5 things you should know about tech today

- May 5, 2020 5 MIN READ
Elon Musk


Welcome to Tuesday. Here’s what we’ve spotted

1.  Amazon VP resigns over company’s treatment of workers

As exit interviews go, engineer Tim Bray’s observations on company culture and he resigned from Amazon last week are a doozy.

The Canadian vice-president of Amazon Web Services and respected engineer resigned his US$1m+ job after five years and five month in protest over the company firing workers who raise concerns about health and safety.

“I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of covid-19,” Bray wrote on his blog.

He praises AWS saying “it’s a different story. It treats its workers humanely, strives for work/life balance, struggles to move the diversity needle (and mostly fails, but so does everyone else), and is by and large an ethical organization. I genuinely admire its leadership.”

Bray’s issue is with Amazon, owned by the world’s richest man, and his assessment is scathing.

“At the end of the day, the big problem isn’t the specifics of covid-19 response. It’s that Amazon treats the humans in the warehouses as fungible units of pick-and-pack potential. Only that’s not just Amazon, it’s how 21st-century capitalism is done,” he wrote.

“Amazon is exceptionally well managed and has demonstrated great skill at spotting opportunities and building repeatable processes for exploiting them. It has a corresponding lack of vision about the human costs of the relentless growth and accumulation of wealth and power.”

Bray’s view is that legislators need to step in and push a leash on the company.

“If we don’t like certain things Amazon is doing, we need to put legal guardrails in place to stop those things. We don’t need to invent anything new; a combination of antitrust and living-wage and worker-empowerment legislation, rigorously enforced, offers a clear path forward,” he wrote.

“Firing whistleblowers isn’t just a side-effect of macroeconomic forces, nor is it intrinsic to the function of free markets. It’s evidence of a vein of toxicity running through the company culture. I choose neither to serve nor drink that poison.”

And as he notes about the people the company has fired: “I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?”

Bray details how he “snapped” in mid-April after two employees, Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, were fired after their involvement in a petition for improve coronavirus protections for warehouse workers.

“The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing,” he wrote.

He raised the issues internally and privately saying “VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue” but concluded in the end that , “remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.”

You can read his full post here.


2. Elon monk

Ever since Victor Newman first appeared in The Young and the Restless 40 years ago, the world has awaited a character with equal charisma and entertainment value.

Our prayers were answered with the larger-than-life Telsa founder, who added a new plot twist to his life story on the weekend that suggests he’s either been reading Matthew 19:21, watching a Netlix doco on Jain asceticism, or is pondering how to pay the private school fees of his newborn baby (more on that shortly), alongside those of his other five sons.

He’s going to sell (almost) everything he owns. Perhaps he’s about to launch a rental app.

That will keep him busy, with Business Insider reporting that Musk owns at least seven houses worth a combined US$100 million, including six mansions in Bel Air.

It’s also annoying for his children and their inheritance.

On Monday evening US time, he became a father for the seventh time with his partner, musician Grimes. (Musk has twins boys, and triplets, with his first wife, Canadian author Justine Wilson, and they lost their first child to SIDS).

The news arrived again via Twitter, but as an aside to a Tesla fan that “mom and baby all good”. The child was due on May 4.

Congrats dad. If you can invent a self-driving car, surely the self-changing nappy can’t be far off.


3. Spotify on song

Swedish music streaming company Spotify reckons “every day now looks like the weekend” as a consequence of the coronavirus lockdown. Announcing its quarterly results last week, the company said paid subscribers were up 31%.

The company admitted it expected to lose paid subscribers as it saw consumption decline, but instead “both new and reactivated MAUs [monthly active users] grew substantially even during lockdown periods in major markets”, with premium subscribers beating the 129 million estimate by one million and total monthly active users also 3 million up on the estimate to 286 million. Nonetheless, revenue fell €100 million (AU$171 million) short of the €1.86 billion estimate expected by analysts, with advertising falling away by 20% in the final three weeks of the quarter.

The company revised down its fiscal 2020 revenue project to €7.65-8.05 billion from the previous €8.19 billion estimate.

But there’s been some changes in consumption habits, with a lack of commuters seeing podcasts fall away. Here’s what Spotify said about how we’re using it:

“It’s clear from our data that morning routines have changed significantly. Every day now looks like the weekend. This trend was seen more significantly in Podcasts than in Music, likely due to the fact that Car and Commute use cases have changed quite dramatically.

“However, listening time around activities like cooking, doing chores, family time, and relaxing at home have each been up double digits over the past few weeks. Audio has also taken on a greater role in managing the stress and anxiety many are feeling in today’s unprecedented environment.

“Two in five consumers we surveyed in the US said they were listening to music to manage stress more than they typically do, which explains the recent rise we’ve seen in searches for ‘chill’ and ‘instrumental’. We’ve also seen an uptick in consumption of podcasts related to wellness and meditation over the last few weeks.”


4. Airtasker’s new job

Odd jobs marketplace Airtasker has created new role for engineering VP Yaniv Bernstein as Chief Operating Officer. He’ll join CEO and co-founder Tim Fung and chief financial officer Nathan Chadwick as the company’s senior management team.

Bernstein’s been with the tech startup for two years, having previously been at Google Maps, Flare and YouTube. Fung said his new COO played a critical role in scaling Airtasker’s engineering and data science functions, creating a platform to expand globally. Bernstein said his first 90 days in the new role will be about focusing the company’s alignment to the challenges resulting from covid-19.

“We’ve brought the combined brainpower of the entire company to bear, and there are some incredible ideas about how to empower our community of Taskers to earn an income from their skills in these difficult times,” he said.


5. Car virus

Something counter-intuitive is going on as people start to move around, even before lockdown restrictions were eased, with car sharing platforms reporting higher usage amid concerns over public transport.

Car Next Door CEO Will Davies said national bookings for member cars, which were running at 20,000 monthly before the virus hit, had halved by mid-April – but bookings are now rising 20% weekly, with the group expecting 12,000-14,000 bookings in May.“Even before the restrictions were loosened, people were starting to get around more. We might be a pretty good indicator of the activity that’s going on,” he said.

Car sharing group Popcar saw a 7% t increase in both new sign ups and reservations in March compared with January, and ride-hailing group Didi said there had been a small upturn in the number of trips taken.

All those extra cars on the road mean you’re going to be spending more time in congestion in a car that you’d hope it’s put through an autoclave after each passenger.