Bob Schwartz

Month: April, 2012

Women Who (Don’t) Develop Apps

Why are there so few women developing mobile apps? The numbers haven’t yet been established, but the guess is that out of the literally million apps already created, and more on the way, few are developed by women.

The app world is one of the most fascinating phenomena in technology. It is in some ways an extension of the old school software development model, and bears some similarity. But a number of things are different. Development is easier, creativity is open, distribution is seamless and global (thanks to the apps markets), and the user base is expanding exponentially. The scale of the resulting tech opportunity is mind-boggling.

One more thing: it is a transparent development world. Many of the most popular apps (popular as in millions of downloads) are the work of one person. It is, even more than in the early days of computers, a place for garage developers, the equivalent of the garage band model of rock. And in many cases, we know exactly who that person is, because the market allows us to communicate directly with him. And, anecdotally, it is almost always a him.

The thought is prompted by the continuing drumbeat that women are severely underrepresented in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math). The focus is properly on the failure to cultivate and use so much needed talent in our always needy enterprises. But app development is also an enterprise, a remarkably democratic and free market that is now an inextricable part of daily life.

Discovering the extent to which women don’t develop apps, and the reasons why, may hold a key to the entire women and STEM debate, as well as to bigger issues of emerging consumer tech. In any case, it is an intriguing and fun question. As to the question of whether women can develop apps, the garage rock analogy is useful, if not entirely encouraging. It turns out that women actually could rock pretty hard, given the opportunity. But in a boy’s club, that continues to be a struggle to this day. Let’s hope it goes better for app development and next gen tech.

Tragedy and Branding

It may seem insensitive to mention this small and bizarre facet of a fresh tragedy. Yet an intensive commercial campaign has run headlong into sad current events in a very peculiar way.

The tragedy is the shooting and killing of multiple students at Oikos University, a small Christian college in Oakland, California. Few have heard of this school, and except for some scholars, Greek-speakers, and religionists, few will have heard the word “oikos” (which means house, home, household, or in the religious context, house of God; it is also the root of the word “ecology”).

Few, that is, except for the millions who have been exposed to this strange-sounding word by the Dannon Company in promoting its Greek-style yogurt. The story behind the brand is a little complicated. Stonyfield introduced it as its brand of organic Greek yogurt first. Then last year, its sister company Dannon adopted the Oikos brand as a new name for its previously unnamed non-organic “Greek yogurt.” Dannon launched the campaign starring John Stamos with its Super Bowl commercial, and it has been pushing ever since, aimed at its  insurgent independent yogurt rival Chobani (“chopani” means shepherd in Greek).

There is no sensitive way to say this: In the days ahead, as the coverage about this school tragedy expands and intensifies, it is likely that some small number of consumers is going to think of this yogurt the first time that they hear about an unknown college named Oikos. It’s not that the name is familiar to them; it’s that the name is peculiar and newly almost-familiar to them. It is also possible that some brand managers are thinking about this too, though their likely response is to do nothing at all in the face of strange happenstance. Strange happenstance, and a tragic event, much more important than any yogurt business.


For those who wonder whether meanness is a sin or vice, you can start with Summa Theologica by St. Thomas Aquinas, where Question 135 addresses the issue. Or you could ask your parents or your elementary school teachers or your spouse or your children: It’s not nice to be mean.

Which should make us think about why rampant meanness is not only acceptable, but encouraged, entertaining, and profitable. Cheaters may never prosper (though they often do), but meaners are doing very well these days.

Saying that all things virtuous seem to be dying and on life support is an overstatement that doesn’t get us far. Instead, four possible explanations of how what was once a private disturbance has become such a pandemic, a public poison:

Meanness by proxy: All art and performance is based on the ability and willingness of creators to express what we can’t or won’t. It would be nice to think that we only long to be the one who can move people to tears or laughter, inspire people to reach higher, and if we can’t be those creators, at least they are doing that for us. The same thing unfortunately applies to darker messaging, though. We may not be able to attack quite so sharply and eloquently, but we appreciate that someone can. “Yeah, what he said!”

Meanness as superiority: This is a subset of meanness by proxy. There’s perversity in enjoying the meanness of others, but at the same time taking pride in being one who would never say something like that because…we are better than that and would never be so mean. (Whatever the theological status of meanness, by the way, pride is definitely on all the lists of sins.)

Meanness as incompetent and faulty criticism: This is the explanation of meanness as sub-juvenile behavior. When little children aren’t sure why they hate somebody or something, or can’t articulate it, they revert to name-calling and indiscriminate meanness: “You’re a poo-poo head!” It’s a fantastic dream that one day, thanks to some spell, the most gratuitously mean would be magically forced to speak only such childish epithets.

Meanness unconditioned by a thought/speech barrier: The thought/speech barrier, the wall that should keep many thoughts from ever being spoken, is dissolving. Whether phenomena such as Twitter are causal, enabling, or merely symptomatic is beside the point. Thought moves from brain to mouth (or keyboard) at the speed of synapse. Mean heart becomes mean words in a literal instant.

There is a genuine critical function, which can be exercised with thoughtfulness, care, and respect. That simple sentence, a foundation of a free, enlightened society, is looking particularly quaint, and seems for many to have lost its meaning.