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Q&A: BuzzFeed tech reporter Kantrowitz talks his career and his book

April 16, 2020

Posted by Chris Roush

Alex Kantrowitz

Alex Kantrowitz is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. He reports on social and communications.

He previously covered the technology of marketing and advertising for Ad Age. His work has been referenced by dozens of major publications, from The New Yorker to The Wall Street Journal to Sports Illustrated.

Kantrowitz is a graduate of Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He started his career buying digital ads for New York City’s Economic Development Corp. and selling ad-tech software.

Kantrowitz is the author of a new book called “Always Day One: How the Tech Titans plan to Stay on Top Forever,” published by Penguin.

Through 130 interviews with insiders from Mark Zuckerberg to hourly workers, Kantrowitz writes about the culture, technology and processes the tech giants have developed to sustain success in a business world where no advantage is safe.

Kantrowitz spoke Thursday by Zoom with Talking Biz News. What follows is an edited transcript.

How did you get interested in writing about business and technology?

So I started my career buying ads for New York City’s Economic Development Corp. and when I came in all the ads they were running print. I had been going to some meetups in New York City to learn about what was going on in the internet and said, hey, maybe we can start experimenting with placing some ads online. And so that sort of gave me this introduction to the business of the internet. And so I shifted like a good percentage of the budget from print to online advertising and learn how to advertise on LinkedIn and Facebook and Google, and it ended up proving to be pretty effective venues for us to get our message across.

And after a couple years of that, there was a lot of discussion how tech was the future. And I just wanted to go see that firsthand. So I actually became an inside sales rep for an ad tech company for a year, which was an interesting, weird experience that cued me into the business of the internet.

And then after a while, I had been reading what was going on in the press and I thought that there was big parts of the story that the media was missing. I always had this interest in being a storyteller, but just never really thought it was possible. I started writing on the side a little bit for for places like Forbes and Fortune. And then at a certain point, I was enjoyng this much more than I enjoy making cold calls trying to sell an ad tech system. So I just decided to take the leap and see if there was a future in that.

Tell me a little bit about how BuzzFeed covers technology and how is that different from other media outlets.

BuzzFeed is concerned with how these platforms impact our everyday lives than in the business, the nuts-and-bolts earnings of these companies. We do our best work when we examine how these companies are changing the lives of everyday people. And I think when you start from there, you start to see things differently.  How is something like Facebook’s real name policy impacting advocates in countries who might be in trouble if their real name gets gets exposed?

What happens when people share news that’s fake? What happens when people working inside these companies might be conscripted by foreign governments to provide information? And what’s the consequences for those decisions?

So if you start with how did these decisions impact real people on the ground, it just ends up opening a perspective to a whole slew of stories that might not get told otherwise. And I think when BuzzFeed does that, well, that’s when the company’s at its best.

What types of stories do you like to personally focus on?

I like two types of stories. One is I really enjoy digging into systems and figuring out how they impact people. There are so many things that we take for granted about the internet that if we actually start to interrogate them a little bit, we might see cracks there. To me, the most interesting one has been the share or the retweet button on Facebook and Twitter. You know, these are just standard fundamental parts of these company’s products.

But when you take a little bit deeper, you see that they are more than algorithms. These are the things that have been responsible for the spread of sensationalized news and fake news because people tend to hit them without a second thought. And I think there is research that shows that if people stopped to think for a second, they’re actually more thoughtful about the things that they share with their friends and family. By taking all the friction out these companies have led to some bad outcomes.

The other type of story I like is just to sort of take something that that we might have glanced over. It is a story that the news media might have glanced over but has some pretty intricate details if you dig and take the time and then just seeing what lies underneath the surface. And I think one example of that is I wrote this story about how Twitter employees were conscripted by an associate of Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman.

This is all according to an FBI complaint, but they were conscripted to access user information and allegedly pass it along to this person and the users were all like Saudi dissidents. But I asked what if we learn a little bit more about who these people were, what type of access they they had by the systems inside Twitter allowed them to access this information and what companies might be able to do to prevent things like this in the future.

I like being able to spend time and dig deeply into what ended up leading to a story that wasn’t a straight news story but something that people could read and understand what exactly happened there and give people this idea of like how this might happen again in the future.

What was the process and deciding to write a book about the success of big tech companies?

Coming up as an online journalist, I never really imagined writing a book. I felt people were processing information then in 140 characters, now in 280 characters, and taking all this time to write a book seem like a fool’s errand to me. But I had studied industrial and labor relations at Cornell, which taught me all about how workplaces work, how organizations behave, how company culture is influential.

I got to San Francisco and spent a couple of years speaking with the leaders in Silicon Valley and just realized that there was something different going on here. Something that I hadn’t been taught about in school. And I took a step back and asked why the tech giants were so successful.

The reason they were so successful was because they had just developed different cultures, different styles in a way of working. That just isn’t common in the rest of the world in traditional businesses. And so that’s when I thought, OK, this should be a book because it is something that merits exploration in a deep investigative way.

I thought that by taking the time and really looking deeply into the processes that these companies use gave everybody else that’s competing with them, a chance to even the field. And people working in so-called traditional jobs could have an idea of what’s coming next. So for me, it became this adventure because it went from writing about the symptoms — what these companies produce — to actually digging in and trying to understand the physiology.

Were some companies more interested in cooperating and others?

I had interviews through the front door for Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Microsoft and this is the first book that included Amazon since “The Everything Store,” which surprised me. The key was always to have a balance, and for each one of these companies I spoke with more people not sanctioned than the ones that the company’s presented to me, which I felt was important to deliver a balanced story to readers.

But I feel like there are a bunch of great interviews in the book that come from the companies themselves, including Mark Zuckerberg, and a number of executives in Google’s executive suite. They’re talking about how they’re addressing the dissent inside the companies.

Apple denied access. We had some conversations about it but they eventually said no, which is fine because I really don’t believe you need access to tell the stories of these companies. But I did cold email Steve Wozniak and met him for an interview at a diner down in Cupertino. I wasn’t 100% sure he was going to show up, but he walked in around 11 a.m. with his business partner and wife, and we all sat down for omelets and just talked.

How did you get the lower level employees to talk to you?

It was a process. I put a post it on my monitor and it just said fill your days with interviews. I’d literally sit down and be diligent about spending an hour, two hours a day, going through LinkedIn and just sending cold messages saying, Hey, I’m writing this book about the inner workings of these companies and I’d very much like to get the story right and would love to speak with you about your experiences there. And as you might imagine, the vast majority ignored the message, but every now and again, somebody said, Yeah, let’s talk.

People were very generous with their time because I think they know that these are important companies, and the story about how they work inside really matters. And they were dedicated to making sure that story was told right.

This being your first book, how hard was it to kind of organize and write the book?

It was pretty difficult. And we also went into the process with this big question mark, which I didn’t know the answer: What are these companies doing differently? It’s helped them become successful. We had seen a few things that we thought were interesting.

We thought that these companies use technology pretty effectively inside the organization that might be one thing that was worth exploring. We saw that the CEOs of these companies were not typical boisterous CEOs.  You might imagine leading the world’s top companies and of them will hop on top of a picnic bench with a megaphone with everybody gathered around and scream out their vision and have everybody follow.  They’re much more their engineers, so they’re much more about listening to folks than about telling them what to do.

And we just said, OK, well, these are an interesting set of data points and how do we connect them? So I think the book really only crystallized, and at the end of the ninth month.

There really is a debate inside companies all the time that is do you keep investing in the flagship product and put all your energy into that, or go back to day one and figure out what the future is going to be and how do you build for that?

Then I had looked at the book and I said I need to rewrite the whole thing. So basically went back chapter by chapter and said, OK, what’s my intro? What’s the thesis here in the Amazon chapter? I’m trying to figure out how to make this one cohesive story, but I think in the end it worked.

What do you think the average person who’s interested in these companies can learn from reading the book?

The average person can learn that that work is going to change for a lot of folks in a good way. Oftentimes, standing existing procedures are just supporting things to ensure that we can keep them wanting and it sort of creates interest in them. What these companies have done really well is they’ve taken that treadmill and put it on autopilot and given their employees a lot more room to come up with new ideas and bring them to life.

They use automation technology collaboration tools. And I think those are going to roll out into everyday people’s lives pretty soon and give people time to be more inventive than spending their days just making sure that the that the car is running, which I think is a pretty cool feature for people who are able to do it.

What do you hope the book accomplishes for other business leaders who are reading this?

There’s a problem that I’ve been pointing out for a while, is that these companies, the tech titans are too powerful. And so there’s a number of ways that you address that. One is, the government could come in and step in and regulate them and sort of put pressure on them to to adjust and change and be more accountable to the public.

What I think what I’m doing is giving business leaders access to the systems that have made them so successful and say, you might be doing something one way if you get access to the systems of the tech giants are using. This is not the way that they they pursue growth at all costs. This is really how they become inventive. And if we have more inventive companies in the economy, then we’ll end up evening the playing field. And that’s what I’m hoping for is that people take the systems and tools that I described in the book and put them into play, even if they’re not in the tech giants.

One of the things that I believe is that companies have a larger influence on people than most people believe. Would you agree that’s the case with tech companies?

Yeah. If you look at the way that we process and receive information today, a lot of that is just determined by the whims of Facebook, Google and YouTube’s algorithms and the mechanisms they put in their products like the share button. So it comes to us. It looks the same, but it’s different. There’s a lot of work being done behind the scenes that really influences the way we perceive the world.

What’s the lesson for business journalists?

I would say is that there’s a lesson in here for your audience like business reporters and writers and editors, and that is too often we’ll cover what I call the symptoms like a bit of news and move on without spending time eamining the underlying systems. Generally it’s sort of less rewarding. Like, you don’t get journalism awards for sort of figuring out the machinery of the company, but I do believe that once we understand the machinery and understand the physiology inside the companies we cover then we’re in a much better place to write about why they’re doing what they do. And I’ve certainly learned that myself going through this process.

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