As part of Built In’s Expert Contributor Network, tech professionals and executives from every specialty published more than 600 articles in 2021, everything from granular and technical tutorials to propulsive narratives to acerbic commentary on current events. Unless you were obsessive, you very likely missed some good reads. With this in mind, the experts editors rounded up the most compelling and thought-provoking columns of the past year. Start 2022 right with this unordered list of not-to-miss articles across 12 core expertise and subject categories.
Make Company Leadership Stop Ignoring Your Analytics by Edward Hearn
Edward Hearn combines the acumen of an academic with the sense of humor of a stand-up comic. This one deals with the conflict between analytics and gut-based reasoning. His argument is, as usual, rock-solid and crammed with useful examples. But the way he constructs the narrative makes the reader wonder why there was ever any conflict there at all.
Data expert Kaycee Lai makes a bold prognostication for data science: Soon, “data fabric” will follow the same path from obscurity to ubiquity as consumer Internet. The concept is simple and Lai’s explanation is straightforward. A data fabric is an integrated virtual layer that connects all of an organization’s data to the processes and software associated with it. However, the possibilities are much more profound. Whatever the outcome of this particular called shot, the Expert Contributor Network is where experts can let their imaginations run wild and share their predictions with their industry — to tantalize, to exhort, to inspire their peers — and this is a great example of that possibility.
Is Football Ready for a Tech-Driven Revolution? by Kevin Hisey
Kevin Hisey works with a company that uses wearables and a variety of other techniques to analyze athletes. They’ve helped a lot of players prepare for the NFL draft, and in this piece, Hisey shows several of the ways in which their technology improves our ability to understand and quantify an athlete’s performance. Using advanced data, we can revolutionize the way athletes train and the way coaches guide their players. Obviously, the subject matter here is a little lighter, but like the Vaus and Weiss piece below, this is a good example of the breadth of our expert coverage.
Software Development and Engineering
Writing the code wasn’t the hard part. Wrangling our antiquated systems was. Talk about a self-inflicted wound. As a result, our best engineers started quitting, frustrated at the inability to do their jobs. At first it was a few, and before we knew it, nearly half of our engineers had quit. Half! It was an absolute disaster, and it almost tanked the company.
In this lengthy (but supremely readable) excerpt from his acclaimed book, Ask Your Developer, Lawson explains the emergence of DevOps as a software engineering discipline and the outsized benefits it brings an organization: Owning a code packet end to end means no more passing the buck (in Lawson’s terms, ‘throwing it over the wall’) and thus inspires developers to write higher-quality code from the start. Moreover, Lawson extols the virtues of “platform developers,” in particular the flip-flop-wearing Texan coding autodidact, Jason Hudak, whose high standards and clear principles pulled Twilio back from the brink of collapse.
Should You Embrace No-Code Software? by Marianne Bellotti
Low-code and no-code software emerged as a major topic of conversation in 2021, and in this piece, Bellotti gives a frank and concise explanation of the reasons why an organization might choose one of these solutions. Consider this authoritative primer your best first read on the subject as the popularity of these solutions continue to grow in 2022.
Founders and Entrepreneurship
VCs Need to Stop Using This Phrase by Rachel Lo
Rachel Lo illustrates here that the phrase “too early” is a sort of catch-all term that VC investors use to dismiss any project they don’t want to commit to without burning the bridge. She demonstrates that it’s a disingenuous way to avoid having to make substantive claims about your feelings on a project, and it (not surprisingly) has outsized impact on non-white, non-male founders. The article is well-argued and structurally rigorous, but it’s Lo’s voice that makes this one memorable. This is a perfect example of an Expert Contributor Network thinkpiece.
How I Saved Xerox From a Near-Death Experience by Ursula Burns
Ursula Burns, the first Black woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company, talks about transitioning into the company’s top job during the Great Recession. We’re getting a lot of pitches for Covid and “post-Covid” war stories right now (which, to be honest, are getting kind of stale), but Burns shows us what it means to truly survive (and thrive) during a crisis.
Bezos gives us a behind-the-scenes look into the formation of a company we interact with on a daily basis. From packing boxes of books on his hands and knees to freaking out that Prime free shipping was going to bankrupt Amazon, Bezos shows us why we ought to fail big or go home.
“You always should choose ‘do it now.’”
LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman details the secret behind Google’s success under Eric Schmidt. In this YouTube acquisition story, Hoffman describes Schmidt’s ability to make huge decisions at a breakneck pace. This one’s a boardroom thriller featuring corporate intrigue and billion-dollar decisions — including some high-stakes negotiations at a Denny’s — at arguably the most ubiquitous tech company in the US.
One of many book excerpts published on the Expert Contributor Network this past year, this selection from Frank Rose’s The Sea We Swim In: How Stories Work in a Data-Driven World compellingly argues that so-called “design thinking” necessarily co-evolved with the “attention economy.” In other words, design serves to both attract and prioritize our attention amidst increasing demands for it. This piece gives a great working definition of both terms, and provides enough context to understand their relationship. It’s opinionated without being partisan and succinct without being oversimplified.
The Metaverse Will Give Designers A Chance To Create A Better World by Benjamin Bertram Goldman
“The reason is because virtual world designers are ultimately designing human societies.”
Goldman’s piece traces the history of user experience and how it has and will continue to evolve as virtual worlds proliferate online. He suggests designers recognize the power they have — and moreover, to use it for good, not just good design.
Emotion-Focused Design Is Your Sharpest Competitive Edge by Samantha Berg
Both fun and informative, this is a thoroughly researched argument in favor of focusing on feelings, rather than messaging, to create designs that people love to use. So much of tech is (or likes to think of itself as) logical and computational and rational, and this piece serves as a critical reminder that when it comes to users, that approach doesn’t always work. Emotions are much more powerful, and good designers take that as their foundational principle, Berg contends.
Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
How to Start Funding More Than Just White Guys by Miki Reynolds
The tech industry’s struggles with diversity and inclusion are well-documented, though too often pieces on this subject dance around the structural problems that perpetuate the issue. Reynolds offers a direct, uncomplicated take: One of the major problems is the difficulty anyone who isn’t white, male, and cisgendered has in securing VC funding. But this article wouldn’t be remarkable if it were merely diagnostic. Instead, after identifying the problem, Reynolds lays out several solutions and advocates for a wholesale revision of VC funding models.
Here’s What Has to Change for Women to Thrive in STEM by Sara Radkiewicz
Similarly to the piece above, Radkiewicz’s article here not only articulates the troublesome lack of gender diversity in STEM and the problems that causes but also identifies means to begin to address the issue.
This is where the wider applicability of Tarzan Economics really comes into play as a framework for navigating us from moments of staring into the abyss to movements where you force disruption as opposed to having it forced upon you. As industry technologist Jim Griffin put it in 2009: “We cling to this vine that keeps us off the jungle floor. The trick is figuring out when to let go of that old vine and when to embrace that new vine.”
Giving a whole new meaning to “doing it for the vine,” ex-Spotify chief economist Will Page explains how he used the economic theory of public and private goods to revolutionize the music industry forever. This excerpt is a fascinating look into the forces of economics at play in cultural change. The economics are explained in an approachable tone that doesn’t sacrifice theoretical rigor. This is simply a must-read for anyone who wants to understand paradigm shifts on a systems level.
Speaking of paradigm shifts, former Chief Innovation Officer Amy Radin describes her method of spotting them early: studying what she calls “weak signals.” She uses the example of contactless payments — whose invention was instigated by how annoying paying subway fare was — to explain how to listen for the first signs of something big. Lateral and creative thinking are notoriously difficult to pin down and teach, but this piece does a great job of giving practical advice on how to create the environment in which creative, imaginative work can take place. Her methods for avoiding groupthink and resisting snap judgements in order to cultivate curiosity and reflection are a welcome counterpoint to the rapidity of much tech decision-making.
Pieces on the Expert Contributor Network tend to be more evergreen, but this was a provocative exception to that rule. Tech ethicist David Ryan Polgar responded to the attack on the Capitol by analyzing social media’s role in fomenting discontent and disseminating misinformation. Polgar struck an impressively delicate balance between the immediate concerns of the riot and broader questions about our online ecosystem.
Uber Puppies, Uber Ice Cream, Uber Mariachi (oh my!). Come along with former head of Uber rider growth, Andrew Chen, as he explores how this rideshare Ops team sent the company’s revenue soaring. In this excerpt from his widely anticipated book, The Cold Start Problem, Chen pulls back the curtain to reveal how the Ops team’s boots-on-the ground strategies became foundational to Uber’s success.
What Are Survival Metrics? How Do They Work? by Adam Thomas
“Survival metrics create a clear picture of what can go wrong while a project is in motion. By spelling out potential limitations early, you’ve created a warning system for both the team and the company that will make any necessary pivots more effective since you won’t spend time convincing the organization to get on board with your change.”
Adam Thomas is one of the most distinctive voices on the Expert Contributor Network, and this piece is his magnum opus. The great thing about Adam’s work is that he has a strong voice as an author, but he crafts his narratives with such precision that they’re easy for even a layperson to follow. A novice product manager could read this piece and put its principles into practice that same day.
10 Unexpected Books That Will Boost Your Product Manager Skills by Alex J. Hughes
As much as we strive to publish practical, solutions-focused pieces, we’re also big fans of multi- disciplinarity. From books on mindset to the doomed Shackleton expedition, Hughes discusses the benefits of these texts outside of their original contexts, which makes them valuable to PMs and likely also for working tech professionals across fields. And who doesn’t need a good book recco?
How to Survive a Crisis, According to Eventbrite’s CPO by Casey Winters
What sort of actions does it take for a live events ticketing company to survive an ongoing crisis that prevents people from meeting in large groups? According to Winters, the answer is “all of them.” This post explains how Eventbrite adapted its product during the pandemic and generally fought to survive by firing ‘all the bullets.’ Especially succinct and compelling, the explanation of “prospect theory” is vital for anyone trying to get another party — be it investors or users — to take a risk on trying something new.
Forget B2B and B2C. The Real Startup Money Is in B2X. by Joe Procopio
Joe knows. Procopio’s strength is often in his contrarianism, his puckish insistence that the conventional wisdom is often wrong, that some trends should be bucked. He provides refreshing new takes on commonplace concepts, and after much debate, it was decided that this piece was the top example. This piece argues against siloing B2B and B2C companies, insisting instead that B2X — or a hybrid, buyer-agnostic model — could be the way to go for startups.
Customer-Led Growth Is the Future of B2B Software Sales by Neil McLean
“Customer-led growth” is another buzzy new term, and this piece gives a good rundown of its characteristics and provides best practices for its implementation.
3 VC Pitch Trends You Should Know When Forming Fundraising Plans by Russ Heddleston
What better way to prep for 2022’s fundraising conditions than to brush up on trends from 2021? In this and his other pieces, Heddleston documents the tumultuous and record-breaking venture capital environment last year, highlighting the opportunities presented by rapidly changing conditions. VC is one of many arenas that is already irrevocably different due to the pandemic and is poised to continue to evolve.
Rest in Peace, Traditional Venture Capital by Laura González-Estéfani
“The future of startup investment will be operator-led.”
González-Estéfani makes an even bolder claim than Heddleston did: Venture capital as we once knew it is going extinct entirely. Two forces are driving this. The first is what she calls the ‘democratization’ of capital due to increased involvement by “crowdfunding, angels, angel syndicates, SPVs, SPACs,” as well as the opportunities presented by cryptocurrency investment. The second force is the globalization of investment; in the current all-virtual meeting environment, it matters less and less where your investors are, and that goes for founders as well.
The Rise of the Influencer CEO by Leia Ruseva
The “go direct” phenomenon Ruseva describes here is an interesting observation of how personal brand and company brand interact and overlap in those CEOs who are very good at Twitter. You know the ones.
“Building brands is pedestrian. It’s ground-level work: The agency and the brand both need feet on the ground and ears and eyes ‘on the street.’”
Burn wants requests for proposals to take a hike — literally. He rejects standard practice in favor of a 30-60 minute urban hike with prospective contacts, attending in-person events that the agency puts on, and other forms of face-to-face contact that encourage out-of-the-box thinking.
Avoiding Technical Jargon When Writing About a Product by Alexander Lewis
Alexander’s definition of “jargon” as “as any business word or phrase that lacks a visual component to stick in the reader’s head” is, unsurprisingly, a fresh way to look at writing clear and engaging technical copy. The tips in this piece are simple, effective, and best of all, easy to implement.
Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
How We Made a Movie by an AI Script Writer by Jacob Vaus and Eli Weiss
Vaus and Weiss run a project called Calamity AI devoted to using AI to augment human creativity. This article, as the title suggests, gives the reader an in-depth look at their process in making a short film with the help of an AI bot. It’s a fascinating look at an unconventional application of the technology.
6 Ways to Combat Bias in Machine Learning by Paul Barba
Machine learning, especially when used to make decisions about people, is only as neutral as the data it’s trained with and the people who write its parameters. As AI and ML insinuate themselves further into our lives, engineers will need to be mindful of the way that code mimics life. Barba does a great job of explaining the possible social biases that can worm their way into ML applications and gives concrete, actionable steps to try and correct them. A good Expert Contributor Network piece highlights a pressing problem; a great one takes steps to solve it.
Rage Against the Machine Learning: My War With Recommendation Engines by Jye Sawtell-Rickson
Trust us, the headline doesn’t disappoint: The rest of the piece is just as sharp, funny, and opinionated. If you’re also annoyed by how Amazon continues to recommend a product (perhaps toilet seats) to you after you’ve already bought it, read on to learn about Sawtell-Rickson’s one-person war with the algorithm.
Honorable Mention: NFTs
A Beginner’s Guide to NFTs for Cryptoart by Przemek Chojecki
“An NFT is a unique token living on a blockchain that represents (or points to) some other data, like an image or video. Because they live on a blockchain, NFTs are easy to track. This tracking allows for verification of their authenticity as well as their past history and owners. Formally, NFTs are smart contracts that people interact with by calling them and then receiving proof of interaction.”
NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, exploded in popularity this past year. However, if the cryptoart trend is still leaving you thinking, “I don’t know, and at this point, I’m afraid to ask,” never fear — this quick guide will get you up to speed.