The Software Agents Season One: 7 Ways Software is (Helping) Save the World

Written by: Christina Noren
11 min read
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At the beginning of May, I wrote a blog post about the developing role of software in helping the world survive through the pandemic and thrive in its aftermath. About six weeks into lockdown, it became clear that it was going to be a lot longer than six weeks. It had also become clear that software was no longer just eating the world, but now had a big role in saving it.

In the weeks that followed, the pandemic was joined by other simmering crises that boiled over, revealing even more ways in which our world urgently needs to adapt. As I spent more time looking into how software initiatives were playing out in different domains of life, we conceived the idea of a podcast to showcase the people — not the software — whose vision, drive, skill and insight were transforming the world overnight.

Hence, The Software Agents podcast was born. 

Episode 1 on July 16 featured Will Hayes, the dynamic CEO of Lucidworks, who was suddenly leading major retail customers to move to online-first shopping in a "Black Friday that never ends.” Will also happens to be one of Silicon Valley’s few Black CEOs. Lucidworks is a high-growth company, so Will had first-hand insights into the charged climate of Summer 2020 and what software companies were doing right — or wrong — to address inequities.

Since then, we’ve posted 16 more episodes, and we’re calling it a wrap on "Season 1.” We’ve covered everything from how software will help art museums transform visitor experiences through physical distancing and virtual exhibitions (in Episode 2 with Rich Cherry, CEO of Museum Operations) to applying software to give Brazil’s burgeoning underclass of workers in the informal/gig economy credit and predictable cash flows (in Episode 11 with Mila Pontremolez of Zippi) to how a digital API for medical records is enabling telemedicine and at-home labwork (with James Lloyd CTO of Redox in Episode 13). 

In Episode 5, one particularly driven software agent, Karen Sun, told us how she acts simultaneously as CTO of two companies on two continents, driving pandemic-accelerated change in two industries: K-12 education in Colombia and apartment community management in the U.S.

With the help of my co host and producer, Paul Boutin, we surfaced each story at a geeking-out, nitty-gritty level of what each software agent is building and how they are doing it, but also the personal stories of how their path in life led them to their mission. 

These stories are truly inspiring, with a decent split between software agents who came into software through the backdoor — often via the military or education — and those who earned technical degrees from prestigious institutions before taking a path less traveled. Most of our agents are polymaths, with music and linguistics as frequently cited passions beyond software.

Lessons emerged for all of us. Perhaps the most indelible of those lessons is that what we do is critical in this moment.

1. The “newfangled” software way is now the only way

The pandemic and all else 2020 has accelerated changes that were already happening, albeit more slowly. Resistance has been cast to the wind.

Quizlet’s online self-study platform had been a great complement to in-person traditional learning. With students sent home, it’s a vital tool not only for school-age children, teachers and parents, but for millions of newly unemployed adults retraining themselves for new careers.

PredictHQ had been helping brick-and-mortar chains forecast how events like weather or sports events would impact their traffic in normal times. With so many unexpected and irregular events now — a political rally that occurs on payday spikes nearby retail sales — PredictHQ can guide critical logistics such as routing fresh produce from farms to supermarkets so it will be eaten, not spoiled.

AgentRisk’s robo-wealth advisor had already been delivering better results than many traditional advisors before March, when many were sent home without secure access to client and trading systems. It suddenly became the only advisor that could serve clients unable to even get an email from their human expert.

Zippi, LucidWorks, Dwelo and many other guests likewise found themselves drawn from sideshow to center stage, as their software solutions went from "nice to have” to "the only way to get it done.”

2. Old use cases vanished overnight, prompting lightning-fast pivots

RunSignup is the best example of an overnight (almost literally) pivot. 

Q. What do you do when you’re holding $20 million cash on behalf of race organizers whose events are all canceled at once? 

A. You build a refund management system! You focus on preserving the strength of your community, and you do it in six weeks. Next, you invest in virtual races.

To me, this rapid, company-saving pivot was possible because of two core strengths in the organization: 1) RunSignup has agile, DevOps culture, process and technology that makes it capable of changing direction quickly. 2) The entire company understands their mission at a deep level. They know that running isn’t just crowded in-person running races. It’s about the running community and keeping members connected and active even if they are running alone. Changing formats was still within the scope of that mission, which everyone in the organization could understand.

3. Strengths have been redirected to new needs for teams, IT and capabilities

While both RunSignup and AgentRisk found their core mission had new importance in the pandemic (and met that new need), they also took on additional challenges outside their existing businesses to help the world at large. RunSignup started GiveSignup to help with the increased need to match givers and doers. The AgentRisk team contributed their expertise in AI to a Greek government project to restore safe tourism during the pandemic. These teams could do this because their existing services were healthy enough in terms of maintainability, and their teams were strong and cohesive enough that they could do more.

4. Modern DevOps practices are the key to responsiveness

Dwelo, RunSignup and PredictHQ told us how they delivered major new capabilities within six weeks of the start of the COVID-19 crisis. AgentRisk and Quizlet served rapidly-doubling levels of traffic without missing a beat. AgentRisk and Zippi teams were able to shift most of their devs to new projects while safely leaving existing services on auto-pilot.

What do these teams have in common? Modern CI/CD pipelines, cloud architecture, an already established routine of multiple releases per day, effective observability, healthy culture, ingrained Agile practices, work-anywhere/anytime already the norm and small teams with individual ownership. It really does work! 

At CloudBees, we believe this resilience is key to the software we are building right now for a future that isn’t yet evident. CloudBees’ recent DevOps World keynote underscores this point.

5. Customer intimacy is a must as circumstances change rapidly

When everything changes, focusing on your user is the North Star to stay on the right course. 

We heard this from RunSignup, where every team member is an active (literally) member of the endurance community they serve. Their immediate instinct in response to the looming refund crisis was to enroll race participants and the organizers they serve as partners in the solution. This saved the company and kept the community together.

Zippi’s three co-founders have a standing practice: they interview 20 Brazilian gig economy workers every week. This allowed them to see the crisis unfolding for their users in real time, and enables tiny ongoing adaptations every day to stay on course through a changing situation.

6. All-remote work is different from mostly remote. Stress manifests as mistakes.

This was our major line of discussion with Dana Lawson, VP of engineering at GitHub. It’s backed up by our own experience at CloudBees. It’s also implicit in our interviews with leaders from other organizations. Even for companies that had fostered a remote work culture, having 100% of employees working from home creates new stresses. With everyone spending most of their time working (or trying to) at home, zero opportunity for in-person meetings or offsites and the general disruption of 2020, even the most reliable employees can be stressed. They may not admit it, or even realize it. But as Dana told us, it’s apparent in the higher number of mistakes checked into GitHub.

Dana spent quality time talking to us about how this radical shift exposes the gaps in automation and pipelines, especially security checks. It reveals where human interactions are still synchronous where they don’t need to be. Dana, like many others, thinks that will leave us healthier after the crisis is over, even when some return to the office and everyone’s kids are back in school. We’ve had a chance to focus fully on remote work as the only work, to see how we can do it better.

7. Employment is shifting to software-related jobs

Several of our guests lead products and projects that support people learning new skills, especially software skills, in non-traditional ways. In our interviews, it’s clear that the displacement of non-tech jobs with software-centric roles will accelerate. 

Structurally, we as a society can only meet that need if people can become productive software developers and professionals at any stage in life, with any background and without needing to disappear for four years to obtain a pricey computer science degree.

Our full Season 1 lineup

Paul and I are proud of having told these stories. We’re grateful to CloudBees for sponsoring our work. 

With Season 1 wrapped, now is a great time for a binge-listen. We’ve made a handy list of all 17 episodes, with links to the summary blog post and transcript for each. We’ve also linked to the nonprofit chosen by each guest. CloudBees funded a $500 honorarium for each episode. All of them are worthy considerations of your support.

The hashtag #thesoftwareagents will find related posts on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, and you can stream all 17 episodes on major podcast platforms.

A huge thanks to our guests for giving us their time, and even more importantly, for the work they are all doing to make our world a better place in the wake of this most challenging year.

Next step: Bring us your software agents!

You can help us find the next batch of software agents for upcoming seasons. We’re collecting new stories to tell about the standout people who bring innovative software to new frontiers. Use the hashtag #thesoftwareagents and send a tweet mentioning me @cfrln if you want to point us to someone whom you think deserves our spotlight.

Full list of #thesoftwareagents Season 1 episodes:

Episode 1: Remaking Retail Overnight
Guest name: Will Hayes, Lucidworks
Nonprofit chosen: 10,000 Degrees

Episode 2: Art Museums Get Smart
Guest name: Rich Cherry, Museum Operations
Nonprofit chosen: Culver City Education Foundation

Episode 3: Automated Investment Advice
Guest name: Jon Vlachogiannis, AgentRisk
Nonprofit chosen : Code for America

Episode 4: Keeping Runners Running Guest name: Bob Bickel, RunSignUp
Nonprofit chosen: NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc

Episode 5: Dawn Aerospace
Guest name: Stefan Powell & Koen Lucassen, Dawn Aerospace
Nonprofit chosen: ADC microfinance

Episode 6: Keeping Apartments Safe and Kids Learning Guest name: Karen Sun, Dwelo & Selsey
Nonprofit chosen: VidaAfrolatina

Episode 7: Connecting Donors to Doers Guest name: Tess Gadwa, GivingMap
Nonprofit chosen: Arkansas Food Bank

Episode 8: The Intentional Nonprofit Guest name: Jim Fruchterman, Tech Matters
Nonprofit chosen: Tech Matters

Episode 9: Predicting Demand Worldwide Guest name: Campbell Brown, PredictHQ
Nonprofit chosen: Color of Change

Episode 10: A Software Platform for Big Philanthropy Guest name: Madeline Duva, Fluxx
Nonprofit chosen: Community Foundation Sonoma County

Episode 11: Software Powered Credit for Brazil’s Gig Workers Guest name: Ludmila Schincariol Pontremolez, Zippi
Nonprofit chosen: Code Tenderloin

Episode 12: How EdTech is Shaping the Workforce of the Future Guest name: Natalie Rothfels, Quizlet
Nonprofit chosen: Civil Rights Corps

Episode 13: The API Platform Powering The COVID-Accelerated Healthcare Revolution
Guest name: James Lloyd, Redox
Nonprofit chosen: Maydm

Episode 14: GitHub is the Hub of a World Going All Digital
Guest name: Dana Lawson, Github
Nonprofit chosen: Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

Episode 15: Fighting Online Hate with an Internet Scale Open Platform
Guest name: Dave Sifry, ADL
Nonprofit chosen: ADL

Episode 16: Taking the Biggest Physical Events Virtual
Guest name: Ken Madden & John Sampogna, Project Worldwide, GPJ, Wondersauce
Nonprofit chosen: American Civil Liberties Union

Episode 17: A Platform to Enable Anyone to Rebuild the World in Software
Guest name: Marina Harrell, Salesforce
Nonprofit chosen: Code Edge

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