July 2018

Students and young professionals often ask me what are the most important career lessons I have learned.

The first one came during my very first job as an economist. I was very proud of my ideas but thought their presentation was much less important. I completed my written material quickly, often submitting it without worrying about small mistakes. I was very brash. My boss took me aside one day and said that although my ideas were good, I was alienating him because it wasn’t his job to proofread my work. He explained that the errors I thought were small and meaningless actually created the impression that I felt my time was more valuable than his. I was embarrassed and horrified.

I could see, however, that my boss was trying to teach me something important. I took away a very important career lesson: how you communicate is as important as what you communicate.

A few years later, I joined an investment bank as an arbitrage trader. I was very sure that my academic success at Cambridge would put me at an advantage. My naivety was challenged on my first day, when my boss looked at me and said straight up, “Your education doesn’t mean jack here.” I was dumbstruck but collected myself and asked him what did matter. He wanted me to be humble and not insist on reinventing the wheel by doing everything “my way.” I was offended at the suggestion that I should take ideas from other people, since that was cheating.

I remember him laughing at me and saying, “I’m not talking about you stealing other people’s ideas, genius. I’m asking you to learn how people succeed in getting along and become great colleagues.” I realized that what he was talking about was being part of a corporate culture – being attuned to the way people worked together and how they expected their colleagues to act. I quickly got over myself and realized I had learned a second important lesson: you need to be aware of how well you connect with those around you if you wanted to succeed in business.

The third lesson that really accelerated my career was about when to stand out. Not long after starting as an associate in an international law firm, the economy soured and there was very little work. Most of my colleagues spent their time avoiding the partners. Looking around, I realized that the partners were frightened too.

Up to that time I had believed that it was the role of senior people to figure out what to do in times of crisis. Yet one day at a firmwide meeting, I realized that no one else had any better ideas than I did, and that if I did nothing I was likely going to lose my job because no one was going to find work for me to do. I spoke up and said, “I know we are all frightened, but we can either let our fear disable us, or we can get out there and find work.”

For the next two years, the partners never stopped chiding me for being the first-year associate with the temerity to speak up, and I wasn’t too popular with my peers, but I never backed down from what I had said. Long after most of my colleagues who hadn’t taken responsibility had been laid off, I was still employed. This was when I learned my third important career lesson: leaders are people who are willing to stand up and take responsibility when others are not.

These three lessons helped shaped my career. But in some ways, focusing on specific lessons misses the point. What matters most of all: the ability to stand apart from the moment and take in the lesson to be learned. Being self-aware is the most important career lesson of all.

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To fulfill its economic potential, Greater Washington must change how it approaches workforce education.

Tens of thousands of high-paying jobs in the region are currently unfilled because we do not have enough workers with the necessary technical skills. Meanwhile, employers complain that many of the workers they do hire have technical skills but lack soft skills, such as communication and critical thinking.

Why?

A large part of the answer may be that we think of jobs in two categories — white and blue collar — and make a similar distinction in how these workers are educated. Typically, a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for a white-collar job and often the specific undergraduate course of study doesn’t matter; what matters is the implicit assumption that the graduate has learned how to assimilate information from a variety of sources, think critically and spit it back it out in the required format. BA graduates are assumed to have developed soft skills, like written and spoken communication and an awareness of social norms. Conversely blue-collar jobs are seen as not requiring a BA because these jobs involve operating machinery or manual labor and are not seen as requiring soft skills.

The problem with this bifurcation is that it no longer reflects our region’s needs. The lines between jobs are no longer clear-cut. As Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam has said many times in the last year, it no longer makes sense to talk about white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Instead, we should talk about “new collar” jobs that require that a worker have mastery of both soft and technical skills.

How can we provide students with a cost effective way to obtain new collar skills?

One example can be found in a recent pilot program launched by George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. These institutions already closely work together as Mason will automatically accept transfer students from NVCC once they successfully complete a degree at NVCC and satisfy grade requirements. This has provided a way for thousands of students to save money by filling their “general education” and introductory courses at NVCC and then transferring to Mason for upper level courses that earn them a bachelor’s degree.

Because of their successful relationship and seeing the need for preparing our workforce for a new collar future, last year Mason and NVCC  launched a pilot program called “ADVANCE” to more tightly integrate the educational process for a group of students. Through ADVANCE, students will enroll in both institutions on day one, have the same guidance counselor all the way along and can plan their entire four-year education with the class offerings of both institutions available. This approach is expected to provide students with a more satisfying educational experience, and the opportunity to obtain technical and soft skills in one place. It will also save students an average of $15,000 by eliminating some of the inefficiencies that occur when students transfer credits between educational institutions.

Mason President Angel Cabrera pointed out to me that making education affordable and accessible was highly important to Mason and was a big reason it started ADVANCE with NVCC, saying “we know that a college degree is essential in today’s economy.” Scott Ralls, President of NVCC added, “Our goal is to help more students graduate in high-demand fields.”

They would like their respective institutions to take the best parts of technical training and a university curriculum and combine them together into new curricula and degrees that demonstrate the development of white collar skills. Ralls gave me a few examples, such as a student who could graduate with a computer science degree and certification of technical competence in cybersecurity or a history major who could learn how to do basic coding and work with technology as a native.

For Ralls, there are few things more important for our region than finding new ways to train our workforce. He reminded me that our region has one of the nation’s slowest-growing workforces because as he puts it, “potential workers from other regions, particularly technology workers, do not naturally gravitate to our region.”

Mason and NVCC hope to double the number of students in ADVANCE in the coming year and scale it from there to help build a pipeline of highly skilled white-collar workers. This summer, they are specifically looking for further guidance from our business community to help shape curricula and degree requirements.

I am planning on spending some of my time this summer working with them on this project. I’d like to see other businesspeople similarly engaged. Filling our region’s unfilled jobs with locally developed talent is something we can all get behind.

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Jonathan was quoted in a column in Forbes written by Richard Levick of Levick, discussing the affect on the AT&T merger with Time Warner and its likely effects on innovation.

Aberman stated:

Longtime Washington attorney and technology entrepreneur Jonathan Aberman agrees that, “Current regulatory trends are favoring the concentration of economic power into a small number of larger businesses. Sadly, there is ample history that when businesses obtain monopoly power they become less interested in innovation or passing on margin improvements to consumers.

“In the world of technology innovation today it is more and more often a battle for attention. A company that has existing customer relationships will have a much easier time offering a new service or product than a smaller business that has to spend money or work hard to attract the attention of consumers and change their behavior,” says Aberman.

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Jonathan was quoted in this article on the state of venture capital in the Greater Washington region written by Andy Medici of the Washington Business Journal:

The D.C. region’s declining share is more worrying for Jonathan Aberman, managing director for Amplifier Ventures. He thinks it’s a mismatch between what venture capitalists want — high-growth consumer software and product companies — and what the region produces — and more service-oriented companies.

“The reason why this matters is that we make things that people don’t want to buy — and that is our problem,” said Aberman, who writes a weekly column for the Washington Business Journal. “We excel at being consultants.”

In the last decade or so, a software emphasis shifted to Silicon Valley, while the D.C region created deeper inroads in government contracting and media markets, leaving it in a poor position to attract venture dollars. Aberman’s solution? Place a stronger emphasis on products over services to generate the kind of interest and attention that leads to more mergers, acquisitions and funding.

“Venture capital as a model depends on growing companies that are likely to be acquired by other businesses in the short term,” Aberman said. “When you are growing companies that are hyper-relevant to the larger companies, you get more M&A and you get more deal velocity and you get more VCs to invest.”

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Make no mistake: President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to impose tariffs on imports from China and our closest allies, including the EU and Canada, is a very big deal. We should all be concerned.

This action is another example of the politics of aggrievement: anger and outrage looking for someone to blame and make pay for the transgressions, real or imagined, suffered by the aggrieved. You can see the politics of aggrievement play out through anti-immigration policies, steps to shrink government and actions to cut taxes and eliminate regulations without a serious inquiry into whether there really is a transgression and, if there is, whether the action is in fact a remedy.

As practiced in this country, aggrievement politics depends on obscuring the data and facts that undermine its arguments and outrage. For example, in the immigration debate, we don’t hear much about the country’s need for young workers, who will pay into the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, and how immigration is a prime source of these young workers. We don’t hear much about how the recent tax cuts favored passive investment and aren’t creating the promised jobs or increased wages. Facts and data that don’t support aggrievement are shouted down or ignored because they’re “too complicated” to be understood. The politics of aggrievement has succeeded because informed debate doesn’t occur and because the consequences of its policies haven’t been widely felt yet.

Tariffs are a different matter entirely. They are the place where aggrievement as a ruling philosophy will run smack into the fundamental reality that international trade benefits the U.S. and the rest of the world. And while we may decide to turn our back on the world trade, others will not. While those profiting from the politics of aggrievement have successfully controlled the domestic discussion, they won’t be able to control the global discussion.

The international community knows that tariffs imposed without due consideration of their effect on other countries or the domestic workforce are a losing strategy. They see the historical experience of the tit-for-tat tariff wars that led to the Great Depression as one stark frightening example, among many others, of what happens when countries try to capture prosperity by beggaring  their neighbors.

The international community knows that the countries that have cooperated economically have collectively created more wealth and eliminated poverty on a level never before seen in human history. There is little danger that China, Canada, the EU and the rest will unilaterally increase tariffs on one another, just because we place tariffs on them. They will avoid a replay of the 1930s world economy.

What they will do, however, is put targeted tariffs on U.S. products and find ways to inhibit our exports to them. Meanwhile, the president’s tariffs on foreign imports are already adversely affecting our companies. Many businesses they are supposed to help, like General Motors, have already said on record that they are opposed to them. Others are reconfiguring their businesses by laying off American workers or shifting production overseas, for example, Harley Davidson and Mid-Continental Nail. The Federal Reserve Board has raised concern that these businesses are the thin edge of a broader trend.

Perhaps the president’s view is that because the U.S. market is so big, our trading partners will eventually give in and the U.S. will win. That is a grave miscalculation, because we have as much to lose, if not more. U.S. businesses — many of which are located in our region — will lose access to international markets and pay higher costs for inputs, while our government will lose access to international capital.

Shaking a fist at China or Canada may provide a nice dopamine hit for some, but at some point, the world will just go on without us and other nations will derive the primary benefit from international trade while we see our economy shrink and our country become less relevant.

Ignoring that reality may be momentarily effective politics, but I’m not hearing anything that gives comfort that there is a plan once the aggrieved are done being angry.

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Is creativity a talent that only a select few have? Or is creativity a skill that can be learned by most people?

Because creativity drives problem solving and thus economic growth, those who want to grow our region’s economy hope that creativity is a teachable skill. “The Creative Curve,” a new book by Allen Gannett, founder of local tech startup Track Maven, provides valuable insight on this issue.

Creativity is essential to scientific discovery, artistic expression and entrepreneurship. Because of creativity’s value to his own life as an entrepreneur, Gannett wanted to better understand whether it could be captured in a predictable, repeatable process. But he also wanted to help others to be creative, because of creativity’s importance to our community.

As he researched his book, Gannett learned that the popular belief that creativity occurs in a flash does not describe how the brain actually works when addressing problems and creating solutions. He also learned that various intelligence tests and related experiments demonstrate that creativity does not arise from innate intelligence, but rather from personal experience and acquired expertise. Creativity is not limited to those with genius level IQs. Gannett uses several examples to assess the world population’s creative potential. One example relies on standardized tests to show that as many as 3 billion of the people alive today have the intellectual ability to be creative.

He concludes that creativity is accessible much more widely than popularly believed. This conclusion is very important to Gannett, who told me that “if my book can change only one thing about the conversation around creativity, it would be this: We need to stop talking about creativity like it is magic.”

For Gannett, demystifying creativity and showing people that they are all capable of it helps them see they have the skills to make their creativity matter. To achieve impact, Gannett believes that the creative person must put forth ideas and concepts that balance two somewhat contradictory human impulses. He shows us that when faced with something new, humans fall back on two different patterns of behavior: We are excited by novelty but at the same time we value the predictability of the commonplace.

Gannett’s research showed him that the most influential ideas are those that manage to concurrently satisfy desires for novelty and the commonplace. Achieving this is extremely powerful and when it occurs, for example with the iPhone that created something new out of the familiarity of the iPod, an idea or product can become very important very quickly.

It is in the balancing of novelty and the commonplace that Gannett finds skills that can be taught. He highlights that creative people who get their ideas adopted share a number of traits. Successfully creative people learn from experience; that experience includes their own and what they learn from others. They are intentional about how they gain their experience – purposeful and selective. They are exceedingly curious. They are active learners.

All this means that creativity is characterized by a reproducible set of behaviors. Creativity is not a bolt from the blue. Surprisingly, it’s much more about grinding it out and having the opportunity to experiment and to learn.

I am so very tired of how often these days pundits and politicians tell us that only they can fix real or imagined problems. They rely on our belief that coming up with the ideas that shape our society and fix problems is somehow the preserve of a special few. Reading Gannett’s book, I am reminded that the ability to come up with solutions and influence others to make changes, large and small, is something we all can do. Demagoguery and punditry are only good strategies when we acquiescence by agreeing that we are helpless and unable to think for ourselves.

I pointed out to Gannett that his conclusion — that creativity and successful problem-solving are widely distributed talents that can be even further developed — is essentially a political one. He told me although he hadn’t thought about it in this way, I was right.

Gannett summed up his thinking in one sentence: “I think that we as citizens have an obligation to ensure that our society lives up to its creative ideals.”

I couldn’t agree more.

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