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Weekend Roundup: Amazon A.I. for Social Distancing, Apple’s App Spat

It’s the weekend! It was a week full of tech news, so let’s jump into some of the highlights—including Amazon’s new tool for keeping its employees socially distanced, and a new controversy over how Apple sets its fees in the App Store. But first… 

Magic Leap Pivots

It hasn’t been the greatest year for Magic Leap, the augmented-reality (AR) startup that once attracted so much money from prominent investors. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the company announced that it would make deep layoffs along with “targeted changes to how we operate and manage costs.” Then its CEO stepped down in May. And now, in a seemingly last-ditch attempt to survive, it’s pivoting to… enterprise AR applications.

Adi Robertson at The Verge did a bit of digging into Magic Leap’s pivot and found reason for concern about its prospects. For starters, many of Magic Leap’s partners failed to comment on whether they would continue to build AR applications using Magic Leap’s platform. Moreover, some of the most promising apps and initiatives seem to have faded away.

If Magic Leap truly makes a leap to the enterprise, it will end up competing with Microsoft’s HoloLens, which focused on that space pretty much from its very beginning. But can an enterprise “pivot” save Magic Leap after it failed to make much of an impression in the consumer space? If this latest maneuver doesn’t succeed, the company might finally crash and burn—in which case, expect other companies to snatch up its patent portfolio. 

Amazon Automates Social Distancing

Amazon’s protection of its warehouse workers during COVID-19 has undergone intense scrutiny over the past few months, so it’s unsurprising that the e-commerce giant has turned to technology for a solution. Specifically, Amazon has unveiled a tracking system, powered by artificial intelligence (A.I.) and computer vision, that monitors warehouse employees and sends an alert when social-distancing protocol isn’t being followed.

Distance Assistant, as the platform is called, takes video footage and superimposes green circles around workers who are maintaining a six-foot distance from their colleagues; those who move too close to another human being have a red circle around them. After an initial deployment to a small number of buildings, Amazon plans on expanding the tool to other facilities throughout the summer. Here’s what it looks like in action:

Hey! It’s an Apple Controversy!

Perhaps you’ve heard of Hey.com, an offshoot of Basecamp that’s trying to modernize email with features such as “Reply Later” and more efficient ways of surfacing files. It’s available in Apple’s App Store—but Apple is reportedly threatening to remove it unless Hey’s creators start offering an in-app subscription (which would give Apple a revenue cut).

Basecamp, of course, is screaming bloody murder. “Who cares if Apple shakes down individual software developers for 30% of their revenue, by threatening to destroy their business?” David Heinemeier Hansson, CTO of Basecamp, wrote in a Tweet. “There has been zero consequences so far! Most such companies quietly cave or fail. We won’t.”

For its part, Apple told The Verge that it requires developers on the App Store to follow its guidelines, including regulations over in-app purchases. Epic Games, Spotify, and other developers have also complained about the fees attached to buying anything within the App Store, and the EU is supposedly pursuing an anti-trust investigation into the matter. But given how fees from services are an ever-growing part of Apple’s business, it seems unlikely (at least at this juncture) that the company would change how it does business without a substantial fight.   

Have a great weekend, everyone! Stay safe!

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7 Prominent LGBTQ+ Technologists, Past and Present

As we celebrate Pride Month, it’s worth taking some time to think about some of the prominent members of the LGBTQ+ community who have not only made great strides in technology, but also advocated for recognition and equality. From the mid-20th century to today, LGBTQ+ technologists continue to push the industry forward in new and exciting ways. The following is just a small sampling of these technologists:

Alan Turing (1912–1954)

An English mathematician helped pioneer computer science and artificial intelligence (A.I.)., Turing is perhaps most famous for his work at Bletchley Park, the center of the U.K.’s code-breaking efforts during World War II, where he figured out the statistical techniques that allowed the Allies to break Nazi cryptography.  

For his wartime efforts, Turing was appointed an officer of the Order of the British Empire. Following the War, he designed an Automatic Computing Engine, basically a computer with electronic memory (a fully functioning example of the ACE wasn’t actually something built in his lifetime, however). He also theorized quite a bit about artificial intelligence (one of his core concepts, the Turing test, is still regarded as a benchmark for testing a machine’s intelligent behavior).   

Turing was prosecuted by the British government for his sexual relationship with another man, Arnold Murray. Found guilty, he was chemically castrated and stripped of his security clearance, which prevented him from working for Britain’s signals-intelligence efforts. A little over two years later, in 1954, he was found dead of cyanide poisoning, and whether it was suicide or an accident has preoccupied historians for decades.

In 1999, Time listed Turing among the 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century. Five years later, the British government officially pardoned his conviction.

Edith Windsor (1929—2017)

A technology manager for IBM as well as an LGBTQ+ activist, Edith “Edie” Windsor was lead plaintiff in United States v. Windsor (550 U.S. 744), a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that found that a crucial portion of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment. The ruling helped legalize same-sex marriage (along with a later case, Obergefell v. Hodges).

At IBM, Windsor worked on projects related to operating systems and natural-language processing. After leaving IBM in 1975, she started a consulting firm. In 2016, Lesbians Who Tech, an organization for lesbian and queer women in tech, set up the Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship, with 40 people selected for its inaugural year of giving.  

Lynn Conway (1938—)

As a computer scientist at IBM in the 1960s, Lynn Conway helped make pioneering advances in computer architecture. One of her projects, ACS (Advanced Computing Systems), essentially became the foundation of the modern high-performance microprocessor. However, IBM fired her when it discovered that she was undergoing gender transition. 

Undeterred, Conway moved on to Xerox PARC, where she worked on still more innovative projects, including the ability to put multiple circuit designs on one chip. She was also key in advancing chip design and fabrication. After her stint at Xerox, she moved to DARPA, and from there to the University of Michigan, where she became a professor of electrical engineering and computer science.  

At the turn of the century, Conway began to work more in transgender activism. In addition coming out to friends and colleagues, she also used her webpage to describe her personal history (followed up, much later, by a memoir published in 2012). In 2014, she also successfully pushed for the prominent Institute of Electrical and Electronics (IEEE) Board of Directors to include trans-specific protections in its Code of Ethics.  

Jon “maddog” Hall (1950—)

Jon “maddog” Hall has been the Board Chair of the Linux Professional Institute (the certification body for free and open-source software professionals) since 2015. In addition, he’s executive director of the industry group Linux International, as well as an author with Linux Pro Magazine.

In a 2012 column in Linux Magazine, Hall came out as gay, citing Alan Turing as a hero and an inspiration. “In fact, computer science was a haven for homosexuals, trans-sexuals and a lot of other ‘sexuals,’ mostly because the history of the science called for fairly intelligent, modern-thinking people,” he wrote. “Many computer companies were the first to enact ‘diversity’ programs, and the USENIX organization had a special interest group that was made up of LGBT people.” He also became an advocate of marriage equality.

Leanne Pittsford (1980—)

In 2012, Leanne Pittsford founded Lesbians Who Tech, which claims it’s the largest LGBTQ community of technologists in the world (with 40+ city chapters and 60,000 members). Lesbians Who Tech hosts an annual San Francisco Summit attended by as many as 5,000 women and non-binary people, and it provides mentoring and leadership programs as well as the aforementioned Edie Windsor Coding Scholarship Fund.  

Pittsford is also the founder of include.io, which connects underrepresented technologists with companies and technical mentors. In 2016, she also organized the third annual LGBTQ Tech and Innovation Summit at the White House

Megan Smith (1964—)

The third Chief Technology Officer of the United States (U.S. CTO) under President Barack Obama, Megan Smith also served as a vice president at Google. As U.S. CTO, she spearheaded a number of initiatives, including the recruitment of tech talent for national service. She also recognized the need to build up the government’s capabilities in data science, open data, and digital policy. 

Smith is currently the CEO and co-founder of shift7, which “works collaboratively on systemic social, environmental and economic problems.” She is also a life member of the board of MIT, as well as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the National Academy of Engineering. 

Tim Cook (1960—) 

Widely considered the first chief executive officer of a Fortune 500 company to come out as gay, Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNN back in 2014 that he went public in order to show gay children that they could “be gay and still go on and do some big jobs in life.”

Cook, who once said that being gay is “God’s greatest gift to me,” joined Apple as a senior vice president in 1998, during some of its leanest years. He quickly solidified his reputation as a peerless operations executive, refining the company’s supply and manufacturing chains. As Apple rose to new corporate heights on the strength of its iPod, iPhone, and iPad sales, this supply-chain refinement ensured that millions of devices reached users’ hands. Cook was promoted to chief operating officer, and stepped in to temporarily head the company when CEO Steve Jobs fell sick with cancer.

Following the death of Jobs in 2011, Cook took the CEO reins and restructured the executive team, with a renewed focus on creating a culture of teamwork and collaboration. He oversaw the launch of the Apple Watch and the AirPods, moving Apple in the long-predicted direction of wearables, and began to shift the company’s focus from hardware to cloud-based services such as music and gaming.    

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Network Engineer Salary: 4 Big Questions Answered

Network engineers usually have a massive set of responsibilities, which is why the typical network engineer salary tends to be high. If you’re interested in a career in the field, it’s worth asking how education, experience, and skillsets all tie into compensation.

According to Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, network engineers are in high demand (147,448 job postings over the past 12 months), with a projected growth rate of 6.5 percent over the next 10 years. The job will only get more complex, requiring that network engineers keep their skills cutting-edge if they want to stay in demand. For example, if you’re tasked with building scalable network architecture in the cloud, you’ll need to know how to smoothly handle massive, occasionally unexpected increases in traffic (and you’ll definitely be asked about such things in the network engineer job interview).

Threats to networks also change constantly, requiring that network engineers keep their cybersecurity skills high (and awareness of those threats relevant). Let’s dive down into the particulars of a network engineer salary:

What is a network engineer’s average salary?

The ever-helpful Burning Glass tells us that the median network engineer salary is $100,909. That’s noticeably higher than the technology industry average of $94,000 in 2019, as estimated in Dice’s annual Salary Report. Those in the upper ranges of the professions can make quite a bit more. 

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The Dice Salary Report plugged the average network engineer salary at $89,596 in 2019—still high, but not quite as high as Burning Glass’s numbers, due to differing methodology. One thing the Dice data noted: network engineer is a rapidly growing profession, salary-wise, which is great (salaries rose 4 percent between 2018 and 2019, for example).

Do network engineers get paid well?

As you might expect, the average network engineer salary rises with experience. Those with more than nine years of experience can usually expect to comfortably make six-figure salaries, and that’s before you throw in other perks and benefits, such as stock options or expense reimbursements:

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Education also has an impact on salaries:

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What are the most valuable skills for a network engineer?

The following chart shows some of the specialized network engineering skills that pop up frequently in job postings. It’s also worth noting that any job will demand you not only possess a cluster of technical skills, but also “soft skills” such as communication and teamwork. Network engineers must interface on a pretty consistent basis with executives, teammates, and those in other divisions. 

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Do I need a degree to become a network engineer? 

According to Burning Glass, some 85 percent of network engineering jobs ask for a bachelor’s degree, while very few ask for any kind of advanced degree. That’s good news for aspiring network engineers who don’t necessarily want to spend extra years earning a master’s degree or PhD. It also means that, to land a suitable network engineering role, you’ll really need to demonstrate to employers that you have the right mix of skills and experience.

In terms of those skills, a number of employers ask that their network engineers possess certain certifications. Here are the ones that tend to pop up in job postings with relative frequency:

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As you can see, security-related certifications are a very big deal, and with good reason: It’s one of the most crucial aspects of your typical network engineering position. Employers want to feel comfortable with your cybersecurity knowledge, and certifications are a straightforward way of demonstrating that. 

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Startup Severance Packages: Sometimes Generous During COVID-19

Although technologists are generally upbeat in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, layoffs are nonetheless occurring. What kind of severance and benefits are those laid-off technologists getting? 

Layoffs.fyi (which has been doing a great job of breaking down tech layoffs by industry) has been tracking those severance packages among startups. Based on the data, we can conclude that some smaller tech firms have been very generous when it comes to payouts and continuing healthcare. Other companies… not so much.

Although the website’s recording of severance offers isn’t quite as extensive as its overall startup-layoff counter, it’s clear that many startups’ offers are quite generous, with 8+ weeks of pay offered in a sizable portion of cases:

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When it comes to the extension of healthcare benefits, things seem to be a bit more variable, although many laid-off startup technologists reported receiving 4+ months of such benefits:

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It’s worth noting that some of the ‘startups’ with the best packages are really quite mature companies; Airbnb or Uber are nobody’s idea of small shops attempting to bootstrap an untested product. Nonetheless, layoffs.fyi categorizes them alongside small startups, which may have an impact on its data and results.

Layoffs.fyi crowdsources layoff data (similar to how levels.fyi collects salary information). As such, former startup employees are using the platform to report their particular severance packages. At WeWork, for instance, it seems that employees are being given four months’ worth of severance pay, while those at Airbnb are getting 14 weeks along with 12 months of healthcare. At Uber, meanwhile, technologists are reporting 10 weeks, with healthcare benefits through the end of 2020.

Other startups haven’t been quite as generous. At Bird, severance is reportedly four weeks; at Leafly, a cannabis startup, it’s just one week. The COVID-19 pandemic has hit startups in industries such as transportation and travel, which depend on in-person interactions, particularly hard. Major tech hubs such as New York City and Silicon Valley, where many of these startups clustered, have also seen quite a few layoffs. 

On Dice’s ongoing COVID-19 Sentiment Survey, we’ve seen technologists’ perceptions of their job security fluctuate somewhat, with the percentage of those feeling most secure about their jobs dipping a bit in recent weeks. Despite that, the majority of technologists seem at least somewhat assured about their job security as the COVID-19 crisis grinds on.  

Visit our COVID-19 Resource Center, which aims to provide the tech community with the best, most up-to-date information on the novel coronavirus. 

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How Apple, Google, Twitter, and YouTube Are Pushing for Racial Equality

The recent protests against police brutality and systemic racism have driven tech companies to respond in a variety of ways. At some of the largest tech firms, though, one tactic dominates all others: writing a lot of very big checks.   

“Today, we’re announcing a multi-year $100 million fund dedicated to amplifying and developing the voices of Black creators and artists and their stories,” read an official blog posting from Susan Wojcicki, who is the CEO of YouTube, which is owned by Google. “Through the month of June, our Spotlight channel will highlight racial justice issues, including the latest perspectives from the Black community on YouTube alongside historical content, educational videos, and protest coverage. This content showcases incredibly important stories about the centuries-long fight for equity.”

YouTube is also focusing on removing videos and comments that promote “hate and harassment.” Meanwhile, Google is granting $12 million to “organizations working to address racial inequalities,” according to a recent blog posting.

Meanwhile, Apple is devoting $100 million to a Racial Equity and Justice Initiative. In a video posted on Twitter, Apple CEO Tim Cook described the initiative as a way to challenge the “systemic barriers” to opportunity for the black community. It will involve partnerships with historically black colleges and universities. At this year’s WWDC, the company will also launch a new program to support black developers.  

Then you have PayPal, which plans on devoting $530 million to support “black and minority-owned businesses and communities in the U.S., especially those hardest hit by the pandemic, to help address economic inequality.” The bulk of the money will go to “bolstering the company’s relationships with community banks and credit unions serving underrepresented minority communities, as well as investing directly into Black and minority-led startups and minority-focused investment funds.”

Other tech firms are taking a somewhat different approach. IBM, Amazon, and Microsoft, for example, have all vowed to either suspend or outright stop research into facial-recognition technology, which critics have argued could end up abused by law enforcement. “IBM no longer offers general purpose IBM facial recognition or analysis software. IBM firmly opposes and will not condone uses of any technology, including facial recognition technology offered by other vendors, for mass surveillance, racial profiling, violations of basic human rights and freedoms, or any purpose which is not consistent with our values and Principles of Trust and Transparency,” new IBM CEO Arvind Krishna wrote in a June 8letter to Congress.

And Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter and Square, has made Juneteenth a holiday at both companies.

However, many of these firms (and the tech industry in general) have quite a long way to go in order to make their technical workforces most diverse. According to the latest edition of Stack Overflow’s Developer Survey, which queried 38,257 professional developers about their race and ethnicity, people of color made up a relatively small percentage of the overall developer community:

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Although many tech companies have very publicly pledged to improve their talent pipelines to create more diverse workforces, a breakdown from Wired showed that, over a five-year period, the percentages of black and Latinx workers at some firms barely budged, despite those modified HR practices and talent pipelines. While companies have pledged to refine their pipelines still further (and are devoting lots of resources to broader issues of racism), some have work to do when it comes to actually following through on diversifying their workforces. 

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