Tech'ed Up

Quick Tech Takes • Layoffs & Spy Satellites

February 15, 2024 Niki Christoff
Tech'ed Up
Quick Tech Takes • Layoffs & Spy Satellites
Show Notes Transcript

Steer PR partner Lauren Tomlinson joins Niki for the first installment of Beyond the Buzz, the bi-weekly series of Tech’ed Up that digs into the comms, tech, and DC news creating headlines.  They swap hot takes on “jargon monoxide” when it comes to corporate layoffs, the new space race for AI-augmented satellite surveillance, and the Swifties’ impact on Super Bowl advertising. 

...people are talking about [faster data processing in space] in the national security community a ton because obviously, that intelligence will be invaluable, but it's just as applicable across tech.” -Lauren Tomlinson

[music plays]

Niki: I'm Niki Christoff and welcome to Tech'ed Up. 

Today, we're trying something new, an episode called Beyond the Buzz. The idea is to do a little bit more of an infotainment take on the latest headlines, and each week I'll be joined by an expert who's either a consultant, a communications strategist, or a policy person who's just breaking down the latest news.

This week, I'm joined by Lauren Tomlinson of Steer PR. 

Lauren Tomlinson, thank you so much for coming into the studio today. 

Lauren: Yeah, thank you for having me.

Niki: And thank you for being a guinea pig for what is a totally new format. [both chuckling] I figured you'd be up for it, and I love that you just said yes right away.

Lauren: Always. I'm up for a fun experience, and I'm a huge fan of the pod, so this is gonna be a great experiment.

Niki: Thank you. And the idea is just we're gonna talk about two, maybe three stories that are in the news - what we think about it, what our takes are as people who are always pitching stories and behind the news, and what we think companies or entities or the government could be doing better. 

So, should we just kick it off? 

Lauren: Yeah, let's go. Okay. I think we should start with a Fortune story from this week that was about euphemisms that companies are using with layoffs.

So, I'm obviously in tech. 32,000 jobs were eliminated in January, so just last month, and you're starting to see, as the article points out, I think a Stanford professor called it, “jargon monoxide,” [both chuckle] where you're trying to like, I guess, he didn't say this, but like, euthanize the people [chuckling] that you're laying off so they don't bash you on social media?

[both laugh]

Lauren: Or just be so confusing that they don't want to know what's happening to them.

Niki: Exactly. So the idea is suddenly you've been subjected to an involuntary career event. [Lauren: chuckles] That's an actual quote. Or, you know, they're using all this bizarre language rather than just saying layoffs or job eliminations. And there's, you know, presumably a corporate reason, which is they don't want to get canceled.

They're feeling more concerned about their reputations and any backlash. What do you think about all of that?

Lauren:  I think they're feeding into what is going to destroy their reputations. I mean, in these situations, people are not, they're going to see through the bullshit. And it's important just to clarify exactly what's happening. Be clear, concise, direct. 

I mean, I think in today's age, too, with a huge emphasis on authenticity and having more information and connection than ever before, people are going to see through that jargon immediately. And it's okay to keep using the, you know, the corporate terms. Obviously there's a need to align people with y’ know, your business objectives and your strategy, right?

That's important. And it's important for CEOs to be able to communicate to the teams that we're going in a different direction. For example, I think it was, maybe it was Google. I can't remember exactly which company, but they said, “We're going to put all of our resources in AI. That's, you know, the emerging business unit. We need to put people there. So we're going to have to eliminate jobs in other places.”

So that makes sense if you're having a reorg that way, but you need to communicate it clearly to people.

Niki: Right. I think that's right. People absolutely understand the difference between, even when they say things like, “Well, we overhired for the pandemic.”

It might just be that you're not selling enough dongles. Like, it might just be that that's not happening. And if someone works at the company, they probably know that. [Lauren: Yeah] And they probably know the functions that are being [Lauren: They’re not dummies!] No, they're not dummies! 

And so, I think, yeah, I think it's disrespectful to the people being laid off. And I think it sort of misses a key human element because now they're also doing this trend of sort of mass layoffs where you get everybody on a Zoom and just fire them all at once. I think the concept is, “Well, we're at less risk than a one-on-one conversation that goes sideways,” which there was one on TikTok a few weeks ago, a woman taped her exit interview.

Lauren: Yeah, which is wild that that's a concern now! But, listen, I think that the, that fear, I think the mass layoffs makes it worse because ultimately it's the empathy and the human-to-human connection that are going to make this less bad for companies. Because when you just treat people like cogs in the wheel, including with their firing or their hiring or their day-to-day management, that's when you get in trouble versus if you let the manager do the firing, I mean, you and I have had to do this before.

Which is, it's a terrible and sad, [Niki: terrible] situation when your company is going through a reorganization or you have to let someone go because of poor performance or any other issues. But if you sit down and connect with them and you talk it through and y’know, there's always offers to help, y’know in their next line of work or whatever they're doing next. HR can sit there and like, make sure that you don't say anything that you're not supposed to say. There's trainings [Niki: yes!] that managers have to do to make sure that they have to do these well. 

Niki: Right! Be better trained! 

Lauren: Right? Be better trained. Make sure that your managers know how to have these difficult conversations. They know how to communicate within the lines of legal and HR, but still be able to talk to people on a human level. That's what makes this better. 

And I think the, I hate the trend of the Zoom layoffs because one, it's not the CEO's responsibility to go and have these conversations en mass to that many people. It creates confusion and it's just awful. But if you have it on the manager-to-manager level, which I think is what most companies do besides tech, then it, I think it lessens the blow and it's going to lessen the hurt to your brand and your reputation. 

Niki: Right, absolutely. I have another suggestion on how people can lessen the blow to their brand and reputation.

So, you mentioned, and you're a small business owner, I'm a small business owner, there's sort of industry standard for how much severance you give. And that can be very different for someone like me, who's a really small shop, and let's say, Facebook, which has a trillion-dollar market cap. [both laugh] 

Lauren: Yeah. Little different situation.

[both laugh]

Niki: So, I feel like at times in these whole conversations, people are missing, like, I mean, hold on to your socks, but I feel like people go to work to make money. [Lauren: Yeah] So then when you lay them off or fire them, they don't have money. 

So, one thing that I think could go a long way toward goodwill is just being as generous as your company can be with severance because people are going to still have to pay their bills. They're absolutely sweating it. They get COBRA, which is the guarantee that you can retain your health insurance policy, but it's not paid for. It's like 1, 200 bucks a month. 

Lauren: Yeah. It's expensive!  

Niki: It's super expensive. I say this because you were saying “We've fired people.” I've been fired. 

Lauren: [laughs] You're like, “I've experienced this firsthand. I know exactly what everyone's concerned about.”

[both laugh] 

Niki: I have been firsthand fired. I don't want to alarm people. I was fired from a fishing boat by my cousin for incompetence. [Lauren: laughs] I was fired from the Gap in college also for incompetence. [chuckling]

Lauren: Yeah. Did they give you severance at the Gap?

Niki: They surely did not. [Lauren: laughs] They were like, “Best wishes, we're, we're taking you off. You're just not meant for retail”  [chuckling] [Lauren: laughs]

And then I was fired for insubordination by Salesforce and I will tell you. I didn't get severance, and one of the things that really chapped my ass about it was when you get fired by a billionaire [chuckles] and your health insurance premium isn't paid for a few months during a pandemic, I was, I was salty about it, [Lauren: yeah] and I mean, I absolutely, I was insubordinate. It was fine that they fired me, but I found the separation to be less empathetic than it could have been.

Lauren: Yeah. And I, and you know, in contrast to that, my old employer, Southern Company, I had a lot of respect for the way that they went through the layoff process when we had to do a massive restructuring. Y’ know, there was a merger with another company, there was lots of duplicative jobs. There was a lot of, like, job shifting and, y’ know, it was really methodical and people had the opportunity to apply, right. Reapply for jobs. 

There was a healthy severance package. There was lots of notice that this was going to be happening. So, people could kind of, y’know, be prepared that this might be coming down the pipe. 

I think that lesson has really stuck with me because you never want to have to be in that position as a company or as a manager, but you also don't want to accidentally fire someone who is on maternity leave and they're getting an email while they're postpartum, right? 

And you hear those horror stories and it's just, I think, the worst of the worst. And that's what you're avoiding here is by, I think, entering into that human element, then you communicate better, and you avoid those situations, and maybe you won't get bad exit interviews or TikTok stories. 

Niki: TikTok stories, right? Exactly! [Lauren: mm-hmm]. If you handle it a little bit better. I mean, I also was a little stunned that someone would tape their exit interview, but it shows the underlying upset and distress that people are feeling about the way these things are being handled.

 And so, yeah, professionalism, empathy, and some empathy for the folks who are doing the firing. They need to have training. It is not easy! 

Lauren: It's so hard. 

Niki: You always, or at least I always lose sleep beforehand. [Lauren: mm-hmm] It's not comfortable and sometimes it is just the reality that, like, this is not a family - 

[both laugh]

As some people say. It is a business! 

Lauren: It is a business! It always drives me insane when people do that especially when you're interviewing for a job and they're like, “Oh, come join our family!” I'm like, “This is a transaction.” [chuckles]

Niki: Right! This is a transaction. I'm coming for money, you're paying me to do something. Just be straight about it. 

Lauren: Yeah, exactly! 

Niki: Okay. 

Lauren: Have you seen those memes with office culture where it's like, “Oh, I can't wait to spend eight hours under those fluorescent lights and you give me free pizza once a quarter?” [both chuckling] [sarcastically] “It's a great family.”  

Niki: I have seen that! I, Instagram actually recommends an awful lot of like, corporate HR jokey memes, but sometime, now on the other side of the desk as a business owner, I'm like “This, it's a little close to the bone. I'm just going to mute everything that makes me feel bad.”

[both laugh]

I'm not trying to bribe people, [Lauren: bribe people to work with you.] [both chuckling] Just come work here. We'll have snacks. [laughing]

Lauren: We just try to really, have good subject matter. 

[both laugh]

Niki: Right, right. 

Lauren: That's how we recruit people. 

Niki: Exactly. That's the best we can do. Okay, so speaking of, you had an article you wanted to suggest. 

Lauren: Yeah, so I was reading Foreign Affairs and there was a really interesting article, about the evolution in our satellites and how the United States is putting so much more emphasis in our national security apparatus, is putting so much more resources into launching more satellites.

It's to go from, what the article describes as a “straw, looking into a straw down at the world,” and just getting little snapshots of the world to more of a constant stare where we're going to have all of this data coming in nonstop. And it really made me think about how much data processing is going to change, how much our world is going to change as far as being able to real-time monitor events.

Not just for national security purposes, but mass migration, droughts, y’know, there's going to be so much information available to us now that we don't already have, and it's just going to change the world. And it's also going to create so much opportunity, I think, for private industry. They're already in space and working with the government, but you think about Space computing and the A.I. that's going to have to go alongside with all of this data.

And it's just gonna blow our minds as far as how we're working with the government, how private industry thinks about working with the government and how we're also operating under an environment in which we all know that we're being watched all the time.

Niki: Right. Well, I don't think people think about it. 

Lauren: Definitely not. I mean, it's basically already happening with Google Maps and all the cameras and the Ring cameras and all of these other things. Privacy has gone out the window a little bit, but I think on that macro level of nation-states, it's, it's wild to think about.

Niki: It is! So, I don't know if you know this because we met after I moved back to Washington, D. C., but my former spouse actually founded a low earth satellite- 

Lauren: No way! 

Niki: Yeah. [chuckling] He did. It's kind of a sensitive subject because we got divorced right before he sold it to Google, my company, for half a billion dollars.

[both laugh]

Lauren: You were like, “Oh, dang!”

Niki: Dang. Yeah. If you take anything away from this podcast takeaway that you should keep some equity-  

[both laugh]

Error! [chuckling] But what I realized is that was more than a decade ago, he was very early to this industry, came out of the intelligence community, and it was almost like our government couldn't quite grab onto it.

So you had a lot of former Intel types, MIT grads starting these companies. We actually had a guest on Ashley Vance last year. He's an author who wrote a book about Elon Musk and SpaceX, and he was talking about these satellites and those early stories, but we haven't heard much about it, even though they've been making them smaller, cheaper.

There are these reusable rockets, which I mean, frankly, the government is reliant on Elon Musk right now. And suddenly what I thought was interesting about this article is that you have the U.S. government finally saying, like, “No, we're investing in it. It's not just going to be private companies. It's not just going to be these entrepreneurs selling to Google or other private companies. They're actually finally going to build it into our national security apparatus.” 

Lauren: Yeah. I mean, I think it goes to show too, that by default, D.O.D and the government is so risk averse. So, for a lot of this stuff, they do rely on private industry to advance the technology to such a point to which once it's cheaper and easier to make, then they'll take it and they'll run with it.

But there's such an important part, I think, of early-stage investors making sure that some of this technology gets to that place where the government can take it and run with it. Because, y’know the DoD officials don't want to get hauled in front of Congress, right, and have to answer for bad investments. Right?

Niki: Or things blowing up!

Lauren:  Or things blowing up. Yeah. So, you need the Elon Musks to go and take those risks and, like, get the technology to a place in which the government can go and apply it the way that they want. So, you know, it's interesting, like you were saying, that satellites have reached this point where it's like cheaper and easier and with the reusable rockets and everything else that now that they can just go and then paired with the hypersonic missiles and all of the hypersonic technology that's coming on stage.

I mean, in theory, if our adversaries don't get this technology as well, I mean, the United States is just going to be able to blow past people as far as surveillance and then deterrence. 

Niki: Well, I certainly hope we do. I mean, that's part of it is that we're in, again, kind of a space race, but very different than when it was focused on moon exploration.

It's, it's how you can have as many eyes on the earth and use that for your own defense capabilities. And, to your other point, we're going to have to have more natural disaster planning, too. [Lauren: yeah] So you can flip these these cameras into another use case that we still need, which is also part national defense and homeland defense.

Lauren: Yeah, it's kind of wild. So, Planet, you can go on their website and even see right now what they're tracking and because they, they'll publish a lot of the images, especially for nonprofit use and other things. For that purpose, right? Like, cause if you can predict the natural disasters, or you see where people are impacted the most, or you see where people are moving or where there's a drought, so then you can deal with food security issues.

It's, like, the possibilities are endless for the surveillance to be used for good, as well as the national security implications, which I think is what a lot of people are mostly focused on. 

Niki: Right. And I, y’know, I think we should tie this, you mentioned this already, but you're going to have these huge cloud computing needs to process this information.

You can't just have individual analysts looking at things when you have this kind of always-on surveillance capability. So, AI is going to have to be used to help crunch some of the data. 

Lauren: Totally! Which is kind of scary to a degree because if there's over-reliance on AI and you, like, eliminate the human aspect of it, then I think that there's a lot of room for mistakes and, like, bad decision-making and all that type of stuff.

So, I think there's going to be, like, a real learning curve of, like, how do we apply the technology to process all of this information, but then still pair it with what we know we need, which is, like, human intelligence and human decision making to make the best decisions. And, y’know, make the most use out of all of that data.

Niki: Right! And, and people are going to game the system, right? So -

Lauren: Totally!

Niki: If I'm, if I'm, well, I was going to say China, but maybe Russia, if you make something look like a school bus the United States is going to have to program things not to engage in that way, right? [Lauren: yeah] So, if they're able to create images that are not real and trick AI, or to your point, the dependency on algorithms to make the right call when it's this kind of situation, you can't miss things, right?[Lauren: yeah] 

You don't want to be so overly reliant on it that you miss an intelligence situation which is one of the risks. 

Lauren: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the speed in which, y’know, we're talking about processing this information is going to become really important too. There was an interesting talk, I think it was at an Amazon cloud conference where they had a cloud computing company come in and talk about how they can process a lot of the information in space. 

So, the satellite just goes straight to a cloud in space, then it's processed there, then it's beamed back to earth. And it's a lot faster than if you beam all the data back down to earth, have the cloud computing, and everything happen on earth, and then it gets distributed. Which again is like a whole nother like realm of this, right? 

[both chuckling]

That you're like adding, like, the cloud computing.

Niki: Yeah! [chuckling] The cloud is now actually in space. 

Lauren: Space! Yeah. Isn't that crazy?

[both laughing]

Niki: I just, like, it's a lot. 

Lauren: I feel like we're going to have, like, a whole ecosystem in space, like, orbiting the Earth. Which also, y’know, then it, then you have, y’know, vulnerabilities [Niki: Right!] as far as shooting them down.

Niki: Or just space junk. I'm obsessed with space junk. [both laughing] [Lauren: space junk]

Okay! Space is really big. I'm saying this, this is actually, again, not to bring him into this, but my former spouse said this to me once [Lauren: chuckles] because I said, “I'm worried about space junk. I think stuff's going to break off and like hit the, y’know-

Lauren:  Oh! Like fall to earth? Yeah. 

Niki: Right! He said something like, “You can't, space is so big, Niki.”  [Lauren: laughing] 

And then I kid you not! Within a year, something broke off and hit the space station. I'm like, “Okay, I'm not a math person,”

Lauren: Yeah, but that seems high probability then.

Niki: Well, now it's worse. [Lauren: chuckling] So, now there's way more junk in space and you can't really get it out and so it’s always banging around into other things, which is a problem if you're reliant in these ways.

Lauren:  Oh, definitely.

Have you seen For Mankind, the show? [Niki: no!] So, they have all of these instances where the astronauts have to go into space. It's like an, it's a show about like an alternate reality where astronauts it's if, I think, Russia had won the space race. [Niki: Oh, ok]

And so, it's like all this stuff about, like, how we have to work with them and there's international space stations. And anyways, in this season, I feel like it's all space junk. It's, like, all the astronauts having to go in and, like, solve problems of things banging into each other because they've built a whole world up there. So y’know, it's not far off. [Niki: no!] I think you're right. 

Niki: It's a real thing! Well, so I'm glad you brought up this article because I think it highlights something people don't often think about. I think about it a lot because I'm a space, I'm a total space nerd but I think people don't think about it.

And it's becoming, it's it's taken a long time to have the investments, and the clean rooms, and the highly leveraged startups, and the rockets that are totally subsidized by billionaires to get to the point where the government can grab onto this. 

I hope people pay more attention to it. I don't see it in a lot of regular tech press other than Ashley Vance. And then, this obviously was in a Foreign Affairs magazine. 

Lauren: Yeah. I think it's something that again, it's, like, something we see that people are talking about in the national security community a ton because obviously that intelligence will be invaluable, but it's just as applicable across tech.

So, I think that we'll see kind of that, that intersection between, like, the policy and the politics and your every, everyday communications with the national security messages pretty soon here. 

Niki: Which is something you work on!  You guys do national security. 

Lauren: Yeah. We do kind of all of those intersections. 

Niki: Right. 

Lauren: It's a lot of work because everything is national security these days [chuckling] 

Niki: Right. In D.C. certainly. [Lauren: Yeah] Okay!

So let's wrap up with, I was thinking we could talk, I mean, this is not, y’know, [chuckling] heavy analysis but the Super Bowl just happened, we’re comms people. [both laughing]

So any thoughts on the ads? 

Lauren: So, I'm going to go all Taylor Swift!

Niki: Ok, do it! 

Lauren: I loved all the female ads this year, and especially there, I think that there was one ad where it was, like, a dad with the friendship bracelet with his daughter and all that. And I'm like, “This is a direct result of the Taylor Swift phenomenon. I'm here for it.” And I just love that, I think, the ads were reflective of, I mean, the NFL has had like 50 percent female viewership for years now. 

Niki: Right! Which people don't think about!

Lauren: Which people don't think about. And it's never been reflected in the ads because I saw some stat talking about how something like 65 percent of ads a few years back were, had some sort of, like, female objectification and, like, were a little sexist. 

Niki: Charming! Like the GoDaddy ads? And the Carls Jr. ads?!  [laughing]

Lauren: Yeah, like Jr. ads. the burger ads with the bikinis [Niki: ugh] and stuff. [both chuckling] So, it was very much geared towards male audiences. And then this year it dropped down to 6%. And so, there's this huge shift in recognition of, like, the female viewership, and that's been heightened obviously because of the Swifties because you have a bunch of 14-year-old girls now interested in football. But that's 

Niki: [interrupts excitedly] Who are an economic juggernaut, by the way!  

Lauren: Oh, 100%!  [Niki: Right] Like the fact that, what beauty brand was it that advertised with Judge Judy? 

Niki: Oh, right, right, right. Yeah! 

Lauren: The fact that they were advertising. Was it E.L.F, I think? Wild, right? Like, not something that you normally see, but obviously targeted towards those Swifties.

So I'm, I'm here for it. That was my biggest takeaway for, from the advertisements. 

Niki: Okay, that's a good takeaway. Mine is, well, you're obviously a mom and thinking about little girls. I was really [chuckling] wishing the alien ad didn't come out.

[both laugh]  It could have been so much funnier! 

Lauren: The alien ad definitely missed. 

[both laugh]

Niki: Just missed. I mean, there were a couple aliens and I'm like, “Yeah. I get it.”

Lauren: [chuckling] Although, I did like Squarespace’s is where it said, “The website makes it real.” I chuckled at that because it's so true. Websites make it real. 

Niki: It's so true. It was also sort of dystopian.Everyone's staring at their phone. [Lauren: laughing] Yeah, they only figure out the aliens are there because they got, like, a notification on their smartphone. [Lauren: Yep] I thought they could have been a little funnier. 

And then, I do think when I would call out, maybe this is the last thing we can cover is we always talk about AI. 

I thought Microsoft had a really interesting ad about CoPilot where they were basically saying they had these sort of despondent looking, I'm assuming Americans [both laughing], saying, “People think I can't write a screenplay or start a business” or whatever, like basically “watch me now” and then they get out their Microsoft CoPilot and they use AI to help code, to help, y’know, create a structure for their book. And it's sort of this, like, uplifting trying to shift the concept of AI from, you know, robots that will kill us all to an actual virtual assistant that can help you achieve your dreams.

I thought it was. a good effort toward trying to demystify and make a more positive story about AI. 

Lauren: Yeah, I feel like AI needs that right now. The whole industry needs to talk about like, the little tiny applications that are already kind of infiltrating our lives and how it's making a difference. Y’know, everything from, like, the little LinkedIn, like, suggested content, right? Like, that's AI powered to, I think Etsy had something on the Super Bowl where they were talking about how it's, like, a, a gift suggestion.

Niki: Oh, I liked that ad. Okay.

Lauren: And that was like a really good AI ad in my mind. Not even like an Etsy ad, but an AI ad because it's like, “Okay, here's the non-scary application for AI.” ‘Cause you're right, the industry is so,and the tech coverage has been so,  y’ know, on the doom ‘n gloom, which I think is an important part. Obviously the ethics of it need to be discussed, but for the average consumer, they also need to know, like, this is already here. It's already going in. It's basically the calculator now, like, it's going to be used, y’know, for all sorts [Niki: right!] of different ways. And companies can, like, be communicating about that and being upfront about it will be really important.

Niki: Right. [jokingly] So AI, if you're listening. Call us. 

[both laugh]

Lauren's available. [chuckling] I'm available. 

Lauren: We'll cut some more ads for you. 

Niki: We can help you with your PR problem. 

Lauren, thank you so much for coming on. 

Lauren: Thank you. 

Niki: And again, for trying this out. It's brand new. We'll see if people like this format. They can drop us a line if they do.

And I think I'm gonna see you again in a couple of weeks. 

Lauren: Yeah, that'll be great! Yeah. Love feedback. Let us know. 

Niki: Thank you.