Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorKevin McAllisterNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
People

Why one tech company is rejecting its state's push to reopen

Hypergiant CEO Ben Lamm has found a way to keep R&D operations strong while bucking Texas' reopening trend.

Hypergiant CEO Ben Lamm

Hypergiant's founder and CEO Ben Lamm has decided to keep his team of more than 200 employees in Texas working remotely, even as the state reopens.

Photo: Courtesy of Hypergiant

Hypergiant's founder and CEO Ben Lamm is used to innovating with satellites. COVID-19 presented him a new challenge: to get creative with satellite offices.

Texas is returning to business as usual, even in the face of what Gov. Greg Abbott said Monday was an "unacceptable" rate of spread of coronavirus. But Lamm has decided to keep his team of more than 200 employees in the state working remotely. "The Dallas local government, the Austin government and the Houston government are not as bullish on reopening as the governor is," Lamm said. "Even if all of the cities were moving forward, we're not ready to do that yet."

In a conversation with Protocol, Lamm detailed why he's bucking the trend in Texas, what he's done to reshape Hypergiant's work structure, and how he's planning to ramp back up safely over the course of the next year.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Texas is lifting its pandemic-related restrictions. Hypergiant is bucking that trend by not fully reopening. How did that decision get made?

The opening sequence in America has turned into a very politicized thing, which I don't think it should. If you look at all the stats from Dallas, Austin and Houston, where we have offices, [cases are] just continually growing. I think reopening pretty quickly coupled with the peaceful protests of the Black Lives Matter campaign has created the right environment for things to jump again. It's great that the governor is reopening, but Hypergiant is not following the Texas protocol.

But we're very lucky as a company: While we focus on critical infrastructure, space and defense, 90% of the work we do is software. And I would say that our biggest asset isn't in our patents or crazy technology, it's our people. If someone got sick because we reopened the office too early, if they took it home to their grandmother, and then if someone died because we needed to get back in the office really quickly, I don't think that's something I could have on my conscience. And so it just means that instead of us spending time in the office, we're spending a lot more time on employee health. So the decision criteria that we're using is we're reading all the research on vaccines and best practices.

We do have a shift policy for our space business and our R&D business, though. If someone's working on Gen Two of our bioreactor, they need to physically do that, so we came up with these distributed work labs. We ended up renting a couple of small warehouse spaces, so the bioreactor team is going to work there, and they're going to have a one-in one-out policy. At most, we're going to let two people there, and they'll have to wear a mask the entire time.

I saw a great report come out of Bill Gates' foundation talking about how they're going to let 10% of employees back in their offices starting in August. And then 25% in October, and then 50% by the end of the year. We're tracking towards that. But we may just have people work remote for the rest of the year, unless they absolutely have to be in there. I know people want to restart the economy, and I think there are some businesses where you absolutely have to be there for your livelihood. But if you're fortunate enough not to be under those circumstances, I don't think you should add to the problem.

In that shift dynamic, what's been the hardest thing for your business to work around?

The first is employee health. We have a distributed team outside of Texas. I wrote an article about slow working where I feel like I just have one massive, long workday, which really redefines the work-life balance. Specifically for some of our employees in New York, we're trying to be really flexible with scheduling because people in Austin, Texas, and people that are in New York City have a very different life right now. Whether you're in a one-bedroom apartment or you have a house and a family and a pool can make it a very different life when you're sheltering in place.

R&D has also been a challenge. People don't realize this, but the research — the R in R&D — you can do remotely. And there's a lot more research than development in R&D. So we've gotten further on research, but we haven't announced many new innovations of late because we've been so focused on research and we've been very thoughtful about the development.

The third challenge that we've had, which has actually turned into an opportunity, is our space business. While launches and other components of our constellation as a service platform have been challenging, the excitement for our satellite-monitoring and operations platform that we call H.I.V.E. (hyper intelligent vehicle enhancement) has grown. The entire reason that we built that platform as part of our space business was to allow operators to not just manage three to five satellites from a network operations center, but to be able to manage 150 satellites from your iPad on a boat, using AI in smart automated systems.

While COVID has caused certain challenges with that business from a manufacturing perspective, it created an insane urgency and excitement for our platform. And we've had an influx of people because different government facilities have had limited capacity. If they can't put all of their people in shifts in command centers, and they need to start having people do it from home, what does that look like? Not even just for this pandemic, but for potentially the next?

With H.I.V.E. specifically being designed for remote use, how did the pandemic change the decision-making process related to development and launch?

We've been building our space business for the last two years, and we started working with the Air Force, Space Force and others, and then the pandemic hit. And, since then, then there's been a follow-on of both commercial and government clients and the other defense partners. It's made other industries that rely on face-to-face and that are traditionally outdated, at least from our perspective, to really start to reevaluate what their priorities are.

Systems and mission control and ground station software is just terrible, and that's not because of COVID. They're terrible when it's 74 degrees outside, no wind or clouds, and everyone in the world is healthy. There are bad UIs or rows of texts, and you have to work in a terminal. It's a very grueling process, but it's so important for everything from telecom to critical infrastructure to defense. And so we have wanted to marry great UI/UX with an artificial intelligence layer on top of all the ground station networks so that we could allow those teams to be able to use autonomous tasking or have remote access to their constellation. This has just accelerated that vision.

So if there is a silver lining to COVID, I think one of them is that there's been some rapid advancements of technologies that can make the world better by improving systems that just were really bad. And I think the pandemic shined a big light on what was broken.

For R&D, you said your focus has been on the research side, but how are you thinking about development in relation to the pandemic?

I think that we've made tremendous advances because we've been so focused on the research side. And it's changed my perspective with our R&D group to what we can do right now that could impact lives and make a bigger impact on the world.

Once a quarter, we'll talk about what's coming down the road, and the team recently showed me a robotic agriculture system. [They highlighted] what's happening with big machinery and factory farming, but said there's a big miss in using AI and computer vision for it. [I said] we should do it, but it shouldn't necessarily be the highest priority.

[Then as the pandemic hit,] to not have fresh fruits and vegetables during at least the first phase of COVID was really a shock. And I wished I would have prioritized it because I would've taken the first unit then and tested it, and I could've reported back to the development group in Slack. That kind of changed our mindset of, should we be focusing right now on things that we think are really cool with our R&D? Or should we take a step back and say, what do people need? And reverse how we're looking at it that way.

So we've now obviously accelerated that project. We spend a lot of time researching it, designing it out in CAD and designing all the software systems for it, so it's helped change our perspective.

As you look to the second half of 2020, beyond the circumstances related to the pandemic, what are you most excited for at Hypergiant?

One of the things that we've done recently, even during COVID, is we built out our constellation-as-a-service platform, which includes designing constellations, building constellations, deploying constellations, managing with our software and using our deployers off the ISS and the Sigma spacecraft and a few others that we're going to be announcing. But separately we use that infrastructure for deploying our own constellations. And we've got two constellations that we've been working on: One is an imaging technology that's amazingly groundbreaking. It looks like it's going to work. We've had it work with synthetic data. It worked on drones. We put it in space, and we finally got the data back from space. And so I'm really excited that we will know in 2020 if that works. I know that sounds like kind of a weird thing to be excited to think about, but after several million dollars and two years of work, we will absolutely know if it's one of those groundbreaking technologies.

And then I'm really passionate about climate change. We were going to deploy our Gen Two bioreactor and unveil it at South by Southwest, but obviously that didn't happen. So I'm really excited about rolling that out publicly and then also getting results back from some of these buildings that we partnered with — to physically go to a building, and see our bioreactor making a difference on climate change and then being able to look to see what the scale is on the city level. Those are both things that we've spent a lot of time and effort on that we think they could be pretty impactful to the world and to our business.

Protocol | Enterprise

Alphabet goes deep into industrial robotic software with Intrinsic

If it succeeds, the gambit could help support Google Cloud's lofty ambitions in the manufacturing sector.

Alphabet is aiming to make advanced robotic technology affordable to customers.

Photo: Getty Images

Alphabet launched a new division Friday called Intrinsic, which will focus on building software for industrial robots, per a blog post. The move plunges the tech giant deeper into a sector that's in the midst of a major wave of digitization.

The goal of Intrinsic is to "give industrial robots the ability to sense, learn, and automatically make adjustments as they're completing tasks, so they work in a wider range of settings and applications," CEO Wendy Tan-White wrote in the post.

Keep Reading Show less
Joe Williams

Joe Williams is a senior reporter at Protocol covering enterprise software, including industry giants like Salesforce, Microsoft, IBM and Oracle. He previously covered emerging technology for Business Insider. Joe can be reached at JWilliams@Protocol.com. To share information confidentially, he can also be contacted on a non-work device via Signal (+1-309-265-6120) or JPW53189@protonmail.com.

As President of Alibaba Group, I am often asked, "What is Alibaba doing in the U.S.?"

In fact, most people are not aware we have a business in the U.S. because we are not a U.S. consumer-facing service that people use every day – nor do we want to be. Our consumers – nearly 900 million of them – are located in China.

Keep Reading Show less
J. Michael Evans
Michael Evans leads and executes Alibaba Group's international strategy for globalizing the company and expanding its businesses outside of China.
People

To combat disinformation, centralize moderation

There's more to content moderation than deplatforming.

In addition to interplatform collaboration, big tech companies would also benefit from greater collaborations with academic researchers, government agencies or other private entities, the authors argue.

Image: Twitter

Yonatan Lupu is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Nicolás Velasquez Hernandez is a lecturer at the Elliott School of International Affairs and a postdoctoral researcher at GW's Institute for Data, Democracy and Politics.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' signing of a bill that penalizes social media companies for deplatforming politicians was yet another salvo in an escalating struggle over the growth and spread of digital disinformation, malicious content and extremist ideology. While Big Tech, world leaders and policymakers — along with many of us in the research community — all recognize the importance of mitigating online and offline harm, agreement on how best to do that is few and far between.

Keep Reading Show less
Protocol | Fintech

Marqeta turns to a fintech outsider

Randy Kern, a Salesforce and Microsoft veteran, is taking a plunge into the payments world.

Randy Kern is joining Marqeta after decades at Microsoft and Salesforce.

Photo: Marqeta

Marqeta has just named a new chief technology officer. And it's an eyebrow-raising choice for a critical post as the payments powerhouse faces new challenges as a public company.

Randy Kern, who joined Marqeta last month, is a tech veteran with decades of engineering and leadership experience, mainly in enterprise software. He worked on Microsoft's Azure and Bing technologies, and then went on to Salesforce where he last served as chief customer technology officer.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Signal at (510)731-8429.

Protocol | Policy

What can’t Jonathan Kanter do?

Biden's nominee to lead the DOJ's antitrust section may face calls to remove himself from issues as weighty as cracking down on Google and Apple.

DOJ antitrust nominee Jonathan Kanter's work as a corporate lawyer may require him to recuse himself from certain cases.

Photo: New America/Flickr

Jonathan Kanter, President Joe Biden's nominee to run the Justice Department's antitrust division, has been a favorite of progressives, competitors to Big Tech companies and even some Republicans due to his longtime criticism of companies like Google.

But his prior work as a corporate lawyer going after tech giants may require him to recuse himself from some of the DOJ's marquee investigations and cases, including those involving Google and Apple.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Latest Stories