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December 28, 2020
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Good morning! Hope you had a wonderful holiday weekend, unwrapping PS5s and Quest 2s and a really untenable number of smart-home gadgets. Our newsletters this week are going to look back at 2020 and forward into 2021, with a helping of the day's news to keep you up to speed. This Monday, we have the biggest tech stars of 2020, a year in the life of Google's head of search, and new heights for Bitcoin.
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The Big Story
The new who's who in tech
We had a tough time deciding what to even call the story that became our 2020 Breakthrough List. How do you pick the best of the year, when the year was 2020 and pretty much universally bad for everyone? How can you pick the winners and losers when really nobody's one or the other? Instead, our list came to represent the people who made the biggest dent in the 2020 discourse — for better, for worse, or for something between.
Biz Carson narrowed it down to 17 people, but here are the ones I'd put at the top.
- Eric Yuan, CEO of Zoom: No company had a bigger year than Zoom. It hasn't been easy: Yuan had to build a new security team to address privacy flaws, and the DOJ charged a former Zoom employee in China with disrupting video calls held in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square massacre. But Zoom's revenue has skyrocketed, and Yuan was named Time's Businessperson of the Year for 2020. Yuan is everywhere, and so is Zoom.
- Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX: Elon Musk has all the Twitter followers, but Gwynne Shotwell has played an equally important role in getting SpaceX to space. It's been a banner year for the company and its leader: It won new contracts with the DOD and made huge strides with its Starlink project. Even when SpaceX's rockets exploded, it was good news for the company. And Shotwell & Co. seem poised for an even bigger 2021.
- Brian Armstrong, CEO of Coinbase: Who could forget the "mission-driven" blog post? Armstrong's call for more focus and less politics was championed by several leaders in tech who felt like politics in the workplace had gone too far, and it came at a time when even giants like Google and Facebook were clamping down on internal conversations. But others saw it as an abdication of responsibility to improve diversity and inclusion, in favor of a strictly capitalist stance. At least 60 employees quit over the memo, but that hasn't slowed Armstrong down a bit: Coinbase filed to go public just two weeks ago.
- Ifeoma Ozoma, Aerica Shimizu Banks, Emily Kramer and Françoise Brougher: In June, Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks publicly quit their jobs at Pinterest after coming forward with their allegations of racism and sexism at the company. Ozoma and Banks were just the start of women holding their employer's accountable this year: Pinterest also faced an additional lawsuit from its former COO, Françoise Brougher, and Emily Kramer sued her former employer, Carta, over claims of gender discrimination, retaliation and wrongful termination. As Biz noted, their experiences are a reminder that the treatment of women in the tech industry is still far from equitable.
- Tim Stokely, founder of OnlyFans: Before the pandemic, OnlyFans had a sizable and growing following in the adult entertainment world as a place where creators could sell content to a dedicated fan base. Now it's grown past its porn-y roots into what many are calling a silent media giant. Cardi B released a behind-the-scenes "WAP" video through her OnlyFans account, and even Beyonce's name-dropped the company. That OnlyFans is reportedly profitable and wants to expand next into sports and comedy content means you'll probably hear more of Stokely very soon.
The rest of our 2020 Breakthrough List includes names like Vanessa Pappas, Frank Slootman and Trevor Milton, and investors like Chamath Palihapitiya. Check it out, and let me know who we missed!
How Google's Nick Fox replaced his commute
To mark the end of 2020, we've asked the same questions of some of the most interesting people in tech to find out what they've learned this year, how their work has changed and what's going to stick going forward. Today, Google's VP of product management Nick Fox.
What was the biggest change to your personal work habits in 2020, outside of all the obvious stuff like "more video calls?"
I used to have a 2+ hour commute every day and now my commute is about a 10 second walk, so that's a bonus! That said, I've had to be much more intentional in how I allocate time and attention. It's much easier for work to seep into family time, so I'm very deliberate in signing off at the end of the day, so I can be present for my family and also to attempt to model that behavior for the team. I try to be intentional about checking in with coworkers; I can't just assume we'll bump into each other in the hallway. Being intentional about making sure people are heard in meetings over video calls is also top of mind, so that everyone has the opportunity to share their opinion.
Is there anything you wish you or your team had done sooner (in 2020 or even before), knowing what we know now about how the world works?
One of the most important takeaways for me is leading with empathy and remembering that everyone's personal circumstances may be very different. In many ways, the office creates an artificial level of homogeneity, as you don't always know whether someone is caring for young children, or maybe an aging parent, or has other factors impacting their lives. When you're working from home, that boundary can go out the window. I think we can all bring more empathy to the workplace and relate to each other as people.
What's one thing that was new to you or your team in 2020 that you're definitely going to carry over in 2021?
COVID has forced us to be much more strict in how we prioritize. This was the first global pandemic we've seen of this scale, and we quickly focused our attention on meeting new, unique information needs. That helped us launch and then iterate faster than perhaps we've ever done with Google Search, and we were able to make incredible progress within a very short timespan, launching new experiences and forming partnerships with organizations like WHO and health organizations in countries around the world. This was an important learning moment, and we plan to bring those prioritization practices into next year and beyond.
What company, other than your own, have you been most impressed to watch this year?
The ingenuity and creativity that we've seen from many local and small businesses has been so inspiring, whether that's a company pivoting their factories to produce hand sanitizer, an events businesses helping hospitals set up greater capacity with tents, or many of the local restaurants that have had to pivot their service models in order to survive. There are so many small businesses even in my own neighborhood that have acted quickly to help people and their employees.
What 2020 tech story or trend are you most interested in following next year?
The pandemic has disrupted the balance of technology in our lives. There are real benefits to all this technology. You can now go to the doctor from the safety of your home. You can get great access to education from anywhere. But having these experiences in person is valuable too, and there's excitement to go back to that again. So where does the new balance end up? What will 2021 (and beyond) look like as we re-negotiate this balance between virtual and personal experiences?
Bonus question: What's the best tech-related gift you've gotten or given recently?
This might be low-tech, but I was gifted an Instant Pot during COVID and it has completely changed my BBQ ribs game!
The lockdowns this year have transformed our homes into offices, schools, concert halls, movie theaters and gyms. Our homes are working harder for us, but so is our technology. The device that is working the hardest is perhaps the TV — becoming our lifeline to a far more virtual world.
In Other News
- China is coming after Jack Ma. After submarining Ant's IPO earlier this year, the government is now investigating Alibaba on antitrust grounds. Ant, meanwhile, was ordered to restructure its business and set up a financial holding company.
- On Protocol: Trump said Congress has agreed to terminate or reform Section 230. He said that was in exchange for him signing the COVID relief bill, but neither Mitch McConnell nor Nancy Pelosi mentioned Section 230 reform in their statements about the signing.
- Bitcoin continues to spike. It broke the $25,000 barrier for the first time on Christmas Day, and people such as Tim Draper are saying the boom times are only just beginning.
- Google told its scientists to "strike a positive tone" in their research papers, Reuters reports. It also told one researcher to "remove all references to Google products."
- Chatroulette is making a pandemic-inspired comeback, because it's perfect for a world in which nobody's met a stranger in a year. And thanks to some clever AI, it's finally figuring out how to be (mostly) SFW.
- Facebook is getting out of Ireland. In a corporate sense, anyway: it's bringing its IP back to the U.S. while it continues to fight with the IRS over how it should pay taxes.
- The Facebook ad boycott is officially over. Unilever hasn't advertised on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter since July, but said it felt Facebook has made enough progress for it to start spending again.
- The White House tech carousel continues: Jeff Richetti, the brother of a White House counsellor, is now lobbying for Amazon. He signed up a week after Biden won the election.
- Hawaii is getting a Tesla supercharger! And surprise surprise, it's heading to Larry Ellison's island. Guy's gotta get around now that he lives there, I guess.
One More Thing
Never trust a Zoom bookshelf
The bookshelf behind me in Zoom calls is mostly filled with tech books and Harry Potter titles, with the occasional Russian novel thrown in just to make me look smart (and to act as bookends, since they're all 9,000 pages and weigh 100 pounds). I came by my collection honestly, but not everyone does: Our friends at POLITICO found that people all over Washington are buying books by the foot, looking to create the perfect aesthetic and intellectual background for their video calls. And once you notice the curated sets, you'll never be able to un-see them.
Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to email@example.com, or our tips line, firstname.lastname@example.org. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.