why P3P automated privacy policy management isn’t working any more, and why Facebook, Google and others care, but really don’t care – topic picked up by ars technicaWSJ, ZDnet and CNET

Forbes – Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did – luckily the folks at Target have learned their lesson and now hide their knowledge of customers’ personal lives better (!)

NYTimes – electronic security when travelling to China – use of “disposable” laptops and cellphones (wipe before leaving, wipe after return) is common for visitors from both gov’t and industry

diversity & culture

NYTimes – Educated Women & Marriage – another “barrier” to women’s success falls as attitudes evolve. Also provides helpful advice for husbands, including the quote “The most important predictor of marital happiness for a woman is not how much she looks up to her husband but how sensitive he is to her emotional cues and how willing he is to share the housework and child-care.”


innovation games – using serious games for corporate strategy discussions – more discussion, less boredom, better results

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greek cabbies cheat – but not that much

Crowdy AthensAt the end of a very long post last week on a different topic, I mentioned this gem of an academic study on Greek cab drivers. The study was done by a group of Austrian economics professors in mid-2010, so before the full extent of the recent eurozone crisis.

Turns out almost half of passengers are subject to at least 5% overtreatment (driving further than necessary) but explicit overcharging occurs in just 11% of the cases. Those who say “I am not familiar with the area” tend to get overcharged. Also those wearing a suit and tie.

Nothing surprising here from the point of view of anyone who travels regularly, but the rigor and vocabulary of the whole study makes it clear why we need economics professors to study and quantify things like this for us.

TaxiThey also cite an older, but related study of credence goods which indicates that up to 1/2 of all car repairs may be overtreatment as well, although a portion of that may be attributable simply to mechanic incompetence.

I just think it’s great that these professors were able to combine their work with their vacations quite so neatly! Sort of like travel writers or food critics.

Or those of us in technology who have no choice but to regularly research the newest gadgets in order to stay up to date or “increase our productivity”.

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women don’t compete – encouraging diversity

Diversity Feet

I believe that supporting diversity is much wider than women vs. men or under-represented minorities in the workplace. Encouraging a diversity of approaches and viewpoints and experiences is the essence of teamwork, and becomes more critical each year as the complexity and ambition of what organizations are trying to achieve increases.

The proximal cause of this post is a discussion earlier in the week among some Facebook friends about this article that appears in the current issue of the journal Science. I don’t have access to the full article or study, so my only information is from the extended summary. I don’t intend this post as a commentary on this particular study per se, but I want to use the reported findings to make a wider point.

The gist of the study results match “previous economic studies” which show that women disproportionately choose not to enter a competition – whether for job, promotion, award, adding numbers (the study), or other achievement – and as a result, do not win such competitions as often as men do. What the study tries to show is that if additional incentives are provided (“affirmative action”, their words), then women will increase their participation in the competitions under study (adding numbers), and as a result will win more often overall. They attempt to control for different inherent skill levels and also evaluate whether there are subsequent negative effects on teamwork by the additional inventives toward the women (they find none). Again, my point isn’t to promote this study, but to make a wider point from my own experience.

the field through the first mile of the 27th running of the Army Ten-Miler on 9 October 2011 in Arlington, VAI believe the point is wider in two ways. First, I believe that this result is likely equally valid if the two categories were blind to gender and the participants are “people more likely to enter competition” and “people less likely to enter competition” rather than “men” and “women”. There are ancillary points about specifically women vs. men, and the authors are trying to address this toward “affirmative action” policies as in their title, but the idea that different people approach “competitions” differently should be familiar to anyone who has ever operated in a business environment, or any social environment for that matter.

Gingy comes to a Fork in the Road - July 10th, 2011

choices - fork in the road

Second – and this may be a more tenuous leap, but please stick with me – the focus on “competition” is likely narrower than necessary. We all know from our own business (and personal) lives that we are faced every single day with a wide range of choices about when to participate (“compete”) and when to stay on the sidelines (“not compete”). Many such choices and situations can likely be fit into a viewpoint of “I win/you lose” competition, but many are simply choices without an inherent “winner” and “loser” to be found, they are just “choices”.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about diversity.

In a past job I was the executive sponsor for my site’s diversity committee. The corporation – under the guidance of a senior executive who strongly believed in the power of diversity – had decided to “think global, act local” and give volunteer committees at each site the autonomy and the support of local management to promote and encourage diversity awareness and education among our colleagues.

Our site had a particularly interesting perspective, because as a research lab filled with Ph.D.s from a broad set of fields, we had significant diversity in several dimensions. The products we were building technology for required fiendishly difficult physics, chemistry, material science, signal processing, computer engineering and computer science. Among a staff of 250 people, we had 68 countries represented – a veritable United Nations of science and technology. As a German citizen myself (I came to the United States when I was 5 years old), I directly feel the impact of cultural diversity even though I am most obviously in the white American male category (no noticeable accent, the occasional Steelers sweatshirt, eat with my fork in the right hand).

quinn's by jenny downing, on FlickrAs a result of this background, it was logical for me to think of diversity in the widest sense – not just covering under-represented groups of women or ethnic minorities – but also thinking of my small group of computer science/computer engineering colleagues within a sea of “real scientists” at the lab; the minority group of us who do not bleed “black and gold” from August to January each year (something one dared not let on when walking the streets of Pittsburgh); and fork-in-the-right-hand eaters (something one only really noticed when a group of European visitors came to visit and there was a lull in the dinner conversation).

Whenever we watched videos or had discussions about accepting diverse viewpoints and different approaches to problem-solving (the “corporate diversity” crowd positions this as different ethnic and cultural backgrounds resulting in different approaches), I simply thought:

  • “of course the physicists are seeing this problem differently than the computer scientists”
  • “of course when we discuss how cool a new technology idea is, the marketing person doesn’t get it because they aren’t thinking like a wow-this-is-sooo-cool engineer”
  • “of course the finance person back at HQ doesn’t understand why we need to spend so much money, because they don’t have to arrange to break or bend a law of physics every 3 or 4 years”
  • “I sure hope someone else in the room understands that chemical reaction they have up on the whiteboard, because it is all Greek to me and they might be turning lead into gold.”

The fact that two engineers with similar training might look at a problem differently simply because one of them was female and the other male just fits right into the continuum of trained-in-US vs. trained-in-Asia; trained-as-scientist vs. trained-as-engineer; learned-to-program-with-Pascal vs. learned-to-program-with-Java differences inherent in our staff.

awaken-your-problem-solver-from-within-mind-map by jean-louis zimmermann, on FlickrThis post is getting toward 1,000 words, so what is my point? I believe that diversity covers all these various aspects of how and why different people might approach problems differently. I also believe that in a field as complex and varied as the development of new computing technology (perhaps it is different for doctors or lawyers or Hollywood actors), there are already so many different and varied ideas floating around, that it should be so easy to make room for the incremental diversity added by women and under-represented minorities.

So the goal of increasing the likelihood of women or left-handed-fork-holders or soccer fans to “compete” (i.e. “participate”) in a discussion or technical debate is a win for all. The more viewpoints and insights are included in the decision-making, the better any data-driven decision will likely be (I will leave the efficiency of decision-making for others to discuss, or perhaps another post).

The key is to increase participation and reduce apathy. So whether we do that via the incentives-to-compete of Sutter and Balafoutas; or by involving “kids these days” in game playing as a way to help save the world (Jane McGonigal – watch the TED talk, really, it’s worth it); or by making sure that we go around the room to help the “quiet folks” also get their viewpoints heard; all of these approaches will help us widen the discussion, get better and deeper insight, and come to better solutions.

This post now exceeds 1,000 words, but I still want to point out some additional readings that I think continue to broaden this point.

    • a previous study by one of the authors of the competition article considered gender differences in competition at an early age and showed noticeable effects from three to eighteen year olds.
    • some work done in Pittsburgh on the diversity topic comes to related conclusions on how different people approach negotiation and applies to men as well – Women Don’t Ask by Linda Babcock of Carnegie Mellon.
    • two recent popular press books on how people make decisions, Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (read it to find out why people with higher social security numbers pay more for things on eBay) and Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler (read it to find out why salad at eye level is just as likely to get eaten as ice cream at eye level).
    • and finally, note that the authors of the competition study also studied cheating by Greek cab drivers!

Please make sure that you think about diversity and inclusion every day; please make sure that everyone in the room gets heard one way or another. You will get more information, you will have richer discussions, and you will get better results – applies whether you are out to save the world, or overcome technology barriers, or improve your customers’ experience with your products.

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