"It's not enough to have social impact with your technology, but you also have this huge responsibility to maintain your technology for the long-term."
In this episode, we talk about another major hack on Ukraine, a report from Google’s Project Zero about which tech vendors are the fastest at fixing security bugs, and we also chat about injecting old computers with Chrome OS Flex. Then we speak with Pariss Athena, founder and CEO of Black Tech Pipeline about the challenges that tech recruiters are having in the current job landscape. And finally, we speak with Dr. Calvin Roberts, president and CEO of Lighthouse Guild International and clinical professor of ophthalmology at Weill (While) Cornell Medical College, a charitable organization devoted to the visually impaired, about the issue of certain bionic eye technologies becoming obsolete and unsupported.
Saron Yitbarek is the founder of Disco, host of the CodeNewbie podcast, and co-host of the base.cs podcast.
Josh Puetz is Principal Software Engineer at Forem.
Pariss 'Athena' Chandler is Founder & CEO of Black Tech Pipeline, and creator of the hashtag, movement, and community #BlackTechTwitter.
Lighthouse Guild President and CEO, Calvin W. Roberts, MD, is a Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He was formerly Senior Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Eye Care, at Bausch Health Companies where he coordinated global development and research efforts across their vision care, pharmaceutical and surgical business units. As a one-time practicing ophthalmologist, he performed more than 10,000 cataract surgeries as well as 5,000 refractive and other corneal surgeries.
[00:00:10] SY: Welcome to DevNews, the news show for developers by developers, where we cover the latest in the world of tech. I’m Saron Yitbarek, Founder of Disco.
[00:00:19] JP: And I’m Josh Puetz, Principal Engineer at Forem.
[00:00:21] SY: This week, we’re talking about another major hack on Ukraine, a report from Google’s Project Zero about which tech vendors are the fastest at fixing security bugs. And we also chat about injecting old computers with Chrome OS Flex.
[00:00:36] JP: Then we’ll speak with Pariss Athena, Founder and CEO of Black Tech Pipeline, about the challenges that tech recruiters are having in the current job landscape.
[00:00:43] PA: Definitely let a recruiter know if you’re not interested, if you’re not looking right now. If you want to keep that recruiter around just in case, you can tell them like, “Hey, reach back out to me in six months. I might be looking then.”
[00:00:54] SY: Then we’ll speak with Dr. Calvin Roberts, Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College and CEO of Lighthouse Guild, a charitable organization devoted to the visually impaired, about the issue of certain bionic eye technologies becoming obsolete and unsupported.
[00:01:12] CR: It’s not enough to have social impact with your technology, but you also have this huge responsibility to maintain your technology for the long term.
[00:01:31] SY: So we want to start this episode out by giving an update of sorts. This week, there was a DDoS hack of Ukraine’s defense ministry, army, and the country’s two largest banks. The attack is reportedly the largest and Ukraine’s history. Ukraine’s Minister of Digital Transformation, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a news conference, “It is clear that it was prepared in advance and the key goal of this attack is to destabilize, to sow panic, to do everything to create a certain chaos in the actions of Ukrainians in our country.” With Russia’s movement into Ukraine, they are once again the main suspect for the attack. In Episode 4 of this season, we talked about the potential effects, both locally and globally of a cyberwar between Russia and Ukraine with Hector Monsegur, Director of Research at Alacrinet and a former black hat hacker.
[00:02:24] HM: If there is a war, let’s say that Russia invades Ukraine today and we participate with NATO to defend Ukraine against the Russian invasion, all of the actors that I’ve mentioned before, the affiliated actors to Russia, the Russian Federation, they will start to target US interests and assets. Absolutely. Whether they’re from Russia or China or North Korea, and by the way, they’re already targeting us as it is. So as you can imagine, if there is a war, you’re going to have a bunch of angry nerds sitting at home that cannot fight in the field, focusing their efforts on our weaknesses.
[00:02:59] SY: So definitely listen to that episode to learn more.
[00:03:01] JP: In less alarming news, Google’s Chrome OS Flex is now available in early access. The technology allows you to take your old PCs and Macs, shove a bootable USB stick in them and turn them into a Chrome OS machine. According to Google, this move helps folks refresh older devices and helps reduce e-waste. On the Chrome OS Flex website, the company encourages people to “Install Chrome OS Flex on your PCs and Macs so they’re secure, boot fast, don’t slow down over time, update automatically in the background, and can be managed from the cloud.” The company also says Chrome OS Flex should look and feel just like Chrome OS on any of the company’s Chromebooks. This is really kind of cool actually. I don’t know about you, but we have several aging Macs and PCs sitting around our house that are too old and too slow. They might not be getting the latest OS updates for their respective vendors, but to turn them into a Chromebook, which is just a glorified web browser, that’s kind of appealing.
[00:03:59] SY: Yeah, we have a couple of MacBooks as well we’ve collected over the years that at some point way back when we thought, “Oh, maybe we’ll see if we can get a couple hundred bucks on this, like maybe we’ll resell it or something.” But it just never happened. It just kind of hung around. But I’m also wondering if the Chrome OS is basically just a browser. Why do you need to refresh the operating system at all?
[00:04:26] JP: Oh, like why would you just use a browser on some…?
[00:04:29] SY: Right. Yeah. Exactly.
[00:04:32] JP: Well, I’m sure Google has a couple of Google-y type reasons, either you’re using Chrome, number one, but the main reason I thought of was several of my friends and relatives that have children of school age at home and are doing e-learning really scrambled at the beginning of the pandemic to find Chromebooks. There was a run on Chromebooks. Chromebooks being these like between two and six-hundred-dollar laptops that they don’t have very big hard drives and a little bit of memory. They just run Chrome OS. They just run Chrome as a browser. So if this would have been available for those families, they could take a couple of cheap, older laptops, turn them into a Chromebook for their children for doing e-learning online, and there you go. Even if you’re not going to do e-learning, giving a child a Windows machine or a Mac machine, they can download software to it. They could install who knows what kind of like spyware, virus ware.
[00:05:26] SY: Too much freedom.
[00:05:27] JP: Too much freedom. It becomes a support nightmare. I could definitely see the appeal for families that want to recycle their older machines, save some money and protect their kids from downloading a lot of software.
[00:05:41] SY: Have you used a Chromebook before?
[00:05:42] JP: I have used a Chromebook.
[00:05:43] SY: How’s that?
[00:05:43] JP: My daughter loves her Chromebook. I will say it’s pretty strange. For someone that is used to installed software, like my daughter really, really wanted to get a Chromebook just for her personal use because she’s familiar with Chromebooks from school. So we took a look at them. Looking at the specs, it’s wild because you’ll see they don’t really promote the hard drive space because you’re not going to be storing…
[00:06:04] SY: It’s the main thing of a computer.
[00:06:06] JP: Yeah. Yeah. You’re not going to be storing a lot of the hard drive. It’s just whatever Chrome OS is installed and then you boot it up at it’s Chrome. You signed in and it’s Chrome. Imagine if your computer just ran Chrome.
[00:06:16] SY: That’s so weird.
[00:06:16] JP: I’ve been impressed with how much she can do on it. She can write her school papers. She plays games, of course, Roblox, and all the other popular children’s games have Chrome versions. She really likes it, and they’re a lot cheaper. They’re a lot more power efficient because you’re not doing a lot of like this writing.
[00:06:33] SY: Right. Right.
[00:06:33] JP: They’re interesting machines. Yeah.
[00:06:35] SY: Well, definitely giving a lot more options to families. I really appreciate e-wasting. I don’t know if that’s a legitimate angle for them, but either way it’s cool, repurposing old technology. I’m sure a lot of us have old tags that we were just kind of hung onto over the years, being able to give them a second life is always great. So I appreciate that.
[00:06:54] JP: Yeah.
[00:06:55] SY: Now switching from one Google team to another, Google’s Project Zero, the company’s security research team, put out a report showing which tech vendors are the fastest at fixing security bugs. The way Project Zero works is that once a vendor receives a bug report, they have 90 days to fix it, or 104 days if they request a grace period. Between 2019 to 2021, Project Zero reported 376 bugs to different vendors. The top five receiving the most bugs being Apple with 84, Microsoft with 80, Google with 56, or Linux with 25 and Adobe with 19. Out of all the vendors, Linux was the fastest at fixing their security bugs, averaging 25 days to fix. To compare, Google took an average of 44 days to fix their bugs. Adobe took 65 days. Apple took 69 and Microsoft took an average of 83 days. Across all vendors, the average amount of days to fix a security bug was 61 days. So it’s about two months. Other notable pieces of data from the report is that between iOS and Android, iOS receives more bugs, but fixes them, I hear, faster. Between open source browsers, Chrome WebKit and Firefox, Chrome received the most bugs, but was the fastest to release a bug fix. WebKit got the second most bugs with 13 less than Chrome, but was the slowest at fixing them, taking about twice as long as Chrome and Firefox to fix. In terms of the analysis of this data, Project Zero says some promising trends are that vendors are fixing most of the bugs they receive and in the past three years have overall gotten faster at it, which they attribute to responsible disclosure policies becoming standard, as well as the vendors learning best practices from one another over time due to more industry transparency in general. Project Zero does include one important caveat about the data though, stating, “Reports from Project Zero may be outliers compared to other bug reports and that they may receive faster action as there is a tangible risk of public disclosure.” I think it’s really important to keep in mind. You should definitely take a look at the report, which we’ll put in our show notes, so you can see all the specific data points yourself. So any surprises there?
[00:09:14] JP: Hmm, actually, I was surprised that Microsoft took the longest on average.
[00:09:20] SY: Me too actually.
[00:09:21] JP: I thought Apple would have been on that. Yeah. A lot of Apple’s security fixes are tied to their release of the operating system.
[00:09:28] SY: Good point. Good point. Yeah.
[00:09:28] JP: I think that’s why you see WebKit and Safari fixes take longer because they’re always tied into a release of the OS and I know Microsoft will release little bug patches, sometimes too many bug patches. So I was kind of surprised by that.
[00:09:44] SY: Yeah.
[00:09:45] JP: Are you surprised that Linux is the shortest like by a lot on average?
[00:09:50] SY: By a lot.
[00:09:50] JP: Does that surprise you too?
[00:09:51] SY: I was surprised. I was very, very surprised. Is it testimony to open source? Is that what it’s about? Is that what it kind of comes down to?
[00:10:00] JP: I think so.
[00:10:01] SY: Yeah.
[00:10:02] JP: I’m sure the data breaks it down by Linux distro, but they’re just kind of grouping Linux together, everyone. The different distros, even the ones that are ostensibly run by a corporation, they have a lot of freedom to just ship out a patch whenever they want. And you don’t see that from Microsoft and Apple. They want to package it either in an OS release or they have their own… you imagine there’s a lot of, I hate to say it, but bureaucracy around stressing the bug fixes.
[00:10:28] SY: Yeah, of course.
[00:10:30] JP: And on the open source side, it seems like, “Oh, we’ve got to fix. Let’s do it over.” By the time the bug has been reported, people are already working on the fix. So I think it’s the open source nature that really turns it around.
[00:10:42] SY: It’s something I would definitely be curious to dig into a little bit more. Is it something just inherently about the freedom of open source, it just lends itself to being more responsive? Is it something about the process in which open source projects are maintained, bugs are fixed that maybe the other companies can pick up on, can learn from? It makes me wonder, is it something that’s transferable that we can kind of take notes on and use it to fix our own support issues, our own security bug fixes? Or is it something that just comes out of like an ethos of open source? Is it cultural? Is it procedural? I’m very curious to learn more about that. I wonder if they’re going to dig into some of those differences a little bit more because it’s twice as fast, 25 days compared to 44 days. I mean, that’s incredible.
[00:11:30] JP: You have to imagine that some of the support teams at Microsoft and Apple and Adobe and Google are looking at this and saying like, “Why can’t we be that fast? What are we doing or not doing that could help us be that?” Let us hope they’re doing that.
[00:11:43] SY: Yeah. And there’s also, I mean, just the number of people involved, right? With open source, it’s technically open to anyone and anyone can jump in. So there’s probably a larger potential pool of people to help solve that issue. Whereas, Apple’s going to stick with its own engineer. So maybe it’s as simple as just not having enough staff.
[00:12:05] JP: Interesting.
[00:12:06] SY: Yeah. It’s really interesting. Coming up next, we talk about the challenges that tech recruiters are having in the current job landscape after this.
[00:12:33] SY: Here with us is Pariss Athena, Founder and CEO of Black Tech Pipeline. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:12:40] PA: Thank you for having me.
[00:12:41] SY: Tell us about your career background.
[00:12:43] PA: So I started in tech as a software engineer. I also took the non-traditional path. So I learned through a bootcamp. After doing software engineering for three years, I then turned into founder and CEO of Black Tech Pipeline. So I do technical recruiting now.
[00:12:57] JP: So you mentioned you’re the founder and the CEO of Black Tech Pipeline. Can you tell us about Black Tech Pipeline and what the organization does and what you do there?
[00:13:06] PA: Black Tech Pipeline is a platform bringing resources and job opportunities to black technologists. So we have a diversity focused job board, and then we’re now launching a new recruitment experience where employers can source through an anonymous database of talent. And we stay on the job with anyone who gets hired for their first 90 days to make sure that they’re having a good experience at that company. And I’m really the only one doing that job because I am the founder and CEO and probably every other position as well.
[00:13:34] SY: So since the pandemic, the job landscape has really shifted. It’s become really hard for a lot of different industries. Can you talk about some of the challenges that tech companies have had with the recruitment because of the pandemic and the great resignation?
[00:13:49] PA: Honestly, it’s just really hard to get talent period because candidates can be really picky now. The market is in their favor. It’s being reflected even through our job board. So if employers are not posting, let’s say like their salary range, then candidates aren’t as interested or as eager to apply. It’s a candidate’s market. So it’s just impacting employers.
[00:14:13] JP: You mentioned that it is becoming a little more common for job listings to actually put the salary in there. I’ve seen that. It’s kind of shocking to me to actually see a number when you haven’t been seeing that number in the past. In your business, are you helping the candidate negotiate? Is it up to them to negotiate? Are you finding a lot of companies are just saying like, “Well, we put out a salary range, so that’s the price”? Is negotiation still happening?
[00:14:43] PA: Yeah. I always tell candidates to negotiate, but also with salary transparency, I think it mitigates the whole someone being paid more than you when they have like that same job title, same role doing the same amount of work. It’s like so unfair. And so many people have like found out that they’re being underpaid because salary transparency isn’t a thing. So I think this really helps. I don’t think it’s going to totally like get rid of being underpaid, but it definitely helps.
[00:15:14] JP: And how does it being a candidate’s market affect job recruiters specifically like yourself?
[00:15:19] PA: I mean we don’t get paid if people don’t get hired. So, yeah, I think to pay our bills and eat, that’s one thing. But candidates, because they have so many job opportunities, they are in different interview processes longer. So we aren’t either getting paid is quickly or not getting paid at all because they are choosing from one of their other amazing offers.
[00:15:45] SY: How have you felt the impact of that in your organization when you think about your specific job? You mentioned you’re not getting paid as quickly. When you think about your organization and the people that you serve, how has this kind of come through for you?
[00:16:00] PA: So for me, It’s hard to say. I’m really happy that it is a candidate’s market and that they can choose from so many different offers and that they can be picky, especially because I am recruiting black technologists specifically. And it’s really hard for us to have good experiences at companies. So being able to be picky and really choose where you’re going and really sure that they’re meeting your values, I think that’s great for candidates. On my end, it’s just a little more difficult to satisfy my clients, my recruitment clients, because I’ll reach out to candidates who fit the requirements of my candidates’ open roles. Those candidates either will not reply or they’ll say, “What’s the interview process like?” How long is it? What are the salary?” They’re asking all of these really great questions, and sometimes I have to give them answers that they don’t satisfy the candidate now because a candidate isn’t willing to go through 10 interview rounds. They don’t have to now. So it’s a lot of either silence or noes from candidates.
[00:16:58] JP: Do you think there are solutions to this, other than the market move away from being a candidate’s market? Do you think there are things in job recruitment specifically that could kind of help restore some balance? Or do you think it’s really just market driven?
[00:17:15] PA: No. I think employers need to be willing to budge, honestly. And I’ll give you an example. So there are employers who they are doing hybrid or they’re requiring people to be in the office or they’re requiring them to be in a specific location even if they don’t have an office. But for them, they’re like, “In case we do open an office, we want this candidate to be here already.” And if you’re not willing to be flexible, then it’s going to be even harder for you to get candidates who are interested in working with you. Then there are other things like being transparent about your salary. If you’re not going to be transparent about it, candidates can just kind of go to another employer who’s going to be transparent about it. There are certain even like values, like, “What are your DEI practices? Do you have any? No. Okay. Well, then I’m going to go to this other company who’s really being actionable in the DEI space.” And so I don’t know. I feel like employers really need to meet candidates’ needs, and for so long, it’s been employer’s market where they can be really strict and restrict candidates from applying or just being qualified. I’m happy the tables have kind of turned, but I think there could be a balance for sure.
[00:18:21] SY: Do you feel like this leverage that job seekers have of demanding salary expectations upfront, saying, “Oh, well, I’m not going to go through 10 rounds of interviews. You need to figure that out for yourself”? These kinds of changes, do you feel like this is temporary? Do you feel like this is kind of just for the moment while we have this great resignation happening and we’re going to kind of go back to old days after the pandemic? Or do you feel that we’ll see some permanent changes in the way interviewing happens and the way job seeking happens as a result of the pandemic?
[00:18:58] PA: I’m leaning more towards things will change permanently, just because employers are sort of like feeling that sting of what happens when you don’t take care of your current employees or just candidates looking to work at your company. Also like employers, they don’t have a choice right now but to listen to the market and either meet their demands or don’t. If you don’t, that means you’re not going to get talent or you’re not going to be able to retain your current employees. You’re going to feel the drawback from that. And I don’t know. I just feel like right now, it’s a listening game, like within learn, change, adapt for employers.
[00:19:36] SY: And what are some of those permanent changes that you think might happen?
[00:19:40] PA: Definitely with the interview processes, I think those are definitely going to change. With needing to go through really long processes, it’s always been unnecessary, especially with needing to be on site. For specific jobs, if you’re a software engineer, you don’t need to be onsite. You can do that job from home and the pandemic has proved that, but it’s also brought attention to people who are coming from communities like the disabled community where it’s better for them to work from home than to need to travel to work. Employers are hearing all this feedback from candidates and I think they’re opening their ears.
[00:20:15] JP: So historically, before the pandemic, I'm probably not tell you anything you don’t already know that recruiters sometimes get a bad rap on Twitter and in tech worker’s circles. I’m wondering if you could talk about what bad recruiting looks like and what differentiates recruiters like yourself that are doing more thoughtful recruiting and what that difference is.
[00:20:40] PA: Yeah, I think understanding the power balance, if that makes sense, and I think like just trying to really make things equal. So you have the employer who’s hiring. You understand what they’re looking for, what their needs are. Right? And then you go into the market, you’re reaching out to candidates. And I think it’s really important for recruiters to listen to what candidates are looking for specifically, like, what are your priorities? Exactly what are you looking for in a company? And even if that doesn’t match up so much with what the employer said, if you think that candidate could be a good fit, you take that back to the employer and say, “What are you willing to like really bend on? Where are you flexible?” And try to make things work like that. And while that process takes longer, it creates a better relationship and it creates better trust. And just sort of respecting the candidate’s method for communication, “Would you prefer a phone call, email or specific days or times you want me to contact you?” And again, even for recruiters, it’s really just like listening, understanding, adapting, and changing.
[00:21:42] SY: What advice would you give to our listeners when they are approached by recruiters?
[00:21:46] PA: I think you can like do a mini vet, like vet recruiters in a way, I guess. And so just ask them whatever questions it is that you have. And I think you need to like observe how are they reaching out to you? What exactly are they saying? Does it sound really gimmicky? Does it sound like they’re kind of here to just like put you anywhere so that they can get paid? Some intuition has to come with that for candidates. But when you talk to a recruiter, like kind of try to build that relationship if that’s something that you think is available there. And if it’s not, then that’s probably not the recruiter for you.
[00:22:19] JP: Is there like a preferred way to disengage with the recruiter or to say I’m not interested? I’m thinking of like sites like LinkedIn. There’s some automatic reply tools to just say, “No, I’m not interested right now.” Is that helpful to you as a recruiter? Does that come across as rude? I’ve always been really curious about.
[00:22:37] PA: No. If you’re not interested, then great. I don’t want to waste my time continuing to annoy you and be like, “Hey, I have this job opportunity.” I would rather know. Definitely let a recruiter know if you’re not interested, if you’re not looking right now. If you want to keep that recruiter around just in case, you can tell them like, “Hey, reach back out to me in six months, I might be looking then.” And on the recruiter side, even ask like, “If you’re not currently looking for opportunities, let me know and I’ll stop contacting you.” But also give them that room to say, “Don’t contact me right now, but again, maybe in six months.” So again, this is necessary on both sides.
[00:23:14] JP: For those that are audience that might not have ever worked with a recruiter or unfamiliar how it works, I just have some really basic questions. So primarily, how do you get paid? Who is hiring you? How do you get paid? And another question I have is how far into the hiring process will you be involved with a candidate?
[00:23:36] SY: My response will be very different because I am an external recruiter with my own company. So companies contact me to do the sourcing for them through my own talent database. So for me, I reach out to candidates, let them know about the opportunity. If they’re interested, I do an email intro between them and the employer, and then it kind of goes from there where they go through that interview process. And I’m still involved by contacting both the employer and the candidate. Just ask, “Hey, how’s it going? What do you think so far?” And then once they get hired, like I said, I have this more unique model where I stay on the job with that candidate for the first three months to make sure that they’re continuing to have a good experience and being set up for success. And that’s very unique to my model. Now I get paid a placement fee, so I get paid 20% for every hire’s first year’s based salary. And a lot of people are like, “Doesn’t that affect the candidate?” Nope. The candidate, whether they negotiate or not, I always tell the candidates to negotiate, whatever they negotiate for, I get 20% of that negotiation number, but that’s paid on top of their salary. So I’m not taking anything from the candidate.
[00:24:51] SY: So I also feel this from PR pitches where I just get a ton of follow-up and eventually I just kind of get annoyed with people reaching out, asking to be on the show, but I’m wondering as a professional recruiter, how many follow-up emails to a candidate do you think is too many? What’s kind of the sweet spot there?
[00:25:10] PA: Anything over four, and it also depends on the timeframe rate. So if I reach out to you today and I don’t hear from you, I’m going to reach out to you again next week. If I don’t hear from you next week, I’m going to reach back out in two weeks. If I don’t hear from you in two weeks, I’m going to reach out in three-and-a-half to four weeks. So that’s almost like a month.
[00:25:29] SY: Right. Right.
[00:25:30] PA: If I don’t hear from you, then that’s it. And on that third reach out, I’m going to let you know, like, “Hey, again, this is the opportunity. If I don’t hear from you, I’m going to assume that you’re not looking for opportunities right now. Thanks for reading my email,” whatever it is.
[00:25:44] JP: I’m curious if there are any situations in which you would not work with a candidate, either you like recruiters in general or you personally, and I’m also curious if there’s any reasons you would say that a job seeker probably shouldn’t work with a recruiter.
[00:25:59] PA: I mean, there are times where I would reach out to a candidate and based on our interaction, I’m like, “Ah!” And this is really sort of like a culture fit thing where I’m like, “I don’t see that first initial call with the employer going well,” based on like just our interaction. And that really depends. I give candidates like that chance and this doesn’t really happen often, but no, there are times where I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know if this is going to go well.” I don’t like to tell the employer, like, “Hey, this candidate was kind of like really standoffish, like replying with one word.” I don’t know. I don’t want to give the employer like that impression because I want to see like maybe this candidate just doesn’t communicate well with the recruiters. Let’s see if they do well with the employer. I don’t want to like ruin an opportunity for them based on an interaction I had.
[00:26:52] SY: How can candidates best take advantage of this shift in power brought on by the pandemic? If it really is the job seeker’s market, what can we do to really squeeze that for what it is while we have it? What are some things that we might think about or we should do?
[00:27:12] PA: I think get everything out of your head, create a Google Doc and like really figure out what are you looking for in employer? What would you like? What don’t you like? What sort of experiences have you had in the past that you don’t want to experience again? And that goes as far as like the values, interview process, benefits, pay. Do all of them. Think about your career trajectory as well. Do you want to learn like a whole bunch of things at once? Like maybe you want to work at a startup right now. Are you trying to just get like a good name on your resume or you’re trying to go for like one of the FAANG companies? Just figure out what your current values and priorities are, but they should align like with where you’re trying to go in the future. Get that down and then approach job hunting that way. And also when a recruiter does reach out to you, even if they reach out with an opportunity that you’re not interested in, maybe they have another one that might be a better fit for you. But when you have all of that listed, it’s easier, like communication-wise and it gets you opportunities faster I believe.
[00:28:21] SY: Coming up next, we talk about the issue of some visual implants becoming obsolete and unsupported after this.
[00:28:39] SY: Here with us is Dr. Calvin Roberts, President and CEO of Lighthouse Guild International and Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology at Weill Cornell Medical College. Thank you so much for joining us.
[00:28:51] CR: Oh, my pleasure. Thank you for having me today.
[00:28:54] SY: So you’ve got a couple of very fancy sounding titles. Can you tell us a little bit about your career background?
[00:28:59] CR: Yeah. So actually I’ve had four very different careers, but all in the area of vision and vision science. So I started out as a basic researcher, studying how actually eyes work, the physiology of what makes the cells work and what allows somebody to see. And after doing that for a number of years in academia, I then went into clinical practice and I was a busy cataract LASIK and corneal transplant surgeon on Park Avenue in New York City. Then I went into the ophthalmic industry and I was chief medical officer of Bausch and Lomb for almost 10 years. And now career number four is working at Lighthouse Guild where we are the leading provider of services to people who are blind and visually impaired.
[00:29:50] JP: Tell us about Lighthouse Guild International, the work you do there and its mission.
[00:29:55] CR: This is a 117-year-old institution started in 1905 and started out as a way to give people who are blind and occupation and so that they could have a job and teach them a trade. And over time, the Lighthouse Guild has evolved into an organization that helps people with the basic skills of mobility and orientation and being able to say use a white cane and to be able to care for themselves and do their shopping and do their cleaning and cook for themselves. What is happening right now, and what I’m in the midst of doing, is taking this 117-year-old organization and evolving it into a tech company because like never before, all these innovations in artificial intelligence and program learning and augmented reality, virtual reality, facial recognition, 5G, all this technology is unusually prime to help people who are blind and visually impaired. Let me give you one really clear example. As an industry, we’ve spent billions of dollars to develop a self-driving car. Well, what does an autonomous driving car need to know? What’s in front of me? What’s behind me? What’s to my right? What’s to my left? Is it a dog? Is it a tree? Is it a stop sign? Is it a person? Is there a pothole in front of me? Did the light turn green? What does someone who is blind walking on the street need to know? So you can see that potentially the billions of dollars that we’ve spent to develop self-driving cars, that technology could then be applied to help people who are blind and visually impaired. You don’t always have to reinvent the wheel in order to come up with really, really game-changing technology. And so that’s what we are doing. We are being the person, the organization that brings together the academics and the engineers and the doctors and the physicists and the entrepreneurs, but critically the users together to create a community, to advance assistive technology, not just for people who are blind and visually impaired, but actually for people with multiple problems that we can help them with.
[00:32:24] SY: So there was a great piece in IEEE Spectrum about some visual implants becoming obsolete and unsupported as the company Second Sight went bankrupt. So I’d like to start with just some background information on these implants. What do they look like? What do they do and who typically receives them?
[00:32:42] CR: So this is truly breakthrough technology, however, at a very, very, very, very early stage. So what this is is this a little computer chip, and what happens is it consists of some light sensors that then get converted into an electrical signal. And this little chip gets implanted in the eye, towards the back of the eye in the area that’s called the retina, and it acts the way the retina works. What your retina does is your retina senses light, converts it into electrical signals. The electrical signal was then carried by the optic nerve to your brain and then your brain interprets this electric signal into what we consider it to be sight. And so people who are blind because of the retina not functioning, they in theory could get this chip that would act like a retina. And so the light would come in. It stimulates the chip. The chip creates the same type of electrical signal. It then gets converted to what the brain considers to be sight and the person could therefore be able to see. That’s the idea. That’s the promise. It was invented by a wonderful, very, very knowledgeable doctor, Dr. Mark Humayun at USC in California. The company was commercialized by a company called Second Sight. Robert Greenberg was the chief executive officer. He carried the development of this another really wonderful pioneer. So that’s the technology, to try to create almost what you might call an artificial eye.
[00:34:33] SY: Being so advanced, it sounds like it’s probably really expensive. Is it kind of just for people who can really, really afford it? Is it accessible? Who gets to have these implants?
[00:34:43] CR: So the implants are covered by most insurance.
[00:34:47] SY: Oh, great!
[00:34:47] CR: So that fortunately, most of the people who were eligible to get them were reimbursed or the company was reimbursed for the implant, but it’s for people who were severely visually impaired. So people with either no vision or close to no vision. So that’s the idea, however, what the company realized, and if everyone understood this from the beginning, is that the technology would need to evolve that in the beginning, the first sensors only had 16 pixels, 16 light sensors compared to your retina, which has 10 million.
[00:35:35] SY: Oh, wow! Okay.
[00:35:37] CR: So how could you expect 16 to do what 10 million do? And the answer is you couldn’t. They knew that over time they would get better functioning chips with more pixels, the more pixels that you have, it’s like your camera or your television. The more pixels you have, the more definition that you have, the clearer the image that you could potentially get. The issue is always that these types of devices are controlled by the FDA. And the FDA is there to test two things. One is the safety and the other is the efficacy. So you want to make sure that what you’re doing for someone is safe, that you’re not going to hurt the person and create something even worse. And then of course you want to make sure that what you’re doing for somebody is something that’s going to work. So those are the safety and the efficacy. Now when you have technology that is quickly evolving, one of the decisions that the company makes is, “Okay, when do I take this technology and actually do the clinical trials that the FDA requires?” So when you have a piece of technology that you want to get registered for human use, what you need to go do is go to the FDA and you explain what you’re doing. And the FDA works with you to come up with the appropriate clinical trial that would be able to demonstrate safety and efficacy. So if you take Version 1 and you say, “Okay, we’re going to test Version 1 and we know that the test itself is going to take three years in terms of doing the clinical trial and getting the information for the FDA, but three years from now, I’m going to be at Version 14. So whether you do, do you wait three more years and start your trial three years in delay, going to the FDA three years? This is the dilemma that all quickly evolving technologies face. With Second Sight, what they did was they didn’t take their very first model, but they took the first model that they have a lot of confidence would be efficacious and they put it through the trials and got their approval. In the meantime, they evolved to further versions. However, they had just spent lots and lots of money to do the clinical trials. And so now you have to make a decision. All right, Version 1 gets approved. What am I going to do? Am I going to now go out and sell and make it available to people Version 1? Or do I now stop and do the trials again with Version 2, 3, 4, whatever version you’re up to? And so they were very, very fortunate that they had some really great venture capitalists and private people who were giving them the funding and the technology, though it worked, that which they were putting in people’s eyes was a very early version. And so it didn’t work as well as maybe their later versions would, but all they had that was approved was Version 1. And so the uptake for the technology was not as fast as they had anticipated. Now there are many people decided to have it, the costs of training and the surgery, and all the other costs that were associated were very, very high and much more than they were getting reimbursed for. And so the company kept on running deficits. So what do you do in that situation?
[00:39:40] JP: When the FDA looks at medical implants and systems like this, do they take maintenance and future support into account? Is that something they’re considering or is that really just up to the company to come up with after the fact?
[00:39:58] CR: Yes, and yes. Yes. So that there’s a certain amount of follow-up that the FDA requires after something’s approved that you have to continue to be giving them data on the safety and the efficacy so that they have not just the short-term data that they use to give you your approval to commercialize, but they have long-term data so that they can monitor how this technology is doing. So on the one hand, the answer is yes, but it’s not forever and it’s not for everyone, and it’s usually just for the people who are in the clinical trial so that they could have more information on those people. So the FDA requires some long-term follow-up, but not on everyone. But the FDA has made enormous strides recently to modernize and innovate their systems for approving technology that’s used in the human body. And they recognize the fact that technology improves with time. What we all need to work with the FDA on, those of us who are in this area, is really coming up with a system such that future iterations can be approved with a shortened testing cycle so that yes, Version 1 that gets a full trial that goes for years and was follow up. If number two is just an upgrade of some software or a new chip or a faster chip, it doesn’t need this whole clinical trial perhaps. All it really needs is just a short trial that you can demonstrate that the safety is the same as Version 1, but just has greater efficacy. The FDA wants to do that and the FDA wants to modernize it, but this is a very interesting area and an area that really requires a lot of attention.
[00:42:20] SY: How is the technology no longer existing affecting these people? It’s one thing as developers if software in your computer becomes obsolete. Yeah. That’s one thing. Someone can kind of pick it up and copy it or rewrite it. It feels like a much more straightforward fix. But this is accessibility hardware that’s literally attached to your head. What happens to these people in the short-term and the long-term when the technology doesn’t work anymore?
[00:42:52] CR: This is the great unknown because I don’t know that we’ve faced anything like this before where you have not just something that is physically there and not doing something. So if I have an implant in my teeth, it’s just there. It’s not grinding and chewing for me. It’s just sitting there, as opposed to this implant, which is actually creating an electronic pulse for me to helping me to see. Right? So what happens when you implant a technology in someone and then the company is no longer able to give maintenance and follow-ups and all the software upgrades and all the things that we know goes into a piece of modern technology? So we’re opening up this whole new ethical area of what is the responsibility of a company when they commercialize an implant, what is the responsibility long-term.
[00:44:01] SY: Right. Right.
[00:44:02] CR: So here’s a situation where we’re all breaking new ground together and try to figure where does the responsibility lie. And when you ask a patient to be an early adopter, what risks does that person need to know before they get involved? I don’t think that anyone who got this implant ever considered the fact that the company wouldn’t be around to maintain it in the future.
[00:44:35] SY: Right. Right.
[00:44:36] CR: And I don’t think anybody ever said there’s a risk that we’re not going to be there. Maybe in the future. That’s part of the informed consent that we need to give someone before they have some kind of new breakthrough technology.
[00:44:51] JP: So as it stands right now, for the people that are impacted by a situation like this, the implants are going offline or the company that created their implants goes out of business, I guess I’m curious if they have any kind of recourse, like legally, if they have any kind of recourse to get support for these implants or have them removed. What can a person do in this situation right now?
[00:45:19] CR: So I think there are two issues. I think there’s the legal issue that you address in terms of what legal recourse does someone have. But I think that, to me, the bigger question is the moral and the ethical issue of before I put an implant in someone’s eyes, being that I either as the doctor or I as the manufacturer have a lot more information than the patient does. What is my obligation to that patient on a long-term basis? And do I have one?
[00:45:55] SY: So you’ve had product development experience in this space. And I was wondering if you could talk about things that you’ve had to think about in your career about in terms of product life cycle, especially when it comes to long-term support of implants like these? What does that product development look like and how do you kind of think about the future when you’re at the cutting edge of technology?
[00:46:19] CR: So for the years that I was in the for-profit commercial industry space, for every project that we undertook, we created a business model looking at whether our development costs are going to be, whether our selling costs going to be, whether our manufacturing costs going to be, then looking at our revenue. And is the revenue a one-time revenue or is it something with recurring revenues? And then putting this together and saying to ourselves, “Okay, is this something that is going to be profitable for us to do?” And I must tell you that so often I saw game-changing technology, things that can make a huge difference in people’s lives, but the business plan didn’t work, either the market wasn’t big enough, the reimbursement wasn’t going to be enough, the development costs were going to be too high. And we had to say, no, we can’t do this even though it’s great technology because we are a for-profit company and we can’t just take on projects that are going to lose money. That is probably, and it is the number one reason, why I took my current job working as President & CEO of Lighthouse Guild, because I went to our board of directors and I said to them, “I’d be interested in coming to work here if you would be willing to take on projects, even if the business plan doesn’t work. If we could do projects as a not-for-profit, just because they are the right thing to do and they can help people, then I would be interested.” And my board is very supportive and my board says we’re going to do the right thing for people. So now it makes you think about, “Okay, so what should happen to technology like Second Sight?” The ideal situation would be if there was an individual or a foundation who said, “This technology is so valuable that I’m going to take it over and keep funding this so that the development can continue, so you can make better implants, and you can not only take care of the people who have the current version, but be able to care for the people who are going to have future versions, hopefully forever and ever.” That would be the ideal situation. Asking for profit companies to take over projects that have lost money and that have no really legitimate future income streams is really hard thing to ask.
[00:49:18] JP: If we were to think bigger picture, and I know the effect of our current healthcare system and the market incentives there within, what was a problem with the development and the maintenance of these systems? But if we were to set that aside for a moment and just looking at the systems and the implants and the software and how they are provided to patients, how can you future-proof a system like this? Or can you design these products in a way that there is support? What would that look like?
[00:49:59] CR: Now what’s interesting is that I can tell you about two very different types of products, both of which will accomplish the same goal. So for example, the product that we’re talking about is an implant. It’s a surgically implanted device. You have surgery and this device is within your eye. In that situation, if it’s something that’s associated with surgery. Now insurance tends to pay for it a reasonable amount. If I took that same technology but put it into a pair of glasses, something that was not surgically implanted or something that you wore, now there’s no coverage.
[00:50:49] SY: Oh!
[00:50:50] CR: So we have no coverage from Medicare, from Medicaid and commercial insurance for any kind of high-tech assistive technology. So the things that I’m working on now at Lighthouse Guild, the number one problem that we have is that there’s no reimbursement for it. And so I spend my time and a lot of people spend a lot more time advocating in Washington that Medicare, Medicaid, commercial insurance should pay for assistive technology just because of the enormous benefit that it can have to help people be more productive, to be able to go back to work, to use their computers. So there is this dichotomy between what gets reimbursed because it’s surgery and what does not get reimbursed because of this and surgery. And so this is another challenge that we have and it’s really what holds back so much of the development of great new technologies, because how can I come up with a new technology if you’re going to tell me that the only way that I’m going to get paid is somebody paying personally when a lot of people just don’t have this kind of money? And I’m not talking about 1,000 or 5,000 or 10,000, and a lot of people don’t have a hundred dollars to pay for assistive technology. And to me, that’s just not right for our society.
[00:52:34] SY: What do you think that the embedded systems engineers at these companies should be thinking about and doing to avoid situations where people are left hanging when their hardware becomes unsupported? What can they do?
[00:52:48] CR: The issues come down really to the business plan more than the engineers. So the engineers are focused on coming up with technology that’s safe and effective. The business people have the responsibility for figuring out how the patients are going to get this technology and how they’re going to be trained, how they’re going to be cared for, and how this technology is then going to be monitored and upgraded for the future. And so what we need to do is to be educating our business leaders and making them understand that it’s not enough to have social impact with your technology, but you also have this huge responsibility to maintain your technology for the long term.
[00:53:51] JP: Is there anything else that we haven’t covered today that you’d like to speak about?
[00:53:55] CR: Oh, do I get a chance to shamelessly promote my podcast series?
[00:53:59] JP: Yes, please do.
[00:54:01] CR: Great! So my podcast series is called On Tech & Vision. And in our series, what we do is we look at big ideas that could really change the future of assistive technology. And I hope people will come and listen.
[00:54:19] SY: Wonderful! Well, thank you for joining us.
[00:54:22] CR: Good fun! Thank you!
[00:54:35] SY: Thank you for listening to DevNews. This show is produced and mixed by Levi Sharpe. Editorial oversight is provided by Peter Frank, Ben Halpern, and Jess Lee. Our theme music is by Dan Powell. If you have any questions or comments, dial into our Google Voice at +1 (929) 500-1513 or email us at [email protected] Please rate and subscribe to this show wherever you get your podcasts.