Sam Mealy's picture

My career transition

I moved from working at Dropbox in Dublin to the OECD in Paris in October 2015. Whilst this might first appear to be somewhat of a strange move, I’d like to use this blog post to explain the thinking behind my motivation and some of what I’ve learnt from working at both organisations, and transitioning between the two.

I joined Dropbox in 2013 after completing a masters in international politics at Trinity College Dublin. Paid positions in public policy were hard to come by in austerity budget era Ireland as there was a moratorium on the majority of public sector hiring and the NGO sector was struggling. I redirected my job-hunting efforts toward the private sector, thinking it would be useful to gain commercial skills before eventually moving into the public sector. Dublin had become something of a tech mecca since Google first established its EMEA headquarters there in 2003 – most of the established and up and coming tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Stripe and Slack, all now have their EMEA HQs in Dublin. Dropbox set up shop in Dublin with a small landing team during the summer of 2013. When I joined in November of that year there were about 20 people in the Dublin office and 500 globally, and when I left almost two years later there were 160 in Dublin and about 1500 globally. Joining a well-funded startup during hyper-growth mode was hugely exciting and I learnt a tremendous amount, both directly through my roles in operations and enterprise sales, and through participating in a rapidly growing company in a high profile sector.

After two years I had built up a solid foundation of skills and network in the tech industry. I felt it was time to start working more specifically on technology and public policy. My job search was thus more dictated by my area of interest than any specific organisation but it was concentrated on smaller consulting firms, think-tanks and international organisations. Job-searching requires patience and attention to detail. I treated it somewhat like a sales process: identify a list of organisations that you would like to work for based on select criteria (mission, industry, roles available, employees in your network, etc), develop a pipeline of contacts across different organisations, request informational interviews and generally map out the structure of the organisation and the industry, and then begin applying to, or ideally be referred for, appropriate roles. Through my work with Project Firefly in the past, Simon Evenett, one of the co-founders, connected me with a former PhD student of his, who worked at the OECD Development Centre, to discuss a potential role analysing the digital economy in developing countries. Following that, I interviewed with the head of unit and successfully got the job as a policy analyst.

The main research question underlying my work is: given that productivity rates are flagging across OECD and non-OECD countries, how can emerging economies adopt technologies to speed up the economic convergence process? This work then feeds into the broader OECD programme of work on the digital economy and contributes to member countries’ national digital strategies.

Managing the transition from Dropbox to the OECD was not always easy. Obviously there is all the practical stuff like moving to a new country where you don’t speak the language (I learnt German in school) and that has a Byzantine bureaucracy seemingly designed to destroy your soul and the planet through the duplication of form-filling. But acclimatising to a new work environment took some time too: I had moved from a young, relatively small, and fast-moving startup with a flat organising structure to a more established, larger, intergovernmental organisation with a more traditionally hierarchical structure. Like starting any new job, setting yourself up for success is doing the simple things right: speak with members of your new team before you start, have a clear understanding of your role, how it fits in with the organisation’s broader mission, and how the orgnisation fits into the broader sector, have a good sense of the org chart, etc. During that acclimitisation period, remember to bring what you’ve learnt from your old job/industry to your new one: what you take for granted might be novel in your new place of work.

I’ve been in Paris for nine months now and absolutely love the city and the work I do at the OECD – I feel vindicated by my decision to move. The transition has taught me some important lessons. Changing sectors has significant benefits, both for you and your future employers: you become a more well-rounded person with a more diverse set of transferable skills and experiences to draw upon. Moving industry is difficult however, and takes time, so you’ve got to be patient but also ready to move quickly when the right opportunity emerges – I left Dropbox and moved to Paris in just over two weeks. Obviously it’s good to leave on good terms: I can’t thank Dropbox enough for my time there and facilitating my move in such a short space of time. Think carefully about what’s important to you in your job and work environment – again changing sector can help clarify that. Finally, I think the most valuable thing you can do at the beginning of your career is expand your network: the larger and more diverse it is the more use it will be in the future. People are generally quite open to being asked for advice if you have a genuine interest in what they do – you can give back in a similar manner later in your career. 

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The digital unification of Europe

The European Commission’s announcement in May of its proposal to create a Digital Single Market (DSM) to complement the existing Single Market in physical goods and services has been largely applauded.  Significant market fragmentation currently means that only 15% of EU consumers shop online in another EU country, whilst only 7% of EU SMEs sell to another EU member country.[1]  The EC has high hopes that the Digital Single Market can remove some of these obstacles to growth.  At a Brookings Institute event in May, Andrus Ansip, the EC’s Vice President for the Digital Single Market, stated that he believes the DSM can unlock €415 million in GDP growth and create hundreds of thousands of new jobs over the next few years.[2]

The DSM arrives during a period of digital transformation, in which digital and internet technologies are remaking our economy and our society.  Big data and advances in AI are aiding doctors diagnose and cure disease.  The emergence of an interconnected Internet of Things (IoT) is making our workplaces and transportation systems safer, our cities more liveable, and our domestic lives simpler.  Mobile platforms and their associated applications are transforming the way we communicate, socialise, shop and work, and are creating entirely new business models and markets.

Europe, however, has been relatively slow to capitalise on these trends.  We have been lagging behind the US in both ICT production – of the top 30 global IT services and software companies, only four are headquartered in Europe[3] - and ICT usage and adoption since the mid-1990s.  The relatively sluggish adoption and usage of ICT is a more concerning trend, as at an economy wide level, the majority of the benefits of new technology accrues from its consumption rather than its production. This is because the use of ICT boosts productivity by making both labour and capital more productive.  In a study conducted on behalf of the EC, Van Welsum, et al, found that ICT contributed 0.7 percentage points to the average annual growth rates of labour productivity in the EU-15 between 1995 and 2007, whereas it contributed 1.3 percentage points during the same period in the US.[4]  Furthermore, an OECD report on the Impact of ICT on Productivity and Growth showed that the ICT contribution to total factor productivity growth from 1996-2007 was higher in the US than in the EU.[5]  ICT is a significant driver of growth in modern service economies, a phenomenon that the US is making a competitive advantage.

There are several reasons for the EU’s laggardly behaviour when it comes to ICT production and adoption, including: low firm and government investment in ICT, onerous regulations on ICT-based companies and applications, and weaker deployment and competition in the broadband sector. The fragmented and highly regulated national broadband markets in Europe, for example, mean there are twice as many broadband providers in Europe as the US.  This means higher costs and less capital to invest in world class infrastructure.[6]  As such, it is more difficult for consumers to access digital services, for firms to exploit developments in data analytics and cloud computing, and for governments to digitalise service provision.

The Digital Single Market thus represents a positive attempt to begin reversing the EU’s ICT deficit relative to the US.   The EC proposes to build the DSM around three pillars: providing better access for consumers and businesses to digital goods and services across Europe; shaping the right environment for digital networks and services to flourish; and creating a European digital economy with growth potential. Undergirding these pillars are a series of policy measures, such as modernising copyright law, simplifying VAT rules, restructuring the telecommunications sector and developing pan-European IT security standards and interoperability.  One of the key challenges will be to avoid replacing preferential treatment for national digital providers and telcos with protectionism for European providers at the expense of the American firms that currently dominate the European market.  This would ultimately result in poorer consumer choice and dampen innovation.  Ansip assured the Brookings audience that the Commission would remove regulatory barriers, not create new ones or build a “Fortress Europe.[7]

User data privacy is another key focus area for the DSM.  72% of internet users in Europe are concerned that they are being asked for too much personal data online.[8] Data security, as well as privacy, is further complicated by the current market fragmentation. Cloud computing services that store data across multiple locations pose challenging questions around data ownership and security for national jurisdictions.  Three legislative initiatives under the DSM project are aimed at addressing these concerns: a review of the ePrivacy Directive, which regulates the use of personal, location and traffic data for digital marketing, and cookies; the establishment of a cyber-security contractual public-privacy partnership by the end of 2016; and initiatives on data ownership, the free-flow of data between cloud providers, and on a European cloud.[9]  What these latter initiatives will look like in practice remains to be seen but the Commission appears to be moving in the right direction on a highly fraught area.

The Digital Single Market clearly has far-reaching implications. One of those is for US-EU trade and the ongoing negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  Talks began over two years ago but progress has been slow.  In liberalising the trade in digital goods and services, and removing regulations around data localisation that hamper mostly US-based cloud service companies, the DSM could accelerate progress on TTIP.  Whilst the Commission is bullish on the prospects of the Digital Single Market – and its numerous advantages are manifest – it will face significant political challenges from certain member states and industries exposed to increased competition.  How the Commission intends to navigate these challenges and actually implement the DSM over its proposed two year timeframe will be interesting to follow.  The potential upside for further deepening European integration and increasing Europe’s competitiveness is huge.

 

*The views expressed herein are my own, and not representative of the OECD.

 

References

European Commission, Why we need a Digital Single Market (2015), http://ec.europa.eu/priorities/digital-single-market/docs/dsm-factsheet_...

Van Welsum, D. et al., Unlocking the ICT Growth Potential in Europe: Enabling People and Businesses, The Conference Board for the European Commission (2013).

AT Kearney, Rebooting Europe’s High-Tech Industry (2015), https://www.atkearney.com/communications-media-technology/ideas-insights...

Atkinson, R. D., Getting Europe up to scale for the ICT-enabled economy (2015), http://www.policy-network.net/pno_detail.aspx?ID=4878&title=Getting+Euro...

OECD, The impact of ICT on productivity and growth (2011), https://community.oecd.org/servlet/JiveServlet/previewBody/33337-102-1-6...

Brookings, The Digital Single Market: Implications for the transatlantic relationship (2015), http://www.brookings.edu/events/2015/05/28-digital-single-market-sapiro-kerry

Webber, M., Finally, some certainty around Europe’s Single Digital Market Strategy (2015), http://privacylawblog.fieldfisher.com/2015/finally-some-certainty-around...

 


[4] Van Welsum, D. et al., Unlocking the ICT Growth Potential in Europe: Enabling People and Businesses, The Conference Board for the European Commission, 2013.

Sam Mealy's picture

Work in the new machine age

Taxi drivers in London, Paris and Madrid have been protesting against the private car service Uber. Uber enables you to order and pay for a driver from your smartphone. It differs from Hailo – extremely popular here in Ireland – in that unlike simply optimising the existing taxi market, it circumvents it entirely. The story is a familiar one: new technologies have winners and losers. Entrenched interests resist for a time, protected by a mixture of legacy benefits, regulations and sentiment, before crumbling under the totalising weight of economic efficiency. Politicians offer a few platitudes to the disenfranchised group but concede that the creative destruction wrought by new technologies is ultimately societally advantageous. Technology creates new jobs faster than it makes old ones obsolete.

You could argue that the model Uber embodies displaces some workers (in this case taxi drivers) but creates new jobs in their place (anyone with a smartphone can theoretically become a private driver). The rise and success of Uber – valued at $18.2 in June pre-IPO – is just the tip of a very large iceberg, however. Google’s self-driving car has driven over 300,000 accident-free miles along Californian highways whilst every major car manufacturer is investing in some kind of automated vehicle. The advantages of a true automobile are manifest. Most road accidents are caused by human error. Machines make much better drivers than people because of their capacity to more efficiently process large amounts of complex data. In addition to causing fewer fatalities and injuries, self-driving cars make better drivers, reducing congestion and thus pollution. Of course, there are roadblocks. How do computers deal with ethical dilemmas? In the small but still greater than zero pool of accidents involving self-driving cars, who or what is liable? Regulation, as always, lags behind technology, but will eventually catch up. Self-driving cars are already with us and will become the norm sooner than we think. And when then that happens, they will put 73 million people – all the taxi drivers, truckers and chauffeurs of the global transportation industry – out of a job.

What we’re witnessing is a “second machine age”. Digital technologies are rapidly replacing labour as an input in both the production process and the service industry. After the initial sunk cost, the marginal cost of new hardware declines as scale rises. Moreover, the cost of replicating software – that which carries out functions of the new hardware – is essentially non-existent. This has some significant advantages: not only does it make the whole production process cheaper and quicker but it also more closely aligns production with actual, rather than forecasted, demand. Think of 3D printing, which could re-localise complex global supply chains by reducing the need to centralise manufacturing for high-volume, low-cost production. Largescale shipping and warehouse inventories will be replaced by smaller delivery methods such as Amazon or FedEx. UPS recently announced a partnership with Stratasys to provide 3D printers in UPS stores across the US, whilst a Dutch architecture firm is already printing 3D canal boats in Amsterdam. Thus in this new production model, waste from lengthy supply chains and inaccurate forecasting is massively reduced.

At its height, Kodak employed 145,000 people; it filed for bankruptcy in 2012. In the same year, Facebook bought Instagram for $1 billion – it has about 11 employees. WhatsApp has 55 employees and was bought by Facebook for $17 billion earlier this year. The value is not in people anymore; it’s in capital-intensive technology.

This second machine age is different from previous waves of technological change in two key respects. Firstly, the rate of change is accelerating. The history of the mechanisation of agriculture is one of incremental change over the past several thousand years from the first domestication of plants and animals to the 21st century, during which the majority of people have moved off the land and now work in the (largely urban) service sector. Self-driving cars, on the other hand, possess the potential to revolutionise the transportation sector in a few short decades. Secondly, white-collar jobs are at as much risk as blue-collar jobs. A recent study by two Oxford economists (Frey, Osborne, 2013) analysed 702 occupations and predicted that 47% of total US employment is susceptible to computerisation. Software can automate whole swathes of accounting, taxation and legal work. Other industries too: a Quill robotic journalist could probably write this article better than me. Narrative Science has produced an algorithm that writes several articles you’ve already read.

A degree from a credentialed institution no longer provides you with insulation from such technological-biased change. Those who can work well with machines and think of new things for them to do will be amply compensated in this brave new world, whilst those who can’t or don’t will lag behind. This will accelerate the trend of superstar labour markets in existing fields such as sports and entertainment, and extend them to nearly all other sectors. The power law underlying this trend will see a disproportionate level of gains accrue to a small minority (the economist Tyler Cowen thinks the latter will be roughly 15% of the population).

The implications of this second machine age are thus terminally high unemployment and rising levels of inequality. In the future, “humans need not apply.” If this vision of the future seems overly grim, then that’s because it is. We have solved the perennial problem of human economic history, that of production – although we have not exported the solution to most of the world yet. We have the agency to change that however, and to shape the kind of future we want to live in and our children to inherit. However, we need to think critically – now – about what a post-scarcity world looks like, a world in which nearly all types of work that we can conceive, work that we haven’t yet conceived, can be automated by machines; a world without work as we now know it. What does a post-scarcity, post-work world look like? We need to start thinking seriously about new occupations for the millions of workers about to be displaced by technology. More fundamentally, we need to think about the purpose and meaning of human life in a world without work.

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Gender diversity at the AIC

I was lucky enough to attend several stimulating panel discussions at the AIC, one of which was on the issue of gender diversity and corporate management. Gender diversity and corporate management has become an increasingly topical issue in recent years due to two major factors. First, the debate has been transformed from an issue of equality to one of superior performance. The Credit Suisse Research Institute produced a report in August 2012 that found that companies with one or more women on the board delivered higher average returns on equity, lower gearing and better average growth from 2005-2011. This obviously has profound implications for how firms approach board appointments and talent management in general. Second, government intervention in the area has risen swiftly: seven countries have passed legislation mandating female board representation and eight countries have set non-mandatory targets in the past five years. Both the idea and practice of gender quotas in the corporate world remain highly divisive. Furthermore, highly visible figures in the private and public sectors, such as Melissa Mayer of Yahoo, Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook, and Ann Marie Slaughter of Princeton, have brought the issue to public consciousness through recent pronouncements and publications. So it was an astute and timely move by the conference organizers to host a panel discussion on gender diversity.

There was broad consensus among the panelists as to what was at stake. Eileen Murray, chief operating officer and co-president of hedge fund Bridgewater Associates, held that it is crucial for more women to be on corporate boards amid the current ‘war on talent’. A recent UNESCO report showed that the proportion of female graduates globally came to a median average of 54% in 2010. Considering this and the reality that over 50% of current human and intellectual capital is female it makes sense to include more women on boards; it’s simply a matter of broadening the talent pool available to companies. However, as Murray rightfully pointed out, this is about more than female representation on boards. One of the complaints most frequently made by appointment committees is that there is a dearth of qualified women in senior management positions. Thus, training and positioning more women for senior management roles is clearly a prerequisite step for increasing female board representation.

Nicholas Sallnow-Smith, chairman of the Link Management Ltd, resisted the imposition of formal gender quotas for board membership on the grounds that quotas represent external interference with the rights of the shareholders of the company. If the overarching objective of this kind of research is investigating board effectiveness then this intuitively comes from tapping the broadest possible talent pool. Moreover, Sallnow-Smith argued that boards should be more reflective of the community in which they do business. This ties in with the idea that boards with more women are more reflective of the primary consumer decision maker, in that most household consumption decisions are made by women. In this light, more consumer facing industries already rank the highest amongst those with a high proportion of women on boards. Raw materials and industrial companies rank lowest.

Fan Cheuk Wan, Credit Suisse’s Head of Research (Asia Pacific) for private banking and wealth management, outlined the high positive correlation between the degree of gender diversity on corporate boards and financial performance. However, she said this is mitigated somewhat by the fact that companies with a more diverse workforce are larger companies with relatively higher corporate governance standards than small cap companies. This points to the possibility that a causal relationship is not at play so much as selection bias or a signal effect: the appointment of women to boards provides a signal to the market of good corporate governance and that the company is already doing well. The endogeneity problem in this case – that companies performing well appoint women to the board rather than women on the board causes a rise in performance – is indicative of problems besetting most research that use observational data: it is difficult to rule out competing explanations due to the possibility of omitted variables or the absence of controlled comparisons.

What struck me most about the three speakers and from engaging with the issue itself is how gender diversity is really an upstream problem – or, as it should be framed more positively, an upstream opportunity. Assuming that gender diversity is a good thing for corporate performance, or any diversity for that matter (and there are a whole host of reasons to think this is so: diversity enhances the efficacy of group performance and overall group intelligence, provides a better mix of leadership skills, provides a broader talent pool, and so on), then the problem isn’t enough women on boards as such but that there are not enough women in senior management positions in general, and more problematically, that there are not enough women going forward for senior management roles. Reports from Credit Suisse, McKinsey and Catalyst all show that women don’t feel as confident in their professional abilities as men and as such don’t put themselves forward for promotion as often as men. This is part of a socialization process that starts long before the workplace: at home, in schools and in daily life. I agree with the panelists to a certain extent about the tokenism of gender quotas: of course no one wants to feel like they’ve been selected for a position on the basis of their gender – or race or religion, etc – rather than their ability. However, the demonstration effect that quotas provide is significant. Moreover, there is the difficult in breaking the cycle of male dominated boardrooms as the appointment processes largely occur through old boys networks. I am thus interested in the more holistic role the business community can play in tandem with government in altering outmoded familial and labour market relations regarding women and the workforce.

 

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My experiences of the AIC

Winning the chance to attend the 2013 Credit Suisse Asian Investment Conference in Hong Kong with Project Firefly was a truly memorable experience. One of the highlights was getting to know the other winners, Joel Lee from Singapore and Romain Su from France: two standout gents. Sharing the week’s panel discussions and keynote addresses with them was interesting as whilst we are all interested in finance and banking we all come from non-finance backgrounds: Joel is studying communications in Singapore, Romain works at the French embassy in Warsaw and I’m completing a masters in international politics in Dublin. Thus, each of us had a distinct perspective on the week’s events and it was interesting to see how our respective backgrounds shaped those perspectives.

The other people who made a lasting impression on my week were Project Firefly’s co-founders, Daniel Garraty and Simon Evenett. Hearing Daniel passionately articulate Project Firefly’s future vision on a rooftop bar in Kong Kong city centre was a definite highlight. I’m genuinely proud to have been involved in such a trailblazing initiative. Similarly, quizzing Simon – who is a professor at the university of St. Gallen in Switzerland – about his background at the World Bank and the possibility of pursuing an academic career was really informative and insightful.

The conference itself was eye opening both in terms of scale and insights. I got the opportunity to attend and participate in panel discussions on a broad range of topics, from gender diversity on corporate boards and the future of the Eurozone to China’s urbanization problems and investment opportunities in Asean countries. One of the great things about the Project Firefly experience was that we were treated as full participants of the conference, not just interested students. I got a real thrill at being able to ask Lorenzo Bini Smaghi – former member of the European Central Bank’s executive board – about the possibility of tax harmonization in the EU, an issue that is something of a political hot potato in Ireland. Seeing various luminaries of the financial world, such as Peter Thiel and Larry Fink, give keynote addresses was another fascinating experience. Finally, the opportunity to network with such a collection of high net worth individuals and organizations is unparalleled: something I probably didn’t exploit as much as I should have!

The final highlight for me was getting to visit Hong Kong itself, a dazzlingly dynamic and densely populated city with loads of stuff going on. Eating industrial quantities of the best Chinese food I’ve ever tasted on a daily basis was pretty special, as were the many spectacular views we enjoyed from Hong Kong’s rooftop bars. Visiting Credit Suisse’s regional headquarters in Kowloon on the Chinese mainland and attending a campus-recruiting event there with the chairman of the company, Urs Rohner, was another great experience. All in all, I had a fabulous time at the AIC and would really recommend entering Project Firefly’s competitions in the future.

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